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Winter Olympics 2022: what HR can learn from practice makes perfect

Upskilling and reskilling continues to take the top spot on organisations' list of goals and needs for 2022 and the opening of the Winter Olympics today is a good opportunity to reflect on the role that practice plays in the learning process.  

Looking at the 'ones to watch' on Team GB, including alpine skier Dave Ryding and snowboarder Charlotte Bankes, the majority of those expected to win medals are in their late 20s and early 30s and have had time to mindfully hone their skills.  

They often have been in several Olympic games or other top-level international competitions, providing the opportunity not only to practice their sport, but also to practice the skill of competing on a world stage.  

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The theory of marginal gains (improve everything you can by 1% at a time) widely adopted by Great Britain following the success of the British cycling squad is an approach that identifies the many miniscule components that contribute to success and address them incrementally.  

That allows skill practice to be focused on the areas where practice can have the most impact and allows other approaches to be used for other contributions towards overall success.  

HR can apply this approach to upskilling as well, by first identifying where practice will have the most impact, and then ensuring that the practice approach is as effective as it can be.  

Mindful practice, or practice with awareness, is more effective and efficient than mindless practice, which involves repetitions without attention or awareness.

The brain science here says that when learning a new skill, our brain's activity spikes higher when given direction about what to pay attention to (guided awareness).

That initial focus helps activate important brain centres linked to learning. As we progress along our skill development pathway, the brain shifts from making large changes to more fine tuning. Awareness is what allows this. Bringing awareness to our practice increases both effectiveness and efficiency.   

Practicing awareness can be broken down into a checklist to be used when building or evaluating the practical component of any upskilling or reskilling journey: 

  1. Aware action - Watching and listening introduces information to the brain, but doing it moves the learning process forward. Doing it with awareness activates the brain's learning process specifically related to the aspects of the skill that each individual needs or wants to improve. Make sure learners know what to focus on as they practice the skill.

  2. Deliberate repetition - An action must be repeated to create a neuropathway in the brain. Repetition creates memory. Once that pathway is established, speed increases; but care must be taken in laying down that pathway. Repeating actions with awareness ensures that the pathways that are created are the most effective and efficient one. It also reduces the need to backtrack or erase errors. 

  3. Feedback - When learning a new skill, feedback is essential for awareness of the skill development journey. A person learning a new skill is not in a good position to evaluate their skill level and success without some external feedback, either from a person who already knows the skill or by seeing something happen as a direct result of their actions. Feedback is what creates the awareness of what worked and what could be done differently or better. 

  4. Reflection - Often skipped over, reflection after practice supports consolidation of the learning and is an essential component of efficient practice, allowing gains from a practice session to be retained. Reflection during practice allows for adjustments in the moment that support faster skill development. 

When you build practice into a reskilling or upskilling journey, ensure that the practice includes aware action, deliberate repetition, feedback and reflection. 

We are still faced with the conundrum of being pressured for fast skill development while coming up against the fact that humans need practice, which cannot be skipped or rushed, in order to develop a new skill.  

The solution to this involves both building effective approaches to your practice, and discerning which behaviours can be effectively supported by performance support tools in the moment of need. 

I'm sure Team GB has been working on this balance in the run up to the Olympics, and we'll soon see the results.

Tanya Boyd is learning experience architect at Insights Learning and Development