Why practice doesn’t make ‘perfect’

This is a message that I have disputed for as long as I can remember. I’m not saying that there is no point in practicing or that you will never gain anything from it or get to where you want to be, because of course, that isn’t true. It’s just that I remember being taught a somewhat more realistic and meaningful expression.

Years and years ago when I was doing karate, my instructor sat us down, and explained to us why the notion of practice makes perfect isn’t perfect in itself. She instead insisted on:

“Practice makes permanent”.

For the record, yes this is more so aimed at skill acquisition and physical, kinetic movement related things rather than social situations. But this totally makes sense to me.

If you practice something over and over again in the same way, are you getting better at it? Are you getting closer to ‘perfection’? Maybe, but just as likely, maybe not. The one thing that you could say for certain that is increasing the more you practice is consistency.

Effectively, the method in which you execute something becomes more and more embedded in you, eventually that becomes the default way of doing something (muscle memory for anyone who has read up about that). This applies to both good and bad habits though. If you keep training something with those bad habits and keep training in the same way, these undesired aspects will become just as permanent too. Everything gets more consistent.

So with that being said, there an infinite number of examples I could call upon to help illustrate these messages, let’s start off with learning a handstand. I’m pretty sure for most people the end goal is not to do one single ‘perfect handstand’, but it is to be able to do them on command and to do it well with no issues. So as you practice this, you will find that you need to make adjustments each time until you have the desired outcome. Finding the technique that works for you and making that consistent.

So one of the real problems with the expression “Practice makes perfect” is of course the word perfect. In my eyes I only try use it in a mathematical sense. For example, “he scored 10/10 on the test, it was a perfect score”. Because “perfection” in a real life, applied sense is immensely subjective and we could be here for hours debating what it is as a concept.

In fact, the sport I do and is dear to my heart exemplifies the uniqueness of how one should be practicing perfectly: Freestyle Football.

More than just tricks with a football, there is an aesthetic appeal to how they are carried out. Sky is the limit, but how they want to be incorporated and executed is down to the individual. But now you see how that notion of ‘perfection’ varies from one individual to the next.

Which leads me on to my last point of feedback. How we learn and adjust our practice. Sticking with freestyle football again as the context, let’s use a classic hypothetical scenario:

Freestyler A and Freestyler B are same age height, weight etc and both begin to learn freestyle football at the same time. Freestyler A however, is locked in a room, cut off from the outside world and no exposure to other people’s freestyle or methods of training. How would you expect the two freestylers freestyle to differ?

In sport psychology we refer to two types of feedback, the first is sensory feedback which is intrinsic to the individual and includes aspects like how it feels kicking a ball, visually, auditory, muscles, everything. The second is augmented feedback. This is external to the individual and comes from things such as a coach giving advice. Or anything that adds to what a person already feels. “You were leaning back too much on that last free kick”. So what does this footballer do? He internalises this and consciously will try not to lean back as much.

So in my slightly unethical hypothetical scenario with the freestylers, freestyler A has no augmented feedback. He/she has nobody to point out observations or anything, everything that he does and the way he trains will all stem from his own perceptions and feelings. Freestyler B however has access to this. Even just seeing others execute a trick in a certain way gives freestyler B a visual template of what is possible. Freestyler A will no doubt have to find and adjust on his own terms, the good and the bad aspects will stick regardless no doubt.

Because one freestyler has exposure to the outside world and can see others do as he does, then down to the finest detail he is given an idea of what to aim for. Is that perfection? Because you haven’t been shown something in a better way than that? See how the influence of others can make us practice something very differently than if we were left to learn on our own. How do we tell right from wrong? A false sense of perfection can surely exist here.

In summary, introspectively, one should be very aware and conscious of their training regimes and fine details. Especially if they want to irradicate undesired aspects and make the ‘perfect’ aspects permanent. When you practice, I don’t believe you are getting closer to being perfect, your execution and retention of a skill just becomes more fixed how you wanted it to be.

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