Practice, Practice

by Tom Swift

“So it was mostly hard work?” an off-camera journalist from the Canadian Broadcasting Company poses this question to Wayne Gretzky. It is 1982.

Gretzky initially answers that, yes, it did take hard work. Then he sort of corrects himself. He says his father used to show him articles, and he would also talk to people, about various training methods some players used. How some lifted weights, others ran long distances, and the like.

“For me,” he adds, “when I was 6 [years old], I would skate eight hours a day and people would say, ‘jeez, he’s working hard’ or ‘look at all the time he puts into it.’ For me, if I would have thought of it that way I wouldn’t have did it. I enjoyed it. What I enjoyed was to skate all afternoon. That’s why I did it. And it wasn’t work. And it wasn’t something I had to do. I just enjoyed it.”

During this interview Gretzky is 20 years old. He is in the midst of a season in which he will score 92 goals, still the single-season record, and also record more assists than all but four other players will record total points. He will win the scoring title by 65 points. He will, that is, produce 30 percent more than the next closest player, further earning his famous nickname, The Great One.

In this interview, which I happened across the other day, Gretzky is being asked about the secret to his success. He is really being asked about practice. Practice: the act of repeatedly or regularly engaging in acts in order to improve your proficiency. Practice: that necessary aspect of getting good at something, anything.

Practice is a word I realize that I resist.[1] For to practice is to state that you are in training — not really doing the thing. Practice is work. And while work has value — I value my job, for example, value, too, having worked to clean the floors or shovel the sidewalk — practice is different than those necessary forms of work. Practice is voluntary work. One must choose to practice and one must make time for practice.

Of course, even the best at their crafts and careers practice. LeBron James practices. Bruce Springsteen, even after all these decades and all those sold-out shows, still practices. Why, then, do I think there is anything in this world I can do, ever will do, that could not benefit from practice?

Why do I resist the notion of practice?

Perhaps it’s because practice seems like work without reward. Or at least the reward is delayed.[2]

Practice: if you need it at all it means you probably need it a lot. Which means you should probably do it every day.

I don’t have time for practice. Certainly not for endless practice.

Also, what am I practicing for? I’m not exactly getting ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs here.

It wasn’t always that I resisted practice. Later during that year, 1982, after Gretzky had won every individual award a hockey player could, I turned 10. At this time, and for years to come, I loved hockey practice myself. Not only the scheduled practices required to be on the team but also the voluntary practice I engaged in on the frozen pond behind our house. For hours, even in the dark, even after all the other kids went inside, I would stay out on the rectangle of ice carved from snow and skate and shoot and yell back at my mother “five more minutes” when she yelled out the kitchen window to tell me it was time to come in, time for dinner, time for a show to start, time for bed.

I have long loved to read the sorts of articles Gretzky said his father showed him[3] — to read about people who are the best at what they do and specifically about their work habits. It usually fires me up to do my own work.

As an adult, the closest thing I have to what hockey used to be for me is writing. As a boy, I was a hockey player. As a man, I navigate the world foremost as a writer.

Except I have regarded practice for these respective endeavors very differently. Whereas I seldom missed a hockey practice,[4] I have skipped writing practice for any number of reasons.

The dog needs to be walked.

A bill needs to be paid.

I could put in some overtime at work — if I leave now.

And the easiest: I could use a little more time under these warm sheets.

The missing element here is pleasure. Gretzky talks about it in the above clip. Recently, I also listened again to the audiobook version of Stephen King’s On Writing. King talks about the pleasure he gets from writing and reading and it’s not hard to believe him. You hear it even when he’s not speaking of it. And, really, he can’t possibly churn out so many books if he doesn’t derive pleasure from the thing. It’s not like he needs the money at this point.

At some point in my hockey career, which, of course, fell far short of Gretzky’s level, the game started to feel like more work than pleasure. Practice was something you had to do. During stretches of two-a-day practices on my college team, I recall feeling like I had to crawl out of bed some mornings. The games were still fun, usually, but the desire to skate for four hours a day, much less the eight Gretzky describes, was no longer there.

There is a comment to be made here about how our society, which so praises hard work, can sometimes take something pleasurable and turn it into labor. Gretzky, King, many other accomplished persons one could name, never allowed this to happen. They made millions but you believe them when they say they would have done it for free.

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes the difference in behaviors when people do things for money or they do them for other reasons. We operate under social norms and market norms. Social norms have us help our buddy move a couch. Market norms have us expect a fair wage at work. When these two things are blurred, trouble begins. As soon as market norms enter the picture, social norms are obliterated.[5]

Writers and other artists inevitably reach a similar nexus: once the work is a way to make a living, the work could easily be distorted by market norms. The art can feel like any other job. I don’t know if there is a trick to holding both but it seems clear to me that one must be especially cautious about keeping market norms out of one’s head when it comes to doing art. Or athletics.

“For me,” Gretzky said, “if I would have thought of it that way I wouldn’t have did it.”

We are conditioned to believe that everything done well could be monetized. Perhaps it’s just because I have been a writer most of my life but it seems especially for those of us who want or need to put words together to make any sense of things. You could have that published, people will say. You could have a bestseller. You could have that made into a feature film starring Ben Affleck.

The things people always ask when they learn I wrote a book: Was it published? Who published it? How did you get a publisher? How many copies have been sold? How much money did you make from it? They don’t ask about what is it like to write a page, finish a chapter, unearth an interesting detail. They don’t ask about the pleasure of the process of writing a story.

Takes some work, then, not to see the work as, well, just that, work.

Maybe I resist the word practice for that reason. I’m not sure. I don’t have the answer. There is something in here, though: if you derive pleasure from something it seems imperative to keep going back to that. Call it practice if you like. But whatever you call it, do it for the pleasure of the thing.

Otherwise, as The Great One said, you might not do it at all.


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[1] At yoga, they always refer to it as “your practice.” Never liked that. Yeah, I can be cranky sometimes.

[2] One difference is that as an athlete or performer you are practicing for something — the next game or gig. There is a clear, time-bound goal.

[3] In fact, I still have a yellowed stack of those articles from my days as a hockey player.

[4] I would even go sick, if I could.

[5] Ariely uses an example that I’m not sure is the best but it serves: consider a man who has invited a woman to dinner then, at the end of the date, asks her to split the check. The social norm is that, in this case, the man pays. The market norm is that, hey, we both ate, we both drank, so we should both pay. Let’s see how far that courtship goes.