You’ve probably heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder.”
The idea is simple: if there’s a more efficient or effective way to get from point A to point B, you should do it, rather than wasting time and energy on an inefficient method. The concept is often embraced in the business world where innovation is encouraged.
In athletics, though, despite all the talk of “cutting edge technology” and being able to track more data than ever, we still have a love affair with repetitive, intense, hard work.
Maybe it’s because that physical exertion is required to improve most athletic skills — you certainly need grit to succeed and push yourself as an athlete. But there comes a time when drive and tenacity should take a backseat to training methodology. After all, you can work as hard as you want, but if you’re focused in the wrong place… It’s not going to get you very far.
And unfortunately, that’s the case with far too many people. For all the varied mantras about working harder, athletes tend to overlook the working smarter part and end up putting all their energy in the wrong place.
But why does it happen? And where’s the balance between the necessary grit and the mental strategy? Today we’re going to tackle where athletes go wrong in the formation of athletic skills, and the best strategy for keeping that hard work focused in the right place.
When Athletes Work Too Hard
It may seem contradictory to everything you’ve ever heard about work ethic, but athletes, when practicing a new skill, can actually work too hard. It’s not so much that you’re too driven, but rather, that you’re focused on the wrong thing and end up over correcting in your efforts to improve.
For instance, in our running training program at Competitive EDGE, one of the first and easiest cues given to runners is for correcting trunk lean (it’s very common for people to run too “upright”). The cue is simple — push your chest forward like you’re walking into a strong wind, or like you’re superman ripping his shirt off.
It doesn’t take much, and it’s a pretty simple change; the ideal trunk lean is only 8-10 degrees. However, it’s not uncommon for runners to come back for their next session leaning past 10 degrees!
On one hand, it’s great that they were able to make progress in such a short amount of time, but the flip side is that they made too much progress. By putting all their focus and energy into “doing their homework” and improving their trunk lean, they actually blew right past the goal post.
But that feels almost counterintuitive — how is it that focusing on exactly what you’re supposed to be focusing on results in the incorrect outcome?
Well, it’s not just about the ambition to change; after all, a hallmark of dedicated students comes from the focus and determination to do it exactly right.
The Learning Process
The traditional model of learning a new skill requires that we be taught a new way of doing something (whether that’s via a professional, trial and error, or a recorded tutorial) and then practice the new skill until it becomes more familiar and natural. We understand that focused practice is required to get better at something or to change our way of doing things — athletically speaking or otherwise.
So, when you get a dedicated athlete who is attentive to practice and good at repetition, an interesting phenomenon occurs — they practice so much and with such focus that they overdo it, and end up with an exaggerated skill that they’re putting too much effort into.
But, that still doesn’t quite answer the question. What’s happening that allows you to push past skill acquisition?
How to Focus Effectively During Practice
The simple answer is that it’s all a misperception. During practice, you think you’re focusing on the new skill, while what you’re actually focusing on is the feeling of change and effort.
It’s actually a pretty simple concept, but it’s difficult to anticipate (even when you know it’s coming).
For athletes, when you learn a new movement or skill, you’re typically focused on taking in how it feels. Yes, you may know what it looks like and understand the goal, but your primary means of internalization is, at first, how it feels.
So, you try the new movement a few times either slowly by yourself or under the guidance of a coach or other professional, and then once you feel confident that you understand what you’re supposed to do, you head off to practice. And that’s where the trouble begins.
Avoid Focusing on a Feeling
When you’re attempting to better a skill or create a new habit, you’re often focused on the feeling you associate with the new movement. Basically, you spend time trying to replicate the way it felt the first time you executed a new movement.
However, as anyone who’s ever tried something new can tell you, it feels weird at first. Maybe it feels unnatural, or it’s challenging, or you’re off balance and have to work really hard to stabilize. And then what happens is, you conflate that level of effort and focus with performing the movement correctly, and rather than measuring your progress by whether or not you’re actually performing the movement correctly, you end up striving for that initial level of effort.
The only problem is, as you learn and get better at a movement, it gets easier and more natural. You get better at it. Which means it takes less effort, which then makes you feel like you’re not doing it right, eventually leading to that tragic misstep of overcompensation.
Essentially, the cause of that pesky misstep is that what you think is happening (you’re not executing effectively / working hard enough) is not actually what’s happening (you’re learning).
All of that’s a long-winded way to say: chill out. You’re probably doing better than you think, and in order to be sure and not stress yourself out, make sure you know what the goal of your practice is, and — most importantly — how you’ll know when you reach it.
Understanding the Goal of Practice
In order to practice effectively, you must understand the goal of your practice and how you’re going to get there.
The goal of your practice is most likely whatever skill you’re working on building. That might be trunk lean in running, or it could be finishing arm lines in dance — there are millions of skills to develop. The key is to make sure you understand your goal before you set out.
