The art and science of practicing

This post is part of my notes from a horse clicker training clinic with Alexandra Kurland that I attended in November 2014 in Arkansas. For more notes from this clinic, please visit my clinic notes page.

Horse clicker training - human horses simulationAt the clinic, Alexandra Kurland shared some fascinating stories and insights from a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (view The Talent Code on Amazon). Since returning from the clinic, I’ve been listening to the audio book of The Talent Code and am really enjoying it.

What makes someone a master at tennis, playing the piano or any other skilled activity? One of the main ideas of Coyle’s book is that masters get to be masters because they have practiced their craft for hours and hours, not because of genes or innate ability. Of course, we’ve all heard the phrase “Practice makes perfect.” However, Coyle argues that there are different ways to practice and how you practice can influence how and what you learn. In The Talent Code, Coyle explores how masters practice and how this helps make them great.

What is deep practice?

Top performers (and those on their way to the top) engage in what Coyle calls “deep practice.” Deep practice means working on something in manageable parts, and in such a way that you can receive immediate feedback (either from the environment or from another person) about both correct form and about mistakes. Often, this involves practicing a small slice of something or practicing something at a much slower pace. Rather than playing a whole song over and over and over again, a musician might concentrate on one line and get that nearly perfect, before moving on.

By practicing deliberately and methodically, it is much easier to analyze exactly where and how errors are occurring. When errors are identified, this part gets practiced until mastered or, if needed, other skills are taught so that this part can be done without errors. Once this piece of the performance can be done well, it is practiced at different speeds and in different settings. With each successful repetition of the correct behavior, the behavior becomes stronger and more automatic.

Learning how to practice well

During our discussions at the clinic, Alexandra gave several suggestions for how we can use the idea of deep practice to make our training sessions more effective and meaningful.

1) Where are you going? What does this look like?

Horse clicker training - Garrow trottingHave a mega picture of where you are heading, whether that’s a Grand Prix dressage horse, a great trail horse or a horse that knows lots of fun tricks. Then, find visual images of what you like so that you can visualize your goals. Fill your mind and your time by focusing on examples of what you want, rather than what you don’t want. You’re actually building and reinforcing these images into pathways in your brain. This will help you concentrate on what you want during training and also help you recognize the correct behaviors and movements when they happen.

2) Chunk it down

Horse clicker training - Staas preparing to walk forwardPractice a behavior in little bits. Sometimes even tiny little bits. Also, slow things down. Sometimes WAY down. Slowing things down helps you focus on what you are doing right and pinpoint things you are doing incorrectly. For example, in The Talent Code, Coyle discusses a tennis center in Russia where players spend hours practicing their tennis swing in slow motion without a ball. And without a racket. This really helps the players learn correct balance and form, rather than just focusing on getting the ball over the net, and has helped the center create many champion tennis players.

At the clinic, we had an interesting discussion about focusing on mistakes. There is a difference between focusing on behaviors you don’t want at the mega-level (which is often unproductive) and looking for and examining behaviors you don’t want at the micro-level, while you are actively working on skill improvement. At the micro-level, it can be helpful to focus on mistakes and unwanted behaviors because you can analyze exactly where and how the unwanted behavior starts. This allows you to make adjustments and try again, until you can do it correctly.

I think the key to this, though, is to find a way to practice so that you are pushing yourself, but so that you are also working in small enough chunks that you can isolate mistakes and concentrate on one small thing at a time. If there are lots of things going wrong, you need to work on a smaller piece, go back to working on an earlier exercise, and/or figure out which pre-requisite skills are missing.

3) Use simulations when mistakes are costly

How do you learn a skill when mistakes could get you killed? You certainly don’t want to be learning by trial and error! In The Talent Code, Coyle has a long section about early airplane pilots. Before the invention of flight simulators, inexperienced pilots often died if they made even small miscalculations.

Horse clicker training - Practicing targeting using human horsesSimulations can be extremely helpful when working with horses (or other larger or potentially dangerous animals) because they allow you to learn how to do something correctly before actually doing it with your horse. Alexandra gave two reasons why simulations can be useful for learning training skills. First, of course, an inexperienced trainer or rider can easily get hurt by a horse if the person does not know what she is doing. Also, importantly, if a horse owner makes a lot of mistakes while she is learning how to train, this can confuse the horse and damage some of the horse’s trust with the person.

Fortunately, there are all sorts of simulations that you can use to help you become a better trainer. Alexandra has developed and refined many exercises that she uses as simulations when training people to train. Some of the simulations that we used during the clinic weekend included practicing rope handling exercises with another person as the horse, tai chi exercises to explore correct balance and movement, rein mechanics exercises with a person sitting in the saddle on a saddle stand, groundwork exercises with the horse that simulated exercises that would be done later from the horse’s back, and shaping exercises using the teaching game PORTL.

Horse clicker training - Practicing rein mechanicsSimulations are important because they help you learn technical skills and practice the correct movements and motions. They can also help hone skills related to planning, observing, and analyzing what is going on during a training session, which helps you learn how to deal with the unexpected and make split second decisions. I’ll write in more detail about some of the simulations we used during the weekend clinic in a later post.

One of my favorite examples that we discussed during the weekend and that Coyle includes in his book is futsal. Brazilian soccer players learn amazing soccer footwork first by practicing in slow motion alone, then by playing a game called futsal. Futsal is played on a much smaller field and with fewer players, which means that each player has 600% more interactions with the ball than in a regular soccer match. This gives players lots of opportunities to practice their foot work and practice making decisions. I’ll include a video clip at the bottom of this post of several players practicing futsal footwork exercises.

Building habits and skills takes time, but you can improve your performance by engaging in deep practice. The key is finding ways to practice that give you lots of opportunities to become more aware of what you are doing (often by slowing things down) and then be able to analyze it, pinpoint mistakes, make corrections, and try again until you get it right.

This post is just a little bit of all of the fascinating information that is found in Daniel Coyne’s book The Talent Code and that we discussed at the clinic with Alexandra Kurland. If you found this interesting, I hope you’ll take a look at his book. I’m certainly enjoying reading it and am so glad that Alexandra shared it with us at the clinic.

Watch on YouTube: Soccer skills: Futsal footwork 1

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  • Patricia Carando

    Some sources claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise; given an average work year of 2,000 hours, that’s 5 years of dedication, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day.

    • Patricia,

      I have also heard that! That’s a lot of hours…

      I wonder if there’s another level that makes you a super expert? Maybe 50,000 hours? Several of the people who I know and who I’ve studied the work of who are truly masters I’m sure have practiced quite a few more hours than 10,000.

      Then again, I think this assumes that you are doing useful practice and learning from your practice. I know there are people out there who have 10,000 hours of experience who aren’t very good at what they do, unfortunately.



      • Patricia Carando

        It is a lot of hours, but in practicing most any profession, one does put in that many. –But you’re right about some who have not done useful practice — they have 1 year of experience 5 times!

  • William Stavers

    The 10,000 hour is closely associated with Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best selling book “Outliers.” However, there has been a lot of counter arguments and studies which refute the rule. Gladwell also has posted what everyone gets wrong about the rule. Wikipedia references as well as an overview here:

    Many mention the Beatles experience in Hamburg, but I recently saw a biopic about the Beatles office secretary, and it is clear they had a lot more going than just the practicing.

    It not just practice, but as Sharon Friedman advocates in various ways: Performance, feedback, revision.

    • Hi William,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving this additional information and link! It’s given me some new things to think about.



      Mary Hunter, M.S.
      Dog Trainer and Behaviorist
      Serving Dallas-Ft. Worth