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.