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Deliberate Practice vs. Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Anders Ericsson are both prominent psychologists who have devoted their careers studying experts. Essentially they studied how they became experts, how they practice, and what they experience. They both may have similar research interests, however, their accounts for how these experts came to be couldn’t be more different.

Ericsson, as mentioned in a former blog, discovered the 10,000 hour rule of practice. He suggests that it isn’t just the amount of hours you spend practicing that makes the difference, but it’s also how your practice. This is where the deliberate part comes in. Experts are very purposeful and focused within the thousands of hours they practice. This deliberate practice spans over 10 years, which is what leads to mastery according to Ericsson.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests a different approach. He has found that mastery happens when one experiences flow. Flow is described as a state of complete concentration that leads to a feeling of spontaneity. It has been described as feeling “effortless,” “relaxing,” “in control,” “time standing still,” and “you don’t have to think about it, you’re just doing it,” while delivering an exceptional performance.

Angela Duckworth in her book GRIT compares and contrast these two different approaches. Where Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow is an enjoyable experience, Ericsson doesn’t believe deliberate practice to feel the same. Also, where flow is described as spontaneous, deliberate practice is described as carefully planned. Deliberate practice requires working where challenge exceeds skill, and flow is experienced when challenge and skill are balanced. Furthermore, deliberate practice is exceptionally effortful, where flow is described as effortless.

As the book GRIT asks, who is right?

To find the answer to this question Angela Duckworth sent questionnaires regarding flow to those who already completed her Grit Scale. She found that grit and flow actually go hand in hand. Those who scored high on the Grit Scale also experienced flow more than the less gritty participants.

Her conclusion became: Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow.

As she says, deliberate practice is a behavior and flow is an experience. Ericsson studied what experts do to become experts, while Csikszentmihalyi studied how experts feel when performing.

From what I’ve studied about flow and deliberate practice I have to agree with her conclusion. Flow and deliberate practice are NOT the same thing. It doesn’t have to be either or. In order to reach mastery, deliberate practice is essential, however, flow is not. In order to experience a top-notch performance, experiencing flow can help make that happen, but it is not a requirement.

Practice is also not the enjoyable part, but performing is. This is why deliberate practice requires challenges exceeding skill where in a performance the challenge and skill are matched. You put in increased amounts of effort during practice so that you can shut off your mind and let your body flow when it comes time to perform. The intensity that you put into practice is not needed during the performance. This is when you should trust your abilities from all of the hours of deliberate practice you put in and allow flow to take over.

Although flow is a huge part in experiencing mastery in your performance, I still believe that it is not essential. Flow doesn’t happen every time. How else, even with deliberate practice, can you put on the performance you need when you aren’t in flow?

It is still possible. Learn how in my next blog.

Stay tuned. 🙂

Deliberate Practice

Is grit developed due to the quantity of time devoted to one’s interests, or is it the quality of time? Angela Duckworth ponders this question in her book GRIT, wondering if it’s not just more time on a task, but also better time on a task that will make a difference when it comes to developing grit through practice.

What she found through her research was cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson’s work on how experts acquire world-class skills, specifically how it takes about 10,000 hours of practice spread over 10 years to reach expert status. If you are not familiar with his work, it has gone viral because it provided us with a visceral sense of a scale of time that we need to invest in to become world-class. More insight into Ericsson’s work is that it doesn’t solely focus on logging hours of practice, but rather that experts also practice differently.

Unlike most of us, experts are logging thousand upon thousands of hours of what Ericsson calls deliberate practice. This form of practice includes stretch goals, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Experts also focus on improving specific weaknesses as well instead of focusing on what they are already good at. They also practice with undivided attention and great effort and strive to reach their stretch goals. They don’t do it for their fans, family, or others, they do it for themselves. They are completely intrinsically motivated to succeed.

Another aspect of their practice is that they are hungry for feedback, particularly negative feedback. They are eager to learn what they did wrong, rather than hearing what they did right. They are devoted to getting better, and they understand that in order to really excel they need to work on every weakness and poor part of their performance.

After they hear the feedback what do they do next? They continue the process over and over again. They continue practicing, staying focused, pushing outside their comfort zone, and seeking out feedback again and again, until they finally master the goal they were fighting after. Angela Duckworth states that they practice until “conscious incompetence becomes unconscious competence.”

And once that original stretch goal has been met? Well, experts then create a new stretch goal and continue the process all over again.

Maybe you’re not an expert in anything or feel you haven’t yet mastered a single stretch goal. The good news is that you can start. You can begin training differently, as an expert would and apply the steps I listed above to your own stretch goal.

