The proven power of practice


At this this time of year virtually daily we see examples of extraordinary fitness and sporting prowess. As a Master Trainer it reminds me how the human body can move in a multitude of different ways, yet with similar patterns employed across many different sports. Commentators often note the unique gifts or genetic capability of elite athletes, and while the rigorous training regimes and dedication can be acknowledged too, one aspect is rarely mentioned: practice.

I have written before about practice, particularly the benefits to be gained from The Repeated Bout Effect (RBE), but it’s importance is still very much unappreciated – yet understanding its role in determining our ability to reach our fitness goals is crucial if we are not to create irrational expectations which may in turn demotivate us when the results don’t match up with our assumptions. When the power of practice is understood it is inspirational, suggesting any of us can become a champion if we are prepared to put in the time and work.

The proven power of practice

There is an old musician joke which goes: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall? – Practice!

I mention it because it’s the world of music that provides the analysis on the importance of practice. In 1991, Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist at the Florida State University, set out along with his colleagues to try to determine the causation of outstanding performance. His subjects; violinists at a world-renowned music academy in what had been West Berlin. In corroboration with the students’ teachers, they determined three groups:

  • those who could go on to be the top soloists in the world
  • those who could play in the top orchestras
  • those who would become music teachers

After interviews and a study of a whole range of variables, what stood out to Ericsson was the hours of practice accumulated by those considered as the ones likely to become the top soloists. The age of the students in each of the groups was the same, but the top group had on average accumulated 10,000 hours of practice, 2,000 more than the second group and 6,000 more than the third!

Hard work pays dividends

So, while the commentators may like to focus on ‘natural talent’ or ‘inherent skills’ – no matter how gifted any individual, practice is key. Of course, what this means for anyone motivated by particular fitness outcomes is it’s vital to identify the level of practice required to achieve them, avoiding unrealistic expectations, which can ultimately demotivate when the results don’t happen.

If we are working toward a fitness goal, to succeed it will require a certain level of practice and consistency. For top performers in any sport 10,000 hours is Anders Ericsson’s magic number – around 5 years if you practice 6+ hours a day, six days a week. The less time you have available daily, the longer it will take, yet for most of us, this really shouldn’t be a problem.

What it does mean is being realistic about what can be achieved in the time we can afford to dedicate to fulfilling our goals. If we can only spare an hour each day, accept this means a longer timeframe to the ultimate destination. This may seem daunting or frustrating for some, but as long as we continue to put in the time we will have the best chance of ultimately achieving those goals, while in the process, as the regime becomes routine we will also reap the wider health, fitness and associated benefits. Let the time it takes be your friend, not your enemy, and enjoy the journey.

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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