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Episode 172: Play, Progress, and Plateaus

Video Highlights

- The value of play.
- The reality of flow.
- The challenge of deliberate practice.

This week we’re going to talk about playing, progress, and plateaus.

If you’ve been around Z-Health for any period of time, you know that we talk a lot about the development of skill. A lot of this work comes from a gentleman named Ericsson, and it was popularized in a couple of different books, Talent Is Overrated and The Talent Code. There’s a lot of discussion around the world about what deep or deliberate practice means, and how we use it to improve ourselves, whether it’s at our work or in a sports skill or athletic event.

One of the things I want to talk about is the idea that deliberate practice is supposed to come after you know what you want to be good at. This is one of the most confusing aspects of deliberate practice, and I run into it all the time.

Three weeks ago I was in Denmark teaching in our level 3 class, which is called S-phase, which is what we call The Fundamentals of Athleticism. In that class we work on sprint technique, and a lot of field movement technique, and sports vision, a lot of cool stuff. In that class I talk about deep and deliberate practice and how to become really good at something. Because when you look at elite athletes, usually they’ve spent 10 to 20 years learning their sport, and they continue to evolve over time.

In that class one of the participants at one point just had this offhand comment of, “Man, deliberate practice is so boring.” That actually led me to this reminder that very often, people that find deliberate practice, or deep practice, boring don’t understand it, or more importantly they haven’t figured out what they want to be good at yet.

What I want to talk about today is this continuum that we use in Z-Health, because for the general population, people that are just interested in having anywhere, any time, any what fitness, deliberate practice often is the last thing that you need to be focused on. Because deliberate practice is designed to make you better at something that’s really important to you. Because you have to have internal motivation and internal drive to really want to improve it.

If I’m a golfer, and that’s my focus, and I love golf, I want to learn how to deliberately practice golf. If I don’t know what I like, it’s much more important to go through a process.

What we talk a lot about is this idea of play. There’s a great book out there called Play, and I recommend that you read it at some point. It’s one of the things that we find vastly lacking in adults. Most of us, as adults, we don’t play, we don’t really try new things very often, because we’re intimidated, we’re embarrassed by our lack of skill, but really, in order to figure out what you like in life, you need to play. Play is designed to be fun, you’re supposed to be able to lose yourself in it.

How that translates, really, in the general fitness world, is that you need to experience different training modalities. If you are heavily into bodybuilding or power lifting, and you do a lot of linear movement, may play for you could be picking up a kettle bell, getting some classes, and using a kettle bell, or a club bell, or a steel mace, or something where there’s a lot more circular demands. You need to find ways to have novelty in your training to actually figure out what you like.

Once you figure out what you like, you can then move into the next two levels of training, flow and deep practice. Flow is a really big word out there, lots of people are talking about it. Red Bull actually has their Flow Performance Institute that they’re building because they talk a lot about extreme athletes and this zone that they get into so that they can perform at a really high level. One of the things that they think that they’ve figured out is that flow occurs when you’re working about 4% above your current capacity. Whatever you’re good at, go just 4% above that, right at the edge of your talent, edge of your ability, and you can get into that mental state where everything falls away, and all that you’re focused on is what you’re doing.

Most people who’ve been in sports and continue to stay in sports have had at least one or two flow experience in their life, an we’re always trying to get back to it.

The issue that we run into with that is that flow is supposed to occur, like I said, in this kind of zone, or range, where we’re right at the edge of our abilities, and for most people it comes when we’re competing. Whenever we’re playing against somebody else, especially someone that’s a little better than us, or we’re on a ski run that’s just a little bit above our current capacity, that’s a great place to experience low.

Once you have gone through that play to figure out what you like, you’ve had some cool competitive experiences, and get excited about it, now you’re actually arranged, mentally, to start the deep practice process.

I said at the start today I wanted to talk about play, progress, and plateaus. Most of the people that I work with, they feel like they’re not making progress very often in their training, or that they’ve plateaued in their training. When I work with them, very often what I find is that they’re seeking flow all the time. They’re always like, “I want to just practice in how to feel awesome all the time.” The fact is, deep or deliberate practice that makes you better is completely different than the feeling of flow. If you look up here, flow, 4% above your current capacity; deep practice, 40 to 50% error rate, or failure rate.

Whenever you’re engaged in deep practice to become good at something you have to do it slow, you have to do it in a way that’s very challenging, that’s very hard, so that your brain can understand the small, significant differences that separate the amateur from the elite.

If you’re thinking about your training, you’re bored, you’re frustrated, you’re like, “Aw, I’m stuck here,” number one, you may not actually like what you’re doing. If that’s the case, I’m encouraging you, try some new things. Find a coach, find someone that can take you through new training environments, novel training stimulus, new games, new sports, because there may be something out there that you’ve been thinking about doing, and you’ve never tried, that could completely change the way that you approach working your body.

The biggest impediment to play is fear, and I want you to understand that it takes courage and boldness as an adult to go out and go, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to have fun anyway. I’m going to try this and get engaged with it.”

Like I said, if you find yourself in that spot, “I’m stuck, I’ve plateaued in my training,” recognize also that very often, once you’ve gotten good at something, you try and do it in a flow state all the time. If you try to constantly work in that flow state, that will actually pull you away from the idea of deep practice. This is, like I said, a continuum that we teach, and that we have used with tremendous success, and what I want you to realize is that, if all you ever want to do is play, that’s okay too.

Flow and deliberate practice are really reserved for people who are competitive, who are wanting to improve at something, and if all that you want is anywhere, any-time, any-what fitness, work with someone that can give you a really novel training environment, making sure that you don’t get hurt, and that’s going to give you an amazing ability to adapt to anything that you choose to do in your life.

If you have any questions like this, please let me know. Otherwise, good luck in your training, and I hope this helps you bust some of those plateaus.

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