time to learn again

I stood at the free throw line, close to tears. All it was going to take was a couple dribbles and then a shot. And for a moment, I just couldn’t do it.

I wish that I was talking about some grades school experience. But I’m not. That little experience happened this week. I was standing in a gym, one other person in the room. Absolutely no pressure, no risk, nothing to fear. Nothing but my own fear of messing up.

Deliberate Practice in practice

I’ve written about deliberate practice before. It’s one of my words for the year. Let’s see if I can explain it simply. Assume that there is something that you are good at. If practice is repeated activity in what you are good at, deliberate practice is focusing those repetitions on the weakest part of what you are good at.

If you are  a great golfer, practice is playing extra rounds. Deliberate practice is working on the most difficult shots. If you are a writer, practice is writing a lot. Deliberate practice is writing sonnets if you regularly do prose so that you work on maximum impact from minimum syllables.

My challenge is to bring that level of intentional learning into spiritual formation, helping people learn how to follow Jesus.

So what does this have to do with basketball?

Last night, Greg wanted to talk with me. He’s working with a new group at church and we’re talking about how to approach it best. I had to take care of a few things and he waited for me in the gym. Shooting baskets. I walked in, took a couple shots, and realized that I needed to learn from Greg.

(A year ago I tried shooting baskets. It was a miserable experience. It was time to try it a different way.)

So here’s what I learned last night.

1. I had to decide to learn to learn. I could have continued not knowing how to shoot baskets. However, for some reason, I decided that now was the time to change that. It was tough. There were a million other things to do. But I decided.

2. I had to let Greg be smarter than me. I’ve known Greg for more than twenty years. When we met, he was a college student and I was a faculty member. We went different ways and now we are at the same church. He’s working on a teaching degree. I’ve taught, one way or another, for years. Neither of us are smarter than each other. However, last night I had to acknowledge that this former student knew more than I did about shooting baskets.

There is a humility that is necessary for learning. First, there is a vague sense of “I need to learn.” After that, however, comes “you know more than me.” The first can happen in my head. The second involves my body.

3. I had to look foolish. When Greg watched my shooting, he quickly diagnosed the problem. I was doing a shot put. I was shoving the ball toward the basket. Instead, Greg said, use your wrist.

In order to find out what that felt like, I had to stand in the gym holding my arm in the air, practicing the motion. I had to stand near the wall, practicing the motion with a ball. I had to stand at the free throw line, practicing the motion and then practicing with a ball.

For someone who is not an athlete, trying to train my arm was hilarious.

4. It’s hard to learn. Now we’re back to the beginning of this story. After we had been shooting for awhile, after a lot of coaching and demonstrating, I stood at the line. I dribbled. I lifted the ball to shoot. I put it down. I practiced the motion. I lifted the ball again. I wanted to walk away. I couldn’t.

I realized standing there that this wasn’t about shooting a basket. This was about whether I was willing to try something that I couldn’t do. This was about whether I was willing to commit to learning how to shoot, no matter what.

This was about whether I was ready to learn a new lesson about learning.

And I was feeling tears of frustration and tears of joy. I don’t remember the last time that I said, “I just have to learn this.” And it was hard.


Deliberate practice is about improving process, about how we go about doing what we are doing. I only made a couple baskets last night. In fact, my percentage of completion was worse than it had been last year when I was shooting 50 baskets.  However, I made a significant change in the process of shooting.

I’ll let you know more about how much I improve at making baskets. I think I just let you know how I’m improving at learning.


15 responses to “time to learn again

  1. Congratulations on making some baskets! I find the older I get, the more difficult it is for me to learn new things. Not because I can’t, but because my mind won’t let me. We develop so many inhibitions as we move further away from childhood – we’re afraid we’ll look silly, that others will see us as weaker.

    Keep on practicing, and you’ll get better. Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll want to think up all kinds of creative ways to shoot (over your head, between your legs, etc.)

    The journey is the fun part, right?

  2. Fantastic insights! Thank you very much!

    And congrats on your baskets. 🙂

  3. I’ve never visited this site before; was directed here from a Tweet from Chris Brogan.

    I wish I had had this kind of advice when I was a young’un. It makes so much more sense to someone who is struggling than a pat, “You just have to try harder!”

    I’m bookmarking this and will be back.

  4. What a fabulous distinction: practice vs. deliberate practice. Thanks for the insight.

  5. As we get older, we believe that maybe we should know it all and be good at most things we try.

    As a middle aged adult it can be hard to admit that on occassion we might be as good as we can be, or we lack ability or knowledge on a subject, hobby or sport.

    Over the last nine months, since my dad died with cancer, I have come to a place in my mind where I am comfortable in admitting that yes occassionally I fluff up big time, I don’t know everything, and I seek to learn more from others.

    The great thing about that it that it gives other people permission to be open about their vulnerability which, in my experience, leads to a higher level of empowerment.

    Great article – thanks


  6. Trevor Rotzien

    Excellent, evocative post.

    I stumbled across deliberate practice some time ago – I think it was my survival instinct reacting against a stubborn bout of laziness.

    As you indicated, exercising humility, in spite of being “grown-up”, is absolutely key.

    Last year, I joined a martial arts school as a middle-ager that had just regained some modicum of fitness. For the first 6 months, I referred to it affectionately as my “humility” class. But persevering the awkward coordination challenges was well worth it – I can see improvements now. If I had let transient embarrassment decide for me, nothing good would have been gained.

  7. 1. I had to decide to learn to learn.

    This is the first step for every one. No matter your age.

  8. Susan – before I get fancy, I just want to get consistent.:)

  9. Rose – thanks!

    Sharoney – you get it. It isn’t about trying harder. In fact, that often
    makes things worse.

  10. semazza – you are welcome.

    Jan – thanks for sharing about your loss and learning. The ironic thing is
    that admitting that we aren’t good at something and moving into learning
    mode may help us learn to better at something than we thought we could be.

  11. trevor – perfect example and explanation. Thank you!

    Sheila – and it’s a harder step than we realize.

  12. Jon, What a profound post. I have spent my life trying to ‘get’ this. I love basketball and the analogy is perfect. Now, if I can get it through to my son and his basketball team of 12 & 13 year olds! I will share this with them at practice next week. Thanks

  13. Pingback: 100 percent savings and a free ebook « Levite Chronicles

  14. Pingback: Writing lessons « Levite Chronicles

  15. Pingback: taking some steps « Levite Chronicles