Pabao Little League, Willemstad, Curacao

A scrappy, undersize group of kids from a small Caribbean island who have ascended to Little League baseball’s most illustrious stage: the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. For six of the past eight years, in a tournament where merely qualifying two consecutive years ranks as a remarkable achievement, Curacao has reached the semifinals six of the past eight years, winning the title in 2004 and finishing second in 2005.

 

A Field of (Myelin) Dreams: Audio Slideshow

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Lessons

Ignited in 1996 by local boy Andruw Jones’s dramatic World Series home runs, Curacao began its rise from mediocrity to international success. But the truly remarkable thing wasn’t the ignition (after all, other places have had local boys make good), but rather the tools they used to capture and funnel thatenergy into deep practice. They do this by:

  • Modeling. I’ve never seen quite so many coaches at a baseball practice as I did in Curacao—and many of them were still in their teens. It’s their system: the older players come back and help with coaching, modeling the right way to execute skills and sending a clear message: if he can do it, why can’t I?
  • Creating a culture of drills. The coaches and kids bring a near-religious attentiveness to the smallest practice drills. They’re all like tiny coaches, explaining how their swing works, or the best way to field a grounder. One 13-year-old player spent twenty minutes explaining why a sockball (made of two tightly folded socks) was the best way to learn to hit a curveball.
  • Compressing the game. Curacao doesn’t have many fields, and so in yet another classic example of advantages masquerading as disadvantages, they shrink practice to tiny areas. The coach frequently pitches batting practice from 30 feet, instead of the conventional 45 – a strategy which, like similar soccer techniques produces terrific results (I tried it with my Little League team.)

Septien Entertainment Group, Dallas, Texas

A small vocal studio in Dallas, Texas which has produced dozens of of pop-singing phenoms, including Jessica Simpson, Ryan Cabrera, and Demi Lovato. Like Opus 118, Septien is founded on the idea that anyone can learn to sing. As Linda Septien puts it, “Vocal cords are just muscles. You can learn to control them if you do it in the right way.”

Video Coming Soon

Lessons:

Septien illustrates the power and leverage of a single master teacher: founder and former opera singer Linda Septien. Operating out of a storefront, Septien spent ten years honing her essential skill: to ignite passion and to create deep practice. To do this, she:

  •  Targets the individual. Septien doesn’t teach principles. To the contrary: she is flexible, both emotionally and informationally, tailoring both the message and its delivery to each student. The goal, as she puts it, is to “meet them where they are, with the right message, at the right moment.”
  • Teaches like a GPS navigation system. We’re all familiar with how GPS systems use quick informative bursts to direct you though a crowded city. Septien, like all master teachers, does exactly the same: her teaching consists of short, sharp shocks, honing the skill circuit in the direction it needs to grow.
  • Uses humor. Septien is a constantly, irrepressibly entertaining presence. This is not happenstance; it is essential. At its core, deep practice is hard work—and master coaches become masters, in part, by knowing how well a spoonful of sugar can help the medicine go down.

KIPP-Heartwood School, San Jose, California

In a rough neighborhood of failing schools, KIPP-Heartwood has built a island of dazzling success, producing some of the state’s top test scores. KIPP-Heartwood is part of the KIPP charter school system started by two young teachers in 1993 which now runs 66 schools, and which sends 80 percent of its students on to college, and is held up as a model for national education reform. 

“I’m Leaning Toward Stanford”

This is from the KIPP Academy of Opportunity of a Los Angeles– but the story is the same as KIPP-Heartwood or any other KIPP school. The way these kids talk, walk, hold themselves is characteristic of the system, and why KIPP is being increasingly seen as a model for reform. As on Harvard researcher told me, “They’re knocking it out of the park.”

Notice the chant they do to learn cell division at 4 minutes. All the KIPP schools learn in this way, using rhythm and song to build memory and reinforce learning – which, from a skill-circuit perspective, makes perfect sense.

I love the way the students talk about college around the 8 minute mark. This is very typical of the way KIPP’s college-focus infects their perspectives. These kids are not yet in middle school, yet they talk about college as if it’s a foregone conclusion—they are going, no question. Everything in their life is pushing in that direction. 

