Practice. Practice. Practice.

There is an old joke about a tourist wandering aimlessly in mid-town New York City. Hopelessly lost, he stops a passerby and asks, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The immediate response was, "Practice. Practice. Practice."

We’ve all had the experience of practicing, playing scales before weekly piano lessons, mastering the steps in a dance routine, or swinging a golf club in just the right arc. Few, though, understand practice like Timothy Ho, rope skipping world champion. “Leading up to competitions, he’s often sweating through five hours of training every day, drilling down on his routine by splitting it up into 30, 20, 30-second parts.” All for an “adrenaline-pumped one minute 15 performance.”¹

We know that optimum performance in performers and athletes requires a level of commitment to practice few of us have experienced, but practice is essential for anyone who wants to excel at anything. And while volumes have been written about best business practices – the process necessary to achieve an outcome – little is said about the skills we must practice to enact that process successfully.

Practice allows us to experience our impact in a low-risk, high-support environment. We can test our ideas, try out a phrase or an action, and make necessary changes before the stakes are high.

What’s not working for us helps clarify what will

We’ve all had that moment of knowing that something we are doing – a way of making decisions, using time or resources, and communicating – isn’t serving us any longer. The realization might be an immediate consequence, a failure, a conflict, or a disappointing result. Or the result may be a cumulative lethargy, frustration, or hopelessness about a particular relationship or task. The awareness is clear. Something has to change, but where to start?

Just as a performer or an athlete, the answer begins with understanding the impact you want to have and what you want to cause. The awareness of what isn't working gives you powerful information, for it is often the acute awareness of what we don't want that helps us shape what we do want, to define the impact we want to have. The next step is implementation, doing something different, and it isn’t easy.

Think about this. How many workshops and training sessions have you left with a brilliant new idea that you tried once or twice, only to return to your old way of doing it?

Experts tell us that the hard part about change isn't learning something new. It's unlearning what's become habitual. It’s about stepping outside an old mental model to choose a different one.

“Unlearning is not about forgetting. It's about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. We add new skills or knowledge to what we already know when we learn. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.”²

Practice is a time of discovery

To better understand the application of these ideas, let us look at how practice helped an IT business leader begin to step into a leadership role she thought was beyond her abilities.

Rosa understands data like nobody else. She is happiest when she is deep in the data, looking for trends, patterns, and anomalies, and analyzing the implications and applications of the facts. Her expertise has earned her a promotion, and now she is called upon to share her insights. Suddenly, she is paralyzed. Once sparked and energized by her work, now she dreads going to meetings and being a

spokesperson. Presenting a plethora of raw data – facts and figures – seems to stupefy her audience. They stare back at her, overwhelmed and confused. This is not the impact Rosa wants to have.

Rosa knows that if she is to succeed in her new role, she must learn to be a better speaker. She reads several books about public speaking and even watches online video tutorials like “Ten Tips to Be a Better Speaker” and “Power Your PowerPoints!” but nothing she tries works. Fear and shame wash over her every time she steps in front of an audience.

Making a conscious choice to change the way we do something and committing to enacting a new behavior requires no small degree of courage and commitment. Our worst enemy can be our own minds and the self-talk that brings judgment and doubt to the forefront when we don't have immediate and complete success. In that space between desire and action, our well-learned patterns, assumptions, doubts, and demons come alive to maintain the status quo. Admitting a desire to change and following that lead can bring enormous uncertainty.

Rosa begins to work with a coach. After Rosa delivers 20 minutes of a typical data download in the first session, her coach has Rosa put away her notes and asks her to stand with her weight distributed evenly on both legs, hands at her sides, make eye contact, and breathe. For over 30 minutes, they practice these behaviors.

Rosa’s homework is simple. Before any presentation or conversation, Rosa is to ground her body, see the person in front of her, and take a deep breath.

“As leaders, we generally have the intellectual capacity to quickly grasp concepts and ideas, which can lead us to mistakenly believe we also know how to execute on them right away. The reality is that we don’t – not until we practice, get feedback, refine our approach, and practice again – for somewhere between 20 and 10,000 hours. This is hard to do. Learning something new means being clumsy at it initially, making mistakes, course-correcting, and trying again. It’s uncomfortable. And even when we know the skill is valuable, it often makes our work more difficult at first, causing many leaders to stop trying new things and revert to old habits.”³

Feeling ridiculous and more conspicuous than she is, Rosa commits to practice. It is awkward and unnatural at first, and more than once, Rosa fears she has wasted her time and money. Slowly, though, as she roots her feet, connects to the person she is speaking to, and takes time to breathe before speaking, she notices that people are different around her. They aren’t as skittish and seem inclined to listen longer. She can see on their faces when something confuses them. She asks if they have questions. With each day, as she practices these fundamentals, Rosa sees changes in her relationship with her audience and, at the same time, she feels a shift in her sense of herself.

Developing a practice refocuses our thoughts on the impact we want to have rather than the obstacles our minds can create. And research tells us that specificity and simplicity are keys to successful change.

“When we want to build new habits, according to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (2018), we can get remarkable results by making one tiny change at a time. In the beginning, creating a new habit is more critical than actually achieving a goal. He recommends getting just 1% better each day. According to Clear, accumulating habits involves deciding the kind of person you want to be and then empowering your vision with a process of small wins emerging from habits. One step at a time.”⁴

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent

We’ve often heard that repeated practice to develop a skill builds “muscle memory.” The truth is that it creates pathways in our nervous system. Our brains send information through nerve fibers to our muscles. Practice changes and grows the neural pathways that activate our muscles so that behavior becomes our instinctual way of doing. Think about how this applies to Rosa. Each time she practices the physical acts of standing, seeing, and breathing before speaking, the neural pathways to her muscles grow, increasing the likelihood that her muscles will "remember" what to do in this circumstance. Rosa will not have to think about these behaviors with repeated and conscientious practice. It will become second nature to stand, see and breathe before she speaks. And once she masters these skills, she will be able to learn and practice others that will allow her to have the impact she desires.

Over the last two years, we've had to learn new ways of delivering our solutions to clients. Workshops that were once one or two full days have been remodeled into much shorter programs of 90 or 120 minutes. While the impact of these programs is strong, even intense, the cost of reducing the time has been practice time. The luxury of time offers the opportunity for every participant to get on their feet in front of an audience and practice the new skills and ideas they are investigating. Clients are reaching out to us, asking for more time to work on building technique. They want to practice with their coach. This desire to repeatedly engage in the experience of a skill is a new clarion call. If companies and their leaders want to achieve a sustainable grip and a real human and economic return, they must value the time and space their people need to practice.

1 Fung, G. "Rope skipping champion Timothy Ho reveals what it takes to smash a world record." The Sporting News, March 13, 2022.

2 Bonchek, M., Why the Problem with Learning Is Unlearning, Harvard Business Review, November 03, 2016

3 Long, J., The Importance of Practice – And Our Reluctance to Do It; Harvard Business Publishing; April 27, 2016

4 Berns-Zare, I., 6 Powerful Ways to Build New Habits: How Strengthening Your Habits Can Strengthen Your Brain; Psychology Today, February 4, 2020


Christine Strong is Chief of Staff and Coach for The TAI Group. Chris partners with leaders and teams to discover higher levels of clarity, focus, and action by uncovering the sources of guidance, alignment, and motivation that lie within them.

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