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This topic is adapted from the TED-Ed YouTube channel.

Mastering any physical skill requires practice, and a lot of it. Practice is simply repeating an action over and over with the goal of improvement. Through practice, you are able to perform with more ease, speed, and confidence. But what does practice actually do in our brains to make us better at what we practice?

Practice Makes Your Brain Work More Effectively

Brains are made up of two kinds of matter: gray and white. Gray matter is where information in your brain is processed. After information is processed, your brain sends signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells. Then this stimuli travels through the nerve fibers and fatty tissues that make up the white matter in your brain to your spine in order to facilitate movement. The information travels through a special nerve fiber called an “axon.” Axons have an important covering called a “myelin sheath.” This is the part of the brain affected by practice. When you repeat an action over and over again, it builds up this myelin sheath. When the sheath is strong, the information moves through it more easily, allowing you to perform certain movements more quickly and efficiently.

Mastery Doesn’t Come from Only Countless Hours of Practice

There isn’t a magic number of hours, days, or months that it takes to master a skill. The quality and effectiveness of your practice is what truly helps you reach mastery. Effective practice is consistent, intensely focused, and targets content or weaknesses that are on the edge of your current abilities. Here are some tips to help you to practice effectively: (1) Minimize distractions by turning off your TV or other electronic devices. (2) Start slow in order to build coordination through repetition. (3) Build a practice schedule that has allotted time for breaks.

Your Brain Is One of Your Most Powerful Practice Tools

This might sound odd to you, but simply practicing physically isn’t the only way to reach mastery. You have to imagine yourself doing the task you are practicing even outside of practice sessions. A study showed that a group of people who simply thought about the action of mastering a specific task made the same percentage of improvement as a group of people that actually practiced.

As research progresses we will be able to learn more ways to master different tasks, but until then effective practice is the best way to push yourself to the best of your abilities. Through practice you can maximize your potential and achieve things that you never thought possible.

[Related: How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain]

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. What is a skill you practice regularly? How much time do you spend practicing that skill? Why?
  4. Make a list of things that distract you while you should be practicing.
  5. What are some things you use or have used to motivate yourself to practice?
  6. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.