Everyone knows that you need to practice west coast swing in order to get better. What is less well known is what makes practice effective. In this post we will dig into something called deliberate practice. However I wanted to give you some other helpful models of practice for west coast swing
Practice Styles for west coast swing:
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Deliberate practice for west coast swing
The short answer is that there is a specific kind of practice that results in tremendous improvement. “Deliberate practice,” as it is called in the literature, is described by one of the experts of practice research, Geoff Colvin, as, activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun (Talent Is Overrated).
We will explore each of these elements in detail, as well as how to integrate these principles into your own practice sessions. As we work through the elements of deliberate practice, think about how well your practice time makes use of these ideas, and what areas are ripe for improvement.
Deliberate Practice is Improvement Focused
Deliberate practice is not mere repetition. Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance by targeting a shortcoming in current performance and attempting to rectify that shortcoming.
There is an explicit goal in deliberate practice, and all the activity is targeted towards attaining that goal.
Unfortunately, most of us spend our practice time on unfocused activities. If your practice sessions consist of turning on a song and dancing with a partner, you’re not really practicing: you’re social dancing. If you go into a practice session with the goal of “working on your dancing,” you’re leaving a lot on the table. To truly improve, you have to approach your practice time with a purpose.
An easy way to incorporate this principle into your practice is to have an agenda for your practice session.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy: “solo dance basics to a full song with a kick ball change on each pattern’s 1, 2” is a perfectly acceptable agenda if all you have is four minutes to practice.
What you will quickly discover is that this kind of focus pays off much faster than meandering practice sessions, even if you spend more time in the meandering sessions.
Deliberate Practice is Mentally Demanding
Deliberate practice—whether for a mental or physical activity—is highly mentally demanding. Because the focus of the practice is on getting the details of the execution correct, the mental demands of practice are almost always more strenuous than the physical demands.
There are many reasons that deliberate practice is mentally demanding.
Deliberate practice requires sustained, laser-like focus in order to concentrate on specific aspects of the skill performance.
The sheer number of repetitions can be exhausting, and keeping oneself mentally engaged throughout these repetitions imposes a heavy cognitive load.
Finally, the activities that are performed during deliberate practice are just outside of the practitioner’s current skill set, which means that even more mental effort is required in order to develop the capacity to consistently execute the skill.
In short, every element of deliberate practice imposes a mental burden.
On the positive side, the ability to endure the mental demands of deliberate practice improves as one continues to practice.
Research into the practice habits of music students demonstrates that the capacity for focused practice grows as the student improves. In other words, practice results in the ability to practice more.
The research on musicians shows that professionals max out at the ability to engage in about an hour and a half of deliberate practice. After that, the brain needs time to recuperate.
Some music professionals built their schedules around two deliberate practice sessions: a morning session and an afternoon session, with a substantial break in between.
These professionals could carry out at most three hours of deliberate practice a day, but often they needed to do two shorter sessions (for a total of about two hours) rather than two full-length sessions a day.
What this research tells us is that it’s worthwhile to divide our practice activities.
During deliberate practice sessions, new skills can be worked on with intense focus (and with the concomitant intense mental effort). If additional practice is performed that day, it probably won’t be deliberate practice, and so the focus should be on activities that do not require that kind of intense effort (such as having warm-up dances or doing “fun” activities).
Deliberate Practice Uses Constant Feedback
The next characteristic of deliberate practice is that feedback is continuously available. Because deliberate practice involves a great deal of repetition, it is necessary to make sure that the skill is being practiced correctly.
Continuous feedback can come from many sources. The observation of a coach or teacher is the most common form of feedback.
The legendary basketball coach John Wooden was known for peppering his practice sessions with short directives to his players: “Dribble to here,” “turn your body further,” and so on. By providing immediate feedback with each repetition, his players never wasted a repetition.
If the feedback of a teacher is not readily available, tools like mirrors and video cameras can be used to quickly see the result of an action.
However, the power of these tools falls dramatically if they are not used frequently. The longer the time between the execution of the skill and the feedback, the less that the mistakes can be corrected because the body or mind will be distanced from what you did to create the performance initially.
If you are going to video your practice sessions, you really need to be doing back to the tape after just a handful of repetitions of a single skill.
Looking at a video of (e.g.) you and your partner dancing through an entire 2.5 minute routine may be useful in identifying ugly lines, but it is not nearly frequent enough feedback to constitute deliberate practice.
Deliberate Practice Needs a Teachers Help
Because deliberate practice aims beyond our current skill set, most people need a teacher’s help to recognize what to work on.
