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Teaching your Kids: Practice, Practice, Practice

If you have kids who tend to give up on something if they can't master it in the first few tries, this story is for you.

At a very young age, Emma Sartini learned the value of practice—repeated, monotonous practice. It's the kind that's difficult for even a focused adult to endure, much less a child. And it's served her well ever since.

Emma started taking gymnastics lessons at the age of four and continued for thirteen years. And if your experience with gymnastics is watching the Olympics, you're used to watching people make it look easy. But it's not. In fact, consider the very first move you're likely to see any time someone competes in the uneven bars: the kip. The kip is the standard mounting technique used by experienced gymnasts to start their routines. You'd recognize it immediately if you saw it. The gymnast jumps from the floor to grab the high bar and swings her feet up, so she's hanging upside down with her legs pointing straight up. Then, in what looks like complete disregard for the laws of physics, she flips her body upright so that she's now right side up with her torso over the bar, ready to move into her routine.

But even though it's considered one of the basic skills, the kip is one of the most difficult to learn. When you start learning, you can't even begin to do it. So you have to practice separate components of the move individually before putting them together. Emma started learning to kip when she was seven years old. She was daunted by such a difficult move, but her coach assured her that she could and would learn it. "If it takes a thousand tries, you'll get it. Muscle memory will take over, and you'll do it."

Well, over the next year and a half, Emma practiced three times a week for three or four hours at a time. Not all of that time was dedicated to learning the kip, but much of it was. All told, she surely did practice those moves a thousand times or more. But eventually, she got it.

Imagine that. More than a year of effort, two hundred-plus practice sessions, and well over a thousand attempts, all to learn a single maneuver that takes less than three seconds to perform. If it took that much effort to learn to ride a bicycle, there'd be a lot more kids walking to school. But the truth is that many important things in life do require that kind of repetition and practice to master. And if you don't have persistence, you'll never be any good. So developing that grit at a young age turned out to be an even more important skill for Emma later in life than learning to kip.

In fact, after high school, Emma entered the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. As an aspiring designer, one of the skills she had to learn was drawing. But it wasn't the kind of drawing you learned in grade school. As Emma explains, "In design, drawing isn't the same as art. In art, you learn to draw what's in front of you: a person or still life basket of apples. In design, you're imagining something that doesn't exist today and drawing what it could look like." That, as it turned out, required practice—a lot of practice. Fortunately, Emma was well practiced at practicing.

So, in one typical class, the students were asked to imagine a chair. Any chair. And then draw it. Then imagine that chair from a different angle. Now draw it again. Now think of another chair and draw it. And again. And again. Over the course of two weeks, Emma had to draw three hundred pictures of chairs. Now imagine repeating this exercise multiple times a semester over the course of a four-year degree. By graduation, Emma had completed several thousand drawings, enough to make her gymnastics teacher proud. And, as it turns out, enough to land a great job as a designer.

Even today, as a professional designer, Emma recognizes the continued value of the practice. After a recent promotion, she had to master the new skill of writing a design brief, a document that lays out the objective, parameters, and budget for a new project. It can take her days to craft a single page of that brief today. But her boss, with fifteen years of experience, can knock one out in an hour or two. With practice, Emma could get that proficient someday too. And she will. Because what Emma knows better than most is how to practice.

Okay, share this story with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Have you ever done anything a thousand times? What was it?

  2. What skill or sport are you the best at? About how many times have you done it?

  3. What skill are you the worst at? About how many times have you tried it?

  4. How good do you think you would be at it if you did it as many times as the thing you're really good at?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about the value of focusing on the current task and not getting too distracted with what comes after that.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith