Parts of a Perfect Practice

Contrary to popular wisdom, poorly executed practicing will not make you perfect.  You need to practice well to improve quickly.  I try (and don’t always succeed) to structure our practices so you have each of the following items to improve your practice, but you can do much of the same on your own time (while racing on Friday for example).

  1. Preparation: be sure that you have the right gear, and that you are practicing in generally the same conditions as you will race (don’t practice in waves on a laser if you intend to race on flat water in a Mercury). Get your boat rigged correctly, and if something breaks or needs adjusting, take a time out to correct it — remove yourself from the group while you do so others can continue to practice.
  2. Set Goals: long term (eg. I want to improve my finishing place this summer, or yell at my competition less) and short term (eg. I want to improve my tacking today, or no raised voices this regatta). Your goals should be something you can control, making them different from dreams (which are good to have too). They should be simple, but something that can be measured and has deadlines. Personally I feel that having a range for your goals is good, as the high end may push you harder, while the low end may be more achievable.
  3. Focus: be focused during the practice, and be clear with yourself when the practice starts. Does the sail out to the course count? You may want to take a short mental/physical break in the middle to catch your breath or shake it out. Or you might need to take a break from a drill for a teaching moment. Focus also applies to creating a drill which addresses the goal or deficit, hopefully excluding other factors. Practice is so valuable because you can exclude many things, and work just on the issue at hand.
  4. Feedback/Measurement: without a measuring stick, one can’t be sure if one is improving or not. Racing is valuable for this on the whole, but it doesn’t always help you measure the parts and pieces. For improving speed, boats will often pair up and “speed test” upwind, take a break to discuss or make adjustments, and then try again. Or if you are learning to hold your place on the line, you might need a buoy and an egg timer. For any goal you can come up there should be a corresponding drill, including a feedback system so you can judge your progress more objectively.
  5. Reenforce and Record: when you learn a new word, the sure way to remember it is to use it in a sentence that day or the next. The same is true with a new skill you have practiced. When you have finished a practice, it’s never a bad idea to spend a couple of minutes reflecting on anything you learned. Write down settings that were good or bad. Take notes on your successes and your failures. Ask questions. The comments section on this blog or your own blog are both free ways to do this, but obviously there are many others.

Lastly, remember that not every practice is successful.  Sometimes your coach is an ass, and sometimes you don’t achieve your goal, or you feel you’ve unlearned a bad habit without picking up a new good one. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, or you had a shoddy day at work and it carries over. My tennis instructor considered a lesson most successful if you learned something, but also worthwhile if you had fun, and if it was just a bad day, he at least figured he’d run you around to get some exercise. Some similar hierarchy exists in sailing. Even on a bad practice day, at least you’re out in a boat on the water, and as Kenneth Grahame once wrote, “there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”