It is hard to underestimate the importance of a teacher in deliberate practice.
Teachers are helpful in every field, but their knowledge is especially important for complex activities like dancing because there are so many subtle aspects that are very difficult to see until you have learned what to look for.
For example, a beginning dancer can tell that west coast pros dance smoothly, but the actual body mechanics of how to create that look are extraordinarily difficult to break down from watching a YouTube video without extensive training. (although we try our best our website)
In addition, teachers can be invaluable for designing practice activities because of their experience in how the relevant skills are acquired. Simply put, working without a teacher is like trying to reinvent the wheel (or, in this case, to rediscover the entirety of WCS on your own).
The amount of difference that proper training can make is simply stunning!
To put it in perspective, in the 13th century the scholar Roger Bacon claimed that it was impossible to master mathematics in less than 30 years.
Today, college students regularly complete calculus, a level of mathematics that did not even exist at the time of Bacon’s pronouncement. The difference between then and now? We’ve learned an amazing amount about how to transmit the knowledge of mathematics.
At a certain point, an individual becomes capable of critically assessing their skill enough to create their own practice activities. However, even at the top levels of performance, it is common to see individuals seek feedback from others.
Professional tennis players have their own coaches because the coach can help them understand how to approach a problem with their stroke, even if the player is skilled enough to know that the stroke isn’t working.
Sometimes, what an expert needs, is simply an outside perspective—someone who can see the action from the outside and pick up on details that may be missed when executing the action.
Addressing this principle of deliberate practice is easy: take private lessons.
Even seeing a local professional once a month, and seriously focusing on what they suggest, will transform your dancing.
Deliberate Practice can be repeated a lot
The third principle of deliberate practice is that it can be repeated a lot.
The notion that deliberate practice requires a great deal of repetition should come as no surprise. A large part of skill acquisition comes from the myelination of the neurons involved in the action, which requires activating the neurons hundreds of times.
An excellent example of the role of repetition for deliberate practice comes from Brazilian soccer players. Watching the Brazilian national team is simply breathtaking; the passing and ball control looks like dancing more than running.
What is hidden from the World Cup broadcasts is the practice that went into that level of performance.
For years, Brazilian players have trained with a game called futsal, which is like soccer but played with smaller teams in an extremely confined space. The smaller environment means that players interact with the ball far more frequently than in normal soccer practices—up to six times as many touches per minute. Many of the major Brazilian players, including Pelé, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho, credit the rapid pace of futsal with their deft ball-handling skills. Put simply: more touches will mean better control.
The good news for west coast swing dancers is that our dance can be broken into 2-beat increments, (with few exceptions).
Having such small units in the dance means that west coast is practically built for high-rep drills.
If you have a new footwork variation, you can practice that 2-beat sequence dozens of times in a row. Chaines turns naturally break into 2-beat increments. Perfecting an arm line from a throw-out only requires a couple of beats of music.
Thus, to incorporate this principle into your practice, simply decide what element to focus on, and do it again and again.
Deliberate Practice is not very fun
The final characteristic of deliberate practice is that it is not very fun. In fact, deliberate practice is explicitly designed to be stressful—you are actively trying to push yourself beyond what you are currently capable of doing.
No one likes to feel unsuccessful, and yet deliberate practice sessions are engineered so that successes are few and far between.
Once you’ve found success, deliberate practice doesn’t let you stop; you keep repeating it with the same laser-like focus until you can’t get it wrong, or you move on to something even more challenging.
The minute you stop pushing yourself and get caught up in the moment is the minute that you lose the critical faculties that make deliberate practice so transformative.
At the end of the day, this is the reason that deliberate practice is so challenging.
The principles of deliberate practice are straightforward. The problem is applying them; you are deliberately stepping outside of your comfort zone, repeatedly, and ratcheting up the difficulty level as soon as your comfort zone expands.
Properly done, deliberate practice is exhausting, mentally taxing, and endlessly challenging.
To be fair, there can be an element of enjoyment in knowing that you are pushing yourself past your limits and in seeing an impossible task become manageable.
However, the overriding emotion of deliberate practice is not joy. The kind of enjoyment that comes with deliberate practice is very different than the enjoyment of a great social dance or winning a Jack & Jill, and the successful practitioner needs to be aware of that difference so he or she can persevere through the challenge imposed by deliberate practice.
Put simply: not many people will persevere long enough to benefit from it.
As a result, the window of opportunity is wide open for you to transform your own dancing to a higher plane.
Other Resources for Practicing West Coast Swing
Our website has TONS of awesome resources to help you with your west coast swing. Below are just a couple ones that will help your practice.