Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect ~ Vince Lombardi
6 am. Indoor cycling class. Half asleep, eyes partially closed, all I have to do is pedal. Pedal for 45 minutes. Solid and steady. I hear what the coach is saying, on his bike at the front of the studio, but it doesn’t always register.
“Practice makes permanent”
Did I hear that right? Or did he mean to say practice makes perfect? And what if the saying that I’ve heard since I was a child isn’t actually true?
When I was a young girl, beginning around 8 or 9 years of age, I played the organ. Most of my friends played the piano, but I believe that my dad really wanted me to play at hockey games and so hence, I played the organ. I remember the lead up to my first recital. I practiced and practiced attempting to perfect my song choice and my performance. I believed that the more I practiced, the more perfectly I would play the song. Then the big day came. I was nervous but excited and I felt prepared. My mom and dad were in the audience and I looked for them as I walked onto the stage and sat down at the keys. I took a deep breath and began to play. In my heart, I knew I played the song perfectly, exactly as I had practiced it over and over. However, I had played a good portion of the song with barely any volume. Part way through my teacher came over and pushed the foot pedal down to increase the volume so the audience could actually hear my “perfectly” practiced song. I didn’t win in any of the categories. However, I did receive a trophy from my dad. He believed I played perfectly.
Practicing does not automatically equal perfection.
When I was 19 I wanted a truck. I wanted a ten year old, light blue, Ford Ranger, extended cab. Or maybe I didn’t want that, but that’s what I got. It was also a standard transmission. Although I had managed to pass my driving exam on the first attempt at 16, I had never driven a standard. I swore to my dad that I would practice and I would learn. He handed over the keys. I practiced. I ground the gears, stalled the engine, rolled backwards on hills and experienced general frustration that increased with each and every “practice” session. A few days later, my dad wanted me to take him out for a drive in the truck to show him my new skills. I climbed in behind the wheel, started the engine and drove away. Or more accurately, I jerked, grinded and stalled my way down the road. I sucked. After he made me pull over, with much exuberance, I began to tell him how much I had been practicing. He nodded and said, “yes but you’ve been practicing wrong.”
Practice makes permanent.
Repeatedly performing, practicing or completing the same thing over and over does not create perfection, it creates a habit. It ensures that every time you perform that skill or action, you will do it exactly as you have done over and over again. Practice does not make perfect, practicing perfectly makes perfect.
But what exactly is perfection? Does perfect exist? Or is it a subjective and somewhat arbitrary construct that is dependent on our own interpretations and expectations of what perfect is?
- having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.
2. free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality; faultless.
3. precisely accurate; exact.
4. highly suitable for someone or something; exactly right.
I don’t believe perfect to exist in absolute terms. I do believe in practicing or performing skills or actions in a way that promotes safety and repeatability. I believe that every time I climb on my indoor cycling bike that I want to push my body and my limits in a way that is safe, healthy and effective. I want to practice in a manner that will allow my body to perform this action for years to come, gaining strength, and avoiding injury. Perfect does not exist in the cycling studio. But practicing to make permanent does.
Perhaps a lesson can be learned that perfect should not be the ultimate desire, but rather safe, efficient and effective. That what we practice makes a permanent habit that will stay with us and be repeated each and every time we perform the same activity. The goal should be increasing strength, safety and avoiding injury with every pedal stroke. And besides, my dear friend said it best, “perfect people are bullshit.”