Why do some people progress faster in skill acquisition than others? Is it genetic, or is there something we can do to acquire skills faster? A performance journal is one tool that will put you on the auto-bon of skill acquisition.
About two years ago the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym I was training at moved locations to a place that was too far for my bike commute. I waved good-bye to the community I had come to know and love and joined a new gym that was within striking distance. My first day I was getting outmaneuvered, out-done, and felt like a neophyte. I was taking night classes at the time and was only able to attend Jiu-Jitsu practice 1-2 times per week. There were many nights when I would bike home thinking I should demote myself to white-belt so I could start fresh again, or maybe the sport wasn’t for me. Night classes ended, my schedule freed up, and I began getting back to 3 Jiu-Jitsu practices per week. Things were about to change. I started writing down before practice “what’s one thing that would make tonight successful?”, then I would focus on that one tiny aspect of my game. After class instead of sulking about my failures I would replay my victories in my mind and develop a game plan for specific opponent’s I would face. All of a sudden I was beating (some) of the people who were dominating previous fights, and, even when I would still lose, I would give the opponent’s who still beat me a better fight. One day my professor and I were walking out of the gym together and he said, “I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden you got a lot better.”
A performance journal, should you use it, will help you go from the vague idea of getting better by showing up to laser focus on what you need to do. This introduction will teach you why you should use a performance journal, how to use it, and then provide a framework for you to actually fill out on your journey.
Why Keep A Performance Journal?
There will be three major benefits you will realize once using your performance journal: more purpose/focus in your development, documentation of your progress, and the ability to identify your own blind spots.
The performance journal intensifies your development by helping you move from, what Anders Ericsson calls, naïve practice to purposeful practice. Naïve practice is the accumulation of repetitions with the vague goal of “getting better”; this works for the beginning stages of development but levels off once someone reaches the level of “acceptable”. Purposeful practice is defined by having well defined goals, a feedback loop, pushing the participant out of their comfort zone, and being focused [Ericsson, Peak, pg 15]. The performance journal will help facilitate purposeful practice, but it is up to you to be focused on the task at hand during your practice session; it is hard to improve if your mind is wondering. In fact, it is better to have a shorter practice session where your mind is acutely focused than to have a longer practice where your mind is wandering. Put another way, by Kobe Bryant, “It is not about the number of hours you practice, it’s about the number of hours your mind is present during the practice.” If you find your mind wandering, start by decreasing your practice time and slowly progress overtime until you reach the upper limit of your ability to focus. You can also improve your ability to focus by reading, undistracted, for long periods of time, meditating, and embracing boredom without novel stimuli (i.e. stand in the grocery store line without checking your phone).
Documentation of progress.
There was a defining moment in my fitness journey. I have been consistently exercising since 2007; nearly everyone sees tremendous progress when they start out – especially when you are a growing teenager. However, by 2012 I seem to have been hitting a plateau in my progress. Then, on my summer break in 2013, I was working out next to an extremely fit middle-aged man at one of the local gyms in my hometown. He struck up a conversation with me. In this short exchange the man sold me on the importance of tracking my sets, reps, and weights instead of trying to keep it in my head going into each week. That moment changed my physique, my strength, and my general approach to everything.
I’ve had similar defining moments. Before and after I started tracking business ideas. Before and after I started recording jiu-jitsu progress.
Documentation of progress not only accelerates your journey because it encourages you to push yourself, it also keeps you motivated as it gives you the perspective you need to see how far you have come.
Identify and obliterate blind spots
The gold standard of practice, deliberate practice, requires a coach who, amongst other things, will push you beyond your comfort zone to try things just beyond your capabilities while also offering feedback to monitor progress, point out problems, and offer potential solutions.
In the absence of a coach, the next best solution is using your performance journal. You will be able to push yourself out of your comfort zone by setting an intentional area you need to practice before each session, and you will be able to identify blind spots via the after action report. The after action report is where you will reinforce what was working well, and perform a “solution analysis” by writing down where you can improve. With the internet we now have the library of Alexandria 10x at our fingertips, chances are high that if you notice where you can improve in your after action report, the internet can help you find your solution.
