I have said it before, and I will say it again: “Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” That has always been my favorite teaching aphorism, and I use it often. (See my September 2009 column, “Winning Beats Losing Every Time.”) However, I did not know how right I was until recently.
I had basically overdosed on riding theory and needed some new reading material that was not directly horse-related. Fortunately, I discovered Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (hereafter Gladwell), Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (hereafter Colvin) and a groundbreaking scientific study, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” conducted by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer, all from Florida State University (hereafter Ericsson et al).
My day job is helping horses and riders to maximize their potential, and I am interested in anything that can help me to help them. All these works resonated with me, and I want to share some of the things I learned from them.
Bad News, Good News
First, let’s get the bad news out of the way: If you don’t work at your riding, you are not going to get any better. Simple as that. However, I prefer to think of it positively: If you work hard, you can get better. How much better you get is up to you. I am not going to lie; you are not going to be wearing a new Rolex any time soon if you think practicing just a little more often and just a little smarter is all it will take to propel you to stardom. What I can tell you is that we now have a much better idea of what it takes to improve performance. What modern scientists have found out about elite performers may surprise you.
The money quote for me in Ericsson et al was, “The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a lifelong period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” When you distill the scientific jargon into everyday English, these authors are saying the harder you work, the better you get, if you remember to work harder at getting better. In all this scientific information, you cannot lose sight of the central fact: Hard work (effort) alone is not enough. You must combine hard work with smart work (deliberate practice), if you truly want to become an expert.
Gladwell famously writes about the concept of 10,000 hours of practice necessary to acquire mastery in any discipline, and Colvin notes that no one becomes “great without at least ten years of very hard preparation.” Colvin goes on to speak of three “zones” of learning—the comfort zone, the learning zone and the panic zone. Briefly, we all know where our comfort zone is in the saddle. For example, you have been jumping 3-foot obstacles for long enough to feel comfortable. When your coach raises the jump to 3-foot-3, you enter your learning zone, because you still are capable, but you are no longer as competent as you were a moment ago. And if you suddenly raise the jump to 4 feet … panic! Your horse might jump 4 feet easily, but it is too far outside your learning zone for it to be beneficial for you to attempt. A good coach can keep you at the upper limits of your learning zone on a continual basis.
Knowledge + Practice = Improvement
All this scientific stuff is great, but how exactly does it apply to us? First, it identifies the main factor for success: hard work, or what the scientists call “deliberate practice.” This is important because there are seemingly so many things that stand between where we are now and where we would like to be in five years. Horse sports are twice as difficult as other sports because there are two of you, and your four-legged friend is expensive. This means you are probably going to have to work to support your habit, and it means you will need to be very disciplined about your life if you want to fit in a job in the real world with your dreams.
OK, so now what? Now we get to work. But before we start, we need to revisit riding theory. I have always maintained that practice without knowledge is merely exercise, and I am in good company in thinking this. In 1733, François Robichon de la Guérinière, inventor of the shoulder-in, flying change and counter-canter, said, “Without theory, the practice will always be uncertain.” Modern performance scientists refer to this as “domain knowledge,” meaning knowledge of your field of study, whether in business, art or sport. Basically, the more you know, the better you are going to be. The increasing use of video and widespread availability (both online and in print) of training articles makes more information available to more and more people, yet many fail to put this knowledge to work.