Mentoring The “Right Kind” Of Practice

It probably goes without saying that practice is the key to mastery in any subject.  Through practice we can ace a spelling test, hit that home run, and perform a piano concerto in Carnegie Hall.  The oft-cited “ten-year or 10,000 hour rule” is a good starting point in comprehending the difficult task a beginner has in the mastery of a subject, but practice alone is not enough.  To truly become better and gain the degree of proficiency one needs to be at the top of his or her respective field, one must also employ the right kind of practice.  This is where a parent/tutor/mentor can play a critical role.

Imagine yourself as a novice pianist, working on a piece.  Now imagine that you’ve practiced for days on end, going through the motions, not making any real progress in your understanding of the music.  Going through the motions with this kind of repetition, this mindless practice, is not beneficial to your further development or mastery.  In fact, it can even prove to be harmful, as you are continually reinforcing the mistakes that you’ve made previously.  Mindlessly practicing for ten years isn’t going to do you any good.

Dr. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor whose area of study is the development of expertise, coined the concept of Mindless Practice, and also coined the term Deliberate Practice, or as he summarizes: “activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” 

This deliberate practice is designed to improve an individual’s abilities by extending them just beyond what the individual thinks he or she is capable of doing, and by reiterating that deliberate practice through repetition, as well as giving continuous feedback on the individual’s results, improvement occurs.

The downside, of course, is that it’s mentally very difficult.  Continuous stressors and extensions of one’s abilities take a toll, and require deep focus and concentration (hence the practice being “deliberate”).  It also takes one out of his or her comfort zone; by introducing new challenges a person improves, but at the same time there’s a constant feeling of unsteadiness in their abilities.  This is why having a good set of goals is vital: through the unease and mental strain, when one reaches his or her goals he or she is rewarded with self-satisfaction and a big boost in self-esteem.

These are especially important lessons for children with aspirations to improve in anything they do.  Understanding that improving requires not just work, but the right kind of work, and having a mentor or parent set good, tangible goals early on can help a child to excel.  Whether it is improving vocabulary, throwing a tighter pitch, or even perfecting that Mozart sonata, avoiding the pitfalls of merely “going through the motions” can be demanding, but will leave a budding virtuoso with a deep sense of accomplishment.

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