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Practice, Practice, Practice

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Practice, Practice, Practice

Recently the Harvard Business Review ran an article on how readers could prepare for difficult business situations, using the analogy of coaches preparing their teams. There are lessons to be learned here for both programming and speaking.

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First, go check out the HBR article: “Practice for Tough Situations as You’d Practice a Sport” by Andy Molinsky. It’s a relatively short read (as all HBR’s web articles are; they’re usually summaries of longer books, either theirs or something closely related to business). His focus:

To learn soft skills in a way that truly prepares us for what we’ll face when it really matters, we can take a few lessons from a different arena where learning, development, and performance are essential: professional sports.

Belichick: The Legend

My hometown football team is the Seattle Seahawks. Two years ago, we were defeated in the Super Bowl when a Patriots cornerback leaped in front of a sure-thing short slant pass for the game-winning touchdown on what was almost the final play of the game.

(And yes, critics, that pass is a sure-thing; in the 168 times it was executed all across the season, by any team, including both the Seahawks and the Patriots, as well as all 30 other teams in the league, only once was it ever intercepted—that fateful play in the Super Bowl.)

Bill Belichick is the coach of the New England Patriots. He is quite a character.

One key tenet of professional sports coaching, for example, is to prepare people in the most realistic contexts possible. When professional football teams prepare for their next opponent, they’ll take into account the likely conditions they’ll face. If the stadium the team is playing in is going to be noisy, coaches like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots will play extremely loud music at practice to mimic game-time conditions. Belichick has even been known to pour water on practice balls to prepare the team for wet game-day weather.

Bill Belichick is one of the most intense, concrete, no-holds-barred anything-to-win coaches you will ever see in this lifetime. He oozes ruthlessness out of every pore, but it’s a laid-back ruthlessness—he will never get in your face and be angry, but players have said that if he goes very quiet on you, you’re in deep yogurt. Point is, Belichick has a strong reputation for success (more championship rings as a coach than I think any other coach in the history of the game), and much of that success is that nothing fazes the guy. Absolutely nothing. Team’s down by 42 going into the final two minutes of the game? Belichick has been there before, and the team feels it. Knows it. If anybody’s going to figure out how to score a metric crap-ton of points in an impossible amount of time, it’s Belichick. Nobody relaxes playing against a Belichick-coached team, no matter how good your lead is.

When Malcolm Butler (the cornerback) was talking about that interception at the goal line, he pointed out that he had recognized that formation and that play from game film that they had studied of the Seahawks’ game plan. He knew—from the bottom of his heart—what the play was going to be, and if you look at the replay, he simply muscles his way into the exact right spot where Russell Wilson threw the ball. He didn’t have time to track where the ball was going—if I remember correctly, he was already muscling into the spot before Wilson let go of the ball. Butler knew where that pass was going. He had seen it before. They had studied it before. Which is to say, his coaches had seen it, pointed it out to their players, and the players had spent time practicing what they would do if and when that situation emerged.

And it paid off for them, in spades.

Belichick isn’t, perhaps, the smartest coach in the league. But he’s always got an answer for anything the other team throws at him, and more often than not, the other teams can’t match whatever scheme he’s cooked up. His teams win through preparation, not talent.

And that’s the point: it’s often the preparation—not the talent—that creates success.

Preparation

When I interviewed at DevelopMentor all those many years ago, I was required to conduct a “test teach” down at the company’s LA (home) office. I prepared a talk of about 35 minutes in length, and I was asked to deliver the talk in one of the classrooms while the students were out having lunch. Luc (who would later become the “instructor liaison”, but for that moment was basically the “man Friday” for most of the company) took orders ahead of time, and ran out to a nearby restaurant to order and bring back the food.

I set up my slides (which I’d actually written as plain HTML files, since I was very much a newbie at PowerPoint), and as I glanced up, I saw about 30 people in the room. Some were standing, most were sitting, a number were typing away at keyboards, a few were chatting in the back. Most of them really weren’t paying any attention at all to me. I waited for a few minutes to see if they would notice I was ready to go. I’d been told, “You only have about 35 minutes, and we can’t hold up class, so make sure you stay within time”.

