Athletes and Artists Revisited: Practice Principles from the Pros

Athletes and Artists 2

by Nathan Cornelius

A year ago, I wrote about the similarities between athletes and artists, exploring the interactions between those who create the designs and those who execute them, whether onstage or on the field. This year, living on the East Coast made it harder to watch my beloved Green Bay Packers on TV, and I found myself watching hours of players’ and coaches’ interviews and press conferences online instead. Maybe I’m just trying to justify the amount of time I spent doing that instead of practicing, but I absorbed some important lessons from the preparation of professional athletes that I’m applying to my preparation as an aspiring professional musician. I’ll even tell you what I learned from the play in the picture—after I spent a couple hours trying to calm down from watching it, that is.

“The same guy every day”

In football, each season begins with players battling to make the team. While there is always a core of established star players whose jobs are secure, rookies and young players are seeking to carve out a niche for themselves. When asked to describe what he was looking for in young players, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy kept using one phrase: “He’s the same guy every day.” I took this to mean that everyone competing for a job has enough talent to play well at least some of the time; otherwise they wouldn’t have made it past the first tryout (or audition). To succeed over time, you don’t have to be spectacular every day, but you do have to be proficient, reliable, and professional every day—in a word, consistent. Performances or games provide additional pressure that isn’t there in practice, and in order to make the play under pressure, you have to have done it right a bunch of times in your everyday workouts.

“We need to be better with our timing”

But the search for consistency isn’t just an individual quest. In both music and sports, a team performance requires the players to each execute their own complicated routines in precise synchronization with each other. A split-second error in timing, even by one person, can doom an otherwise-perfect effort. Midway through the season, the team went through a series of games in which  players were sometimes making their moves slightly late, messing up the design of the play, and sometimes making the entire team look foolish. As fans speculated on what the problem could be, the players gradually grew more frustrated. Being good teammates, they wouldn’t explicitly name who was at fault, but instead simply said, “We need to be better with our timing.”

As a musician, I’ve also experienced the frustration of playing in an ensemble where most of the members are executing their parts but one person just can’t seem to line up his part. No matter how well the rest of us play, one element of the musical design being out of sync makes the whole fabric of the piece sound jumbled and muddled. I’ve concluded that an ensemble, like a sports team, is only as good as its weakest player. Even in football, where different positions are highly specialized, opponents will find a way to exploit any recurring weakness or miscommunication, which can easily snowball into defeat.

“Executing the fundamentals”

Once the season gets underway, both musicians and athletes typically don’t have the option of swapping their teammates for better ones to fix problems such as this. Instead, it’s each person’s responsibility to prepare more thoroughly and get their part in order. Whenever the team played poorly, coach McCarthy would invariably state in his postgame press conference, “We need to do a better job of executing the fundamentals.”

We often think of practicing as rehearsing a precisely scripted routine of movements so the body can execute them exactly the same way every time. But physiologically, our bodies do not reproduce movements the same way every time, as a robot would. Instead, our motor impulses are more dynamically coordinated, with tiny adjustments counteracting tiny variations from one repetition to the next. Athletes never play identically from one repetition to another anyway, since no two opponents will respond identically to the same play, forcing them in turn to vary their reactions each time. Thus, although teams practice many scripted plays, they spend even more time honing basic, fundamental skills that provide the technical foundation necessary for any number of variations of that movement. This is what coach McCarthy saw as the solution to his players’ struggles.

When I started spending an hour or so each day on technical exercises, I found that the ease and security in all aspects of my playing strengthened dramatically. Exercises which isolate and work on skills individually establish the base of fundamentals necessary to master the repertoire. Then, when you practices a piece as a whole, the goal is not to ingrain the routine in a way that precludes all variation, but rather to reach a level of security, precision, and confidence in which you have the tools necessary to execute any skill in any way you desire, at a moment’s notice. Rather than being bound by force of habit, you instead experience a tremendous freedom as a player. For the athlete, this allows them to see the game as if in slow motion and be able to react in real time. For the artist, it leaves room for artistic expression to vary freely from one performance to the next, according one’s mood that night, the characteristics of the space, or even the reaction of one’s fellow performers.

