One mysterious day many years ago — maybe around the Industrial Revolution — coaches and teachers started using a particular word to describe repetitive learning activities. It was a vivid, mechanical word: implying pressure, precision, progress. And it caught on in a big way.
The word is “drill.”
“Drill” has become the single most common word we use to describe practice in sports, music, and academics. And that’s a problem.
The problem is not that “drill” is a bad word in itself. The problem is that it often sends the wrong message to the learner.
The word “drill” is a signal that:
- There is one correct way to do something, and only one way
- This group values machine-like repetition above all else
Now, there are moments when that kind of signal is perfectly appropriate. But the ethos of “drilling” has been applied to a far wider range of activities, like soccer players learning to control the ball, or math students solving algebraic equations, or musicians working on improvisational skills — situations where you are seeking to create creativity, energy, and innovation.
So what word is better?
I think the answer is “challenge.”
I know, it seems like a tiny change. And yet, there are differences between the two terms that are worth appreciating.
The word “challenge” is a signal that:
- This is social, fun, and gamelike. It’s connective. (After all, it’s not called the “Ice-Bucket Drill,”is it?)
- Difficulty is expected; mindfulness is required; innovation is embraced
- This group values challenging obstacles, competing, and creating
One of my favorite examples is the Bonner Challenge, invented by Matt Bonner, reserve forward for the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. A few years ago he was messing around on the court and came up with a pre-practice routine he loved. He started challenging others to match him, and it caught on.
It works like this: you take your first ten shots of the day from ten pre-determined spots on the floor (layups, free throw, college three-point line, pro three-point-line, etc). Make all ten with zero misses, and you’ve won the Bonner Challenge. (If you take any other shots, you’re ruled “Bonner Ineligible.”) The team keeps track of the latest winner, and who’s won the most over the year, and they get a championship belt. It’s competitive, fun, and contributes to the team’s culture of togetherness (even the coaches compete).
Now, what Bonner invented, of course, is basically a drill. You could easily construct an alternate scenario where a coach orders the team to do the exact same ten-shot drill — but would it have the same engagement, impact, contagiousness, and mystique? Not even close. It succeeds because it’s not called a drill. It’s a challenge.
Like many successful organizations, the Spurs understand and embrace the power of words. Another example: when a Spurs player comes into practice early for individual work, they call the extra sessions “Vitamins.” Every other team in the league calls the sessions “early work,” or “extra work,” which carries negative connotations. But not the Spurs. Because they view those sessions as positive, essential opportunities that make players better. Vitamins.
The larger lesson here is that words matter far more than we think. Each element of the learning process exists within the fabric of the group’s culture and values. The words we use create the path to the behaviors we get. So take the time to pick them carefully, one by one.
(Which, come to think of it, is sort of like doing the Bonner Challenge.)
I’d love to hear any other good terms you’ve heard for practice or drills or anything. Which ones are your most favorite? Your least?
PS – here’s another great example of a challenge, courtesy of reader Stuart Crampton: Bayern Munich playing Bucket Ball