Fortunately, I’d done some Toastmasters in the past. When a crowd doesn’t notice you’re ready to start, you might do something to get their attention, then go ahead and start. Some speakers will clear their throat, some will be timid and say, “I’d like to get going now, please”, but me… well, I’ve never really been wired that way.

In a small room of about 30 people, I tossed off a “HELLO!” that was about two volume levels too high. It was pretty loud—a few people actually jumped. And everybody looked at me, completely shocked. And without missing a beat, I said in a much more appropriate tone of voice, “My name is Ted Neward, and I’m here to talk to you about Design Patterns today.”

See, at that point they had a choice—they could admit rudeness and go back to what they were doing (which most crowds won’t do, since most of us are relatively polite people), or they could pay attention to the talk - but once I had their attention, it was really on them.

And the only reason I knew this? Because I’d practiced this before, as part of Toastmasters.

I found out later, from Luc, that the room was quite deliberately coached to be a little “hard” on me. As a matter of fact, about ten minutes into my talk, Luc showed up with lunch, and stage-whispered his way around the room delivering lunch to everybody in it. All. Thirty. People.

Because you know what? If I can’t lecture through a distraction or two, I’m not going to last long as a professional speaker. They had the same idea as Toastmasters has had: the more you practice dealing with a situation, the more comfortable you are at dealing with it when it eventually does happen.

Professional sports players practice every scenario they can think off—physically and/or mentally—so that when the moment arises, they’re up to the challenge.

How do you prepare?

Practicality

Molinsky writes,

For example, you might work on rehearsing your pitch to potential VCs in front of a crowd of colleagues you’ve coached to pepper you with difficult questions. You might create situations where a VC is late to the meeting — or rushing you to finish your pitch in half the time you had planned. You might also do the session in a setting that mimics what you’ll likely encounter in the real world, whether that’s a noisy coffee shop or an overheated conference room.

Many speakers often “practice” their presentations in front of a sympathetic crowd — friends, family, people who genuinely love this person, and want their feelings to be spared any sort of discomfort or pain.

If you love me and I ask you to help me practice, you won’t spare me discomfort. You won’t try to shield me from pain. I need that discomfort, so that I know what it feels like. You actually hurt me by not making the situation realistic. Or worse than realistic.

When I was mentoring a young speaker before her first big debut presentation, I brought her down to the conference room where her talk would be in order to practice. We found the maintenance staff setting up chairs in there. I asked if we could use the room, and when they said, “Well, we need to be in here to set up the chairs”, I told them that was fine. It was more than fine — it was perfect. I made her go to the front of the room and deliver her talk to an audience of five or so; myself, and the maintenance staff that could’ve cared less about her talk while they were setting up. I spent most of the time fiddling with my phone; no eye contact, no nodding, no real feedback of any kind. She was essentially giving her talk into a vacuum. (Which, as any speaker can tell you, is an incredibly draining experience.)

Eventually the staff finished, and after a few more minutes where I deliberately kept moving around the room (partly to judge her voice volume while she was speaking, to be able to tell her whether she needed to go louder or softer), we wrapped up and went to go get dinner.

It was perhaps a bit harsh, but the point remains the same: people will get up and leave your talk for reasons that have nothing to do with your talk. Distractions will happen. Cell phones will ring. Tornado sirens will go off. Water will start pouring out of the ceiling for no reason whatsoever. (All of these have happened to me at one point or another.) You cannot control the circumstances surrounding your talk.

As an soccer coach, I routinely told my teams, “We are only as good as we practice.” As a volunteer football coach for my son’s football team, I routinely said the same thing. As a manager, I used that same logic to justify the time spent setting up infrastructure for our own internal IT, seeking to mimic the same tools, technology and process that we would use for any client.

An organization will only be as good as how it practices. How well do you deal with outages? How do you know? If you’ve never actually practiced an outage, you have no idea. You may have a plan, but if you’ve never practiced it, you’ve never actually gone through it, and therefore you really don’t know if any of this is going to work. How well do you deal with bug triage? How well do you deal with peformance problems? How well do you deal with refactoring?

How well do you practice any of these things? If you don’t, then you suck at it. I guarantee it.

The old joke says that a musician was stopped on the streets one day and asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He looked at the questioner, and without a hint of irony, said, “Practice, my boy, practice.”

Oh, and her talk? She killed it.

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soft skills training

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