The 3 Levels of Effective Practice

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to understand highly effective practice, and recently came across a keeper from Vern Gambetta, the well-known coach and athletic consultant. It’s called “winning the workout.” (Here’s a short video describing it.)

At its core is the idea that there are three essential ways of approaching a practice session.

  • Level 1) You show up. You do the job exactly as you’re told to do it; nothing more, nothing less. You get a little better.
  • Level 2) You show up. You do the job, and you target certain tasks that’ll help you toward your goal. You work the workout, push yourself, think about technique. You get a lot better.
  • Level 3) You show up, having thought about how today’s session fits into the larger goal. You work very hard, pushing yourself into the discomfort zone over and over, with full commitment. Later, you reflect/analyze/critique your performance with a cool, objective eye. You get a LOT better, creating what Gambetta calls “the quantum leap.”

Think of the three levels as bronze, silver, and gold. Level 3 is winning the workout.

Traditionally, when we talk about effective practice, we use the idea of focus — the amount of attention a person puts into their actions. After all, that’s the one word parents and coaches often yell from the sidelines — “Focus!” (And it usually works about as well as you’d expect.)

One reason I like Gambetta’s concept is that it takes us beyond the primitive idea of focus and into the more targeted idea of investment — sensing and measuring the total amount of time and energy put into the process of getting better. I also like it because it embraces the semi-revolutionary idea that some of the most vital work happens away from the practice space, in the time we use to reflect, strategize, plan, and figure out honest answers to those two simple but immensely difficult questions we face every day: where are we right now, really? Where we want to be tomorrow?

The more immediate question is, how do you increase investment and win the workout? Here are two ideas.

  • 1) Notebooks. Writing stuff down is a good way to increase planning, reflection, and understanding; it lets us think our way past obstacles and see ourselves clearly. Check out for some good ideas and tools.
  • 2) Make a habit of connecting every session, every drill, to the longterm goal. One way to think about this is to think like a movie camera, zooming in and out. Zoom in on the task, then zoom out to show where it fits in the bigger picture.

(Big thanks to sharp-eyed reader Gerald Murray for alerting me to Gambetta’s work.)