The Process of Improvement

Vette Brainerd

How do I improve? It’s a question we all face, in multiple forms, in various aspects of our life, in perpetuity.

How do I get better? In the context of sportsman drag racing, it’s a question I’ve tasked myself with answering, not only for my own exploits, but for thousands of fellow racers over the last decade and a half.

Recently, I stumbled into a delightful little book titled How to Watch Basketball Like A Genius by Nick Greene (What? This doesn’t sound like a book filled with insight on how to improve as a drag racer? I know it may feel like a long and windy road, but stick with me here).

A chapter in the book is dedicated to free throw shooting, and one of the subjects is a man by the name of Bob Fisher. Fisher, it turns out, owns Guinness World Records in 14 free throw shooting categories. He is the owner of what we might consider typical free throw records, like the most free throws made in a minute (52), 10 minutes (448), and an hour (2,371)- as well as some more creative records, like the most free throws made in a minute blindfolded (22), or standing on one leg (49).

A quote from this shooting savant struck me:

“All it takes to be good is knowledge, practice, and time. Once I learned that, I applied it. Knowledge practice time. Knowledge practice time. KPT, I always say.” – Bob Fisher

I know that’s not a groundbreaking quote. I don’t think it’s a new idea. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Mr. Fisher is not the first to coin the phrase (or the acronym). It feels oversimplified – there should be more to improvement than just knowledge, practice and time! But that’s the beauty in it: true masters are able to simplify the complex (while most of us tend to complexify the simple).

While our dive into Guinness World Records may feel both random and esoteric, I find it interesting that the focus was on free throw shooting. I’ve always compared the process of free throw shooting (and putting a golf ball) to the process of staging up and hitting the tree. Think about it: it’s a fixed situation: no defenders, essentially no variables: just a competitor and his or her craft. I digress.

Fisher’s KPT applies to any pursuit, but given my background (and the fact that you’re reading this magazine), let’s focus on the pursuit of improvement as it applies to sportsman drag racing. In doing so, let’s break down KPT piece by piece.

Knowledge: In order to execute any task with repeated precision, I would argue that we need to understand not only what we’re doing, but also why we’re doing it. To do so, we obviously desire to soak up as much applicable information as we possibly can. And, regardless of the pursuit, there is no limit to the extent of knowledge available.

While my purpose in writing on this topic was not to create an infomercial for ThisIsBracketRacing.com, I think it’s fair to say that our site is the go-to content source for racers looking to understand the basics and complexities of our game. But it’s not the only resource. A lot can be gained by reading (National Dragster, along with any variety of racing related publications and websites), and watching successful competitors on (and off) the race track. To that point, I don’t know any great racers who don’t point to at least one mentor: a fellow racer who took him or her under their wing, and taught them the intricacies of our sport. For you youngins out there, YouTube is also becoming a great source of material on what (and what not) to do behind the wheel (my personal favorite channel currently is GallstarTV).

Knowledge is important. Really important. But let’s face it – all the knowledge in the world is useless if we can’t put it into practice.

Practice: Once we understand WHAT to do, we’ve got to figure out HOW to do it. In our world, there are really only two current viable means for practice: consistent use of a practice tree, and real-world, on-track competition. This is where the adage of “seat time” comes in. I’ve heard for years that racers who get to make hundreds of runs down the race track each season are the racers who have an advantage. And I agree… to an extent. If you make 1,000 runs down the race track, but don’t understand the fundamentals, then you don’t really have the tools to learn from that experience.

Just like knowledge is wasted without implementation, practice is equally useless without the knowledge base. As we begin to develop knowledge, it’s then that the practice element becomes critical.

Time: No one wants to hear this… When we decide we want to be good at something, we naturally want to be good at it yesterday. But the most critical element to improvement is time; assuming of course, that it’s time spent gaining knowledge and diligently practicing to implement it.

“The exceptional person is the one who can accept the vagaries of the improvement process, keep working at it, and be patient.” – Bob Rotella

Take our obscure subject Mr. Fisher, for example. He set all of those free throw records in his 60’s, post-retirement, when he had more TIME to dedicate to the craft.

If we’re doing it right, knowledge and practice compound over time, facilitating constant improvement.

That’s not to say that the improvement trajectory is linear. In the long term, the combination of K, P, and T develop improvement. With study and practice, you’ll be a better racer in 2031 than you are today, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t lose in 2031 any more than it means that you can’t win today.

“Self-improvement and success often occur together. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the same thing.” – Mark Manson

So improvement requires KPT, and KPT is facilitated by a growth a mindset. A mindset rooted in the humility that there’s always something more to learn, and there are always better, more efficient ways to implement that education. This simple model applies whether you’re a rookie just learning the ropes or are among the most prolific and most accomplished performers of your craft.  With an open mind, we pursue (and ultimately gain) knowledge. As we build more knowledge, we practice it’s application. As we practice, we inevitably gain more experience, we gain more knowledge, and we develop more (and better) questions. So we look for answers to the questions – and again we pursue knowledge. It all becomes a virtuous cycle, and if we’re doing it right, I’d like to think it spins in perpetuity.

“Many people say I’m the best women’s soccer player in the world. I don’t think so. And because of that, someday I just might be.” – Mia Hamm

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