Tuesday, 3 July 2012

What’s your plan for getting better at what you do?


There’s been a lot of debate about why England are so bad at football. Everybody seems to agree that our players are technically inferior to their counterparts on the continent and that this is because of our lack of suitably qualified coaches, and poor youth football set-up. Everyone’s heard of the 10,000 hour rule. The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at anything. But practice doesn’t make perfect, good practice does. It’s called “deliberate practice”: these are specifically designed practice routines that focus on very specific technical aspects of a skill and push the player outside of his comfort zone until he builds new neural pathways in his/her brain that allow them to be successful. These routines are usually designed by a coach. It is crucial that you are forever focussing on your weaknesses, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Most of the practice that most people do in their chosen domain yields almost no effect, because they repeat what they know rather than confronting their weaknesses, at which point progress plateaus.

In Spain their famous “tika takka” style play is possible because their players were brought up playing rondo (high-intensity, circular passing at speed) and Brazilians were playing futsal (on tiny pitches with a heavier, smaller ball). Both approaches force players to think quickly, to develop passing accuracy and to learn close control.

The idea is to find REPEATABLE drills that focus on SPECIFIC areas of technical and mental ability, ideally designed by an expert coach.

The key to skill acquisition is feedback. You need data to get an idea of whether you are doing it right.
In English football, young players play on big pitches. They touch the ball maybe once or twice a minute. That is a small amount of feedback as to how good your close control technique is, compared to if you touched the ball 8 times on a much smaller pitch. So we need VOLUME of feedback, so we need to practice a lot, but we also need QUALITY and SPECIFICITY of feedback, otherwise it can be hard to isolate the problem in performance.

Coerver Coaching, one of the leading coaching systems in world football, has come up with 47 different ways to take the ball past an opponent. They have deconstructed each separate way of doing this (step-overs etc), and created a set of exercises that help you learn how to do it.

The problem in comedy is that we don’t have a model of technical excellence, of best practice, because the literature is poor. So we cannot isolate a series of different skills, and then break these down into a series of steps that can be taught using specific practice drills. And we don’t have many expert coaches, especially expert coaches that can help with the higher end skills of comics who have gone beyond being open-mic performers. This is because stand-up is a relatively young art-form. Stand-up as we know it is maybe 30 years old. Football is hundreds of years old. But it is an intriguing idea about what might be possible when we have this base of knowledge. The closest thing I have heard to deliberate practice is Second City Improv in Chicago where performers improvise an hour long show every night of the year (give or take) and perform a two hour sketch show too. They are working all their comedy and performing muscles for three hours a day at least. They will become great in ten years if they do this. And they do: pretty much every American comedy star has come out of this factory of comedic excellence.

Immersion seems an important part of learning. La Massia, Barcelona’s vaunted academy, has students living there. They think, talk, and play football every day. And they are in the process with other players, and lots of coaches: they have accountability partners and people who they can compete against and benchmark themselves against. This is front of mind every day, almost every second. That is why they are unlikely to duck out of practice. Anecdotally it is amazing to me how many great comics grow up in small peer groups. They learn off each other, subconsciously compete, and also are their own accountability partners/encouragers.

There is an excellent article here on deliberate practice here.

So what to do now? Over the coming months I am going to interviews experts with the aim of coming up with practice drills to encourage excellence in stand-up comedy. I will publish in an e-book called “Deliberate Practice for Comedy” which you will be able to get for free from this site if you join the mailing list. So why not join today?

Footnote:
Some of you are thinking “Gigs are deliberate practice”. Sort of. If you are doing gigs in nice clubs, with your good club 20 every night, you aren’t really practicing at all: you’re just doing the same thing again and again. If you were doing new material every night, that would be deliberate practice. But that isn’t always possible, especially if you are a pro. Anyhow, there are surely higher end skills, and habits of thought, that we can isolate and train in a variety of ways. This is a debate we can have: I would love to hear your ideas on this, especially if you have drill ideas. Tweet me here.

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