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How to Get Better at Anything

Winter Olympic Rings

How to Get Better at Anything
(Hint, You need to debunk a myth)

By Shane Sauer

As someone who enjoys a variety of sports and other activities, I was really impressed by the story of 2018 Winter Olympian Ester Ledecka from the Czech Republic.

Ester Ledecka, favorite for the slalom in snowboarding couldn't believe she won gold in skiing!

Ester Ledecka, favorite for the slalom in snowboarding couldn't believe she won gold in skiing!

Ester medaled in two totally separate events: snowboarding and skiing.  Ester’s main sport is snowboarding and she took home a gold medal in the Snowboard Slalom.  She also won a surprise gold medal in the Women’s Giant Ski Slalom—by 0.01s!! Ester is clearly a superb athlete to perform so well against world-class competition. But her story holds lessons for all of us and might help debunk a longstanding myth about athletic training.

The 10,000-hour rule was introduced by Anders Ericsson in the 1990s. Ericsson’s theory suggests that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to reach an elite level of skill. (Obviously, if you’re not looking to be elite, it takes a lot less.)

Let’s be generous and say that Ester practiced skiing about 20 hours per week. At that rate, it would take her 500 weeks (almost 10 years) to reach 10,000 hours in that one sport alone. At age 23, it’s highly unlikely that she has dedicated that much time to both skiing and snowboarding. So, what gives? 

The key, I believe, is that Ester has great fundamentals. Many sports and activities require similar skill sets. There are foundational movement patterns that show up across many different sports, activities, and in everyday life. Once you have developed these foundational skills, you can then apply them to a variety of new activities.  Dedicating time early on and periodically reviewing these foundational skills allows you to shortcut the 10,000-hour process and bridge the gap between activities. Not to mention, good fundamentals will also help reduce your risk of injury.

Here are the most powerful suggestions I’ve found for improving your skills in any activity. Remember, while “activity” includes sports, it also includes any other skill you might want to develop: music, language, brewing beer, knitting, etc.

  1. Have an explicit goal – There are two parts to this. First, you need an overall goal (also known as a reason why) to have the necessary drive to do the work. Second, you’ll need a goal for each training session to create the focus your brain needs to learn the skills. So, before you even start trying to improve, come up with your reason “why.”  At every training session, take a moment to think about what you want to achieve that day.
  2. Be present – Nowadays, we hear these words all the time. But that doesn’t make them any less true, especially when you are trying to gain a new skill. To learn new things, your brain and nervous system have to build new structures. This takes a lot of energy.  Your body can only create those new structures if you’re being deliberate and present when you practice. “Going through the motions” doesn’t create the stress needed to make the body change.
  3. Change Speeds – Most of us like to jump in and train at a comfortable pace because it’s easy and more natural. But, there is a lot more learning that takes place when moving slowly. It gives you the time to identify errors and correct them. It’s also important to train fast, to push your limits and know your capabilities.
  4. Be Brave – To improve, you have to work outside of your comfort zone and make mistakes. You also need to get feedback. Whether this comes from a coach, teacher, or a video camera, be open to constructive criticism and be willing to apply it in your next training session.
  5. Persevere – Doing steps 2-4 above is hard and, I won’t sugar coat it—sometimes you are going to be frustrated. Recognize that frustration is natural and temporary. If you do the work, the improvements will come.

So, even if you aren’t headed to the Olympics, I bet there are things you’d like to learn or skills you hope to improve. Sit down and identify what’s important to you. Create a plan or reach out to someone who can help you make one. Be sure to take some time early on to work on your fundamentals. Remember that often times, “less is more” because it affords you the ability to stay focused and gives you more time for recovery.

Most important of all, have fun!!