How to practice effectively…for just about anything – Annie Bosler and Don Greene

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Mastering any physical skill,
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be it performing a pirouette,
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playing an instrument,
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or throwing a baseball,
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takes practice.
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Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement,
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and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence.
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So what does practice do in our brains to make us better at things?
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Our brains have two kinds of neural tissue:
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grey matter
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and white matter.
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The grey matter processes information in the brain,
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directing signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells,
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while white matter is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers.
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In order for our bodies to move,
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information needs to travel from the brain’s grey matter,
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down the spinal cord,
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through a chain of nerve fibers called axons
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to our muscles.
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So how does practice or repetition affect the inner workings of our brains?
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The axons that exist in the white matter
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are wrapped with a fatty substance called myelin.
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And it’s this myelin covering, or sheath, that seems to change with practice.
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Myelin is similar to insulation on electrical cables.
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It prevents energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses,
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moving them more efficiently along neural pathways.
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Some recent studies in mice suggest that the repetition of a physical motion
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increases the layers of myelin sheath that insulates the axons.
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And the more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains,
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forming a sort of superhighway for information
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connecting your brain to your muscles.
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So while many athletes and performers
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attribute their successes to muscle memory,
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muscles themselves don’t really have memory.
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Rather, it may be the myelination of neural pathways
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that gives these athletes and performers their edge
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with faster and more efficient neural pathways.
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There are many theories that attempt
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to quantify the number of hours, days, and even years of practice
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that it takes to master a skill.
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While we don’t yet have a magic number,
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we do know that mastery isn’t simply about the amount of hours of practice.
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It’s also the quality and effectiveness of that practice.
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Effective practice is consistent,
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intensely focused,
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and targets content or weaknesses
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that lie at the edge of one’s current abilities.
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So if effective practice is the key,
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how can we get the most out of our practice time?
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Try these tips.
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Focus on the task at hand.
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Minimize potential distractions by turning off the computer or TV
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and putting your cell phone on airplane mode.
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In one study, researchers observed 260 students studying.
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On average,
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those students were able to stay on task for only six minutes at a time.
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Laptops, smartphones, and particularly Facebook
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were the root of most distractions.
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Start out slowly or in slow-motion.
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Coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect.
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If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitons,
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you have a better chance of doing them correctly.
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Next, frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits
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of elite performers.
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Studies have shown that many top athletes, musicians, and dancers
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spend 50-60 hours per week on activities related to their craft.
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Many divide their time used for effective practice
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into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration.
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And finally, practice in your brain in vivid detail.
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It’s a bit surprising, but a number of studies suggest
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that once a physical motion has been established,
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it can be reinforced just by imagining it.
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In one study, 144 basketball players were divided into two groups.
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Group A physically practiced one-handed free throws
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while Group B only mentally practiced them.
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When they were tested at the end of the two week experiment,
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the intermediate and experienced players in both groups
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had improved by nearly the same amount.
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As scientists get closer to unraveling the secrets of our brains,
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our understanding of effective practice will only improve.
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In the meantime, effective practice is the best way we have
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of pushing our individual limits,
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achieving new heights,
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and maximizing our potential.

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