Grit and Deliberate Practice

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I have recently listened to an audiobook called “Grit: the power of passion and perseverance” by Angela Duckworth, which has been so enlightening to me in my dance training and pursuit of my goals, I feel I need to share some of what I have learned.

First of all, I highly recommend that you read the book, or like me, download and listen to the audiobook. In it, Angela Duckworth talks all about what grit is, about all of the work and research behind the theory, including some great examples, and how to grow grit within yourself. I found it enjoyable, enlightening and really inspiring: so much so that I’m now listening for a second time and considering getting a hard copy of the book, too, so that I can leaf through and get to relevant sections whenever I want a refresher!

In the meantime, head over to Duckworth’s website and take a look at some of her talks (the Q&A section is also very useful) to get an idea about what grit is all about.

To summarise, as I understand it, grit is a characteristic which is defined by having a very important goal, and working tirelessly to achieve that goal, despite difficulties and setbacks. It is working on one’s weaknesses and doing anything that is necessary to progress, no matter how slowly. It is not working very hard on one project for a certain amount of time, then giving up and turning one’s attention to something else, but the long-term pursuit of one important thing. People who are gritty constantly strive to do better, they take criticism and make changes accordingly, and they are not deterred by difficulty or rejection. Some people are very gritty, others are not very gritty, and it is possible for your grittiness to change. I recommend assessing your own grit at various points using the grit scale.

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Dancers will likely be very familiar with the idea of grit, even if you’ve never been able to actually define it before. To pursue a career in dance is to enter a fiercely competitive field, deal with constant criticism and rejection, work endlessly on weaknesses, be regularly asked to do things that are currently too difficult for you, face pain and fatigue and to keep going because the end goal is so important, and because we love what we do. I believe that if Duckworth were to study dancers, she would find that we are significantly grittier than the general population.

Since listening to this book, I have been so much more aware about my own grit, and making an effort to live my life the way a much grittier person would. I already knew what it was to work hard and to have a passion that drives you, but I had never fully grasped the definitive idea of grit. Having a clearly defined idea of what makes a person gritty, has made me grittier, and as a result I’m making more progress than I ever have.

Something that Duckworth talks about in her book is the idea of deliberate or intentional practice. Hearing her talk about deliberate practice was like someone switching on a light in my head. I know that it’s important to work on your weaknesses more than your strengths in order to improve, but having this practice properly defined to me made it so much easier to implement it.

Deliberate practice is repeatedly practicing your relevant skill, applying feedback, focusing on weaknesses, and working hard to progress. For example, a dancer will do many things to help them with their art: you might take classes, go to the gym, go to exercise classes, stretch, watch dance performances, read books about dance, and more. However deliberate practice would be getting in the studio with your teacher and working on your technique, going over the difficult parts until they become second-nature, constantly competing with yourself to be better than yesterday. Deliberate practice is difficult and tiring, generally taking up a fairly small proportion of your total training. I’d say that as a dancer, these things count as deliberate practice:

  • Taking class: however, I’d only count taking class as deliberate practice if, in that class, you are focused and working to your absolute maximum. You would be applying your teachers’ corrections, going over things multiple times, and concentrating on the things you don’t do so well. If you are just going through the motions and using the class to maintain your technique or warm up your body, rather than to progress, this is fine but it is not deliberate practice.
  • Going over things in the studio after or outside of class. For example, my main weakness is turns, so after class I usually practice turning. I film myself, spot my mistakes, and try again, this time working on fixing those mistakes, and film myself again and compare. The same if you go through some barre work, concentrating on maximising your turnout or avoiding your feet rolling in or anything else, or going over an allegro combination that you found difficult, maybe with help and feedback from a teacher or classmate.
  • Rehearsal- rehearsal is a good form of deliberate practice because usually your teacher or choreographer is watching you and providing a lot of constant corrections which you have to apply, and then do the same movements many times over.
  • Conditioning- by conditioning, I mean working on stretching and strengthening the areas where you are weak. For example, I have a routine which combines exercises my physiotherapist has given me with other exercises, all designed to remedy weaknesses or technique problems. For example, I do strength work on my inner thighs because I bend my knees closing in to 5th position due to of inner thigh weakness. I do a lot of releves with a ball between my ankles to fix misalignment on demi and full pointe.

Other training, such as dancing for the fun of it as well as other cross-training exercise and things like reading about and watching dance, are still really important. However, by taking action to increase the amount of deliberate practice that you do every day (and it does need to be every day), you will make a lot more progress. I think that I have improved more in my technique this month, since listening to this book and making consistent training and deliberate practice a priority, than I had in the past year.

To make things easier, I have also designed an “intentional practice tracker” in my bullet journal. I divided a page into many tiny squares- each square represents half an hour of deliberate practice for ballet specifically, and I colour the squares in depending on how much I have done. I have a different colour for each month so that I can see at a glance how much deliberate practice I am getting in.

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I hope that these ideas about grit and deliberate practice are as illuminating and helpful to you as they have been to me! Once again, I strongly recommend reading the book as I have only touched on these ideas. Duckworth not only talks in more detail about grit, deliberate practice, the grit scale and growing grit, but also has a very interesting formula about skill acquisition and effort versus talent. As dancers, we focus a lot on natural ability, so I think that Duckworth’s points on this matter are things that every dancer should hear!

Now let’s go practice, practice practice!

 

Jessica x

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