Two Additional Considerations To Accelerate Development: Mindset and Sleep
Listen to any professional speak about performance and you will eventually discover they have some process to keep their mindset sharp. Lanny Bassham, Olympic Champion in shooting and author of “With Winning In Mind”, believes your performance comes down to a blend between your conscious effort, subconscious skills, and self-image. The practices discussed in this section will enhance subconscious skill development and, most importantly, help you develop a self-image that says it is “like you” to win.
Note: the next section will discuss ways to train your mindset. Please understand that this needs to happen in addition to, not in place of, purposeful practice 3-5 days a week if you are trying to become great.
Rehearsal, often referred to as visualization, has been shown to strengthen the neural pathways used when actually performing the task. Put another way, rehearsing a task in detail in your mind will improve your skills even when you are not practicing. This is important because this powerful tool is free for everyone to use and can be done on a regular basis to improve your skill. Furthermore, if you are mentally rehearsing the performance of your skill your mind “sees” you doing well which improves your self-image, reinforcing the idea you have of yourself that it is “like you” to do well. When you try mentally rehearsing your skill, think through and visualize the steps you are executing and, this part is important for the self-image, feel the attitude you want to embody.
While rehearsal can help with skill development, tools such as reinforcement and affirmations can help you stay motivated, sharpen focus, and improve your self image. Reinforcement is the simple act of recalling what went well during a practice session and/or competition and believing you are the type of person who does these things well; this is in contrast to focusing on what went wrong. You should be able to find some good in every practice session. An affirmation such as “I am a great public speaker” or “I am the hardest working [insert what you do] in the room” spoken in the present tense will also help you to stay motivated and improve your self-image.
Sleep, Dr. Matthew Walker argues in his book “Why We Sleep”, is the foundation for which the other pillars of health rest upon. Sleep has wide ranging health implications from impacting your chances of developing cancer through to effecting depression and anxiety. It is a keystone habit for both short and long term health and overall performance. Here we will briefly focus on sleep and its impact on the brain when it comes to skill acquisition.
The hippocampus is a part of the brain that, amongst other functions, is used to store short-term memories. The hippocampus does have limited space. During sleep memories are transferred from the hippocampus to the cortex of the brain for long term storage. A study done by Dr. Walker and his team showed that participants who took a 90 minute nap after an intense learning session showed a 20% learning advantage in the second learning session of the day compared to their non-napping counterparts. If you are practicing twice a day you could benefit from a nap before your second practice. Sleep the night before practice ensures your short-term memory bank is cleared and ready for the next day.
Dr. Walker also notes that sleep that comes after learning plays a critical role; effectively hitting the “save” button on the newly created files created during the day. One study done in 1924 by John Jenkins and Karl Dallenbach tested recall of verbal facts on participants who were either a) awake for 8 hours after learning the fact or b) asleep for 8 hours after learning. The results, as you might guess, strongly favors the group who got a full night’s rest after learning the new information. One way to take advantage of the consolidation effect sleep has on your memories is by reviewing your learning experiences of the day before you wind down for bed, when you wake up in the morning your brain will have worked on consolidating the specific memories you have triggered.
It turns out that sleep’s impact after learning goes beyond memory fact-based learning, but also plays a pivotal role in skill-based learning. To showcase this point we will pull from an anecdote in Dr. Walker’s Why We Sleep, “As a pianist, I have an experience that seems far too frequent to be chance. I will be practicing a particular piece, even late into the evening, and I cannot seem to master it. Often, I make the same mistake at the same place in a particular movement. I go to bed frustrated. But when I wake up the next morning and sit back down at the piano, I can just play perfectly.” This set Dr. Walker in a new research direction for the next few years trying to answer the question, is it “practice makes perfect” or “practice with sleep makes perfect”? His research revealed that, yes, practice with sleep plays a critical role in motor skill development. There is more to this answer. The final discovery he and his team made on this topic was in regards to the type of sleep responsible for motor skill development: stage 2 NREM sleep. This stage of sleep is back loaded into the last two hours of an eight hour sleep cycle. All that to say, if you want to maximize your learning and development you need to get your full eight hours of sleep. Not only will this improve performance while speeding up skill acquisition, it will also prevent injuries.