As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve gotten back into playing volleyball this summer at Google, and have been really enjoying it. The sand court on Google’s main campus is in regular use, and I’ll occasionally stop by and watch to pick up some pointers. One Wednesday at lunch, I was watching the really good game with players that are probably AA-rated (one notch below the top beach players). One of my coworkers sat down next to me and asked me what was the difference between me and them.

He asked “Can you hit it like that?” and I said “Sometimes” and he asked “Can you make a defensive play like that?” and I said “Sometimes”, and so he didn’t understand why I said those guys were at a whole different level than I was.

Of course, the difference is that I said “Sometimes”. When I go up for a hit, I can hit it down hard 10-20% of the time – these guys were doing it 90% of the time. When my opponent spikes the ball down, I can dive for it and return a playable ball maybe 5-10% of the time – these guys were doing it 30% of the time. So watching them is amazing because one of them will go up and pound the ball past the blocker, and the defender will have read the hit and pop it up, and it’ll go back and forth a few times. Whereas when I play, half the time I screw up the initial pass and get a weak hit at best.

A similar situation arose when I was playing in a pickup ultimate frisbee game last week. I had the best game I’ve had all year – I was jumping over two defenders to catch the disc, I was throwing hucks for scores, etc. The frustrating thing is that I know I can play like that, but it is rare when I can put it all together – at the previous week’s game, I couldn’t get open and missed several throws.

And that’s the difference between the intermediate player and the advanced player: consistency. Anybody athletic can have an occasional great play, but being a great player means being able to make that play every single time. I am stuck at a certain level in these sports where I have moments of greatness, but am mediocre most of the time, because I can’t consistently play at that higher level.

To take the next step requires the patience of deliberate practice. It’s not just about doing the activity more – it’s about breaking the activity down to its component parts and practicing each of those parts so much that they become second nature. So rather than just playing volleyball, I need to do drills to practice passing over and over again, and then drills on setting, hitting and digging, to focus on each individual skill. But that requires effort and organization, so I just play instead and have to therefore be content with my current level of inconsistency.

As usual, this doesn’t just apply to sports. Every activity requires practice to embed it deeply into our unconscious expertise, whether it’s cooking or project managing or data analysis. If you have to use your limited conscious bandwidth to examine something, it will take too long. So if you’re stuck at a level of inconsistency, are you willing to take a step back and practice individual skills assiduously? If not, you’re going to be inconsistent for a lot longer.

P.S. I’ve written about this topic before, in posts on what it takes to achieve mastery and the importance of coaching and feedback in improving and getting results, but I decided to write about it again, given my recent inconsistent play in sports.

7 thoughts on “Consistency

  1. It’s not just practice that matters. You need to be always watching the results you get and adjusting what you do. I know that sounds like an obvious detail, but it’s a detail that gets forgotten by a LOT of people.

    Don’t just put in the time. Pay constant attention to what you’re getting and change what you’re doing if you want something different.

  2. One interesting thing for me is that I’ve started going to track days, and that’s been a really good example of the difference *focused* practice with feedback can make, rather than just doing some shit over and over again.

    This may be naive, but prior to actually doing this, I hadn’t really considered the layout of a track – that certain corners link into other corners, and depending on how you take one, it affects your entry into the next. Sounds obvious, but it’s something that (until it becomes more natural), you think about constantly – it’s like playing a puzzle game at 100+mph. (Which is SUPER fun, by the way.)

    But it’s interesting to break down each corner and practice it, specifically, each lap. Where am I, on the track? How fast am I going? Where is the apex, and do I have the traction to actually hit it? When do I get back on the throttle, and where is the point where I should “exit” the turn wide? Or do I exit wide at all, if I’m setting up for another corner?

    I can get some corners right some of the time. I can be within 6 inches of the apex cone ~70% of the time at the speed I’m going. But then you look at people who are actually good at this, and they’re within 1 inch of where they want to be *every lap*, right on the edge of their available grip. Over and over and over again.

