Mastery, boredom, and how to accomplish proficiency

I am completely fascinated by the subjects of mastery and expertise, both what it takes to become a master of a given movement or craft and how one becomes an expert in coaching/teaching the movement or craft.  The former is mysterious to me; I get bored relatively easily and wonder if I will ever truly master anything.  The latter, of course, is my profession and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

When it comes to what it actually takes to become an expert at one thing, the research seems to be pretty clear.  Ericsoon, Krampe, and Tesch Romer (1993) established that expertise occurs after 10 years of intense practice or 10,000 hours, whichever comes first (Magill, 2011).  Intense practice consists of practice that is deliberate, or designed by a coach or teacher to address aspects of performance through repetition and refinement.  This is very different than simply going through the motions and is done in a mindful way.  All of this practice and refinement allows experts to process information differently.  Experts of specific skills recognize patterns more quickly.  This allows them to anticipate and act more quickly than non-experts.  Daniel Coyle discusses the concept of focused practice in his book "Talent Code."  Deliberate practice, or deep practice, as he refers to it, is focused.  This is accomplished by performing practice where mistakes are made, tending to the mistakes, and practicing again until it is performed correctly.  This, of course, means working slightly outside of one's comfort zone and perfecting something before moving on (interestingly, Ashtanga Yoga works much this way.  It is traditionally taught so that the teacher only gives the student one pose at a time.  The student doesn't receive the next posture, or asana, until the current asana is perfected.  The founder of Ashtanga, Pattahbi Jois, is known for saying it takes 7 years to perfect the first series.  This would be approximately 4000 hours of practice, not including immersion weekends, weeks, or months where more deep practice typically occurs.  I understand many of the martial arts are taught the same way, with black belt status usually taking about 10 years to complete).  This also requires the person performing the deep practice to be passionate about the skill.  Last summer, during a graduate school presentation by legendary running coach Dr. Jack Daniels, he said the hardest athletes to coach were the ones with the most talent and low internal drive.  Because things come easily to these athletes, they don't feel the need to participate in deep practice, relying instead on their innate talent.  This, of course, eventually leads to a person "not reaching his potential," with the less talented person participating in much more deep practice, analyzing his mistakes, and eventually realizing a more favorable outcome.

Research also shows that how the practice is performed can affect the outcome of learning.  Massed practice, or practice with little rest between sessions or trials, is less effective than distributed practice, or practice that is much shorter in length.  This prevents both physical and cognitive fatigue, leading to faster acquisition of the skill.  I use this often when I train; I introduce a movement that is challenging for someone at the beginning of the session.  The person inevitably struggles because it is new and more complex than what we had previously been doing.  We perform one set and move on to something else, coming back to it 10 minutes later after doing other movements or exercises.  The second set is almost always better than the first, and it's always fun to watch the surprise on the client's face when he realizes he is more successful the second time around.  Usually, after 2-3 weeks of interspersing the difficult movement into the routine, the movement is no longer intimidating or threatening for the client and progression can occur, in terms of load/reps/sets.  Grooving a movement pattern is a rewarding feeling, both for the client and for the trainer.

Movement is something we should all want to master.  This doesn't mean performing complex gymnastics routines or being an elite level athlete.  It simply means having a sense of mastery over what our bodies can do and regularly challenging it to perform in ways that require focus and practice.  As I mentioned earlier, I am prone to boredom.  As a result, I will probably never be an expert at any one yoga practice, or any one movement system, for that matter.  I have been running for 17 years, more than half of my life, and I certainly don't feel like an expert runner.  I am, however, in tune with my body.  I regularly challenge it to do things that are hard, and I practice until I can perform these things with some level of ease.  I am currently training for the MovNat level I certification.  One of the requirements involves hanging from a bar and pulling the body up using a leg, elbows, and arms.  Two months ago, hanging from a bar for longer than 15 seconds was really challenging for me, let along actually performing the movement.  I began practicing the movement 4 times a week, sporadically throughout the day, about 10 minutes each day.  Now, I can get up easily with my right leg; my left leg isn't quite as smooth, but considering I couldn't get up using my left leg at all 8 weeks ago, I am pleased with the progress.  I think we are generally scared of things we can't do physically and instead of picking small challenges and working on them in a focused manner, we practice avoidance.  Instead of masters of our bodies, we are merely inhabiting them, allowing them to dictate what we "can" and "can't" do.  In order to maintain function and ability, we have to change the way we look at physical challenges and aspire to a sense of physical expertise.  Rather than shy away from physical challenges, we should embrace them, remembering that with deep practice, what is a physical challenge today won't be in a month.  And even if it still is in a month, that doesn't mean that one day, with focus and determination, it won't be accomplished.

Yours in health and wellness,

Magill, R.A., (2011).  Motor Learning and Control, ninth edition.  McGraw-Hill: New York.
Coyle, D., (2009).  The Talent Code.  Bantam: New York.