These excerpts (mostly about sports) are from a longer, broader article by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, author of seven books, master of aikido, and founder of Strozzi Institute for embodied leadership training, which incorporates physical methods as well as cognitive approaches. The complete article can be found at http://www.strozziinstitute.com/resources/articles/you+are+what+you+practice/

You Are What You Practice

“We are what we repeatedly do.”
–Aristotle

By Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Ph.D.

…To get good at something it’s necessary to practice…Researchers say 300 repetitions produce body memory, which is the ability to enact the correct movement, technique, or conversation by memory. It’s also been pointed out that 3000 repetitions creates embodiment, which is not having to think about doing the activity, as it is simply part of who we are….

Compare this with a recent ad on television that promotes weight loss with the promise that, “You don’t have to change your life, you only have to take a pill.” We live in a culture that sells the quick fix, instant gratification, and get it all right now, on a daily basis. While we may understand, at least intellectually, the importance of practice when we casually comment to our children that it’s necessary to practice when learning to play the piano, type, write in cursive, or drive a car, it’s largely an idea that’s unexamined.

The media and entertainment industry create the illusion that by simply stepping into the right car, dressing in the latest fashions, or dyeing our hair a certain color, our goals will be instantly attained. The idea of committing to a practice to achieve mastery or personal fulfillment is not a highly endorsed idea. When we’re constantly fed a diet of “Fast, temporary relief,” there is very little incentive to consider a practice as a way to positively take charge of our health, behaviors, relationships, attitude, or over-all success in life, to say nothing of developing leaders.

The notions we do have of practice are through the realm of sports or the performing arts, where perhaps we’ve had some experience, or at least enough familiarity (mostly as fans), to know that it’s a requirement for success.

Yes, we understand that athletes and performers practice, but what is invisible to us is how much they practice. They continue to practice during the entire season, during the off-season, and even while they’re in a championship series or in a heavily booked performance cycle.

In a recent interview with Ellen Degeneres, you could hear the audible gasp of the primarily adolescent female audience, as Britney Spears reported that it’s not uncommon for her to practice her singing and dance moves 12 hours a day; and her life is a constant cycle of practice, performance, practice. Even when “I’m performing” she said, “I’m all about rehearsing my songs and dances.” The young female audience’s fantasy about being “the next Britney” if they have the right hairstyle and can perform a few snappy turns in front of the mirror was suddenly shattered. (Ellen Degeneres Show 7/8/04)

Larry Byrd, the veteran all-star player, for the Boston Celtics, would faithfully go to the arena two hours before every game, whether it was at home or away, regular season or play-offs, and walk the court and practice his shots alone. Sometimes he would sit in the stands and see if he could make a basket from there. After the Celtics won the 1986 Championship after a grueling season and playoffs, reporters asked him what he planned to do next, and he replied, “I’ve still got some things I want to work on. I’ll start my off-season training next week. Two hours a day, with at least a hundred free throws.” (Mastery, George Leonard, Plume Books, 1992) Michael Jordan, at the top of his game when he was called the greatest basketball player the game has ever known, would reputedly be the first at practice and one of the last to leave.

Athletes practice three times as much as they play, and this is even a higher ratio for performing artists. All this confirms the old martial arts story that defines the master as the one who stays on the mat longer than anyone else.

Asked by a student how long it will take to learn a new skill or a new way of being, I’ll often quote how military jumpmasters reply to the question “How long do I have to pull my ripcord?”

“The rest of your life.” We have this moment to practice and we can commit to a life-long practice.

Furthermore, if we heard a baseball player say, “I’m not going to batting practice anymore, I’ve already done that,” or a heart surgeon who said it wasn’t necessary to practice his craft anymore, it would sound ridiculous to us. Interviews with athletes during championship games who have just won will inevitably say it’s important to continue to practice the basics. and the losers of that game will inevitably say they need to get back to basics. It would sound preposterous for them to say they didn’t need to practice anymore or they had already practiced the basics and they wanted something else to practice. Master musicians will speak about how they still practice their scales, award-winning actors regularly practice vocal phrasings, internationally renowned ballerinas still work on pliés.

Every time I train or teach aikido I still practice tenkan, a turning movement and the very first technique I learned 33 years ago. Because I may have gained competency in the movement over three decades of training doesn’t mean I abandon it. To begin with, it keeps the movement sharp and fully embodied, which is important as it is fundamental to the art.

Secondly, and perhaps most important, who I am in the movement changes because of the practice. When I say, “who I am” in the movement, I’m referring to how I’m observing myself, others, and the environment, that is, how my awareness has grown and therefore expanded my choices, and how my will has been strengthened to enact those choices.

If we want to introduce new leadership behaviors in our life, we can’t count on will and discipline to make them happen; to become more effective leaders it’s necessary to practice. We also know that to achieve mastery it’s necessary to go beyond our comfort zone… Humans will engage in a practice if they are passionate about what they are practicing. We are passionate about the practice if it is relevant to the life we want to create. Exemplary leaders are passionate about creating life-affirming futures.

Practice is formalized in sports and the performance arts, why not in leadership?…