    To me, the reason that track days are fulfilling is because they’re challenging, but also because, in part, the repetition allows you to make noticeable progress in any single day. I didn’t time my laps (though I did video them, and can extract the times) at my last trackday at Thunderhill, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my laptimes dropped 15% or more throughout the day. (Obviously, I’m still a beginner – any advanced driver wouldn’t even have 15% between them and “as fast as they can go”.)

    I record all the laps so that I can see the difference, so that I can understand what I did right & what I did wrong, and the organization I’ve gone with provides coaches that can either ride along with you, or talk you through trouble spots. It’s a really great iterative learning experience, and exciting as hell. 🙂

  3. Great points, Spider and Seppo. I wasn’t clear – when I mentioned deliberate practice, that encapsulates the idea of focusing on one specific activity and iterating on it to improve (more in my getting results post and my review of Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code).

    But, yes, that focus of iterating on a very specific skill, whether it is hitting the exact intended trajectory in a track lap or making a chainmail weave, is necessary to improve. And tracking the results and making adjustments is a really important part of that – Seppo, I like that you’re not tracking your lap times yet, because that’s too distant a metric from what you need to improve now – you need to nail your turns and pick your lines, and the lap time is an output of those improvements, but not a metric that can help you improve.

    There’s a whole ‘nother post here on picking the right things to track to spur improvement. I’ll see if I can make time to write that.

  4. So I love your blog, but I think you’re off base here, or at least that your model is very limited.

    Let’s take some other examples.

    Sprinting. Does the difference between me and a top college sprinter have much to do with consistency? I could run sprints on 100 different days, and my best time would almost certainly be far worse than the sprinter’s worst time.

    Bouldering/rock climbing. I can “sometimes” climb V2’s. A good climber can always climb V2’s. So if you just watch us climb V2’s, you might say the difference between me and the good climber was consistency. On the other hand, if you actually watch what the good climber does, you will notice she spends most of her time climbing V5’s and V6’s, that she falls off them about as much as I fall of V2’s, and that I can never climb a V5 or V6 at all. So is she more consistent than I am?

    I agree with all the usual stuff about deliberate practice/tracking etc. I just think that saying the difference between good and great is consistency is highly domain dependent.

  5. Rif, I disagree. I was re-reading my notes from a seminar earlier where Seth Godin put a whole bunch of qualities necessary for success on the board and asked how many of them were gifts (things that you were just born with) vs. skills that you could learn vs. attitudes that you could learn. And most of them turned out to be skills or attitudes.

    I agree that certain sports (e.g. sprinting, or football, or basketball), you either have the body type or you don’t. But I suspect that the bouldering example is what I’m talking about – the good climber has spent time mastering the skills such that a V2 is easy for them so they can do it every time. On your good days, you can do it, so you have the skills, but you can’t consistently execute them. I don’t think there’s anything preventing you from getting to that level if you spent the same amount of time on it as they did.

    Maybe a better way of describing it is that the expert can do without thinking what the intermediate struggles to do. I liked one of Joel’s stories where he had a calculus prof who gave his students an algebra test on the first day of class. The students who blew through the algebra problems were also the ones that ended up getting the best grades in calculus, because they were at a level where they could do algebra without thinking and thus could free up their brain to think about calculus. I feel like the same thing applies here – in volleyball, I’m thinking about extending my arm or getting my footwork right, whereas the expert players are thinking about where they want to hit the ball to avoid the block and defender. Consistency is the result, but it’s because of a different way of thinking about what they’re doing.

  6. I certainly agree with “the expert can do without thinking what the intermediate struggles to do.” And I also agree that a large measure of success in most fields is primarily about skills or attitudes rather than gifts [although I will disagree if we are talking about world-class athletic performance across basically all sports].

    But I’m still not clear what this has to do with consistency. I’m picking on that because it was the title of your post. I assumed your thesis sentence was “And that’s the difference between the intermediate player and the advanced player: consistency.” I don’t have the skill at all to climb a V5 or a V6 right now. And in some sense, the V6 climber isn’t more consistent — when you watch them climb, they fall just as often as I do. Just on much harder slopes. Would you say the V6 climber *is* more consistent? I would just say they’re a better climber. What does it mean to say they’re more consistent?

    Maybe I’m just nit picking.

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