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Practice Perfect

By Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi

(Jossey-Bass,263 pages, $29.95)

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The NFL is known for its game films, where players and coaches assess their performance during the preceding week's football game.

But now teams are also filming practices. They find those films are more critical to improving performance.

"Organizations that operate in the most intense competitive settings have come to realize that practice time is the most valuable time they have," Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi write in Practice Perfect.

The trio are educators who developed programs to improve teacher performance through practising habits that make them more effective in the classroom.

In one example, the teachers learn to control student behaviour or invite discussion with small facial or hand gestures that eventually become second nature.

We associate practice with sports, music, and theatrical endeavours, not teaching, sales, surgery and law.

But the reality is that there are many careers where certain patterns of behaviour become habitual – and our current style may not be eliciting the best results.

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When surgeon and author Atul Gawande decided to look for improvements in his operating room approach, he was told he had a tendency to lift his right elbow to the level of his shoulder or even higher, which was affecting his precision.

Actors practise, but lawyers, who also have their dramatic moments, usually don't – thereby missing an opportunity to be more impressive.

Salespeople repeat certain scripts that can be improved with practice – even their extemporaneous comments can be improved by practising various scenarios. And the same may apply to elements of your own work, starting with the last voice mail message you left.

We've all heard the shibboleth that practice makes perfect, but the authors stress instead that practice makes permanent – so you had better get it right. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden planned every team practice down to the second, knowing exactly what his players would be doing at any given time – and why.

Each season started by teaching them how to tie their shoelaces properly, since laces that came undone in a game could trip a player at a crucial time.

The authors note that Brazilian soccer players love futsal, a game in an enclosed space with a less elastic ball. It gives them heightened practice touching the ball, and engenders the creativity with the ball that marks their country's approach to the sport.

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"A critical goal of practice, then, should be ensuring that participants encode success – that they practise getting it right – whatever 'it' might be," the authors stress.

They suggest you want your participants to complete the fastest possible right version of the activity.

Take the example of a youngster learning to hit a baseball in the backyard as her father feeds her slow pitches. It may seem to make more sense to take her to a batting cage where she faces hundreds of 60 mile-per-hour pitches, but that doesn't allow her to apply the small corrections to her form that is needed to improve. Instead, eliminate complexity until you start to see mastery, and then start building the extras back in.

The law of the vital few – 80 per cent of results come from 20 per cent of our activity – should be applied to practice, they say.

"To become great, you should focus more on practising the 20 per cent of things that most create value than on the other 80 per cent of things you could plausibly spend your time on," they note.

Just remember not to stop as soon as you – or your charges – know how to do it right. The goal in these vital skill areas is not mere proficiency but excellence. The value of your practice, therefore, becomes more intense as you get better at the activity.

The authors also point out that what constitutes the vital 20 per cent will change over time, so make sure you reassess periodically.

Indeed, determining what to practice requires analysis. The team trying to improve teachers would look to identify a common ability of high performers, such as the ability to ask for and achieve 100 per cent – 100 per cent of the students following their directions 100 per cent of the way, 100 per cent of the time.

By studying the best teachers, the coaches found certain common approaches which were governed by one rule: Always use the least invasive correction to achieve the desired results.

They videotaped the top teachers, showed their technique to others in the profession, and then practised, making sure to check it led to enhanced performance.

"The first step for any team or individual in getting practice right is to get the game right, and we do that through analysis of who and what wins the games we set out to play," the authors write.

The book outlines 42 rules for improving your practice so the habits you make permanent will come closer to perfect.

At times, the examples of athletes and teachers may seem far from your daily work, but it has applicability if you approach it with an open mind.

If you happen to coach a sports team or musicians, the book will have extra value.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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