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  • Mastering any physical skill, be it performing a pirouette, playing an instrument, or throwing a baseball, takes practice.

  • Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement, and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence.

  • So what does practice do in our brains to make us better at things?

  • Our brains have two kinds of neural tissue: grey matter and white matter.

  • The grey matter processes information in the brain, directing signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells, while white matter is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers.

  • In order for our bodies to move, information needs to travel from the brain's grey matter, down the spinal cord, through a chain of nerve fibers called axons to our muscles.

  • So how does practice or repetition affect the inner workings of our brains?

  • The axons that exist in the white matter are wrapped with a fatty substance called myelin.

  • And it's this myelin covering, or sheath, that seems to change with practice.

  • Myelin is similar to insulation on electrical cables.

  • It prevents energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses, moving them more efficiently along neural pathways.

  • Some recent studies in mice suggest that the repetition of a physical motion increases the layers of myelin sheath that insulates the axons.

  • And the more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains, forming a sort of superhighway for information connecting your brain to your muscles.

  • So while many athletes and performers attribute their successes to muscle memory, muscles themselves don't really have memory.

  • Rather, it may be the myelination of neural pathways that gives these athletes and performers their edge with faster and more efficient neural pathways.

  • There are many theories that attempt to quantify the number of hours, days, and even years of practice that it takes to master a skill.

  • While we don't yet have a magic number, we do know that mastery isn't simply about the amount of hours of practice.

  • It's also the quality and effectiveness of that practice.

  • Effective practice is consistent, intensely focused, and targets content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one's current abilities.

  • So if effective practice is the key, how can we get the most out of our practice time?

  • Try these tips.

  • Focus on the task at hand.

  • Minimize potential distractions by turning off the computer or TV and putting your cell phone on airplane mode.

  • In one study, researchers observed 260 students studying.

  • On average, those students were able to stay on task for only six minutes at a time.

  • Laptops, smartphones, and particularly Facebook were the root of most distractions.

  • Start out slowly or in slow-motion.

  • Coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect.

  • If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitons, you have a better chance of doing them correctly.

  • Next, frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers.

  • Studies have shown that many top athletes, musicians, and dancers spend 50-60 hours per week on activities related to their craft.

  • Many divide their time used for effective practice into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration.

  • And finally, practice in your brain in vivid detail.

  • It's a bit surprising, but a number of studies suggest that once a physical motion has been established, it can be reinforced just by imagining it.

  • In one study, 144 basketball players were divided into two groups.

  • Group A physically practiced one-handed free throws while Group B only mentally practiced them.

  • When they were tested at the end of the two week experiment, the intermediate and experienced players in both groups had improved by nearly the same amount.

  • As scientists get closer to unraveling the secrets of our brains, our understanding of effective practice will only improve.

  • In the meantime, effective practice is the best way we have of pushing our individual limits, achieving new heights, and maximizing our potential.

Mastering any physical skill, be it performing a pirouette, playing an instrument, or throwing a baseball, takes practice.

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