The Champion's Approach to Practice (Muhammad Ali Was Wrong)

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’
— Muhammad Ali
The ultimate reward is not the gold medal, but the path itself.
— George Leonard

I know you skimmed those two quotes above, so go ahead and read them again. I’ll wait. 

Do you see the contradiction there? These quotes represent different mindsets toward practice that I see being taught frequently in sports.

Ali tells us that success is only a result of doing the boring/painful/exhausting things that others are unwilling to do. It says that practice isn’t fun (especially deliberate practice), so you should approach practice by gritting your teeth and fighting through the struggle.

Leonard tells us that we should find value in the journey, not the destination. That we should approach practice wth the mindset of enjoying every moment.

So, who's right, Muhammad Ali or George Leonard?

Before I come to my conclusion, indulge me in a brief digression on why this question is even important. 

Practice is more important than you think. 

You may think I’m inventing a theoretical argument based on semantic differences, but I see much more. 

In Pete Carroll’s book, Win Forever he said, "I was prepared to boldly state that 'Practice Is Everything.'” If you want to achieve anything, master anything or be successful in any area, practice is how you get there. 

But not just any practice, high quality practice. And guess what determines whether your practice is high-quality or half-assed? Your attitude. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you have the right attitude toward practice.

If you still aren't convinced, Daniel Coyle wrote a book called The Talent Code where he analyzed the places in the world that have produced uncommon numbers of elite performers. He strove to figure out why there was so much world class talent coming from seemingly random places like a rundown tennis facility in Russia, a classical music academy in upstate New York, and the Caribbean baseball fields.

He came to this conclusion: "If I had to sum up the difference between people in the talent hotbeds and people everywhere else in one sentence, it would be this: People in the hotbeds have a different relationship with the talent hotbeds I visited, practice was the big game, the center of their world, the main focus of their daily lives.”

Ok, thanks for indulging me. Practice is important. 

So, back to my initial question: who’s right? Muhammad Ali or George Leonard? 

To be honest, I don’t like either. (It’s important to note that these are just individual quotes pulled out of context. They may not directly reflect Ali’s or Leonard’s true opinions.)

However, the quotes touch on important themes that are propagated throughout the sports world. Enjoy the journey or struggle through the grind?

Ali’s View:

Ali’s quote on just struggling through practice (and hating every moment of it) to get to the end goal seems overly pessimistic and unsustainable. Frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it to most players because it risks burnout. If every single practice was painful and a struggle, it wouldn’t take long before your motivation waned and you found yourself stranded on burnout island. 

Moreover, how consistently good would the quality of your training be if you hated every moment of it? It takes incredible discipline to force yourself to do something you hate every day. Only players with a uniquely obsessive disposition and an intense, burning motivation can successfully adopt this attitude for the long-term. 

Leonard’s View:

On the other hand, Leonard’s notion of practicing solely for the sake of practice seems slightly idealistic and out of reach (at least for me). Intrinsic enjoyment of every moment of every practice without once looking toward the end goal is too unrealistic for my taste. 

Moreover, if you expect to enjoy the entire process, you’re probably going to feel disappointed when you inevitably have a bad day. Because you’re expecting it to be enjoyable, any time you aren’t having fun seems like a failure.

This is especially dangerous when you’re ramping up your training and just starting to engage in deliberate practice. If you’re pushing yourself just beyond your capabilities, there will be moments when you struggle and get frustrated. Expecting otherwise is disillusioned. 

Ok, I know I just spent the last 5 paragraphs tearing into both Ali and Leonard’s points of view, so this might seem surprising but I actually identify with both attitudes. I've been in both camps at varying times in my career and they both make useful points that can help you develop the attitude toward practice that works best for you. It’s just about finding the middle ground.

How Do We Find The Middle Ground?

1) Redefine what it means to “enjoy” practice.

When most people hear the word “joy” they think of a superficial kind of happiness and pleasure. However, I think the notion of enjoying practice doesn’t necessarily have to do with happiness.

Enjoying your training doesn’t mean that every moment of every practice should be fun and lighthearted. To me, enjoying practice refers to a quieter sense of satisfaction in your hard work. An appreciation for what you’re doing as you’re doing it. 

To be more technical about it, we could say that this new definition of “enjoying practice” is similar to being intrinsically motivated. If you’re intrinsically motivated, you're motivated by the practice itself. Not because it’s delightful and fun all the time, but because it’s rewarding to strive to be your best at something

2) Stop resisting the struggle. 

Just because practice is difficult, repetitive and exhausting doesn’t mean we have to hate it. It’s only when we resist that pain or expect everything to be easy that we begin to resent the fact that practice is difficult. 

Instead, we can choose to accept from the outset that practice will be difficult.

Accept that there will be times where you feel frustrated.

Accept that there will be times when you just want to punt the ball into the stands and go home.

Accept that there will be times when you’d rather be sleeping.

Accept the unpleasant emotions that naturally arise in the pursuit of something challenging. 

With these new thoughts in mind, we can adopt a more effective attitude toward practice. We don’t have to choose between Leonard or Ali’s view. There's a middle ground.

We can strive to find meaning in the practice itself while understanding that there will be times when it’s exhausting and painful. We can accept that pain is a natural part of the journey without fixating on it. 

It’s in the space between enjoying the journey and struggling through the grind that our ideal attitude toward practice is discovered.