Lessons

Like all hotbeds, KIPP-Heartwood does lots of deep practice (helped by long school days, which give 62 percent more learning time than public schools) and master teachers. But where it truly excels is in igniting motivation in its students; using a calculated burst of signals to release unconscious reserves of energy and passion that fuel the hard work. It does this by:

  • Creating and reinforcing an ultimate goal—in this case, college. KIPP establishes college as a goal the same way a priest establishes heaven as a goal. They make that goal tangible though campus visits and constant repetition. As one KIPP teacher put it, “At KIPP we say the word ‘college’ as often as people at other schools say the word ‘um.’ “
  • Coherency. Every element of KIPP – how a student earns his desk, how the classes stand in line, how they are named after their graduating year – is designed to push the same direction. When I attended the first school day of 2007, it was a bit like attending a Broadway play: every single detail told the same story: Work hard, be nice, and you’ll go to heaven (a.k.a., college).
  • Willingness to stop and fix. Whenever a KIPP student misbehaves—no matter how small that misbehavior is–everything stops, and they fix it. This same technique is found at many other hotbeds. Including, interestingly enough, the assembly lines of Toyota, the world’s most successful carmaker. They follow the same deep-practice principle: that honing skill-circuits, fixing small mistakes, builds excellence.

Spartak Tennis Club, Moscow, Russia

A rundown tennis club (and that’s putting it politely) in a freezing climate which, with one indoor court, has in recent years produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  My 2006 visit to Spartak—the original article is here—helped inspire the book.

Inside the Hothouse: Audio Slideshow

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Lessons

Spartak can be summed up in one word: tekhnika (technique). Every moment, every resource is devoted to helping players with the most essential task: hitting the ball correctly. Or, to put it a different way, to building a reliable, fast skill circuit. To do this, they

  • Slow it down. Just like the violinists at Meadowmount, the Spartak players do their swings in slow-motion. All players also follow the same warmup routine—which starts with simple eye-hand drills where they bounce the ball and catch it—whether they are five years old or, as I saw, a world top-ten player.
  • Imitate. They swing without the ball quite a lot, a drill called imitatsiya. The ball, in their view, is a distraction. The point is to make the swing—to fire the circuit properly.
  • Games can wait. The rule at Spartak is that players can only compete after three years of practice – a rule that would never fly in the states, but which, if you think of it in terms of skill circuits, makes perfect sense. Competition introduces a gigantic new variable, where skill circuits matter less than the score. As a Spartak coach told me, “Technique is everything. If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!”

OPUS 118 Harlem School of Music, Harlem, New York

A public-school classical music program founded on the idea that anybody—that means anybody—can learn to play top-level classical music. Opus 118 students have played Carnegie Hall, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and inspired a documentary (“Small Wonders”) as well as the Hollywood treatment, “Music of the Heart,”  and have helped launch many similar efforts.

A Tiny, Powerful Idea  Takes Root

Ignition is a hair trigger– it happens all at once. Here, from the documentary “Small Wonders,” is the moment when a class ignites – not because of the violin, but because of the way Guaspari frames their introduction, through a lottery that poses the question: here is a meaningful group. Do you want to be one of them?

  • The first thing to note about Guaspari’s presentation is that it doesn’t center on the violin. In fact, it’s hardly mentioned. Rather, it’s about the idea of a group that is small, worthwhile, and engaged in meaningful work. “Some people are not going to win,” the teacher says. All are wonderful. But there’s only so much room.
  • At 1:25, a moment of ignition, when the boy in the back row suddenly announces,“I wanna be a violinist.”   The boy, of course, has never touched a violin, but as the music psychologist Gary McPherson points out, that doesn’t matter. These small ideas, taking root in the unconscious, have huge consequences.
  • Note that is not a soft sell by any means. Guaspari and the teacher keep emphasizing the hard work that will be required. This reminds me of the way KIPP school  (link) motivate students: simple language that tells the truth about the effort (a.k.a. the deep practice) motivates far better than pretending it’s going to be easy.
  • When the lottery results come in (at 3:35) look at the palpable electricity among the students—who, remember, have yet to so much as touch a violin. I like the girl in the ponytail, who confesses, “My heart is pounding,” and, when her name is picked, announces that her dream has come true. 

