Practice Does More Than Make Permanent

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We’ve all heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” But, there’s also an adage that, “Practice doesn’t make perfect—it just makes permanent.” In other words, practice only teaches you to always execute a skill the way that you practice it.

Which is right? If practice just makes permanent, then you are actively harming yourself by practicing something wrong. But if practice makes you better, then you should expect to have mistakes along the way.

Before we answer which is right, let’s take a moment to talk about what actually happens when you practice. For this example, we’ll take a physical skill, first because we’re talking about dancing and second because mental skills follow the same process but for different physiological reasons, so mental skills add a complication that is unnecessary for our level of discussion.

When you deliberately execute a physical motion, your brain is sending a signal through your nervous system for specific muscles to contract at specific times. Those muscle contractions are what produce physical movement.

For really complicated movements, your nervous system needs to coordinate a lot of muscles contracting in a very precise sequence, at just the right times. That’s extremely difficult because our nervous system is surprisingly slow. In normal individuals, signals to the lower body travel at about 40 meters per second, which means that it takes about 100 milliseconds for the brain to send a signal to your feet and get a response. Add in time for your brain to process that information, decide on what adjustment is needed, and then send the correction signal, and a normal person can’t even make 10 adjustments per second to what’s happening in the foot muscles. Just try balancing on one foot, and you’ll quickly realize that 10 adjustments per second doesn’t give you much room for error.

But, when you practice a skill repeatedly, you aren’t just sending lots of nerve signals. Your body is also noticing that you are sending nerve signals and starts to make changes at the biological level in order to adapt. The most well-researched of these changes is a process known as myelination: the nerve cells involved are wrapped in a fatty layer called myelin, which improves the nerve conduction velocity. An unmyelinated nerve axon can send a signal somewhere between 0.5 m/s and 10 m/s, but a well myelinated axon can conduct signals at over 150 m/s! So, your body’s adaptation enables you to control what is happening at your feet much more rapidly, and more frequently, as you practice and continue to stimulate the myelination process.

So does practice make perfect, or just permanent? Well, practice on its own won’t make you perfect—you will get better at doing something in the way that you’ve practiced it. But, practice also enables you to be more perfect because your central nervous system becomes physiologically more capable of responding in that situation. It’s still up to you to figure out how to use that capacity correctly, but the fact that you can develop that capacity through practice is why practice does more than just make permanent.

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