Practice makes permanent


Who Larry Gelwix is or was I have no idea – but he was right.  Practice makes permanent – it habituates.  Here’s another one –


Aristotle said that, but as you’ll see below, John Shedden said it first!

I was reading an interesting article about a study that was done at the University of Texas on practicing habits.  The goal of the study was to determine which, if any, practicing habits did the top performers exhibit?

The subject of study happened to be music, but the principles apply universally because in reality the subject of the study was “the study of practice”.

In this particular case, if you were to put 17 very high level musicians in a position where they have to learn something and play it well the next day, what things to the best players have in common at the end?  What they did was to give all of them two difficult pieces to learn, and then observe their practicing habits, and identified what differed between the musicians who did better and the musicians who didn’t.

Many of the elements which proved to be key to effective practice, seem to me to apply equally well to skiing as to playing a musical instrument.

The single most important element of a truly effective approach to your practice, that will lead to eventual mastery of the activity is —-

“IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO IT, DO IT RIGHT”.  (There’s a song about that).  This is not as trite an observation as it might at first appear.

The key this is –  don’t play it wrongly.  In the case of skiing, do not repeat errors.  Remember practice does not make perfect; it makes permanent.

Find errors quickly and correct them, do everything you can to not repeat them.  Slow down when you have to so as to not make the mistake, do the hard things over and over until you don’t make the mistake anymore.  Go slowly enough so that the mistake doesn’t occur.

When you find yourself at a point in your development where progress seems slow and laborious; when you’re at a sticking-point and nothing seems to be progressing stick with it.  Our graphs of improvement are never straight lines, they climb in a saw-tooth line, sometimes steeply and sometimes shallowly.  The person next to you may be improving on this bit faster than you, but rest assured they will have their sticky bits too.

Every time you repeat something wrongly it gives your brain an option.  All our physical activities are associated with and run by pathways of neurons in our brains.  These are what form autonomic habituated behaviours in the end.  So every time you repeat an error you practice that behaviour, burn-in the neural pathway more solidly and create the bad habit you don’t want.  It is entirely wrong to suggest that “what you need to do is get the miles in”.

John Shedden years ago said “Humans get good at what they do”.  When I first came across him I thought this was a pretty obvious thing to say, but I’ve since come to appreciate that it is highly significant.  It is very meaningful.  If what you do is the wrong thing to do, you will get good at it.  You don’t want your brain any option except correct.

I come across examples of this every single day I am on the slopes with pupils.  Very often the behaviours a skier will manifest and which are visibly impeding their progress, are mental thinking patterns.  These are no different, they still require the firing-off of a pathway of neurons.  And my pupils have very often become extremely adept at doing them – “Oh, I’ve made another mistake, I’m hopeless”.  “Oh, I’ll never be any good at this”.  “Oh, well that just confirms what I already believe – I’m just no good”.  And so on ad nauseam.

The key is to develop a non-value-judgemental ability to immediately notice when you make a mistake.  Do not repeat it, don’t keep going. Stop, find it, fix it, and then continue. Do NOT start over and ignore it.  This may well require finding a shallower slope,  better snow,  skiing more slowly,  getting away from the crowds,  having a quiet coffee and coming back out with a different mindset.  All sorts of things;  anything in fact other than just ploughing on in the hope that it will change.  It won’t, it will become habituated.

If progress is a bit slow, what difference does it make?  Why does it have to be quick?  It’s like rushing to overtake the car in front so you can get behind the 10mph tractor half a mile ahead, before he does.  Progress will not be at one constant rate.  It’s more interesting this way.


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