There is an art to the practice of practicing. This is one of the most important and most fundamental concepts I try to convey to my students. Repeated actions can be meaningful or meaningless (or even degrading of ability), depending on the kind of attention you bring to the task. Training yourself in the kind of attention you bring to bear on your actions — that’s the real secret behind making practice effective, satisfying and ultimately a joy. In his very insightful book Beautiful Practice, Frank Forencich talks in depth about the difference between “smart reps” and mindless, ineffective ones. He uses “attentional density,” a term from neuroscience, to describe the kind of passionately focused attention that brings positive results:
“Naturally, high attentional density is driven by desire and motivation. Loving what we do is vital. High-performance training can be extremely challenging at times as we struggle to create brand-new capabilities from what feels like thin air. The skill lies just out of reach, a promise that we can sense, but not quite execute. If we can drive our attentional density with passion and motivation, we can push ourselves into this new domain. And if we can do it repeatedly, we can develop real skill.”
As a teacher, I train my students in the art of practicing as well as the art of tennis.