If I gave you some darts and stood you in front of a dartboard for a year, could you become the next Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor with just practise or would you need the help of someone who had some knowledge of darts? This is exactly what bored office worker Justin Irwin did in 2008. He decided that he wanted to excel at a sport but he had a problem; he was 35 and past his sporting prime.
So he picked darts.
He quit his £50,000 job to practise full time and prepare himself for a life of darting glory – what he found out, though, might surprise you.
But before we talk about Justin’s experience, let’s take the question further.
What if you could only have one of those options for a whole year – practise OR knowledge?
You have a choice and in a year’s time you will be entered into the prestigious Lakeside World Darts Championships in Surrey. Now, you could either stand in front of the dartboard for a year and practise for 8 hours a day but with no help whatsoever OR never throw a dart for the whole year but have every expert in the world demonstrate their technique, talk you through it, watch expert videos and give you their undivided expert advice 24/7.
Which would you choose?
We’d all probably choose the practise; I mean practise is more important than knowledge, surely?
Now, if I was more generous and I said that you could blend practise with knowledge, what percentage of each would you aim for?
As humans we work better when we have a sense of purpose and without this we lack direction and a meaning to life. Things like a career, starting a new hobby or having children give us satisfaction and a sense of achievement which is also important to us.
In fact, the sense of achievement and the attainment of satisfaction are so important to us that we often voluntarily go about finding new challenges and setting ourselves goals just so we have something to aim for. This might be to learn a new language, to lose a bit of weight for the summer or to get that promotion at work.
Some people take it to the extreme and actively look at creating problems just so that they can solve them. The disruptive worker who always seems to be confrontational is often just looking for a challenge that they are not getting from the workplace – the same can be said of the school kid who consistently disrupts the classroom.
When we attempt to make theses changes in our lives we often go out and buy the latest fad that will help us achieve ‘x in only y time!’
‘Six-pack abs in only 6 weeks!’
‘Become fluent in Swahili in only 2 months!’
‘Juggle 6 rhinos using your left elbow in only a fortnight!’
You get the idea.
In these courses the authors will invariably look to combine practise with education in order for you to achieve your goal.
But what if I was to say that one of these elements was actually far more important in you achieving your goal than the other and, in all honesty, you would be wasting your time if you were to do both in equal measure?
Wouldn’t that save you time and effort – you could ‘hack’ learning and become super-awesome!
So, here’s the deal – you’ve heard that if you go back to school to get a Master of Business Administration Degree (MBA) you can increase your above average UK salary of £34,000 to a nice new £87,700 – that’s what the average expected salary increase for an MBA entrant was in the UK last year.
But that’s not the whole story; using other data, those who gained their MBA with less than 1 year’s work experience ended up working for £31,000 and those with less than 4 years – £37,000. In fact it’s only the 34% of MBA graduates that had between 10 and 14 years of work experience that ended up on the ‘big’ money, or £87k, according to ‘dem interwebs’.
It seems that previous work experience is the main factor in an MBA graduate receiving a significant increase in remuneration when accompanied by their new qualification; the MBA without work experience counts for very little.
Here’s some simple maths to start us off.
Practise + Education = Value
Small work experience + MBA = Small money
Big work experience + MBA = Big money
So, using the MBA data as a guide, if you want to become a world class darts player, it looks like you’d be better off taking a set of darts and throwing them at the board for a year, which is what Justin Irwin tried to do; the experience and practise outweighs the knowledge and education, in this particular example.
But is that true in all cases?
Let’s look at those terms independently before we ‘deep dive’ into my experiment.
Practise is the performing of an activity or skill, repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it. Experience is the knowledge or exposure to an event gained through involvement in it.
So you can go to a driving range and practise hitting a ball but, unless you go to a golf course, you can’t become experienced in the game of golf.
Knowledge is the facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; it is the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. Education is a more formalised process of receiving instruction, especially at a school or university.
So when we go about developing a new skill we are doing two things – we are practising the new skill and we are gaining knowledge from the practise. We cannot practise without gaining knowledge but knowledge can be gained independently of practise.
What this means is this…
Practise will always result in learning but learning can be independent of practise.
This is why earlier, when I presented you with this conundrum, you decided (probably in your subconscious) to prioritise practise ahead of learning. You perceived more value from the former than the latter.
Does that mean that passive learning or ‘learning without practise’ is wasted?
For the experiment I did just that. Initially I spent time practising. I practised a lot until I was happy that I was at the point where I couldn’t get any better at what I was doing. Then I spent the next five days learning from every method I could which was primarily reading, listening and watching. But the learning was passive – I was not allowed to practise during this time. On the sixth day I would take all of the learning I had done and compare my efforts with the initial practise earlier in the week.
The Experimental Phases
The experiment is to see what effect passive learning has on pure practise. Which discipline is dominant and why?
I would have to practise a skill until I had a stable figure or quantity that would give an indicator of my success. Then I would go away and learn everything about what I was practising. I would then come back, with the new knowledge and see if I could improve upon my initial practise.
For the experiment I decided that I would drive a car around a race circuit without any prior education. Then I’d go away and learn how to do it properly before coming back and trying again.
Part 1: The Practise Phase.
- Pick a car you are unfamiliar with.
- Pick a circuit that you are unfamiliar with.
- Drive the car around the circuit and, when you cannot get any faster, record your 10 fastest lap times.
Part 2: The Education Phase.
