Why don’t business people practice?

Sports and business are always compared. There are an endless number of analogies used every day – teams, winning and losing, star players, competitors, etc. The comparison holds, for the most part. Except for practice. Why?

Athletes at all levels know that they will need to practice their ass off to compete at the highest level. Daily images of athletes toiling away in the anonymity of the empty practice field or gym stream over the airwaves to us.

Jerry Rice, the All-Century NFL wide receiver, spent 97% of his football related time practicing. That means he only spent a paltry 3% of his football time playing in the games. That number is shocking, but not unreasonable. Think about all the time, over his career, that he put into drills, conditioning, and weight training. If you want extra color on his habits, James Clear did a great writeup on it.

I would be willing to bet that business professionals would be LUCKY to have the inverse time allocation. Based on my professional experience, people get the skills they need on the job. There are countless corporate training sessions, learning and development budgets, and other courses people can take outside of work. Learning net new skills appear to be the focus of the majority of those efforts. Such activities typically do not help people achieve mastery of a concept in the way that practice does. Your boss would be skeptical if you asked to spend 97% of your time taking courses and practicing new skills.

The daily grind for most people is a strange combination of practice and game experience. Think of the cheesy movie scene where the unexperienced backup gets called into the game and has no idea what they are doing. Hilarity ensues as the rookie flubs the first few plays, and loses the game. That is kind of what happens in business. There are a lot of euphemisms for it – ‘getting thrown in the deep end of the pool,’ ‘learning by doing,’ ‘failing fast,’ etc. In the movies, the rookie usually figures it out and comes out on top, but that is less likely to be the case in a professional setting.

Many studies (here, here, here) show the value of practice in helping people be more prepared, have more confidence, and perform at a higher level. Malcolm Gladwell made huge waves with his theory on 10,000 hours being required to achieve mastery.

This all raises a few questions for me:

  1. What is the appropriate amount of time to dedicate to learning and development (practice)?
    – More than you are doing now. It is probably reasonable to expect 10-20% of your time overall, but the more the better. If your culture is not one that promotes learning and development, you must be vigilant about finding and acting on such opportunities yourself. Without them, you will languish.
  2. Assuming you get more time to practice, how should you allocate that time to practicing and refining existing skills vs. obtaining new ones?
    – Take on a mastery mindset for this question. Until you have mastered (you’ll have to figure out how to define mastery for the skills you have) your existing skills, I would be hesitant to add on any new skills. Once you have confidence you are approaching mastery, it would be a good time to start engaging on a new skill once you have mastered the former.
  3. With limited practice time, how do you manage to get practice while playing in the game, so to speak?
    – Minimize your risk. Don’t use your best lead to do your pitch for the first time. Be thoughtful about how and where you practice, so as to minimize the commercial risk if you mess up. You can even practice outside of work to further minimize your risk, but a lot of people would not want to invest that amount of time. How bad do you want it, right?
  4. As a manager, how do you make sure that your people are setup to succeed?
    – Acknowledging this issue is a great first step. Encourage your people to invest in themselves and take trainings, first focused on mastery of current skills, then expanding to find new skills to develop. Coach them to minimize their risks when they are practicing (see #3). Be forgiving of the mistakes they may make practicing in the game, as long as they learn from it. For new employees, do a great job onboarding them and getting them up to speed with your business.
  5. Is there just a flaw in the analogy between business and sports, such that the experience of practice does not have the same impact in business as it does in athletics or other disciplines?
    – Probably. A study of the concept of 10,000 hours to mastery indicate that the impact of deliberate practice on professional outcomes is only 1%. Analogies are usually a bad way to mentally model something (use first principles instead), but it’s easy, so people do it. This is really no different – it works in some cases, but not entirely.

So what does this all mean? In business, practice can still have big benefits for yourself, your team, or your organization. It is an investment, but like any other investment, it will take time to realize a return. You can perform just fine taking the traditional approach to combining practice and the game, but taking a deliberate approach to practicing is way to consistently and sustainably outperforming your peers.

Other good reads on the topic can be found here


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