Think back to being a young child, and learning to ride a bike for the first time. From the second you hopped on the seat, were you good at it? Or did you swerve or maybe even fall before you could successfully ride down the street? Is the old saying “practice makes perfect” really true?
Recent research has shown that practice plays a huge role in developing skills. But not all practice is created equal. A special type of skill building called “Deep Practice” has been proven to develop talent far more effectively than other methods. Deep Practice consists of stretching yourself just outside your comfort zone, stopping and reflecting when errors occur, making adjustments, and continuing this process over time.
Deep Practice can apply to a wide variety of skills – from hitting a baseball, to playing guitar, to delegating a task to an employee. We’ll first explore how Deep Practice works and the principles behind this technique. Then we’ll discuss how this applies to developing fundamental skills as a manager in the workplace.
Neurons, Myelin, and Deep Practice
To understand Deep Practice, we must first look at the composition of our brain. Neurons are the basic working unit of the brain, a specialized cell designed to transmit information to other nerve cells, muscles, and gland cells. In order to complete any task, your brain must have the appropriate neurons and synapses firing.
As Daniel Coyle states in his transformative book, The Talent Code, “Every human movement, thought or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers. Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed and accuracy. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”
In other words, just as lifting weights increases muscle mass, continual use of certain neural pathways makes them stronger, thus enhancing specific skills. To revise the old saying, “practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” Myelin is best grown through targeted practice that pushes the boundaries of our skills and focuses on mistakes. As we optimize the task we are trying to complete, over time the task becomes more natural and easily performed.
Wrapping myelin doesn't always reinforce our good skills though. It reinforces whatever we do the most. This is why it’s important to learn skills the correct way, and when we make a mistake go back, start over and correct it in small digestible chunks.
Deep Practice proposes that practice is important, but quality of your practice plays the biggest role in determining outcomes. In his book, Coyle breaks down the three main principles of successful Deep Practice.
Three Rules of Deep Practice
Rule 1: Chunk It Up
Whether it’s learning to ride a bike, play a new song or manage and communicate to your team at the office, start by looking at the task as a whole. Watch a positive example of the task being done well. Observe the task, study it intently, and imitate. Then break the larger task into smaller steps or “chunks.”
Work slowly, practicing each step, fixing any mistakes or bumps in the road. Do this repeatedly until you’re comfortable with the individual steps. Then try tying them together. Move to faster or more complex variations over time to work toward mastery.
Rule 2: Repeat It
Rule 3: Learn to Feel It
When you’re first learning to ride a bike and you wobble, the skill feels “off” to you. When the skill feels “off,” you must have the discipline to go back and correct it, and try it again to fix your mistake. Also be aware of when the skill feels right and repeat that.
With an understanding of the key elements Deep Practice, how can we apply this in the workplace? How can you effectively and efficiently grow your job-related skills? Next, we’ll look at how new managers can develop critical and fundamental management skills by leveraging Deep Practice.
Applying Deep Practice in a New Manager Role
Think back to when you first were learning to ride a bike. You likely didn’t just hop on and go; someone probably demonstrated the process for you first. You might have had training wheels so you could learn to keep your balance. As we discovered earlier, the first rule of Deep Practice is observing the task or skill and then breaking it into smaller steps, so you can imitate it.
Frequently, situations arise on the job that are difficult for a new manager to navigate without any prior examples or experience. It’s like trying to ride a bike without ever seeing a good demonstration. Having a proven framework that individuals can observe and use to model their own behavior is critical.
Practical management skills should be divided into smaller steps. Learning and getting comfortable with each “chunk” helps to facilitate the Deep Practice process. For example, breaking a coaching conversation into five simple stages helps managers practice and perfect each stage. With short scenarios, it’s easy to work a little outside your comfort zone and be attuned to elements you need to improve.
Repetition is the second rule of deep practice and also vital for developing skills as a new manager. Having the right kind of practice builds myelin more effectively. Repeating this practice over time strengthens the signal so the skill becomes second nature.
Finally, getting feedback and correcting your approach fosters learning. As managers practice a coaching conversation, there will always be areas that can be improved. Recognizing these opportunities and then practicing again will help to engrain the skill and ensure it’s ultimately used back on the job.
Being a new manager is difficult. The management role usually requires being able to communicate, lead, coach, give feedback, delegate, discipline, develop goals, and resolve conflicts. The skills required to succeed as a manager are often never demonstrated (and also rarely practiced properly).
Training and Developing Management Skills
Just like learning to ride a bike, if you don’t have a correct example to watch, or a well-structured practice environment, it’s very hard to build skills. We constantly see the repercussions of companies that fail to properly teach managers essential skills – it can be manifested in high employee turnover, low employee engagement, and unsatisfactory job execution.
Leadership training is essential to give new managers the tools they need to deal with difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable workplace situations. Knowing how to communicate with your employees, how to properly delegate, and resolve conflicts (to name a few management skills) are critical for the overall success of the organization.
Vital Learning’s Leadership Essential skills series provides managers an opportunity to watch, learn, practice skills, make mistakes and correct them. Skill practice is built in from the very beginning of the classroom, online, and blended solutions, and is used throughout the process and continued over time. Our learning by doing approach, or Deep Practice, helps managers effectively engrain skills so they’re actually used back on the job.
Talk to us if you’d like to learn more about Deep Practice and Vital Learning’s proven approach.