Deliberate practice

Written: 2/2/09
Published: 2/2/09
Bibliography: “Success is all in the Mind”, by Shelley Gare, January 24, 2009. The Australian.

Anders Ericsson founded the idea of ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice, whether it’s applied to sport, or business, or the arts, begins in the brain. This isn’t a child doing an hour of piano scales every day while imagining the fun they will have afterwards. Instead, what makes someone spectacular in their field–and keeps them there–is training via a kind of focused, repetitive practice in which the subject is always monitoring his or her performance, correcting, experimenting, listening to immediate and constant feedback, and always pushing beyond what has already been achieved.

In May 2006, “Freakonomics” authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner wrote a piece about his work in The New York Times. Titled ‘A Star is Made’, it caused a furore. The notion that the stars of sport, arts, business and politics, the Bill Gates, Tiger Woods and Vladimir Ashkenazy icons of the world, are just like you and me–except they’ve applied themselves–outraged people more used to the idea that the great performers are born with special abilities.

I suspect that for anyone seriously involved in sport, academics, or business, this is not a surprise. It is my experience that I get better at a certain activity by being intentional about it—practice, feedback/coaching, refinement of my technique, having a goal, and more practice.

For example, I used to be a terrible swimmer. When I decided a few years ago to give triathlons a go, I knew that swimming would be my Achilles heel—I was a really terrible swimmer. My method was straightforward:  I began to swim regularly. Knowing that it can’t be right to swim backward when you’re trying to swim forward, I also enrolled in swim lessons where, among other tools, the coach studied my stroke by taking underwater video footage and analysing it with me. I then did drills, isolating one element of my stroke (such as brushing my fingertips over the surface of the water during stroke recovery) and doing laps just focusing on this part of the stroke.

It was through this intentional practice and constant feedback that I slowly began to swim forward more often than I swam backward. I am pleased to say that in the last three years I have significantly improved my speed in the water (especially when compared to going backwards!).

I have noticed in the churches I have attended that this principle of intentional practice, or deliberate practice is not a part of the vocabulary or mission. While most pastors I know commonly emphasise the need to pray and read the Bible, and uncommonly will delve deeper into the need to practice common spiritual exercises such as fasting and solitude, the motivation given is ‘because you should do it’, rather than ‘because it is an essential part of your training into Christlikeness‘.

I believe that if those who have made a decision to apprentice themselves to Jesus were to view the notion of deliberate practice discussed above as a parallel concept to Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:7-8 to ‘…train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, godliness has value for all things…’, we would experience a revolution of spiritual growth.

I believe it would also begin to answer the question I have been hearing from practicing Christians with greater frequency in the last few years–Why do I still struggle in the same areas of my life?  Why do I not seem to have grown in this area of my life in the last ten years?

The point that Jesus has been teaching me in the last few years is that like improvement in sport, running a successful business, or becoming a virtuoso on the violin, spiritual growth is not accidental—it comes about by deliberate and intentional practice, through God’s grace.

Author: steeres

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