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Janet Sheridan

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Janet Sheridan: On practice and perfection







Peering over her bifocals and between her gray bangs, my college badminton instructor delivered a lesson of five sentences and an adverb: "Practice does not make perfect; it makes permanent. It takes five correct repetitions to overcome a skill practiced incorrectly just once. Only perfect practice makes perfect. So when you practice, concentrate on correctness at all times. Now break into teams and play a practice game. Perfectly." Though she forgot to name, describe or model the skills we were to master, we obediently romped onto the court to spend 50 minutes practicing. Imperfectly.

Though I questioned our tight-lipped instructor's teaching methods, I recognized the wisdom of her mini-lecture. In a junior high skit designed to extol the virtues of good grooming to an audience of dubious adolescents, I had to deliver one line: "If you would like to feel at home, anyplace, just clean your teeth, brush your hair and wash your face."

I practiced the line at home, entertaining my easily amused siblings by combining different verbs and nouns with each repetition. As a result, during the assembly, I bellowed, "If you would like to feel at home, anyplace, just wash your teeth, clean your hair, and brush your face."

The ninth-grade yearbook had a candid photo of me eating lunch with friends and the caption "Oh, look, Janet brushed her face this morning."

As I matured, I continued to prove the perils of imperfect practice as I made inedible piecrusts, knitted sweaters no one would wear, played my clarinet off-key and dusted anything. I habitually forgot people's names even though I'd read that repeating a person's name after being introduced would mentally cement it for me. However, listening carefully to a person's name during introductions exceeded my capabilities. Instead of concentrating, I'd think, "Why is his eye so red? Poor man. It looks sore. I wonder if he's seen a doctor. Might be pink eye." Then I'd say, "Nice to meet you, Benny," and hear, "My name's Alonzo."

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Six years later, in the supermarket, the incorrect repetition would kick in and I'd think, "Oh, there's Benny, that fellow with pink eye."

However, I forgive myself for my frequent failures to practice correctly, because I eventually realized if I'm motivated, I practice willingly and happily work at difficulties I encounter until, overcoming mistakes, I can control my performance and achieve consistent results. I did this as I learned to play the piano, sew clothing, refinish furniture and teach. On the other hand, because I lack motivation, I don't bother to practice and eliminate my errors when I tap-dance, overeat ice cream and clean the refrigerator.

I recently attended the second day of a PGA tournament in Arizona. When Joel and I walked past the driving range in the afternoon, I recognized golfers who'd recently finished their round of play. After 18 holes of competitive professional golf, with a coach or a caddy providing feedback, they hit ball after ball with fierce concentration, working to correct flaws they detected during play.

As I watched them, I thought about our willingness to practice as perfectly as possible those things we care about and the importance of our understanding that we don't need to be perfect at everything we do.

I'm sure Phil Mickelson, the golfer I saw celebrate a birdie on the 18th hole before going to the driving range to practice, isn't perfect at everything. He might forget to turn off his turn signal when he drives. He could lose when he plays chess. Perhaps, try though he might, he can't yodel.

And I'm with Phil.

Sheridan's book, "A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns," is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on the 1st and 15th of every month.