Monday, March 12, 2012


Is solo practice the secret to achieving perfection?

I've recently been reading a book called Quiet by Susan Cain. It's about people like me. One passage in the book really got me thinking about my approach to Laser sailing...

It was about some work done by the research psychologist Anders Ericsson. Dr. Ericsson is interested in the question of how extraordinary achievers get be so great at what they do. He has looked for answers in fields as diverse as chess, tennis and music. As far as I know he hasn't studied Laser sailors (yet) but I think his research may be relevant to us too.

In a famous experiment he compared three groups of expert violinists at an elite music academy. The students were divided into the three groups based on their professors' assessments of their skills. It turned out that all three groups spent about the same time (over 50 hours a week) on music-related activities. But what was different about the best violinists was that they spent way more time practicing in solitude than the others. 24 hours a week compared to 9 hours a week for the least skilled group.

Ericcson and his colleagues found similar results among chess players and even elite athletes in team sports.

So what is so special about solitude?

Ericcson's theory is that it is only when you are alone that you can engage in what he calls Deliberate Practice, when you can work most effectively on the tasks that are just out of your reach, strive to improve your performance, monitor your own progress, and revise your practice sessions accordingly. It is best to practice alone because other people can be distracting and, when alone, you can fully concentrate on working deliberately in a focused way on the areas that you personally need to improve.

So how does this apply to Laser sailing? Well, of course, you need other sailors if you are going to work on things like boat-speed, how to create a gap on a crowded start line, tactics at busy mark roundings and so on. But if you want to improve aspects of boat-handling such as tacks and gybes, and acceleration at the start, and sheeting in and out quickly, and steering the optimum track around a mark, and managing your mainsheet so you don't get it tangled around your feet, and other stuff like that, Ericcson's work suggests that your best approach would be to go off on your own in your Laser, find a few buoys, and just work on each aspect of boat-handling until you have it perfected.

God knows there are plenty of basic boat-handling skills that I need to improve. After feedback from three excellent coaches in Menorca last September, Cabarete in January, and Florida in March, I have a long list of issues to address. Maybe this will be the year that I do some Deliberate Practice on my own and finally fix all those "issues"?

What do you think? Does this make any sense to you?


Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

This this post of yours quite possibly may become my 2nd most favorite post on sailing. My first was Antolin Rivera's Cheesecake, especially his next-to-last paragraph.

Tillerman said...

Thanks Doc. That's high praise indeed. Our friend Antolin has a way with words that I can never hope to emulate. Actually this post reminded me of Antolin's post about Solace which is also one of my favorite blog posts of all time.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Solace! That's the one I was looking for. Was in a hurry and couldn't find it.

Joe said...

Spot on, Tillerman. When you do things on your own, there are no distractions. Concentration, old man, concentration.

George A said...

tillerman: first, please excuse my left hand, single finger typing: yesterday after unloading my moth and cleaning up the gear after the moth mid-winter regatta down in gulfport (came in 2nd in my division), i decided to do some "deliberate practice" on my weak side moves for an upcoming figure skating test that is now postponed. i too have read ericsson's work on how one must practice the weaker elements of a given activity rather than just doing the easy, enjoyable ones. long story short--yesterday while practicing 7 step mohawk turns in my weak direction, i either touched blades together at speed (seldom ends well) or caught an edge (ditto). the result is a broken right radius (and a cast from fingers to elbow) which annoyingly will temporarily sideline me from both skating and dinghy racing! but ericsson is quite correct: one does not improve by avoiding the difficult skills and only practicing the enjoyable ones. what are my goals at age 65? do i expext to go to the Olympics in either discipline? no, i want merely to be a credible skater and racer, sort of like you with guitar playing. there is no joy in sloppy performance. at least the boat and gear got put away before i went skating! stay well and keep practicing "deliberately"!

Tillerman said...

Sorry to hear about your injury George. Hope it doesn't keep you from sailing too long. And congratulations on your 2nd place at the Moth Midwinter Intergalactics or whatever it was.

PeconicPuffin said...

Deliberate practice, for sure. Some people can do it in the presence of their friends and competitors, others (like me) are distracted. My best friend is able to completely ignore me when we sail together (insert joke) and practice whatever is on his mind.

Deliberate practice, particularly of things that might seem tedious.

George A said...

Thanks for the kind regards, Tillerman--hey looky, I can do caps left handed! Right now I'm "deliberately" reactivating long dormant brain circuitry for being left handed (I'm of the generation that got knuckles rapped if we used our left hands during penmanship class (do they even bother with penmanship now days?). So maybe the busted arm thing isn't all bad news. As an old priest once said: " Every knock's a boost laddie."

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