Go on and start to practice with intention.

8 ways to Build a Team Dynasty

If you are familiar with Minnesota State Dance line, you are familiar with the Faribault Emeralds.

With Minnesota state dance line wrapping up this past weekend, I experienced a lot of nostalgia reminiscing on my state dance line experiences. Where I went to school dance line was kind of a big deal. The Faribault Emeralds dance team earn a trip to state each and every year, usually placing near the top 3. They bounce between AA and AAA and yet still find a way to dominate in high kick.

Reflecting on how the dance team became and continues to be so extremely successful no matter what division they are in lies in the coaching. Obviously, the dancers themselves have to put in the work to execute the dances so flawlessly, but one thing has been constant; Coach Lois Krinke, who has been the head coach for the Emeralds for 28 years.

Lois Krinke and Coach Tammy Rosett are game changers in the dance world. They are not only coaches but legends. Their success in coaching, in my opinion, comes from them taking on so many different roles blended into their coaching. Another aspect about them is that they except nothing less than exceptional. Setting these high expectations set the standard and culture for the team. We do not dance, we compete. And we compete well. Beyond that, they also tie in several sport psychology-related techniques, which assist with the team’s mentality on and off the dance floor.

I’ve compiled a list of 8 things these coaches do that enhance the chance of success for the Faribault Emerald dance team each and every year.  

1. Consistent use of imagery.

One thing that really served us well in knowing our parts in the dance and increasing our confidence in our abilities was their consistent use of imagery. This is a powerful mental skill when used correctly. The night before competitions and before we left our dressing room the day of competitions Lois and Tammy would have us close our eyes. The music to our performance would play and it was our job to execute the dance flawlessly in our mind. This was a powerful experience. After the music would be over Lois would simply ask, “Did anyone make a mistake?” They instilled integrity in us to raise our hand if we saw a mistake occur in our mind. “Again,” would be her response. She would play the music yet again until each and every one of us saw the performance in our mind that we intended to execute.

2. Setting high, but realistic expectations.

Lois has a reputation for being a hardass. Some may see this as a negative thing and that she was “too hard” on the dancers. However, I always felt that she was just as hard as she needed to be. She knew what we were capable of and she would do everything she could in her power to have us work our butts off until we realized our potential as well. Her expectations were always high, and even at the beginning of the season when we would doubt our ability to improve to the level that she wanted, it ended up happening every time. She never gave up on us, no matter how flawed we were throughout the season. In order for us to reach our goals, we would have long enduring practices, but that only made us into the dynamite team that the Emeralds continue to be.

3. Learning from our past mistakes.

In all of my sports in high school, I never watched film until dance line. After each performance and competition, we would spend a large chunk of our practice reviewing the film. Lois would have us watch it over and over again, compiling a list of mistakes and weaknesses. We always focused on our weaknesses. This is how a team gets better. She would first have us watch the video as a whole, then another time watching yourself, and then the last time assigning each dancer to a different dancer to watch and critique. This was almost like 360-degree feedback, which does wonders in the business world so it only makes sense that it would be beneficial for us as well. The saying, “We are only as strong as our weakest link,” rings true and our coaches made sure that our weakest links were as strong as possible.

4. Putting importance on sportsmanship.

I distinctively remember my sophomore year at Conference when we did not win. At this time the Emeralds were a powerhouse and did not lose a single competition in a couple of years. This was a huge blow to us and we struggled to remain composed with our second-place finish. The seniors on the team started to fall apart with tears, but Lois and Tammy shaped us up real fast. “You WILL not show any sign of frustration until we are off this floor and into our dressing room,” she commanded. Although it was challenging, we sucked it up. She even made us go and congratulate the team that beat us; talk about reopening the wound. Looking back this was a way our coaches instilled great sportsmanship. The Emeralds will not be remembered as “sore losers.” They will continue to hold their heads high and congratulate anyone who put on a better performance than them. We lost more competitions from then on and each time the expectation was to go and congratulate any team that beat us without any tears.

5. Establishing rituals and traditions.

The team culture within the Faribault Emeralds is very unique and special. There were several things that Lois and Tammy instilled within the season that reminded us how great it is to be a part of the team. Some of my favorite rituals and traditions revolved around going into the state competition, especially when we get to listen to our “special song.” The night before big competitions (conference, sections, state, etc.) Lois would always play the song Simply the Best, which was a song that gave us all goosebumps. She would play it while we swayed together in a circle reminding ourselves and our fellow dance sister that we are and will continue to be “simply the best.” This simple, yet powerful experience did wonders for unifying us and preparing us to compete for something bigger than ourselves.

