The Rossetti Brothers

Roger Federer at the Australian Open displaying a high level of skill. (c) Pintrest Michael Dodge

“The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with concentration for two hours than to practice eight without.” ~Leopold Auer

The amount of learning versus the duration of your learning is different depending upon the way that you learn. 

As it relates to imagery and visualization in skill attainment, you can’t argue with that fact that imagery helps athletic performance but specifically, what is the best way to conduct imagery. Using all of your senses to Imagine your performance, rather than just use your eyes to see your performance is more effective. There are two types of imagery: Imagining what the task physically feels like when performing it (kinesthetic imagery) and seeing yourself performing the task (visual imagery).

So imagery (rather than just visualization) is the best method but what specifically do you imagine. See yourself doing the entire performance the way that you intend it to be. Rather than focus on only one skill set, focus on imagining the entire performance. Make sure to add in obstacles and distractions. In preparing for our 2015 Guinness World Record™ on Roger Federer’s birthday, I would tell my brother and anyone who interviewed me about my training that “if Elvis walked into the room I would calmly say to myself …. ‘there’s Elvis…that’s nice…stay focused.” In other words, imagining distractions and how I would handle them was part of my visualization. Another one was, if we were a couple of shots away from winning the 1$ million for charity, ‘that’s nice…keep going…stay focused.’

Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist, Julliard alumnus and faculty member, who teaches how to beat performance anxiety and play music best under pressure, references a March 2015 study from Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

If you do the same skill over and over in a short period of time you will pick it up faster. But, like the expression “easy come, easy go”, this type of learning disappears the quickest. However, if you mentally rehearse multiple segments of your performance, a truer representation of real competition, practice becomes more difficult and takes longer to learn but ultimately will stick with you longer.

Kageyama says “We know from research on physical practice, that there are ways of structuring our practice (like blocked practice) that lead to faster skill acquisition – or a faster rate of improvement during the practice session itself. But at a cost to how much of our improvements we retain from one practice session to the next.

Conversely, there are other ways of practicing (like variable practice, or interleaved practice) that slow down our rate of skill acquisition during practice – but lead to far less forgetting or skill decay from one practice session to the next. And ultimately, more durable learning .”

In training for both of our records, we orchestrated practices much more demanding than the actual records. In our 2008 record, we practiced over a higher net – double the height in fact. That way when the day came to do the actual rally it seemed easier. When fatigue set in our ball height lowered but we still cleared the net. In the 2016 record, we trained without eating or drinking and rallied throughout the middle of the night. We also trained at a higher rate of speed and broke our previous record in practice purposely to gain the confidence of knowing we can do it not just thinking we can.

Remember to make your practice more difficult than reality while also doing the same with your imagery and mental preparation and you will increase the retention of your learning. Knowing why you are practicing a certain way rather than practicing without a purpose is the equivalent to teaching a starving person to fish for a lifetime rather than giving that person a fish for the moment.

Make practices harder, make achievements easier.