Most people who work out and try to eat well hope to graduate quickly to advanced exercise and nutrition strategies. But these usually backfire. Here’s why it happens. Plus two strategies (deliberate practice and stress inoculation training) for faster progress.
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For ten years I thought I knew how to surf.
Okay, I wasn’t exactly Duke Kahanamoku. But I pursued my love of the sport, taking surf trips through Mexico, New Zealand, the US and Costa Rica.
The only problem was… I didn’t really know what I was doing.
I’d certainly received enough lessons over the years. But the advice—stuff like, “When you feel the wave, just stand up!” and “Try to balance better!”—never seemed to help much.
My progress over the years wasn’t great. I wasn’t even sure how to tell my bad habits from the good ones.
I had worked my way into surfing bigger waves, and falling a little less often, but I felt like I was just getting better at doing something poorly.
And then I went to surf school. (The world’s best surf school, mind you.)
In just one week of direct and purposeful instruction at the surf school, I transformed my surfing ability.
After ten years of muddling through, my surfing skills were transformed in a matter of days.
But that’s not all. I also learned some powerful lessons that can apply to almost anything—especially health and fitness.
My two greatest lessons:
- “Just do it” isn’t enough.
- In order to get better at something, you need a system. More specifically, you need something called deliberate practice.
These lessons can help anyone who is trying to improve their fitness, health or nutrition habits.
And they can help anyone who is trying to get better at being a coach.
Let’s dive in.
How to “learn” exercise and nutrition.
Trying to get into better shape, or eat healthier, is much like learning to surf.
There are waves of conflicting information hitting you from all sides. Other people seem to have “the secret” that you don’t. You fall down a lot.
You’re never sure what you should be focusing on or if you’re doing it wrong.
And most importantly: without expert guidance and a good system, you’re going to waste a lot of time and build bad habits.
A beginner falling off a surfboard doesn’t necessarily know why it happened. Or what to do differently next time.
An exerciser whose back hurts after several months of her workouts, or who hasn’t gotten any more fit from his last program, doesn’t necessarily know why that is either, nor what to do about it.
Someone trying to lose weight or “eat healthy” without a clear plan, feedback, or guidance may feel like they “fall down”, over and over and over, face first.
In all of these scenarios, just practicing “more” can actually do more harm than good.
But deliberate practice, whether in the gym, in the kitchen, or life in general, can dramatically improve your progress, faster.
What is deliberate practice? I’ll explain in a moment. But first, let’s understand the context around when and where you might need it.
The three stages of skill development.
Learning to do anything—whether it’s eat better, ride a motorcycle or do backflips—is really just a matter of developing the right skills.
And learning a skill happens along a continuum, loosely defined by three stages.
Stage 1: Slow and conscious
Think back to when you learned to type.
At first, you were in hunt-and-peck mode, going letter by letter. Learning was slow, conscious and took up almost all of your attention. You made big mistakes, often. You could only focus on one thing at a time, like finding the damn semicolon.
Stage 2: Getting a feel for it
After a while, you could start to tap out entire words and sentences at once, instead of thinking letter by letter. You got faster and more accurate. Your mistakes were fewer and smaller.
You didn’t have to think so much. Instead, you started to get a “feel” for things. When you hit the wrong letter, you could often sense it before you saw it on the screen.
Stage 3: Intuitive instinct
If you kept working on your typing, eventually you didn’t have to work at it, or even think about it. You could just do it.
Letters flowed from your fingers smoothly and you didn’t even have to look where they were. You could type while listening to music, or maybe even having a conversation.
You’re now at the place of “good enough”.
When “good enough”… isn’t.
Now let’s imagine you don’t need to be a typing master. You just need to be good enough.
You’re happy there, at “reasonably decent”. Things are relatively easy.
Here’s the important thing to know: Getting better from that stage forward will take active work.
You won’t become an awesome typist by accident.
You’ll just be… OK.
The research term for “good enough” is theory of par or tolerance. It’s the level of performance that most people are content to meet, but not exceed.
And it’s almost always less than they’re actually capable of.
Now, there’s nothing bad about “good enough”. Unless you do, in fact, want to get better.
This is where deliberate practice comes in.
If you do an activity over and over, you’ll get good at it, up to a point.
Past that point, simply adding more practice won’t help. (Consider how many people are lousy drivers, even if they’ve been driving for decades.)
To get better, your practice has to be deliberate. It has to have a goal and ongoing feedback.
In surfing, that’s the difference between “just getting out on the board”, and surfing while trying to refine a specific skill, like a carving turn.
In the gym, it’s the difference between knocking out the reps and moving on, and paying attention to something like how your spine is positioned during a squat.
As a coach, it’s the difference between telling someone to “suck less” or “just do it,” and giving them a specific, strategic action to focus on next.
Getting better means getting worse… briefly
There’s a catch to deliberate practice, though:
You have to allow yourself to suck for a while.
Because to learn past “good enough”, you have to regress back down to levels where things become more conscious again. In other words, the level where you’re not good enough anymore.
A lot of our clients struggle with this. If they’ve got some knowledge about working out or “eating healthy”, it’s hard for them to regress.
“I’m already good enough,” they protest. “Give me something advanced.”
Nobody wants to feel like they’ve been knocked down to Remedial Vegetable Eating or Bench Press 101. But—apparently paradoxically—that’s where they have to go in order to truly graduate to truly advanced exercise and nutrition strategies.
The “deliberate” part of “deliberate” practice is essential.
If we’re not paying attention to what we’re doing, don’t really know why we’re doing it, or we don’t know how well we did it, we don’t improve. Stuff is just random noise.
Conversely, when we purposely try something, observe how well it worked, adjust with awareness, and try again, we learn. We learn faster, and better.
With this conscious, goal-driven feedback loop, we get a deeper, more intuitive “feel for things” rather than thinking about them.
We’re able to see differently, like a carpenter who notices a doorframe is crooked without having to measure it. We make smarter decisions with less information, and ignore distractions.
In turn, this process of consciously developing a “feel for things” helps our brains get even better at learning new things.
Thus, experts’ instinct and ability to respond with seemingly superhuman speed and accuracy isn’t magical.
It’s simply the result of deliberate practice.
The Lego blocks of skill development
So how do we put deliberate practice into, well, practice?
Think about it as stacking a series of “Lego blocks.”
Learning is sequential. We build understanding and insight block by block, stacking one “Lego block” of learning on top of another, clicking them together to make connections.
In terms of movements, we build more complex movements out of “Lego blocks” of simpler movements, all stuck together.
When you learn a sport, you might drill each individual “Lego block”. Dribbling in basketball. Hip movement in grappling. Shuffling your feet in boxing. Serving in tennis.
In surfing, you’ll have to learn how to hold your board. How to lie on it as you paddle. Then, if you’re lucky, how to stand.
At first, it’s clumsy. The surfer’s mind is juggling foot, hip, hand, head and eye position, and learning what each of those pieces feel like.
With practice, those things become instinctive and happen more automatically.
This frees up the surfer’s mind so that they can add more pieces to the pattern, and start making the board actually do stuff.
How to vaccinate yourself from stress
Here’s another reason you need deliberate practice: stress.
Ever tried to do a familiar task when you were rushing and freaked out? You probably did it terribly.
Learning a skill can be challenging enough. Being able to recall it under stressful, real-world conditions (say, when getting knocked off a surfboard, or when your comfortable daily routine of exercise and nutrition habits gets disrupted) adds a whole new level of difficulty.
In general, stress tends to make us worse at things… unless we make stressful situations part of our deliberate practice.
We can do this with what’s called Stress Inoculation Training, or SIT.
You can think of SIT like a “stress vaccination”: a little bit of stress, released gradually and only in levels you can handle, eventually lets you deal with increasingly tough situations.
For instance, you might learn your first skills in a zero-stress environment, like sitting on the beach with your surfboard. You might practice holding the board, lying on it in the right spot, and even paddling on the sand.