Funny thing? She’s right. 

Lessons

Like many hotbeds, Opus 118 started small: in this case, with a few violins in the trunk of beat-up car. Like many, it was driven by a devoted, energetic master teacher—in this case Roberta Guaspari (whose last name was Tzavaras). But there were also a few hidden factors in its favor, which helped ignite these kids to be the skilled and passionate violinists they became.

  •  The power of selection: The lack of violins, which appears a handicap, was turned to an advantage via a lottery. This created a tiny, powerful moment of ignition: when the winning student connected their identity to the violin, sparking a small thought that had big consequences: I’m a violinist.
  • Igniting by example: Roberta Guaspari is a master teacher by any definition, but a key to her success is how she cultivates other master teachers to grow the hotbed. Her faculty now includes students who came up through Opus 118. This radiates, as seen in KIPP, the most basic igniting signal: If they can do it, then why can’t I?

Brazilian Soccer Schools, Leeds, England

HOTBED: Brazilian Soccer Schools, Leeds, England

A project, begun in 1998 by an elementary schoolteacher named Simon Clifford, that has transformed a former soccer backwater into a veritable factory of talented players. Its main tool: a Brazilian game called futbol de salao (“soccer in the room”), an indoor five-a-side version of the sport.  The ball is smaller and heavier—creating more control. The field is tiny—putting a premium on vision, anticipation, and quick, accurate passes. The play is lightning-fast—forcing players to anticipate and adapt. Exactly like the Little Books of the Bronte sisters, futbol de salao uses deep practice to build skills at high velocity. 

Growing A Star

 

Here’s a portrait of how futbol de salao helped create one of the world’s greatest players: Ronaldinho of Brazil. The first five minutes (which you can mostly fast-forward past) show his stupendous level of vision, ball control, and anticipation.
 
At the five minute mark, however, we see where it began: with tiny kids on a futbol de salao court. See how the small, heavy ball stays at their feet, allowing them the chance to control it over and over. The game has all the features of typical kids’ soccer game –the cute clumsiness, the cat-herding quality—with a vital addition: because the ball doesn’t bounce away, players can control it. Watch at the six-minutes mark as the blond kid make a nice breakaway. She makes nine touches in a few seconds, each of them different, each of them earning her a bit of skill.
 
At 6:15, we see a rare treat: home movies of ten-year-old Ronaldinho playing futsal (you might also recognize this from a recent Nike commercial) Watch at 6:40 when young Ronaldinho flicks the ball over an opponent’s head to set up a goal. At 8:30, we see him pull off the exact same move as an adult, with similarly glorious results. Commentators love to talk about how “creative” Brazilian players are – but that’s not quite right. The truth is, they’ve been practicing that creativity for their entire lives.

Exporting Genius

Here’s a look at John Farnworth, one of the English kids who’s used futbol de salao to pick up a few moves (to say the least). These tricks may not be used much in games (Farnworth has given up his aspirations to play professional soccer to become a freestyle performer), but they show the heights of ball-control that futbol de salao can create.

Lessons

Futbol de salao develops skill circuits far faster than the outdoor game, because players:

  • Touch the ball more often—600 percent more often, according to one study. More touches—in other words, more circuit-firings—creates more skill.
  • Are forced to develop more moves. Merely booting the ball down the field—often the first option in the outdoor game—doesn’t work. Futbol de salao players practice lots of fakes and tricks—because they have to. As one Brazilian told me, “Futsal is our national laboratory of improvisation.”
  • Grow accustomed to operating in tight spaces. When they get to the outdoor game, futsal players feel as if they have all the room in the world.

Meadowmount School of Music, Westport, New York

A remote, rustic (to put it nicely) classical-music camp in New York’s Adirondacks where students cover a year’s worth of material in seven weeks—a 500 percent increase in learning velocity. Alumni includeYo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zuckerman.  Telltale sign of a Meadowmounter: they all have hickeys on their necks from the violin.

