What Jerry Rice Can Teach Us All

August 10, 2010

This past Saturday the great wide receiver Jerry Rice was inducted into the National Football League’s Hall of Fame. Rice’s career credentials are staggering: He caught 1,549 career passes—400 passes more than anyone else. He holds both the career total yard record of 22,895 yards gained as well as the touchdown record of 208.

If you think stellar talent explains the accomplishments of Jerry Rice, you would be wrong. On the contrary, Rice’s career teaches a truth that many find uncomfortable—as important as talent is, the willingness to put in long hours of often grueling practice is an essential element of success. His career helps us to understand another often observed phenomenon—much heralded prospects in a sport underachieve, while athletes that fly under the radar frequently become superstars.

In high school Rice received not one scholarship offer from a Division I-A football school. His only scholarship offer was from Mississippi Valley State University, a Division 1-AA school, which he attended. While Rice clearly had natural athletic talent, important components of ability, such as his speed, were not exceptional. Rice’s world class talent came from his discipline to practice. For example, his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.

Psychologist Anders Eriksson has found that in every occupation—from the sciences to medicine to music and sports—there are no examples of extraordinary performers who have not put in at least 10,000 hours of what Ericsson calls deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is not mere practice, but involves identifying and working on the weakest parts of your game. For example, if you are a musician, it is not just putting in the time playing a piece over and over again. Instead it involves listening to your playing, identifying the weak points in your music-making, and then working on improving those.

In football, there are many potential superstars having talent. But talent is not enough, and mere practice is not enough—after all, few athletes at the college or pro levels skip required drills. Instead it is the willingness to undergo, over many years, difficult and sustain training at the very edge of one’s abilities. Often, someone who is told very early in his career that he is a gifted natural is unwilling and/or unable to have the discipline needed to succeed at the highest levels.

At his induction to the Hall of Fame Rice observed this:

I was afraid to fail. The fear of failure is the engine that has driven me my entire life. The reason they never caught me from behind is because I ran scared. People always are surprised how insecure I was. The doubts, the struggles, is who I am. I wonder if I would have been as successful without them.

In other words, Rice worked harder than anybody else because he doubted his own abilities. Rice’s own example and the research by both Anders Eriksson and Carol Dweck strongly call into the question the common belief that a child’s self-esteem is boosted by praising a child for their performance even when praise is not warranted. Instead of praising performance, Dweck suggests that regardless of how talented a child is, we should be encouraging and praising effort. Praise of effort allows a child to work on and explore their talents without being crippled by a fear of failure.

Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.“ In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk describes one of the many experiments conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck asked 400 seventh graders to complete an easy set of problems. After completing the easy problems, the students were separated into two groups. One group was told, “You must be smart at this.” The other group was told, “You must have really worked hard.” Then Dweck asked each student to select one of two follow-up sets of puzzles: an easy set of puzzles or a much harder set of puzzles. Over half of the children praised for being smart selected the easy puzzles, but over 90% of the children praised for hard work selected the more difficult puzzles. Dweck explains the results—once we are praised for our ability we often shun challenges that may reveal that our ability is not as great as we or others thought. In contrast, an emphasis on effort encourages us to have the discipline to develop our ability.

In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes observing Hans Jensen who some consider the world’s best cello teacher. Coyle observed Jensen teaching several students and then asked Jensen to say which students were more talented and had more potential. The answer, Coyle thought, was clear; but Jensen didn’t see it that way. Jenson replied, “It’s difficult to say. When I teach, I give everyone everything. What happens after that, who can know?”

Indeed, who can know who will be the great achievers of the current generation? Jerry Rice’s great career demonstrates exactly that point. However, there is something we do know about the current fad among parents and educators:  Praising outcomes to enhance self-esteem may be nipping many a young talent in the bud.


Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

January 15, 2009

By now, many have begun to break their heartfelt New Year’s resolutions. They may believe that, if they are dieting, they are the unfortunate victim of bad genes. If they are trying a new exercise regime, they may attribute their failure to their busy schedule. If they are trying to improve their relationships with their teenage children, they may attribute their failures (sarcastically) to “everyone knows how teenagers are.” If they are trying to learn a new skill, they may claim that they are slow learners. The excuses are endless; the real power behind a resolution is always the same—hard work and a change of heart. Success rarely comes easily.

When you hear the name Mozart what do you think of? Most people think of a great musical genius who had gifts that were apparent at a very early age. They think of a genius who had to do very little to develop his gifts. Many believe that Mozart was a scribe writing down music that was “dictated” to him. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin points out that these are myths. Consider this statement supposedly written by Mozart in a letter.

All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once…. When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory, if I may use that phrase, what has previously been collected into it, in the way I have mentioned. For this reason, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

The only problem is that almost all scholars of music history agree that this letter is a forgery; written by Mozart’s publisher Friedrich Rochlitz and designed to enhance Mozart’s reputation.  As Colvin points out, “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was continually revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.” Simply, “he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.” Mozart was no Mozart!

But didn’t Mozart begin to compose at a very young age? Doesn’t that indicate that Mozart was different? Colvin points out that his father Leopold, an accomplished musician himself, corrected his son’s manuscripts, and that Mozart’s early compositions were arrangements of works by others. Mozart went through 18 years of very rigorous training before, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first composition that is generally considered a masterpiece.

Colvin’s book is fascinating because he reports on a provocative thesis developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson—namely, most of our success in life is not the result of an innate talent, but it is a result of what is called deliberate practice.  Once we understand what deliberate practice is we begin to understand why better performance for most individuals does not get better simply by experience. Deliberate practice is not mere experience; and very importantly, it is not practicing what we are already good at.

Ericsson found, for instance, that skaters who had aspirations for the Olympics would deliberately practice those aspects of their skating game where their skills were the weakest. On the other hand, other amateurs would focus on what they were already good at; and they spent a great deal of their time at the rink socializing and not really practicing at all.

Deliberate practice is not easy; that is why it is the road less traveled. It requires focus and concentration—often this work is not fun. According to Colvin “deliberate practice requires that one identifies certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.” Such a practice stretches us beyond our current comfort zone. Many of us don’t place ourselves in this learning zone—we are happy just maintaining the level of performance that brought us to the position we are in.

Choosing deliberate practice takes commitment. In the world of sports, some athletes stand out not because of their talent level, however high it is, but because of their commitment to deliberate practice which in their profession may be grueling. Former National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice is considered by most to be the greatest of all time at his position. However, it was not his physicals skills that were extraordinary-many others exceeded him in important categories like speed. What was extraordinary about Rice was his training regime which was so demanding that few came close to emulating it.  For example, Rice was not the fastest on the field, but his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.

Back to our New Year’s resolutions. Trouble speaking to your teenage son? You may need to learn new skills, and you may need a change of heart. You’re going to have to practice some things that you haven’t done before.

New diet? Same thing. If you rely upon your taste buds, which have become accustomed to processed foods, to eat natural foods may be a deliberate practice for you.

Exercise?  You may have to cancel your cable television subscription and feel the discomfort of doing so. You may have to suck wind the first time that you jog up a hill.

Lots of things seem impossible from where we stand today. We can make the impossible possible with deliberate practice.

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