Very few of us can pick up a complex task and ace it the first time we try it. Take typing. In all the years I taught it, I never had a single student sit down at the keyboard and type 60-70 words a minute their first time.
Not long ago a writing friend of mine asked me to explain how I learned to write. I told her, “I wrote.” To which she replied, “Well, yeah, but I mean how did you LEARN to write.” Again I said, “I wrote.” Journals, poems, short stories, articles, news stories, feature stories, novels. If it involved putting words together on paper, I did it.
It sounds simple but terribly time consuming. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if there was just a formula you could give someone? Anyone new at anything wants to be able to do it like a pro the first time out. We all want to be able to play the guitar like Keith Urban or basketball like Lebron James. But the reality is that even Keith Urban didn’t play that way the first time he picked up a guitar. Same with Mr. James. Sure, they had some innate talent, but what they had more than that was so much desire to do it well that they were willing to do what is in everybody’s grasp—practice.
The first time I learned this rule, I was in fifth grade. The girls in my hometown were famous statewide because they made it to and won the State Championships regularly in basketball. So, we all got to learn basketball whether we wanted to or not. Now, fortunately I was from a very small school, so our coach in the fifth grade was the same coach who steered the high school teams to these State Championships. I will forever be grateful for what I learned from him. In short, I learned the value of practice.
We didn’t start by shooting at the goal. No, we started by learning where to put our hands on the basketball and where to put our feet on the floor. We “shot” with no ball at least a few hundred times at the beginning of each practice session. Then we practiced shooting an actual basketball into the air. Then we shot to each other. And when I say practice, I mean just that. Thousands of times set your hands, set your feet, down, up, follow through the air—to your partner who then went through the same procedure.
In the high school ranks, the girls on the team were required to make 2,000 free throws before the season began. At the time it seemed excessive. Now I understand. When you stand on that line and make 2,000 free throws and then make countless more during practices, by the time you step on that line with a gym-full of people yelling at you and the game on the line, your body knows what to do automatically.
Ask any good pianist, typist, cook, designer, soccer player… Ask anyone who is at the top of any game how they got there, and you will hear one refrain over and over even if it only echoes in their statements: They practiced. They came before everyone else, they concentrated on learning to do each step not just right but perfect while the actual practice was going, and they stayed after regular practice to work more. Top students spend hours reading and studying. Their success is no mystery. They practiced.
And the lesson transfers so easily to every area of our lives. Want to be more patient? Practice patience in the small situations so you’ll be ready in the big situations. Want to be a better friend? Practice it. Want your kids to say “Please” and “Thank you”? Then they must practice it.
That’s the key. It may take 2,000 times, but if the desire is there, proficiency will follow. I can’t play basketball to save my life (too afraid of the other players on the court), but I can shoot the most beautiful set-shot and the most beautiful jump shot you’ve ever seen. Why?
Because I practiced.
Copyright 2005, Staci Stallings