Deep Practice by Goofing Around: How Meadowmount Students Hone Skill Circuits

At first glance, this looks like standard-issue music-camp horseplay: two students playing one cello in a dorm room, for the evident amusement of their roommates.

But when we look more closely, we see something else. By introducing this new difficulty (the right hand literally doesn’t know what the left is doing), these two students are forcing themselves to adapt: to discern errors, to make rapid adjustments, to knock themselves out of automatic playing and into the kind of attentive, focused state on which deep practice is built.

The music they produce is pretty bad (which is in some ways the point). But it also contains bursts of fluency – at 14 seconds, 26 seconds, 34 seconds, and 44 seconds.  I also like their expressions: their classmates might be joking around, but the two studetns are deeply engaged – and earning more skill with every passing second. A two-headed deep-practice monster, you might say. 

Lessons

A 500 percent boost in learning velocity doesn’t happen by magic. It’s a “turn inward,” according to Meadowmount teachers, where the students don’t practice harder, but deeper. This means:

  • Practicing more slowly. Then still more slowly. Then even MORE slowly. The rule of thumb: If a passer-by can recognize the song, it’s not being practice properly. Skill circuits don’t “care” how fast you go – what matters is firing it correctly – the same rule followed by tennis players at Spartak (link).
  • Breaking the skill into chunks, then reconstructing it. Meadowmounters scissor their sheet music into strips, learn each strip, then rebuild the entire piece. This reconstructive act (which, btw, is exactly how teenage Ben Franklin taught himself to write essays) works because it exactly mirrors and reinforces the desired skill-circuits – which are, after all, literal connections in our brains.
  • Locating errors. Meadowmounters practice what they call “discernment”: finding the mistake, and using it to navigate toward the right notes – the basics of deep practice.

The Z-Boys Skateboarders, Los Angeles, California

A ragtag bunch of teenagers who, in the mid-1970s, used an empty swimming pool to revolutionize skateboarding. Their talent for soaring aerials, grinds, spins established the sport’s extreme vocabulary, made some of them millions of dollars, and defines extreme-sports culture to this day.

The Origin of the Species: The Moment the Z-Boys took Skateboarding Airborne

Compared to modern tricks, these moves rank as fairly primitive (the technology had something to do with it, too). But that’s precisely the point. Skill circuits build slowly. From a deep-practice point of view, what’s happening here is exactly the same thing that happened to the Brönte sisters.

  • At 30 seconds: watch how they wipe out every single time. It’s not especially pretty, but it’s crucial: as with all deep practice, mistakes are the royal road to skill.
  • At 40 seconds: they get into a groove, repeating the motion over and over, following and mimicking each other—a perfect hothouse for building and honing skill circuits.
  • At 55 seconds: they are going higher and higher, making better mistakes each time. The “eureka” moment of liftoff is made possible by a thousand smaller moments, each one the firing of a circuit, the earning of a tiny bit of new skill. Mistakes aren’t really mistakes: they’re proof of growing skill circuits, as they scaffold themselves to ever-higher ability.
  • At 1:40: Watch Jay Adams (whom many regard as the true originator of modern skateboarding): he’s constantly pushing himself to the edge of his (not-yet-so-great) abilities.
  • At 2:40: You can see the surfing connection clearly here, as Adams is using skills (firing circuits) that he developed in the ocean and bringing them to the street. (Unfortunately, Adams developed other skills too—he ended up spending much of his adult life in and out of prison.)

Lessons

While it’s tempting to attribute the Z-Boys’ success to their appealingly renegade personalities, the truth is that it has far more to do with their discovery of the perfect deep-practice tool: an empty swimming pool. Like the Brontes (link), the pools allowed them to:

  • Locate the sweet spot of learning-the uncomfortable edge of their abilities, where real learning takes place.
  • Provide immediate, vivid (and, in this case, painful) feedback.
  • Repeat endlessly, circling, firing their skill circuits, failing productively, and firing them again. Skill circuits don’t care who you are-they care about what you do.