6. Providing us opportunities to be leaders.

When I was on the team, there were several opportunities to become a leader on the team. We had captains, like other teams, but we also had other roles. Lois and Tammy gave us the ability and trust to choreograph our own dances. They would give input when needed and also were honest if they felt what we came up with wasn’t good enough. Having a choreography team gave us a chance to be creative and provided ownership on our team. It wasn’t our coaches dance, it was OUR dance that we created and spent many hours developing. Besides simply creating the dance, we also were the ones who taught the dance to the team. Lois and Tammy oversaw it, but we were given the opportunity to be teachers as well. This ability in both enhancing my creativity with choreographing dances and teaching others has built skills that I use today.

7. You had to earn your spot.

Landing a spot on the Emeralds dance team wasn’t given to you, it was earned. Lois and Tammy always let us know that our spot was never permanent. It could even be halfway through competition season and if you weren’t holding up your end, you could easily be cut. Although this was scary and stressful to never know if your place on the team was safe, it also made us continuously work hard to keep our spots. I specifically remember one practice when two seniors didn’t make the jazz team. They were very upset and felt that since they were seniors they deserved to be offered a spot. I was a sophomore at the time on the jazz team and I could feel the hostility brewing. When they demanded to be on the jazz team or else they would quit, Lois simply showed them the door. She told them, “You can leave, but if you are not back for practice tomorrow you are officially off the team.” The next day at practice two unhappy seniors still showed up to hold their spot on the high-kick team. In our coaches eyes, it didn’t matter how many years you were on the team or how old you were, you had to demonstrate that you had the skills and abilities to be a part of the team.

8. They are more than coaches.

Once you enter Lois and Tammy’s world, they become more than your coaches. They both instantly become second mothers, role models, drill sergeants, and everything else in between. They care about who you are as a person, besides you simply being one of their dancers. The alumni world for the Emeralds is huge, and I still consider both of these coaches as role-models and people that I can approach when I need something. They both were invited to most of our high-school graduations, even some weddings. Parents and family even got to know who they are. The become an integral part of your world and they take on that role with poise and class.

My Senior year banquet, Lois on left, Tammy on right.

Besides all of these things, they also encouraged us to be our best selves. They taught us that a “team” is greater than the sum of its parts. When you become an Emerald you realize the value and weight that it holds. Both Tami and Lois made sure you knew to carry that title with poise, class, and fierce competitiveness like nothing else. Because when you are an emerald, you shine. Once an emerald always an emerald. #FEDTProud.

How is your Mindest Driving your Behavior?

As Henry Ford has famously said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” This quote is hands down one of my favorites because it simply, yet so accurately captures the power that the mind and our thoughts have over our actions and behaviors.

In the coaches’ book club I recently finished Grit. It may be my third time reading it, but I find something new each and every time I go through it. During this last read what stood out to me the most was her chapter on Hope.

Research experiments in the 1960s discovered that suffering without control reliably produces symptoms of clinical depression, including changes in appetite and physical activity, sleep problems, and poor concentration.

During the day I work at a day-treatment program facilitating therapuetic activities with middle schoolers. Many of the kids I work with have at least one or several of the above-mentioned struggles. This is probably why this chapter was so fascinating to me.

In today’s society, we understand that our thoughts have a major impact on our behaviors. That is essentially what drives our behavior at times. However, in the 1960s this idea sounded absurd to most. What was thought to drive behavior was punishments and rewards. Since people can essentially learn to be helpless, we can also learn to be optimistic. Both of these terms are referred to as learned helplessness and learned optimism. A lot of this research started with two first-year psychology doctoral students named Marty Seligman and Steve Maier.

Let’s go through a study Marty Seligman conducted to understand our pessimistic or optimistic mindsets.

Imagine: You can’t get all the work done that others expect of you. Now imagine one major cause for this event. What leaps to mind?

Now think about what your immediate response would be to this scenario. When I did this exercise my immediate thought was, “I must have overscheduled myself again.”

According to Seligman’s research, a pessimist might say, “I screw everything up.” Or, “I’m a loser.” A pessimist answer is something permanent, where you can’t do much to change the cause.

On the flip side, an optimist may have answered, “I mismanaged my time.” Or, “I didn’t work efficiently because of distractions.”  These answers are different because they are all temporary, specific, and able to be fixed.

From this study, Seligman was able to confirm that pessimists are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared to optimists. How did you answer? If it was a pessimist answer, do not worry. It does not mean that you are automatically going to become diagnosed with depression and anxiety. It does, however, mean that you are at a higher risk if you do not put in the effort to change your mindset.

