Why Practise? – by Ross McWilliam

19 September, 2017

If you have talent or natural ability, there is no need to practise. Furthermore, if you have to practise something, then you’re obviously not talented!

How many people have heard this saying – and how many actually believe it? My view is that practising is crucial, as it helps you to find out how good you can be. I say this because I have been an advocate of growth mindsets and practising all my life (well, at least after my catastrophic exam failure at the age of 16), but the evidence in favour of practising is also overwhelming!

Researchers in this field of talent v. practice, such as Matthew Syed (Bounce, 2011), Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code, 2010) and Geoff Colvin (Talent Is Overrated, 2008) recount countless anecdotes in which the pursuit of success is based on a great work ethic, purposeful practice and learning from failure. Carol Dweck (Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, 2012) identifies the growth mindset component of effort (or practice) as the catalyst which activates talent. She points to empirical data that suggest she is correct, especially when this effort is linked to good support and resilience, especially in young children.

Many brain researchers state that the brain can adapt and grow throughout our lives – a process known as plasticity. Given that the brain has up to 200 billion neurones (nerve cells that transmit messages around our body), then this might well be where success is grown over time.

In 2011 Jason Moser, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, identified a ‘pre-amplitude’ mechanism that helps to explain why having a growth mindset helps you cope better with making mistakes. One of the biggest barriers to developing a growth mindset is encountering and dealing with failure – searching out solutions and refining actions, rather than lazily closing off potential solutions. This searching and refining – this solution specificity – is the epitome of practising.

So how do we practise?
It depends whether you want to become good at passing exams, playing a sport, playing a musical instrument, giving a public speech, writing a blog, or whether you want to become a memory champion.

Have you ever heard someone say ‘My memory is shocking’ or ‘I can remember faces but not names’? Saying this shows you have a fixed mindset: that you think a poor memory is etched in stone from day one.

We have known for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years, that our memory can be improved with specific practice. Simonides of Ceos, the Greek poet, identified the method of loci, in which he could remember people in a house by remembering where they sat. We also know that, over time, with practice we can systematically associate words, feelings, smells and emotions to jolt our memory into an almost perfect recall function.

The hippocampus (the part of our brain responsible for conscious memory) and corpus striatum (the part of our brain that deals with unconscious or habitual memory) hold the key to this memory – but it is the amygdala that is the emotional seat of memory and learning. Neuroscientist Andrew Curran (The Little Book of Big Stuff about the Brain, 2008) confirms that engaging learning, being motivated, and getting closer to our goals produces waves of dopamine (the reward hormone) which enable us to learn – and it is even produced in anticipation of a reward! So, if remembering is engaging and fun, rather than being rote, boring and unrelatable, more dopamine will be released, which will aid memory. The same principle applies in all forms of learning and practice.

Knowing how you learn best (i.e. your favoured learning style), along with time management and organisation, will also help you to understand how you practise best.

So, by blending motivation, organisation, learning styles and emotion, we can create the ideal environment for success. Jay Cross, a former world memory champion, invented the Power Hour: in this you spend 20 minutes learning, followed by 5 minutes testing that you have remembered what you learned and then take a break for 5 minutes. Repeat to complete the hour.

With sport, all the above factors are important (especially the functioning of corpus striatum) plus the specificity of performance, where specific desired movements are replicated over and over again. This can then be linked into the audience effect (amygdala) to cope with the emotional pressure of performance.

Finally, experiencing failure may be what you need in order to achieve success. Just ask Richard Branson (who said you might have to lose your money many times before you achieve sustained wealth), or J.K. Rowling, who has talked about the benefits of failure.

Key messages
• Practising activates talent – especially when it involves appropriate learning styles.
• Our brains are plastic, and can be ‘grown’ and made more efficient, especially in younger people, by building natural learning habits.
• Motivation and emotional learning are crucial to improving memory.
• Practising should be purposeful, to mimic either performance criteria or specific learning pathways.
• Learning from errors is necessary in order to make progress.

About the Author

Ross McWilliam, BA Hons, MSc, PGCE, LCSP, CMI Level 7

A former teacher specialising in PE, computing, emotional and behavioural difficulties and SEN, Ross has a passion for self-development. He has faced many physical and emotional health challenges (face and body acne scarring, knee and ankle reconstruction, panic attacks and associated stress disorders), and these experiences have given him a clear insight into the development of young people and professionals in today’s results-based world of high expectations. Ross is a firm believer that everyone can reach their potential in life by finding their talents. When you find one talent, you generally find another nearby – it’s just a case of working hard and smart.

Ross works with groups on specific interventions based around self-esteem, resilience, growth mindsets, emotional confidence, staff motivation, behaviour management, pupil and staff well-being/mental health, communication and presentation skills, team-building and performance techniques.

He can also deliver training to large groups, with a combination of keynote speaking and active learning. Ross has published eight books on mindsets, writes regularly for various educational and performance journals and magazines, and has been described by Professor Barry Hymer as having a ‘classic growth mindset’ – Ross is taking a doctorate at the age of 56!

To find out how you can bring Ross into your school to deliver a quality training day, call 01790 755 783 today.

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