Tools to Increase Effective Practice

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September 18, 2017

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A swimmer approached me a few months ago saying that she did not make any progress in practice over the 3 months leading up to her state meet. She was not seeing her times drop in practices and just didn’t believe that she could do anything substantial at the upcoming state meet. I asked her what she was working on at that point to help her go faster. She started going down the list of technique items for each stroke and a variety of strategy items. I asked her to start writing these down on a LARGE white board and she covered it with everything that she was working on over those 3 months.

After she wrote these items she looked at it and I asked her how she felt looking at the whiteboard. She said she felt overwhelmed, sick, and somewhat disappointed. Disappointed, I asked… “Ya, I am disappointed that even though I have been working on all of this stuff, there is not one thing that I can go to my coach with and say that I got it down!”.

Have you ever felt like this before? Interestingly enough, you are not alone! As performers, we are constantly striving to be better at our craft. However, too many times do we continue to try to get better at ALL of what we need to develop all at once. Today we would like to introduce you to a tool that can be used to help you progress faster in the development of skills and techniques and help you feel more confident in your training. It’s called deliberate practice and if you are looking for an elite focus in athletics, you need to start doing this daily! It will help you have more effective practice sessions and create that confidence that comes with known growth.

Effective Practice Tool – The Deliberate Practice Model

The tool is very simple and consists of 4 questions that are answered in the following way:

Before training, take out your notebook and answer the following question:

  • What is 1 thing that I am going to get better at TODAY.

After practice, take our your notebook and answer the following questions:

  • What are 3 things that went really well today?
  • What is 1 thing that you need to work on?
  • How are you going to work on it?

It all looks like this:

It is as simple as that. The fact is, when you go into training, we have FAR too many things that we can focus on to get better at, however, if you deliberately put your focus on getting better at the MOST IMPORTANT things, then you will find that you get better at that ONE thing FASTER! This is effective practice at its core!

Now, you are probably wondering what happened with the swimmer. Once she wrote all of her skills that she wanted to get better at on the board, I asked her to start erasing the ‘least important’ skills to help her simply swim fast. She ended up with a list of 5 (down from 45) skills that she needed to work on most to help her swim faster which helps in minimizing distractions. I gave her the journal template and asked her to pick one of these 5 items (her choice and could be the same as the day before) each day of practice over the next week during training.

The next week, this swimmer came to me with a smile on her face and reported she truly trained 2 of the 5 skills that she wrote on the board and didn’t need to think about them much anymore. Her coach and parents also noticed something interesting asking what I did to help her gain the focus and confidence she had shown over the past week.

You see, there is something interesting that happens to our mindset and outcomes when we simplify and become more deliberate about what we do. Justin Su’a, mental coach for the Cleveland Browns and the RedSox reminds us:

“What you FOCUS on, you give POWER to.”

This week’s challenge is about utilizing this tool in training and competition to increase effective practice. It can be used in both competitive and training scenarios. Take the next 5 days and complete your deliberate practice questions before and after practice/competition. Come back to Mental Grit when you have completed the challenge and tell us what it did for you!


Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

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