Apart from sports that favor physical traits, almost anyone can achieve the highest levels of performance with smart practice, Daniel Goleman suggests in Focus. Smart practice always includes a feedback loop that lets you recognize errors and correct them –– this is why dancers use mirrors. Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye. If you practice without feedback, you don’t get top ranks. The feedback and the concentration matter –– not just the hours.
Learning how to improve any skill requires top-down focus. Neuroplasticity, the strengthening of old brain circuits and building of new ones for a skill we are practicing, requires our paying attention.
Daydreaming defeats practice; those who browse TV while working out will never reach top ranks. Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing. At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don’t need to think about it –– you can do the routine well enough on automatic.
Focused attention, like a strained muscle, gets fatigued. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist, found world-class competitors –– whether weight lifters, pianists or a dog-sled team –– tend to limit arduous practice to about four hours a day. Rest and restoring physical and mental energy get built into their training regimen. They seek to push themselves and their bodies to the max, but not so much that their focus gets diminished in the practice session. Optimal practice maintains optimal concentration.
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