How does this also apply to sport? Well, pessimists are also more likely to quit and give in sooner than optimists. If a performance doesn’t go as expected, optimists are more likely to try yet again. It also can be really damaging to athletes who endure an injury if they have a pessimist mindset over an optimstic one. As coaches or an athlete yourself we want to keep pushing and keep trying despite setbacks. If you are naturally a pessimist or you have a team full of pessimists, how are you able to overcome this?

The answer is feeling like you have a sense of control. Cognitive behavioral therapy has demonstrated that we can, in fact, learn to recognize and be aware of our negative self-talk and change our maladaptive behaviors. We can learn to interpret what is happening to us in a different way as an optimist would.

As the book GRIT discussed in chapter 9 Hope, what doesn’t kill us can make us stronger, but it also can make us weaker. Steve Maier conducted a study similar to one he conducted with Marty Seligman but with a few changes, he used adolescent rats to determine learned helplessness vs. learned optimism and compared these rats later on when they reached adulthood.

What he found was that when we experience adversity, or some kind of trauma, that we overcome on our own during youth, you develop a different way of dealing with adversity later on. These findings suggest that telling someone to overcome adversity is not enough. They have to actually experience mastery at the same time as adversity. Many kids start to view themselves as helpless because they are not learning, “I can do this. I can succeed in that,” through mastery experiences and instead have more helplessness experiences.

As coaches, it is your duty to provide mastery experiences for your athletes and teams. This can be done by providing opportunities to make several successful plays after a challenging loss or mistake. As an athlete, you need to understand that there’s a contingency between your actions and what happens to you. We all must remind ourselves, and those around us that if we do something, then something will happen.

“It isn’t suffering that leads to hopelessness. It’s suffering you think you can’t control.” – GRIT

If we can feel that we have some sense of control over what happens to us through our actions, then we are more likely to experience mastery and foster a optimistic mindset.

How to Grow GRIT

Angela Duckworth has discovered four paragons of grit that have been developed from many interviews with men and women who epitomize the qualities of passion and perseverance. The four psychological assets she mentions are not “either you have it or you don’t” commodities. They can all be learned, discovered, developed, and deepened. If you would like to learn how to develop these four essential components for grit, continue reading.

  1. Interest: In order to become passionate about something, we first must develop an interest in it. This interest must come within. We need to be intrinsically motivated and really enjoy it. You must be able to work through the few things you don’t enjoy to fully embrace and love what you do. For example: if soccer is your interest, you may completely enjoy playing in the game, but may not be a fan of the conditioning workouts. However, your love to play trumps your dislike for the workout so you push yourself through the workouts because you understand that it will help boost your performance in the game that you enjoy so much.
  2. Practice: Once you’ve developed an interest you must have the capacity to practice. Maybe you have the philosophy of, “getting 1% better each day,” that you live by. Once the interest and passion have been formed, you must be dedicated to engaging in deliberate, focused, full-hearted, and challenge-exceeding-skill practice. This is the only way you will increase your game and skill and move toward mastery. In this phase, you also should be aware of your weaknesses and be committed to enhancing those as well. No matter how excellent you become, you understand that each and every day you must practice and that there’s always room for improvement. For example, once a soccer player develops an interest in the game they commit to practicing each and every single day. They understand their strengths and weaknesses and work hard to improve their weak spots. If they are a strong right foot kicker but struggle with the left, they will continuously practice shooting with their left foot at different angles on the field.
  3. Purpose: Passion is strengthened once you fully believe that your work matters. The book, Grit states, “For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime.” Find your purpose, sustain your passion. In order to do this, you must perceive your work as both personally interesting and meaningful to the well-being of others. For example, the same soccer player finds their purpose once they realize how they can add value to their team. They no longer play for themselves on the field, but they play for their coaches, teammates, and fans. They understand that the whole is greater than the sum of their parts and their success on the team becomes even more important.
  4. Hope: The book defines hope as, “A rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance.” However, even though hope is placed last, it is not the final stage of growing grit. Hope actually defines every stage. From the very beginning, we must believe that we can overcome obstacles, bounce back from setbacks, and face challenges. We must continuously believe that we can keep going, even when we start to have doubts. There will be setbacks, failures, and obstacles along the way. Will you be able to keep going?

“At various points, in big ways and small, we get knocked down. If we stay down, grit loses. If we get up, grit prevails.” – GRIT, p. 92. 

Whether you’ve already established grit on your own or feel as though you have a long ways to go, remember you can continue to grow grit. It takes time, patience, and continuous effort. Believe in yourself and keep having hope. Find your interest, engage in deliberate practice, and develop your purpose within it.

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