January 10, 2018

We all know the clichéd sports analogies about practice making perfect, taking it one game at a time, and it's a marathon not a sprint.

And we still have to admit there is something to learn from people who have honed a skill into an expertise, one that they do so well they are rewarded handsomely for it. How did they do it? What are the secrets to getting to the highest levels of your craft? Here are five practices all athletes have in common, and that you can adopt for more success at work, in your career, or in your business.

Practice the right things, prepare in the right ways

To prepare to compete, soccer players don’t go out and shoot hoops, gymnasts don’t eat like sumo wrestlers, and skiers don’t pull all-nighters. Here is the dirty little secret about practice: literally everything an athlete does, and everything you do, is practice. Every practice they attended was prep for a game. Every college game they played was practice for the pros. Every game a pro plays is practice for a game later in the season. Practice is learning, solidifying neural pathways, building habits, until you could do your thing in your sleep. And even then…still practice. Your preparation for success in your work is whatever you’re doing daily. Every meeting, every phone call, every line of code, every presentation. Whatever you’re in the practice of is what you will master. Ensure that what you’re practicing are actually those things that matter to your craft and to your success. Ted-Ed has some suggestions for getting the most out of your practice.

Watch Video

This video from Ted-Ed reinforces our thinking on this subject of practice. Have a look.

Do the work that no one watches

What we see athletes do in games is only about 2% of the actual work they put in in a season. And over an athlete’s career, we’re only seeing about .001% of the work they’ve put in over their lifetime to get to that level. The other 98-99.999% is what we don’t see: the honing of their craft. That’s it! Just practicing all of the facets that make an athlete successful in their sport. Malcolm Gladwell suggests that 10,000 hours are required for mastery of anything. And those 10,000 definitely won’t be spent on a professional team – those hours will be spent long before any teams come calling. So hone your skills. Practice whatever it is you need to master to be successful in your work at this level AND the next. You want to manage people? Start practicing now. You want to be a CEO? Start practicing. Sales? Speaking in front of people? Networking? Cold calling? All require practice that most people won’t see or appreciate if they do. Our coaching to our clients is always the same but isn’t rocket science. If you’ve done it 1000 times, you’ll be able to do it when it matters. So go practice.

I recently interviewed Steve Wozniak in front of an audience of 2,500. In spite of having played sports in front of that many people before, having to coherently get words out of my mouth in front of them felt completely different. Were it not for the patience and persistence of my business partner, yet another Steve, the interview would not have gone so well. Instead, after ~5 hours of practice, I’d asked my questions in so many different ways that asking Woz was effortless. They sounded like what I was going for: casual and pointed, sharp and friendly, witty and professional. And yes, I made my business partner practice with me for hours! So worth it in the end. Because I got the practice time with my partner, I got practice time on stage, and I got practice time interviewing. Ask someone to help you. The people around you want you to improve, especially if they’re invested in your success.

Interviewing Steve Wozniak

Visualize

If you watched the video above, you heard that studies have shown that just visualizing doing something over and over can be as effective as physically practicing that thing over and over. Our minds are powerful. Use that to your advantage by bringing visualization into your practice. It can be more formal, like guided meditation, or more casual, like a deep breath and a moment of visualizing yourself walking into an important meeting. Visualize yourself doing things well, doing things the way they are intended to be done, getting your intended result. Visualize success – what it feels like, what it looks like, what it smells like, who’s there with you, what you’re wearing, what you’re saying, what others are saying, and who you’re being. Don’t hold back. Give yourself a complete picture of what success looks like and then replay it for yourself over and over again until you can almost taste it.

Learn. From successes AND failures.

If you’re not having a deep dive conversation with someone about all the things you learned from your successes and your failures, then you’re not getting the most out of your experience. Take the time to reflect on all the things that went well, where you fell flat, what was and wasn’t ready, where there’s room for growth, and what you would do differently next time. This is the athlete’s video analysis. You’ll need someone who is willing to give honest feedback, not just feedback they think you want to hear. You can encourage this by offering the same. The more real the feedback is, the easier it is to alter behaviors and put practices in place that actually address the areas that need work or build on your real strengths.

Recover

Time away from your craft is as, if not MORE, important than the practice itself. You need sleep. You need water. You need breaks. You need the right fuel. You need to regenerate. Identify those ways in which you most effectively shut off, get away, and regroup. Stepping away from your craft can bring you back to it with a new perspective. Pursuing other hobbies and new experiences will recharge you with new ideas that you can bring to your craft. Consider what works for your daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual breaks. Athletes don’t work out for 8 hours straight, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They have scheduled workouts, meals and recovery throughout the day, 5-7 days per week, bye weeks, and an off season. Figure out what your recovery schedule looks like and what you’ll do with your “offseason!”

In short, for greater success at work:

  • Identify what the right things are for you to practice
  • Go practice them even if there’s no immediate reward
  • Visualize yourself doing them well
  • Learn from your wins and losses and incorporate your learning into your practice
  • Take time to recover on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis

If you can do all this, you’ll have your eye on the ball, you won’t pull any punches, and you’ll knock it out of the park. And the clichés may ring a little more true for you. The separation truly is in the preparation my friend, so off you go now to get yourself prepared for more success at work.

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