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We talkin’ ‘bout deliberate practice

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- If you were raised by Mom, Dad and ESPN (like me), then you likely have seen the clip of Allen Iverson, a professional basketball player, at a news conference where he states:

"We talkin' bout practice man. We not even talkin' bout the game, the actual game, when it matters. We talkin' bout practice."

The news conference took place on May 7, 2002, a few days after the Philadelphia 76ers lost game five of a first-round NBA playoff series to the Boston Celtics. Iverson was responding to questions from reporters concerning comments made by Larry Brown, then-coach of the 76ers, accusing Iverson, his star player, of missing practices.

Iverson was certainly blessed with extraordinary amounts of talent, and few (if any) ever questioned his tenacity on the court during games. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1997, MVP in 2001, a four-time scoring champion, and an All-Star for 11-straight seasons from 2000-2010. Yet, his diminutive value placed on the importance of practice as evidenced by the now infamous news conference, reflects a serious error in Iverson's principles.

Personally, I could not disagree more with Iverson. I grew up playing football, basketball and baseball. Perhaps I was blessed, but I do not recall a coach ever telling me practice was not important. In fact, I am pretty sure all of my coaches had penalties if a practice was missed.

Miguel de Cervantes, a 17th century Spanish novelist, once wrote, "The man who is prepared has his battle half-fought." In my opinion, practice is a key and necessary ingredient to preparation, and in just about everything we do in the Air Force we have activities which I translate as "practice," activities which prepare us to Fly, Fight and Win! Inspections are preceded by exercises. CDC volume tests prepare us for our EOC exam. Professional Military Education sharpens our skills as we get ready for the next level of leadership responsibilities. Practice, practice, practice!

Fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough to be assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in support of the quiet professionals of United States Special Operations Command. I quickly learned the men and women of SOCOM conducted the most rigorous exercise schedule throughout the Department of Defense. Every month, I was on the road supporting and planning multiple exercises.

Some of the SOCOM practice sessions were small, one or two unit events which I likened to the position drills of a football team (i.e. linebackers practice tackling and quarterbacks practice throwing). Other exercises were large, multi-unit events, similar to a dress rehearsal or scrimmage. The experience was incredible and extremely rewarding!

One take away from my SOCOM experience can be summed up best by a quote from Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach:

"Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."

All of us have had teammates who have just gone through the motions at a practice, in a training class, or at an exercise. Perhaps, we were one of them on an occasion or two. We must fight the urge to count the minutes or watch the clock, to just survive the next exercise or training session until the ENDEX whistle blows. In this age of limited resources, every minute is precious. We must be sure to engage in deliberate practice.

The best definition of deliberate practice I have found comes from author Geoff Colvin in his book Talent Is Overrated. According to Colvin, deliberate practice includes the following elements:

·It's designed specifically to improve performance.

·It can be repeated a lot.

·Feedback on results is continuously available.

·It's highly demanding mentally.

·It isn't much fun.

I challenge Air Force leaders at all levels to stop us from just going through the motions in any drill, practice activity, training session, PT or exercise. Ensure your practice incorporates these five elements of deliberate practice. And yes, Mr. Iverson, we talkin' bout deliberate practice!