value of practising alone

The surprising value of practicing alone

In team sports usually people think that training happens only in groups. But the reality is that most professional players spend a lot of time practicing on their own in order to perfect their game. Unfortunately, outside professional sports we tend to underestimate the value of practicing alone.

Many times when people hear that I am practicing dancing (or even basketball) on my own they sound surprised. For some reason these activities have been strongly associated solely with groups. But the reality is very different.

A great example of practicing alone to become better was famous basketball player, Kobe Bryant. His early morning practices have become legendary. Kobe used to wake up at 5 a.m., and then practice alone for hours ahead of the morning team practice. During USA team’s preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kobe used to wake up very early in the morning to practice, while his teammates were still out partying or sleeping. Kobe believed that his extra daily workouts were going to put him years ahead of the competition. He became one of the greatest to have ever played the game of basketball.

The value of practicing alone

My journey to personal mastery

When the pandemic hit, we were all forced to stay in for almost 2 years. Even the thought of dancing with strangers in a busy bar while a deadly virus is spreading around was scary. Salsa classes, events, and parties were all cancelled. Our social lives as we knew them no longer existed. Suddenly, Cuban Salsa whose purpose is to bring people closer together became an illegal activity as we were told to socially distance and keep apart from each other.

Locked inside I felt that I was going to become rusty and forget most of the moves I knew. Even worse, with the social element missing I started feeling a bit depressed. I had to do something about it. So, I decided every evening after work to self-practice both from memory but also by following professional dancers on instagram and watching video tutorials. As I had no partner, I tried instead to focus on improving my footwork, body movement, and space awareness.

In “Your journey to mastery takes you back to the beginning” I explain how practitioners of any art, being it martial arts, dancing or sports use Kata to practice alone, internalise their moves and perfect their execution. Kata is a Japanese term used to describe the repetitive practice of moves and patterns. Most successful athletes, dancers, and artists use training drills (Katas) to improve the execution of moves and find their flow. There is real value in practicing alone.

I also discuss how there are 3 levels to mastery. At the first level we follow the rules and continuously repeat the basic steps and patterns. This helps build our muscle memory. Then we start breaking existing rules and reconstruct steps and patterns. At the third level of mastery we become the masters of our art, making our own rules.

The benefits of practicing alone

Creativity and Improvisation

After a few weeks of practicing alone something interesting happened. While dancing I realised I started improvising my own steps. It was a liberating feeling. I didn’t have to get stuck to the same routines anymore. I could be creative as long as I followed the rhythm and respected the basic patterns. It was quick-fire decision making and instant adaptation to what was coming after. It felt like I had managed to arrive into a deeper level of understanding of both the music and my body, which made also feel more confident than ever before.

When I started dancing with partners again I felt that I was able to express myself better and communicate deeper. I realised the value of practicing alone.

Increased Happiness

Despite being locked inside, dancing on my own helped me feel healthier, more optimistic and very happy in the middle of a very depressing and dark pandemic winter. Regardless of the mental state I was in, within a couple of songs I would feel like everything was possible. I am not sure whether this was because there is something magical in Cuban rhythm that wakes up the body. Or perhaps it was just endorphins taking over. In my previous article I discussed the role of drums in different cultures and how dancing to polyrhythmic drums was used to attract partners, perform religious rituals and reach euphoria or even ecstasy.

According to the British Science Association, dancing helps reduce cortisol, which is a natural stress hormone. It also helps increase dopamine, a natural mood booster, and endorphins, a natural painkiller. It also helps increase mindfulness and drive out all those negative thoughts that our minds are often plagued with. In addition, when we dance we usually smile and this stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms, releasing serotonin and endorphins. Of course, the feel-good benefits of dancing increase further when we dance with partners.

Improved Memory and Spatial Awareness

Other studies show that dancing helps develop new neural connections and improve our long-term memory, and spatial awareness. In other words, we can store in our long-term memory more moves without the need to actively think about them while we are dancing. This is where the magic of improvisation also happens. In addition, practicing alone helps understand and use more our body balance and become more conscious of the space around us.

In my article “why dancing should become part of your life” I have a deeper analysis of the life-changing benefits of dancing.

More Balanced Skills

Usually, when we dance with others, we don’t take the time to practice on our own and focus on our weaknesses. This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, how can we become better dancers without interacting and getting feedback from partners? The answer is that the skills developed while practicing with others are very different from the improvement work that happens when we are on our own.

When I dance with a partner my focus is usually on my hands, and much less on my legs and body. Quite often, many amateur dancers focus too much of their hands while their feet are barely moving. This is normal as their brains are not yet used to control well the movement of both feet and arms. For most of us this creates a skills imbalance between different parts of our body and often confusion as the feet are not bringing our body to the right position compared to what our arms are doing. Therefore, practising alone gives us time and focus to work on our footwork and body movement without having to think at all about our arms.

Becoming a Complete Dancer

Dancing can be unpredictable as there is always an element of improvisation involved, especially when dancing with a new partner. Self-practice helps us become better prepared and better able in thinking on our feet. This is particularly important, especially when things are challenging or do not go as expected. For instance, a basketball player like Kobe was always better prepared to respond to when his team was losing by making a game-saving move. Or in a business environment when there is a new challenge or even a crisis, people that have taken their time to build and practice their skills are more prepared to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

Before the pandemic this was not so obvious to me. I was caught up in the ill-thought mentality that you can only practice with others. However, by practicing alone I was able to complement what I have learned from dancing with others, achieve higher level of mastery and become a more complete dancer and person. In the end, perhaps this is what sets apart high achievers from average.

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