Practice what matters most


When it comes to practice, my mind reverberates with a few key quotes. Vince Lombardi, possibly the greatest coach in football history said, “Only perfect practice makes perfect.” But how can I practice perfectly in an imperfect world? His words, as profound as they are, have draped like an albatross around my neck for years. Perfection is difficult to see. Excellence is another story —  I can see my way to excellence. Perfection? Not so much.

Next, I consider Michael Jordan’s comment. He said, “You can shoot eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, all you become is good at shooting the wrong way.” Jordan emphasizes technique and addressing specific shortcomings to positively impact performance. You don’t need to do everything perfectly, just improve certain things.

Lastly, I think of psychologist and researcher Daniel Goleman. “Practice is an act of focusing.” I get that. And since focus is not an unlimited commodity, we must decide first what to focus on in order to practice.

Part 1: Decide what to focus on

There is a now-classic video of basketball players that you need to be familiar with to see how focus works in your brain.

Spoiler alert: Watch this video before you proceed, even if you’ve seen it before.

Dan Simons, PhD, has updated the original video with some subtle changes. Did you see the player leaving and the curtain changing color? If you knew the gorilla was coming, did you miss other things?

Research with eye-tracking monitors reveal that nearly 90 percent of people look at the gorilla, but 50 percent don’t “see” it. They weren’t focused on it. When it comes to identifying what to practice, we are too often unaware of what we’re missing. The simple reason for this is that we don’t see everything. Without objective help to identify what we need to practice, we are likely to miss critical opportunities for improvement.

Enlist outside help and create a list of practicable things, prioritized by greatest need. A list of 30 changes will bury you. Start with the top three and go after the easiest to accomplish to get a win under your belt. Then chunk them out one by one.

Part 2: How to practice

Create a distraction-free environment. Rid yourself of unnecessary diversions such as mobile phones, coworkers, customers, home repairs, family, workouts, ego, etc. It’s difficult, but if you’re constantly interrupted or you don’t park your ego at the door, your results will suffer. By focusing on one thing, we are naturally not focused on something else and you want to be focused while you practice.

Oliver Sacks, author of “Musicophilia,” notes, “The combination of mental and physical practice leads to greater performance improvement than does physical practice alone.” In other words, don’t just walk through the presentation in your head or go through the motions without thinking about it. Set up the projector, stand up and deliver the presentation to an observer. If you can, record it.

Your observer should be someone you trust to be honest and who is familiar with your situation. Hiring a coach is ideal. A clear view to what’s working and what’s not will lead to better practice. Repeating errors in practice can lead to bad habits.

Once you’ve got a list of improvements to make, get back on the horse and keep riding. By adopting a growth mindset, one that values improvement over the status quo, practice gets easier. With a growth mindset, practice becomes a disciplined step in the journey toward excellence.

Excellent practice, not perfect practice.

Online Bonus Content: 3 tips on practicing from the experts plus quotes to consider when it comes to practice

Tim Houlihan is an evangelist of applied behavioral economics with more than 25 years of experience in product development, training, sales leadership and marketing strategy. His consultancy is based on authentic, empathetic and insightful business partnership to help clients ask the next question. Tim can be reached at