Play versus practice for diverse natural movement

In looking for ways to fill my day with diverse natural movement, one tactic I keep seeing suggested is play. It’s a compelling idea. More play will likely boost both the diversity of movement (because play is like that) and the quantity of movement (because play is fun).

I’ve been hesitating, because I already struggle to balance my desire for diversity with the worry that maximizing diversity will make it hard to improve any of the many things I want to improve at. I worry that play will put a heavy thumb on that balance, toward diversity and away from focus.

It’s a big deal, because we know how to get good at something: deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson in a 1993 paper that I’ve talked about before. (For reference: Deliberate practice is a cycle of performing your skill, monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and then figuring out how to do it better.)

One of the points that Ericsson makes in that paper is that deliberate practice is very different from other activities like work and play:

Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

I will grant Ericsson his point in the case of work: If you’re getting paid, you’re probably not going to be creating opportunities to focus on the areas of your performance that are most in need of improvement; rather, you’ll try to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve mastered, so you can produce your best work as quickly as possible.

In the case of play, however, I beg to differ. Or rather, I observe that when Ericsson provides examples of “play” in the paper, he’s mostly talking about competitive and especially team-oriented play. Just like with work, the conditions—trying to win, trying not to let your team down—similarly incentivize arranging things to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve already mastered.

Serious competitive play is only one kind of play, though. There’s a lot of play that is only notionally competitive, as well as play that’s explicitly cooperative. These other sorts of play are at least as common as serious competitive play.

In my experience, these other sorts of play are full of deliberate practice.

I once saw a kid trying to jump a skateboard onto a low wall. In the time it took me to walk past (a minute or two), the kid repeatedly rolled his skateboard in a big loop tangent to the wall, attempted to make the jump, failed, and set up to try again. I don’t know how long he was going at it before I arrived or after I left, but I’ve rarely seen a more perfect example of deliberate practice: He was performing his skill, monitoring his performance, trying to figure out how to do it better, and then trying again.

In my experience, play involving a group people of various skills levels very often includes specific instruction and specific encouragement for the less-skilled players to learn and then practice a new skill. “You don’t know how to do a vault? Well, here’s one way. Try it a few times.”

So, I think I’m going to quit hesitating to emphasize “play” as a way to fit more, and more various, natural movement into my day. Like that kid on the skateboard, I’ll try to include some deliberate practice in my play. Of course, I still have my essential quandary: How do I thread the needle between focusing on one or a few things without losing the diversity? But that’s a problem for another day. My play can include as much focus as I choose to include.

Practice

Years ago, my dad pointed me to the seminal article by K. Anders Ericsson The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. From 1993, it’s the ur-text for all the later popularizers of the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something.

Of course, if you read the actual article, that’s not what it says at all. What it says is that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to acquire expert performance.

A friend of mine once objected strenuously to Ericsson’s term “deliberate practice,” on the grounds that we already have a perfectly good term for this set of activities: practice. If you weren’t doing what Ericsson called deliberate practice—if you weren’t monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and trying to figure out how to do it better—then you weren’t practicing, you were just dicking around.

That being the case, you will not be surprised to learn that there was nothing new for me in Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence. If, on the other hand, you have fallen into the popularizer’s trap, and started to imagine that spending 10,000 hours dicking around with something would make you an expert, there may be quite a bit for you to learn.

Having dug up my copy of the original paper and looked through it again was I was writing this post, I’m glad I did. It’s a great paper, and it’s good to be reminded of what practice really is.

I often figure that the time I spend writing is practice for getting better at writing—and sometimes it is. Sometimes I do monitor my performance, evaluate my success, and try to write a sentence or paragraph better. But, of course, that’s not the fun part. The fun part of writing is when you get immersed in the world of the story and the words just flow effortlessly—and any thought of monitoring, evaluating, and improving is deferred to some future editing phase.

And, unsurprisingly, Ericsson was there ahead of me:

Recent analyses of inherent enjoyment in adults reveal an enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Similarly, analyses of reported “peak experiences” in sports reveal an enjoyable state of effortless mastery and execution of an activity (Ravizza, 1984). This state of diffused attention is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action.

In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.

Yeah. Exactly.

And yet, there can be a certain kind of enjoyment in practice.

When I’m writing and I’m not in flow state, but rather am struggling—trying over and over again to get something right—that’s practice. And, granted, that’s not much fun—except that pretty often I do manage to get something just right. (Or at least, get something that’s better than I can do on an average day.) That’s fun.

It is perhaps even more obvious in my taiji practice, especially the qigong practice, where we do simpler moves than the movements of the taiji form, and where we do the same move over and over again. Those exercises are (or at least can be) practice. Doing the same movement a dozen times, watching how the instructor does it, trying to match his form—that’s practice. Creating a small variation with a goal of improving some specific aspect—that’s practice. And yet, it can be fun, too, if approached with a playful attitude. (Today I tried to do some of my single-leg standing practice with my eyes closed. I picked the easiest of the various single-leg standing exercises that we do, and still wasn’t very successful—I almost toppled over a couple of times. But it was amusing in a way—and in the course of just a few minutes, I became perceptibly better at standing on one leg with my eyes closed. That was fun.)

Practice. It’s not just for getting to Carnegie Hall.

On doing what comes easily to other people

Here’s Marissa Lingen with one of those ideas that ought to be obvious, and yet is so very much not-obvious in practice that I’m very glad she wrote about it.

When her critiquers suggested that her books needed more setting, she made a plan for including more setting:

Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like.

A great idea for adding description, but also a great idea for adding anything that you tend to under-write—because it is so much harder to add this sort of thing in later, when you’ve already got carefully crafted paragraphs, each one leading to the next, beginning with a great opening image and ending with a nice little cliffhanger.

And however great this idea is, much greater is her insight that people who are naturally good at something usually have no idea how someone who is not naturally good at it can get better.

I learned that fairly early, with my difficulties learning how to spell. Teachers tried putting me next to people who were good at spelling, in the hopes that their spelling skills would somehow rub off on me. This did not work at all, because people who are naturally good at spelling have no idea how to get better at spelling. (People who are naturally good at spelling tend to be people who see words in their head and then can just read off the letters and write them down. Since I can’t do that, I had to come up with a completely different way to get (barely adequately) good at spelling.)

I’m always on the lookout for people who do well things they aren’t naturally good at. They’re often hard to spot. (Spend thousands of hours honing your craft, and you too can look like someone who’s naturally good at something.) But there are clues—such as earlier works where the author or artist wasn’t as good, and works where some aspects are crafted like a masterpiece, while other aspects show merely a journeyman’s skill. Those are the people who might have some insight into how they got better.

With this sort of thing, it’s always useful to put it in terms of KA Ericsson’s model for the acquisition of expert performance. Just practice isn’t enough to get better at something—you also need to monitor your performance and evaluate your success—with help, such as a critique group, when possible. Then you need to figure out how to do it better—which Marissa’s post is a perfect worked example of.