Purposeful Practice

When it comes to the theory of excellence there is the talent theory and the practice theory. Talent theory purports the idea that those who are great are born with greatness and have some innate talent in a given discipline.  Therefore Alex Megos and Margot Haines were ‘born to climb’, that they came out of the womb with their fingers crimped. The practice theory of excellence claims that although this may be an appealing and somewhat romantic idea, it’s nonsense and that excellence is achieved with practice. Before I read the book ‘Bounce’ by Mathew Syed I would likely have agreed that practice is the main ingredient for achieving excellence however I would have also assumed that for many activities practice is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient. For example to be a great climber you need to be born with an aptitude for coordination, balance and calm nerves. A mathematician needs to be born with an affinity for numbers. I musician needs to be born with some talent for music. And when it comes to these things I assumed that, you either have them or you don’t, these things can’t be learnt. This philosophy is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that gives all of us without ‘talent’ and excuse not to try. It’s also a curse because it makes our efforts meaningless. Why bother if you can’t achieve excellence anyway? This is how I felt about Maths. I didn’t ‘naturally’ have a strength with numbers and even now I feel a bit scared if given a Maths problem to solve.

In Bounce Syed argues that what we call talent is 100% due to practice. It’s a good book, not brilliant but the research used to support the practice theory is very convincing. Here are some of the studies/points that I thought most interesting:
* An experiment was done with British music students and they found out that hour for hour, the various groups had improved with almost identical rates. The only difference between top performers and average were that top performers had practiced for more hours.
* An experiment with someone who had normal ability for mathematics and normal memory. At first he could only remember 7 digits at a time (this is the standard), after many years of training he could remember over 100 which at the time was the world record.
* Looking deeper in to ‘child prodigies you can see that actually they have been practicing for many hours. John Hayes found that no musician had produced a piece of significant work until 10 years after they started playing, even Mozart. In fact Mozart started playing when he was 3. This is interesting because Mozart is often used as ‘proof’ that there is such a thing as innate talent. 
* A lot of research points in the direction of the 10,000 hour rule. That you need this many hours of practice to be a master.
* Gladwell in Outliers and Robert Greene in Mastery confirm this 10,000 hour rule.
* A study looking in to school hockey teams found that many of the kids on the top team had birthdays in the earliest part of the year. They realised that this was because team selection was in December so kids born in the earliest part of the year could have been playing up to a year longer than their peers.
* Innate speed and reaction time is thought of being the thing which separates good from the great in table tennis players, yet when they measured the reaction time of the England team’s top player he had a slower than normal reaction time.

I think that within the book there was a lot that needed to be challenged that didn’t go challenged for example many of the studies took a group of musicians or hockey skaters who were already active and therefore the studies can give some proof towards the notion that practice is necessary for success but not sufficient because maybe something is needed to get a kid to start playing an instrument or hockey to begin with. This often comes down to interest and motivation which he didn’t talk much about in the book but something worth exploring.

One argument against practice theory is the idea that many people have practiced something for over 10,000 but they’re not great. For example driving, many people do a lot of driving but they are not master drivers, in fact many people get worse at driving as they drive longer, perhaps your grandad is a testament to this. However this isn’t an argument against practice theory, only that the term ‘practice’ needs to be qualified. Not all practice is equal. There is practice and then there is deliberate or purposeful practice. The sort of practice that enables excellence needs to be challenging, structured, consistent and analysed.

What does purposeful practice look like in climbing and why are we so far behind other sports?

A professional golf player will hit a difficult shot many times over and over again from different positions and after each shot her coach and herself will analyse the shot and see how it could have been improved. A table tennis player will have their coach fire balls at them over and over again at high speeds. A tennis player will practice serving hundreds of times per month. An olympic skater may fall down thousands of times before they become champion. Of course we as climbers fail a lot, we fall off and we try again. But is this purposeful practice in the same way a tennis player might practice? I see a lot of competition climbers engaging in purposeful practice; trying boulders over and over and working weaknesses. But usually as climbers, once we ‘send’ then that’s it, job done, there is nothing left to do. Our culture is very much about the ‘send’ in fact most people never go back on routes because we may find it harder! If this happens the world falls down and our egos explode. Imagine if a Tennis player said ‘oh I only play in perfect conditions’ their coach would tell them to pull their finger out because who knows what conditions they’d get in a tournament. As climbers there is often the idea that all that matters is the completion of the route, not what is learnt. If we climb a route terribly, we don’t go back on it unless we failed, even if there would be a lot to be learnt by going back on it. We often look for routes that suit us, easy ticks, low in the grade. Is this purposeful practice? There is also the tendency in climbing to blame everything on physical capabilities. If I fell off my project it’s because my fingers weren’t strong enough, or my arms weren’t fit enough. Much of ‘training’ for climbers is all about improving physical strength with little thought towards the 10000 hour rule of practice. Why is it that someone with comparatively low finger and arm strength can climb harder grades than a mutant can’t even when both of them have climbed for a similar amount of years? There is no emphasis in climbing on purposeful practice instead of training which is interesting since it’s obvious that climbing is such a skill and technique based sport. There is this idea that once you have basic technique then you’re good to go and all you need to do is get stronger. The stats with regard to strength suggest otherwise.  There is a very important conceptual difference in mindset between someone who climbs to improve and someone who climbs to send. It’s this difference I believe that separates the good from the great.

Of course we can’t ignore genetics such as height, body type and build etc. For example it’s unlikely/impossible that the greatest basket ball player will be short. However, we don’t need to consider these factors if we have a broad idea of excellence that doesn’t contain comparatives to others. If we take the notion of excellence to be ‘as excellent as each person can be’ it means that to be excellent isn’t about being in the top 1% of climbers, it’s about mastery of a discipline. Of course we could go in to the ins and outs of what exactly it means to be a master and to be excellent but suffice to say that a tiny person could have mastered the sport of climbing to a similar degree as a bigger person and yet it might be that they can’t climb the hardest route in the world but the big person can (just an example).

So what does purposeful practice and mastery look like? And why do some people engage in purposeful practice whilst others don’t? A world champion ice skater may need to fall down 20,000 times before becoming an olympic champion. Why? Because a trick would not be good enough if it only took a few tries to master. In order to climb the hardest routes you need to spend a long time failing before you succeed. You could argue therefore that what separates the good from the great is a healthy appetite for failure. Why would anyone have this appetite? Largely accepting failure is not about taking or even accepting the knocks, those that are great see failure as learning. Failure is feedback and is something the best will gravitate towards in order to learn. When a pro golfer misses a shot in practice they don’t storm off the green, they try it again and again, working out what went wrong how they could be better, how they might make it harder for themselves. How many climbers will climb the same route again in order to learn more? Coping with failure therefore may not be about dealing with hardship but understanding failure differently, it’s a conceptual shift that many of us struggle to recognise. And yet the evidence suggests that it’s this shift that separates the good from the great.

Photo: Me on a new route in Squamish I called Tainted Love. Photo taken by Jonny Baker


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