“Practice puts your brains in your muscles.“ Sam Snead
If an activity requires an immediate automatic response, then a great deal of repetition and practice is typically necessary. However, the need for practice and its effectiveness for some skills can be highly individual. There are times when too much practice will adversely affect performance when it counts.
The questions are: “How much practice is necessary and sufficient to achieve the desired skill level?” and “When does practice defeat the intent of improving performance?”
We know that, given the choice between a new surgeon with limited practical experience or a surgeon with years of practice to hone essential surgical knowledge, skills and dexterity, we are much more likely to choose the seasoned surgeon.
However, we also know that an athlete who practices too much right before an event can deplete necessary physical resources and become too exhausted to perform well.
In this case, the adage: “Practice makes perfect” is not always accurate.
Certainly, it takes a lot of practice to achieve the physical dexterity that is required to master playing an instrument, participating in a sport, or performing activities that require hand-eye coordination. It also takes a lot of practice to know what to do in emergencies and how to handle safety issues.
In these cases, learning occurs by rote and repetitive conditioning. Intensive practice is needed until the movements and procedures are automatic and essentially hot wired into the brain. This way, when an occasion calls for action, it can be swift and instinctive. This is particularly necessary when it would be ill advised or even dangerous to take time to think through the situation before acting.
However, it is also true that some learning does not always benefit from memorization and repetitive practice. Sometimes, a little practice can accomplish or demonstrate the necessary mastery. Sometimes, too much practice can shut down the desire to learn. And sometimes, practice can get in the way of actual performance. For example:
1. Practice simply for the sake of practice.
Historically, there has been an assumption in elementary education that students should have a lot of practice, particularly with regard to reading, writing and mathematics.
It makes a lot of sense to have students practice saying the alphabet or doing the multiplication tables over and over again so that this knowledge becomes second nature.
However, it does not make sense to have students practice more than is essential to mastering or demonstrating mastery of a knowledge or skill. For example, when students are given assignments to complete 20 math problems when 5 or 8 would be sufficient.
In this case, practice simply for the sake of practice can result in student boredom, disinterest, and diminishing attention to detail. It is counterproductive to learning.
How much practice is really necessary?
2. Practice without conscious intention to learn.
We have either experienced ourselves or known others who had to practice an instrument and ended up hating to play that instrument. Being forced to practice a certain amount of time will be ineffective if the student is not focused on learning from that practice.
It is comparable to having a student write 100 times: “I will not throw spitballs at Judy (or Tommy).” Rather than reinforcing the desired moral understanding, the student simply looks for the easiest way to fulfill the assignment. That may be writing “I” on every line, then “will” on every line- breaking up the task and obliterating the meaning of the exercise.
“The more practice, the better” is not always true.
3. Practice to prepare to give a presentation.
It is common knowledge that people who give presentations increase their probability of comfort and success with the presentation if they practice it over and over again. For some people, that is completely true.
Their practice may take the form of giving a pilot presentation in front of friends or family, visualizing themselves giving the presentation, practicing in front of a mirror, or reading the presentation aloud. The repetitive practice helps them to correct possible errors and gain confidence.
However, for other people, practice can be self-defeating. If they practice a presentation, when it comes time to actually give the presentation they lose spontaneity, sound rehearsed, or get confused (thinking they have said something they haven’t yet said).
If you have ever given the same presentation on the same or consecutive days, you know what can happen. You lose track of what you have said to the current audience, because you have so recently said it to previous audiences.
Practice does not always improve the quality of performance.
This is not to say that practice is a bad idea. As previously discussed, there are certain knowledge, skills and physical dexterity that require considerable practice to achieve rote memorization. The point is that practice does not always make perfect in every situation. For some skills, the amount of practice and its effectiveness may be highly individual.
May your learning be sweet.