People are awed at the feats of athletes when they succeed, break records, and stun us into silence with their execution. Many of us are quick to bless such athletes with terms like “gifted” or “talented” to label what’s behind the incredible results they achieve. People also use these terms to make such athletes and sportspeople seem like elevated others, who are naturally endowed with something others cannot get unless they’ve naturally attained it from birth.
However, there is an increasing body of science to suggest that not only is such labelling misplaced in many cases but completely ignorant of the process, effort and consistency put in by these people that make up the result that we witness. That’s not to say that natural advantages such as height, bone density and heightened senses do not contribute to sporting success, as they do to a certain degree. Instead, they are contributing factors which are coupled with the tougher, more consistent effort driven through purposeful practice which delivers results and enables people to continually improve their sporting skills and abilities.
Before we talk about what purposeful practice is, let’s explain what it is not. To illustrate what it’s not, think about a time you’ve gone training for the sake of it or because you feel compelled to, yet did so without much enthusiasm or focus. In these sessions, you’ll execute the strikes, combos and techniques probably as well as you would any other day, but you’re almost on autopilot. Your mind is not thinking about consequences, new ways to do things or focusing on how to improve granular aspects of your game. You’re just training. This is not purposeful. While useful for cardio building, this type of training only really builds your sporting skills when you’re new to a sport. To elevate your game beyond the basics and really improve, you need to bring focus, analysis and adaptability to your training sessions. You need to practice with purpose.
What then, makes practice purposeful? The difference is the approach as purposeful practice is focused and designed with attaining a specific goal that will improve overall performance, one step at a time. It’s kicking a heavy bag 50, 100, 1000 times until you rotate your hips the “right” amount. It’s jabbing countless times with a focus on bringing your hand back to your chin quicker than someone can counter you with your guard down. It is committing to improve on a specific aspect of your game and practicing what is necessary to do so, as part of a purposeful routine that gets you closer and closer to mastery.
“Normal” practice is like going through the motions, without much mental engagement, analysis, refinement, or questioning. You could think of normal practice as focusing on quantity, as opposed to quality. Michael Jordan admits that his success is, in part, due to his commitment as a youngster in shooting hoops for countless hours, night after night. At first, this would have been simply normal practice, with a focus on the motions and range involved in scoring a basket. However, over time, he will have focused on specific aspects to hone his skills – for example, how he holds the ball, how he releases the ball, how he jumps.
In Muay Thai, normal practice could be just hitting the pads so you work up a sweat and let off some steam. This applies to both beginners and experienced practitioners. The same goes for hitting the bag for a specific round duration, without focusing on specific techniques, combinations, motions, or footwork. This type of practice can certainly benefit your cardio and mentality if you’re experienced but is unlikely to get you to master status. For beginners, this type of practice is useful in building comfort with the motions and developing a foundation of conditioning, however, it takes focus, dedication and perseverance to make the step up to the next level.
The benefits of purposeful practice are clear when you look at some of the best artists and athletes throughout history. Yet you can quickly demonstrate to yourself the benefit of purposeful practice with a focused, specific type of training session.
Let’s first look at some examples of artistic and sporting greats who have benefited from purposeful practice. Many people refer to Mozart as gifted, talented and incomparable, yet, as Matthew Syed writes in Bounce, this is ignorant of the fact that he had clocked up 3,500 hours by the age of 6, studied thereafter in an environment that consistently encouraged his efforts and exposed him to fellow musicians, and, therefore, enabled him to produce his timeless classic Piano concerto No 9 at the age of 21.
Both Buakaw and Saenchai started training Muay Thai at 8 years old, working diligently with consistency and effort year after year from then on. Buakaw won his first Lumpinee title aged 20, Saenchai was 16 when he did so. From the point they started training to winning their first coveted title, they immersed themselves in thousands of training hours, honing their art, developing themselves both mentally and physically.
These are just 3 examples of how purposeful practice can drive people to world-star sporting or artistic status. What use is it though for people who don’t want to be the best at their art but do want to continually improve? The statistics and success stories make it clear that it’s of incredible use and will help any practitioner consistently develop. That’s not to say you can achieve absolutely anything with purposeful practice as, after all, genetics do play a role in enabling and limiting an individual’s abilities. Although, genes may influence performance, they do not determine performance. Your mindset and application drive you to achieve your own peak performance.
How then, can you practice with purpose and do so with consistency and variety? It starts with mentality and planning. Pre-planning before a training session, thinking about what aspect of your game you want to hone - whether it’s a strength or weakness – is the first step. This requires that you break down your game into it’s individual aspects and understand how they complement and fit together. For example, how does your footwork after landing a strike influence your ability to defend counters? And what do you need to do with your footwork & headwork to minimise the ability for an opponent to counter in such a situation?
Once you’ve got a grasp on the individual aspects, you can then assess whether they’re strengths or weaknesses. It’s important to work on both as you want to be especially good at several things while having a high level of ability in all other aspects – or simply being especially good at everything if you’re a world class Muay Femur. With this assessment, you can then spend time testing new strategies, approaches and tactics for each aspect. For instance, if you find you’re weak when clinching taller opponents, test ways of locking up the clinch (so the ref will break) or escaping the clinch quickly and safely. Or if your knees are powerful, test ways you can throw knees at incredible pace and surprising angles, so they become even more effective.
The final stage of purposeful practice is integrating this honed aspect into your wider game/process. Integrating what you’ve been working on into your style and execution so that it bolsters your overall ability. Sparring, drill work and pad work (with an experienced, proactive pad-holder) are especially useful for this.
Be mindful that you can use a single training session to purposefully practice one aspect of your game and then rotate to a different one each training session, although ensuring that you have a fixed amount of aspects you’re working on in a given period as to ensure you dedicate enough time to each. Alternatively, you can focus on one aspect time and time again until you recognise the improvement you’ve been seeking. Thereafter, apply the same method to another aspect of your game. Rinse and repeat the cycle so your overall game elevates consistently.