The how is a bit more malleable and personal (and it can depend on the skill), but it’s also the easiest place to get lost. We know that the best way to practice is deliberate practice, which is specific, attentive practice performed at the edge of your comfort zone and focuses on elevating a specific skill. (In other words, it’s the complete opposite of mindless repetition; you can read more about deliberate practice here.)
However, the caveat that it has to be uncomfortable opens the door for that slippery slope of focusing on perceived exertion instead of progress towards your goal (and not past it). We know that over time, as we become more adept, things should get easier, and this rate of perceived exertion will decrease.
Just a brief note here: there are times where your rate of perceived exertion will stay high — and it should. These are times when you’re focusing on conditioning and developing cardiovascular or muscular endurance. In the case of this article, we’re discussing the development of a skill or technique — an aspect of form, rather than conditioning.
What we need to determine in order to understand when it’s okay for that perceived exertion to decrease is how to know when we’re getting closer to our goal — basically, how do you know your practice is effective and that you’re succeeding?
Methods of Measuring Skill Development
In order to keep track of your progress, you’ll have to decide how you’re going to measure it — what we’ve learned so far is that relying on internal methods is, well, unreliable. When determining how to measure your practice, it bears mentioning the difference between focusing on execution and results.
When you’re working on developing a skill, you’re often focused on the execution — you’re focused on how you do something, rather than an outcome. For instance, in our trunk lean example from earlier, the focus on trunk lean (a form change) is an execution focus. You care about how you’re running. On the other hand, if you were focused on an outcome, you might be focused on how fast you run.
Another example might be kicking a soccer ball into a goal. If all you care about are outcomes, you would measure how many times you successfully got the ball into the goal, regardless of how you’re kicking it, and improvement would be recorded when the number of goals you score goes up.
An execution focus (or a quality focus) would focus on how you’re kicking the ball. You might focus on keeping the knee in alignment, how and when you plant, and how the kicking leg swings through, with an emphasis on biomechanical best practices rather than goals scored.
Now, it often tracks that as execution or quality improves, so will the outcome, but the difference is in what you’re using to measure success.
In the best case scenario, it should be both. You want to focus on how you’re doing things (to better your skill and keep your body safe), but staying too wrapped up in how things feel is how you get stuck in that internal feedback loop and lose sight of the goal post.
Thus, it helps immensely to loop some level of external feedback or outcome measurement into your training, even if it’s as simple as asking yourself “how effectively am I executing this skill or technique?”. Luckily, there are a lot of ways to do that.
Using External Feedback to Improve
The solution is twofold, and thankfully quite simple. Though as with many things, it’s still ultimately easier said than done.
First, understand what you’re working towards. When you set out to adopt a new skill or technique, understand what the end result is. Whether that means having a specific outcome (increased speed or shooting success rate) or having a video of the technique as a reference point, you must know what the goal is in order to implement the true solution — external feedback.
Next, you must seek external and measurable feedback. By having a concrete reference point, you can measure your progress and adjust as you go. And, more importantly, you can adjust your expectations of what it should feel like when you’re executing correctly. By using visual or measurable feedback, you can check whether you’re making progress without exclusively focusing on the internal feelings of effort.
One of the easiest ways to attain external feedback is through video; you can record yourself practicing and then check the recording for feedback. There’s a hidden bonus here, too… The more you record and review, the better you become at evaluating technique and critically evaluating yourself.
For many people, especially athletes in aesthetic arts like dance or gymnastics, recording can be uncomfortable at first because of how brutally honest it feels. However, if you push through the initial discomfort and stick with it, you’ll find that you are able to progress faster since you know exactly what to work on (and what practice methods yield the best results).
In lieu of video, mirrors can provide instant feedback, although the distraction of observing yourself can cause you to perform activities differently, or physically compensate to maintain a sight line with yourself.
Record keeping, such as a workout log or practice journal can also provide valuable insight into progress — sometimes our brains like to lose the big picture in the detail of the day. A record allows you to have a more objective view of your progress over time.
Of course, one of the best methods of external feedback, when possible, is expert coaching. In athletics, coaching is a traditional model for improving an athlete’s performance, but coaching from a true expert who is trained to provide valuable feedback in the moment can keep you from pushing too far in your pursuit of skill.
Think back to our runners from the beginning of the article — they didn’t know they were overdoing trunk lean until they received both of the above forms of feedback. In our running lab, we utilize high-speed video to catch things not always noticeable to the naked eye in conjunction with technology that measures joint angles; in turn, this allows our biomechanical experts to provide feedback to our runners while they’re actively working on improving.
Depending on the skills you’re working on developing, there are a handful of other ways to incorporate external feedback into your practice — a coach or trusted resource can provide inspiration and guidance for structuring your practice.
No matter what your activity of choice is, it can’t be stressed enough that concrete feedback from a trusted, established coach and regular external feedback is invaluable for staying on the right track in forming new habits, skills, and techniques. When you’re working on new technical abilities, it’s important to check in with a coach periodically to keep working towards the right goal and to get the next set of instructions as you become capable.