Practice Makes Perfect, Doesn’t Always Work

(My column as it appeared in Upmarket magazine week of May 13th)

People sometimes mistakenly assume that just the repetition gained from practicing a task before actually do it will safeguard them from mistakes when under pressure in the real environment. It sounds like it makes perfect sense, but it does have flaws.

Repetitive practice works well where the discipline of performing tasks involving muscle memory is at play. Sports are filled with them. Practice throwing 3-point shots in basketball while under pressure is one such example. You can practice to such proficiency that even when you try to miss your so programmed it’s near comical as evidenced by Hall of Fame star Larry Bird when making a commercial for Pepsi®. The plot was for him to miss a free throw only to have the production crew in laughter because of how many takes it took for him to miss! He was so programmed that even when trying to miss his reflexes took charge and made the shot.

That type of disciplined practice doesn’t necessarily transfer to many areas of business or life. Let’s look at sales as one area to demonstrate this rationale. You can not sit and roll play the same answers to the same questions or objections over and over again as a measurement of how well you’ll do in the game. The questions you may be asked could come in a form or manner that may not portend to you answering them the way you’ve practiced. Practicing a sales technique to the point of producing near automatic responses could wind up causing you to appear in a buyer’s eye to be animatronic.

The goal you want to reach for these situations is based more on familiarity or proficiency in the techniques. Not an exercise of muscle memory for your thinking brain. Understanding and practicing techniques is where you’ll find your reactions to stressful situations taking over.

The decision-making process of what to do, and when to do it is such a fluid and ever-changing process that one needs to have more of a sense of awareness and an understanding of options that can be used during these times, more than just being absolutely masterful in a few. And that can only come from the lessons you’ll learn actually playing in the game.

If you want to look at this using a different example just think of what you practiced and learned when first driving a car. If all you did was practice parallel parking and you could be woken up in the middle of the night, placed behind the wheel, and instructed you have less than 60 seconds to park, go! You may execute it flawlessly. But would mastering that skill be paramount in deciding how well of a driver on the open road you’ll be as compared to someone with a general knowledge skilled enough to execute it if needed, but also has a knack for finding alternative parking spots learned from actual driving in a major city?

There are times that a familiarity with possible scenarios and possible responses is far more important to be learned and practiced, rather than practicing to perfection scenarios that may never be needed. It’s about success most times, not perfection. And success comes from actually playing, and engaging on the real field, not the practice field.

© 2012 Mark St.Cyr