Then, you add a little bit of stress: You go into the water. It might be a calm, waist-deep ocean. Or it might be a pool. Just a tiny bit of stress, to start with.
Then, you add a little more stress. Maybe you go out in chest-deep water. You get into bigger, faster waves.
Over and over, you add a little more stress, and a little more.
Eventually, of course, you’re ripping gnarly tubes during a solid swell. Or you’re staying true to your workout and nutrition habits even when your life is truly insane.
To make SIT work, you practice your skills deliberately, at a level that is just slightly challenging—you’re focused on the task at hand, but you’re almost always able to execute.
You want your mind and body to learn that a little stress is okay. All you do is change the definition of what “a little stress” is.
This is key: A vaccination is no good if it actually makes you violently ill. SIT is only effective when the student first masters their skills in a non-stressed environment. Every practice session should end in relative success.
Translation: don’t give yourself (or your clients) way more than you can handle at once. Assess your current positioning realistically. Decide what the next level of appropriate challenge (stress) would be, then go from there.
Resist the temptation to “level up”.
So, say we get “good enough” at the basics. This frees up our brain to try new stuff.
But that can actually be a problem.
If you’re “good enough” to just stand up on a surfboard, you’ll want to jump right away to trying other fancy things.
Remember, though, that standing up is the Lego block that controls all the other Lego blocks. If you never deliberately practice that basic skill of simply standing up—if you don’t get really, really good at it—you’ll never get really, really good at anything else.
Likewise, people who resist learning the basics because “basics are boring” often find that they “fall off the wagon” when their routine changes, or the normal stresses of life hit.
Their crucial “Lego block” of nutrition, exercise, and self-organization skills gets knocked out easily with even small challenges.
Ask yourself: how solid are your basics?
Can your “good enough” ability at the fundamentals be a lot better?
Say, continuing with your established nutrition habits but working on your consistency.
Or learning to incorporate rest and stress management practices into the mix, rather than loading up on more workouts.
Or helping a client perfect their pull-up form in exchange for fewer reps.
Your efforts might not seem as impressive to a layperson for example. (It feels more badass to bang out 20 so-so pull-ups than five good ones.)
But you know better.
You know that becoming an expert means not worrying about looking good, but instead, looking and feeling like a beginner.
By embracing being a beginner, you’re on your way to becoming a master.
What to do next
Clarify your purpose.
The best way to change a system is to alter its purpose. Are you exercising to punish yourself for yesterday’s ice cream? Or, are you exercising to improve something like physical performance or body composition? Workouts geared towards punishment become good at punishing. Workouts focused on improvement help make something better.
Identify the big skill you’re after.
Now that you know why you’re doing this thing, what is it? This could be a sport like surfing, or strength training, or eating healthy meals.
Break that skill down into its building blocks.
What are all the tiny components that make up this big skill? Look as deeply as you can here. Movement during exercise may start with the way you stand, walk and breathe (and those things are made up of other pieces). Healthy eating may start with your relationship with food, or something like eating slowly and mindfully.
Develop a system.
You can’t learn all these components at once, or even in a random order. You need a structure, a progression, and a source of feedback.
Practice, deliberately, in your zone of optimal challenge.
To develop a skill, you have to focus your attention on it and practice it deliberately, at a level of challenge that’s at the edge of your ability, but allows you to be generally successful while making and learning from small errors.
First, mastery. Then, stress.
Remember stress inoculation. Master the skill first in a non-stressed, low complexity environment, and then practice it with the heat turned up. Only add as much stress and complexity as you can while building on success.
Consider a coach.
Breaking a skill down into components, putting them into a system, assessing performance on each piece within that system and providing ongoing feedback and guidance is a big undertaking. It’s especially hard to do by yourself. This is why even great coaches hire other people to coach them.
Deliberate practice with Precision Nutrition
Want some help upgrading your skills?
At Precision Nutrition, we use the ideas outlined in this article in our coaching and certification programs.