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Practice As You Mean To Play


You Play the way you Practice

I observed an interesting phenomenon (I think it qualifies as a phenomenon) that, on the one hand, really amused me, and on the other, frustrated me no end. It was in a workshop, and occurred when our facilitator used the two words every participant dreads… “role play”.


When we’re young and learning new skills at school, math for example, we get taught the theory, the teacher demonstrates how a problem is worked out and then we get given a couple of pages of homework to practice the concept just so we really understand it. In Singapore, this is taken the the Nth degree as you move through the ranks with dreaded “10-year series” practice exam papers, where you can practice ad nauseum the exams from the past 10 years, and beyond, from memory.


The same applies to playing sport, though in that arena it is often called ‘training’.

Skills, though, must be practiced to enable proficiency. In a previous life, I was a goalkicker in rugby and was relatively diligent about getting enough practice in. I’d often be at the field when I should’ve been in class (stay in school, kids), taking kicks from various spots to ensure that when the time came in a match, I could make the kick. My teammates will tell you that clearly, I didn’t practice enough!

Much as it is with a golf swing, with a goalkick you go through the same routine for every kick, whether it’s in front of the goals or out on the touchline. For me it was 4 steps back, 2.5 to the side, set myself, focus on where I was aiming, 3 breaths and… miss. Nonetheless, the routine was the same.


Kicking coaches around the world (much as golf coaches do) talk about ‘trusting the process’ of the kick. You train your muscles so even when you’re fatigued, the process is so ingrained in muscle memory that you have the belief to be able to do what you need to.


Circling back, then, to my initial epiphany around role-plays then…


Ever noticed how the minute someone gets asked to role-play a scenario, things get a little weird? More often than not people put on an odd tone, get all artificial and the backing soundtrack to all of this is nervous laughter. We (and I am deliberately grouping myself in this) also tend to get awkward and the interactions will inevitably include some social niceties that wouldn’t actually take place (to that extent) in a real-world situation.


Thing is… everyone does this, almost without exception. And as I walked around the room listening to what was going on, an old coach’s line came and hit me square between the eyes “practice as you mean to play”.


Aussie super-coach Wayne Bennett is credited with observing a Wallabies training run where they were running decoy runner plays and going off at the players because the decoys were running as decoys, not as if they might get the ball, which made it easy for the defender to know who the ball was going to (the only one who looked like he might get the pass). He talked about running with intent. Words to the effect of "you need to look as if you will be getting the ball, not just running a line for the sake of it, otherwise it won't work".


The same rule applies to practicing skills in a work context, be it a sales call, giving feedback, coaching or delivering a presentation. If you practice one way all the time, sure as night follows day, when it’s time to put practice into play, you’ll do it exactly the same way. So much as my goalkicking was flawed because of technique issues, if you practice inconsequential or flawed techniques, guess what's going to come to the fore when you are actually required to deliver that presentation?


From a work context, I’ve observed people who won’t acknowledge flaws in their technique and so don’t adjust what they do, leading to the same, inevitably disappointing, outcomes. This often gets amplified in a workshop setting – which, admittedly, can be intimidating and somewhat artificial. While facilitators will go out of their way to emphasise the “safe environment” to practice/role play, participants, ironically, exacerbate the artificial environment by putting it on.


The message here is simple: practice as you mean to play. Don’t create false parameters or interactions around your practice. It isn’t ‘role play’, you don’t have to pretend to be someone else. Be you. Commit to what you’re doing as practice and don’t be afraid to get it wrong – that’s what practice is for!


How much better is it for you, for your business, to be able to practice and hone your skills in as realistic a manner as possible, so that when it is time to deliver, you’re primed and ready?

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