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Practice and Performance in Perspective

In most sports, there are objective measures that can be used to show individual improvement.   These include variables measured by time (speed, quickness agility, pitch speed) or distance (jump height, long jump, javelin throw).   Just get a baseline, train, and re-evaluate.  You are either faster or slower. Even team sports have a metric – the final score.

Defining improvement in performing arts is more subjective (similar to such sports as gymnastics and diving).   There may be judges or just the perceptions of the audience.  The element of creativity is even more pronounced in the arts and even harder to define.   Yet performing artists spend countless hours practicing to get better; a “better” that may not be able to be objectively measured.

So what is the optimal number of hours to practice?   At what point do additional hours of practice hurt rather than help performance?

Let’s look to the athletics world for some guidance:

  • At the college level, NCAA athletes may participate in no more than 20 hours of practice a week, with one day per week completely off.   These rules are in place to allow student-athletes time to be students, but also for health and safety reasons.   At the same NCAA institutions, how many of the music or dance students are following this schedule?
  • Olympic athletes have a four-year training schedule that, at a very high level, consists of foundation work, overtraining, technique work and tapering to peak for two weeks during the Olympic Games.  Recovery is an important component of this cycle as well.
  • Coming off an arm injury in 2011, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg was shut down this season after reaching a pre-determined inning count to minimize his risk of long-term injury.  This strategy was based on data that showed when pitchers significantly increase the number of innings pitched from one season to the next, there was a much higher chance of an arm injury.
  • Many athletes cross-train to maintain aerobic fitness while minimizing the mental and physical stress associated with their principal sport.   Soccer players play basketball, swimmers do running workouts and vice versa.
  • When starting a program of walking for exercise, it is recommended to increase your steps by no more than 500 each week.

Many of these findings in the world of athletics can be transferred to the performing artist and you should consider applying these concepts to optimize your talent and longevity:

  1. The ability to identify and objectively measure improvement in each aspect of the performing arts is essential in order to better understand the volume and type of practice necessary to optimize performance.
  2. At some point the number of practice hours may hurt rather than help.
  3. Large ACUTE increases in the time spent physically practicing/performing may increase risk of injury.  If the volume or intensity of practice must increase, do it gradually.
  4. Consider FOCUSED practice segments with different goals in each session.   Rote repetition for extended periods of time has not proven successful in the athletic world.
  5. Cross-train:Take a mental or physical activity that allows the body to focus on something different.  RECOVER.
  6. Invest in your overall fitness to optimize your skill.   Use 30-45 minutes of your practice time for separate physical activity.

Finally, complement your practice with wise choices related to nutrition, hydration and other lifestyle issues, using this website and related resources as a foundation.  Investing in some of these lifestyle behaviors should both optimize your performance AND make it sustainable for many years to come.

We welcome your comments.

Randall Dick   Fellow, American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

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