Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hard Work Pays Off!

Hard Work Pays Off!

By Dr. Randy Borum
(Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, April, 2009)

“Hard work…”, yells the instructor. “Pays off” the kids respond loudly and in unison. This is how 2007 World Grappling Games Bronze Medalist Cristina Rodriguez (pictured at left) concludes every class she teaches in the children’s program at Gracie Tampa in Florida. It’s a good life lesson. And research shows she’s right.

When we see a martial artist who is truly exceptional, we often are inclined to focus on how talented or gifted that person it. Sometimes that’s true. But more often than not, even the talented ones only achieve excellence after a lot of practice. How much practice? Research estimates it’s in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours. They even refer to it as “the 10,000 hour rule.” That roughly approximates 20 hours of practice every week for ten years. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon said: "It takes 10 years of extensive training to excel in anything." The 10,000 hour rule has held to be true for a variety of physical and mental tasks ranging from playing chess, to playing violin, to performing surgery. The advantage of practice over talent is even the subject of two recent, popular books: Outliers (Little, Brown and Company) by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated (Portfolio Publishing) by Geoff Colvin

Before you decide to camp out in your dojo or gym just to rack up those hours more quickly, there is a bit of a catch. It must be deliberate practice, focused on improving and getting progressively better as a result of receiving and responding to systematic feedback. Another of Rodriguez’ mantras to her young jiu-jitsu students is that “Practice doesn’t make perfect; Perfect practice, makes perfect.” We have all had practice sessions where we just go through the motions. That’s not deliberate practice, and it does not necessarily facilitate improvement and excellence. It’s the difference between working on the heavy bag for thirty minutes, and working to improve you front kick for thirty minutes on the heavy bag by striking the ball of your foot within two inches of a target mark 90% of the time from optimal range, while maintaining proper upper body posture and leg extension. Making hard work pay off requires more than time and exertion; it requires focus.

What does this mean for you as a recreational or competitive martial artist? As a recreational martial arts practitioner, the idea that deliberate practice – not just raw talent – determines success and improvement means that you can get better, probably even get “good”, if you choose to do so. If you try something for thee months and quit because you determine you’re not good at it, at least be honest with yourself. You are quitting because it is not sufficiently important or rewarding to you to invest the time in deliberate practice, not because you lack the natural talent. You may also choose to stick with a martial art because you enjoy the physical activity, even if you decide not to strive for your best performance. That’s okay, too. You can’t pursue 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in everything. While numerous studies show that thousands of hours are required to excel, there is much less research on why people put in that kind of time and effort. You have to choose what’s most important to you.

If you are a competitor or just decide to pursue excellence in martial arts, there are a few tips that will help you succeed. First, check your assumptions about how success happens. It helps when you realize that what you do often matters more than what come naturally. Faithful readers of this column may recall a few months back, I discussed here Carol Dweck’s research on the “mindset.” She describes two basic mindsets for goal attainment: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The basic difference is whether ability is believed to be determined more by talent or by hard work. Those who give priority to talent tend to have a fixed mindset. They believe their success comes from a fixed trait that they either do or do not possess. Those with a growth mindset view natural talent just as a starting point – not an end point. They believe ability can be improved through commitment and hard work.

Secondly, seek feedback and use it. Ask for input from instructors, coaches and respected training partner. Don’t just frame the question as “What did I do wrong?”, but “What are some other ways to do it?” One of the best tools is to videotape yourself training or competing. Every martial arts competitor I know – even those at the elite level – learn new and valuable things about their game by watching themselves perform. It gives you a new way of understanding feedback from others and a new perspective on the fine points of your movement. Watch the video closely. Compile a list of what you think you should be doing with posture, speed, agility, strategy etc and how your torso, limbs and head should be positions at each juncture. Consider watching several times, each time looking only at one specific element of your performance. If you see something that needs correction, take a moment to picture in your mind how it would look doing it the right way. Pick something to work on next time, and compare the tapes to see if you are more closely approaching where you want to be.

Thirdly, be systematic. To make deliberate practice work, you can’t just plan to put in a given number of hours, but you must set and monitor specific goals for every workout and practice session. Goals will help your motivation, they will give you focus, and they will guide your ability to learn and improve. In setting goals, think about how a given practice fits within your larger, long term objectives. Ask yourself, how will meeting my goals today move me closer to what I ultimately wish to attain? Make a plan and follow through.

Finally, be persistent. Deliberate practice – when done correctly – is highly effortful and often not very much fun. By itself, it will probably not provide you with much satisfaction or motivation. That’s where goals and feedback come in. You might get at least a bit of satisfaction from having achieved your goal for the session or seeing your improvement from one videotape to the next. Learning to persist, even when it’s not fun, is one of the benefits – yes, benefits - of deliberate practice. You build a measure of resilience and mental toughness by persisting through adversity. You’re likely to need it to get those 10,000 hours of hard work to finally pay off.