I'll be honest. I hate doing things twice. But practicing--that is, repeating--and learning are inextricably connected. And the ability to learn is a key component of competitiveness. As famed NBA basketball player and coach Edward Macauley put it, "When you are not practicing, remember--someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win."
But why in the world does practicing even work in the first place? What's really changing that provides those positive gains in memory and physical performance we're after?
It's all about insulation
As Annie Bosler and Don Greene explain in their Ted Ed video, you have two main types of matter in your brain. The first is gray matter, which processes information and directs signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells (neurons). Then you've got white matter, which is a combo of nerve fibers (axons) and fatty tissue. Axons are simply long, thin projections of neurons. Their job is to conduct electrical impulses away from the main body of the neuron.
Now, think of axons as electrical wire in the way they function. Electrical wire usually has insulation around it to prevent the loss of energy and keep it moving efficiently along the proper path. Axons are exactly the same. They have a natural insulating sheath known as myelin.
Every time you practice and repeat a physical motion, you build up the layers of myelin around your axons, improving their insulation. Scientists believe this extra insulation makes such a difference in the axon function that it essentially creates a sort of "super highway" for the electrical signals traveling through your body. So it's not that you're forming "muscle memory" (that doesn't really exist). It's that you're upping the speed at which the brain and your muscles are communicating, improving how fast recall, command and response take place.
But don't forget your senses
Understanding that physical motion positively affects myelin layers, it's tempting to think that practice really only matters for physical tasks, like dance, playing an instrument or shooting baskets. But your senses aren't completely separate in terms of brain processing. Particular smells, for example, can trigger emotional recall of memory. Similarly, mental visualization works to improve physical performance in part because just thinking about the physical activity triggers the parts of the brain responsible for controlling those physical actions. And part of the reason people pace while on the phone is because they're trying to use some physical motion to connect to the visual data they'd normally get face to face. So connecting physical movement to anything you want to get better at--say, memorizing some data for a presentation--can be an effective strategy. And the more senses you can integrate into your practice, the better the odds are that multiple parts of the brain will help you recall and use information when you need it.
Four tips for practicing better
Knowing that the goal of practice really is to get those myelin sheaths thicker and create a super highway for electrical impulses, these oft-heard practice recommendations make a lot more sense:
- Focus on the job at hand, removing distractions. Trying to multitask forces your brain to work much harder to process all the extra incoming information, using up more energy and, ultimately, leading to mental fatigue.
- Start slowly to build coordination. Once you've nailed what you're doing at a slow speed, go a little faster until you've hit your target pace.
- Take breaks! Elite performers practice hours a day, but they respect the fact that their bodies and brains need time to recharge to function optimally. They split their practice into smaller sessions through the day. Try the Pomodoro technique, or tune into the natural, 90-minute cycles of your Circadian rhythm.
- Visualize what you need to do and remember.
Practicing makes you better because it physically changes you, making it easier for data to move. Sure, maybe you can "wing it" and do OK. But with so many people seeking your prize, don't settle for OK. Go over it. Go over it again. One more time. You know why it works now.
One more time.