“I saw the same thing”

While this process of preparation is built on fundamentals, it doesn’t stop there. Professional-level practice also involves putting yourself under unusual circumstances so that you are prepared to face any scenario that could arise during a performance. When the Packers traveled to face the Detroit Lions this season, tight end Richard Rodgers, who had only played in the Lions’ stadium once before, noticed he had trouble following the flight of balls thrown high in the air against the domed roof. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (no relation) offered to start warming up with Richard a few minutes ahead of schedule and throw some high, deep passes so Richard could get used to following their flight. After a brief long-range game of catch, both players started their regular warm-ups and thought nothing of it.

Nothing, that is, until the final play of the game. With Lions leading 23-21, a controversial penalty call gave the Packers one last chance to score. The only problem was they were more than 60 yards away from the end zone. Escaping with the football from the Lions defenders, Aaron Rodgers wound up and launched it on an impossibly high trajectory, nearly scraping the rafters beneath the stadium roof. 50 yards downfield, Richard Rodgers looked up and saw the ball sailing toward him, just as he had watched it before. He later said, “I think the practice before the game helped. I kind of saw the same thing.”

Richard turned and jogged a few steps further, crossing the goal line with the last stride. Looking back up into the roof, he located the ball again, now falling steeply downward, just as it had in warm-ups. He jumped in front of the stunned Lions defenders (they later admitted they didn’t believe it was possible to throw a football that far), and made the catch for the touchdown. Incredibly, the crazy technique the two Rodgers had worked on before the game had turned out to be exactly what was required to win it in the final seconds.

As I’ve prepared for auditions, recitals, competitions, and other pressure-packed situations, I’ve found it helpful to intentionally throw a wrench in my practice. Too often I get comfortable in my practice-room routine, only to find myself thrown for a loop when the environment on the big day is totally different. To combat this, I’ve tried playing outdoors in cold weather, in rooms with odd acoustics, in the dark, or even with my back turned to my ensemble partners. Once you’ve been in weird situations like these, being onstage under the bright lights doesn’t feel nearly so unfamiliar.

 “We hit our targets”

Another buzzword football players love to use is, “It’s a long season” (particularly helpful because it can be used to shrug off both good and bad performances). While it’s a bit of a platitude, it speaks to the difficulty of maintaining the focus necessary to perform at a high level, game after game, for months on end. Similarly, musicians (especially solo performers) often spend months preparing the same repertoire for a concert or competition, and it can be difficult to measure your progress when the goal is so big and far away.

To combat this problem, I took inspiration from another phrase the coach liked to use after training-camp practice sessions. He would sum up a successful day of work by simply stating, “We hit our targets today.” This suggests that he has a specific outline of what plays the team needs to master each week in order to be fully prepared for the season.  Rather than expect players to learn the whole playbook at once, he assigns it to them in manageable segments and then evaluates their progress after each session. Thus, to achieve a big musical goal, like performing a massive concerto, I break it down in a series of steps (such as score study, technical work, memorization, simulated performance, and so forth, for each movement or section) and plan out about how long each should take. As long as I hit my target each week, I can be confident I am staying on track to achieve my goal. If I fail to reach a target, I have time to adjust my plan, rather than reaching the week of the concert and realizing I’m not fully prepared.

“Love the process, not the prize”

To help focus players’ preparation even further, coach McCarthy presents a theme for each week of practice during the season. One of his themes this year was, “Love the process, not the prize.” I think this perfectly sums up the work of the successful musician. Learning a piece of music is a long and often arduous process with a short but sweet reward (the performance) at the end. While setting targets can help you manage the process more efficiently, the results you get from your practice ultimately come down to your level of motivation. No matter how much you want to achieve the prize, you’re not going to do the work necessary to achieve it if you don’t also love the work in itself. I would encourage any musician to find sources of pleasure in the daily grind of practice in order to sustain their progress over the long haul. As my teacher once told me, there’s a reason we call it “play” instead of “work.”

So to recap, strive to be the same guy (or girl) every day. Make your timing so perfect your teammates can count on it. Work on the fundamentals constantly. Practice so many crazy situations you can always say you’ve seen the same thing before. Set your targets and then hit them. And remember to love the process, not the prize. And if you’re looking for me this weekend, I’ll probably be practicing… at least until the football game comes on.

One thought on “Athletes and Artists Revisited: Practice Principles from the Pros

  1. Pingback: Athletes and Artists, Part 3: The Soul of Tempo Practice | deformingprisms

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