I would then spend five days passive learning away from the track – I would read, listen and watch everything on how to drive fast on my chosen track.
On the sixth day I would go back to the track and record my first complete 10 laps and compare them with my earlier efforts.
The initial practise on track would influence my later lap times but this was necessary in order to have something to measure the learning against.
Now a few words before I start – In order for me to conduct this experiment I needed to set conditions that would be as exacting as possible in order to minimise the significant number of variables involved. I would leave the actual tuning of the car alone, the car would be stock and unaltered in any way between sessions.
So, minimising the variables in car tuning (aero, geometry, damping, spring force, alignment, drivetrain etc), here are some remaining variables that could alter from one lap to the next:
- Mechanical tolerances (wear and tear of engine, chassis)
- Tyre condition and wear
- Fuel quantity and quality
- Environmentals (light levels, wind speed and direction)
- Other cars on track (traffic, slipstream or turbulent air from other cars)
- Driver condition (tired, dehydrated)
- Track condition (temperature, surface water content)
There were many variables that could alter the outcome unfairly. Ideally the only variable in my experiment would be the driver but how was I going to minimise every other variable to make the experiment as accurate as possible over the week long period?
I would have to use a simulator.
In this month’s EVO magazine, Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) series Mercedes-AMG driver Gary Paffett talked about the new simulator the team have just developed. He explains that most F1 testing is done with simulators now and DTM is no different. The sim allows the teams to remove variables such as tyre wear so that results can be compared with more consistency. The sim even has real discs and callipers so that the correct pedal feel is replicated to the driver. Paffett goes onto explain that the sim is primarily for testing but that the drivers use it to practise circuits; he goes on to say that DTM drivers are very good at learning circuits very quickly so it probably only gives you a 10 lap head start over another driver on a weekend. This does mean that, on race weekend, you can start working on the next 10 laps earlier, of course.
Current Nissan works driver, 22 year old Jann Mardenborough, started his journey into racing through the use of simulators; at the age of 8 he started playing Gran Turismo on his mate’s Playstation. The Cardiff teenager eventually entered and won Nissan’s GT Academy in 2011, an online competition which saw him compete against over 90,000 other gamers. So far he has achieved a podium at Le Mans in an LMP2, a podium in GP3, was BRDC rookie of the year and has gained multiple wins in his short career.
In the applied Tactical Weapons phase of Phase IV Fast Jet Flying Training, students spend half of their course in the simulator. In the Basic Radar phase, only 5 of the 18 events are actually flown airborne, the other 13 are all done using the simulator. The students don’t fly at all in the Close Air Support (CAS) phase and it only contains simulator based content.
Welcome to the new world.
It was obvious to me that in a simulator I can tick certain parameters to make sure that the car is exactly the same each time it crosses the start/finish line thus minimising the variables; in fact the only remaining variable should be me.
- Tyre Wear – No
- Realistic Fuel Usage – No
- Mechanical Damage – No
- Failures – No
- Track Temperature (set at 22° C)
- Wind – Nil
- Opponents – Nil
- Time of day (1300 hrs)
What we hope to get from this information is the difference that ‘knowledge and education’ can add to when ‘practise and experience’ is used alone. We should also be able to calculate the variation in the lap times for both ‘practise’ and ‘practise and knowledge’ sessions and we see whether we get a looser or tighter spread of lap times. This will show if my driving has become more or less consistent with the addition of education.
I had to pick a circuit that I was unfamiliar with and one that I’d need to learn from fresh else, years of racing at Laguna Seca on Papyrus’ IndyCars (1993) might give me an unfair advantage – MS-DOS games for the win!
So, let’s geek it out for a bit – this is what I choose.
- Assetto Corsa by Italian software company Kunos Simulazioni.
- Logitech G27 (wheel & pedal set with brake and clutch spring mod)
- Nürburgring Nordschleife (Tourist)
- BMW Z4 GT3
Why did I pick the Nordschleife?
‘There’s so much to know about the Nürburgring, there’s no way to accurately convey all the nuances of water-flow, head-wind, cross-winds, cambers, surfaces and even wildlife-ingress points, to a newbie.’
– Dale Lomas, bridgetogantry.com
The Nürburgring Nordschleife is a German race track that was built in 1927 and runs through the Eifel forests about 30 km south-west of Bonn. The F1 race driver Jackie Stewart named the circuit Green Hell (Grüne Hölle) after its ferocious nature. The circuit is almost 21 km long with inclines from 17° climbs to 11° descents. It has 73 corners (33 left, 40 right) that a driver must negotiate and it is deceitfully bumpy which goes a long way in unsettling a car. Because of the length of the circuit a road car will take over 10 minutes to complete it and a GT3 car with race tyres around 7.
I had not used the Nordschleife before this experiment as I didn’t have the time to learn the circuit but as the wife is overseas at a conference this week I saw an opportunity!
I choose the BMW Z4 GT3 as I had yet to drive it and there were videos on YouTube from the GT3 championship that I was going to use for research.
I elected to use some driving aids on the car for consistency. I used ABS to stop any monumental lock-ups, and from flat-spotting the tyres, and I elected to use level 4 of 12 steps of traction control to stop inadvertent back end step-outs which would reduce consistency for each lap-time. Each lap would take me around 7 minutes to complete and one significant lock-up under braking could ruin a lap. Now, the purists would say that I should have left the ABS off – I understand this, and when I use the Ferrari 458 GT2 or P4/5 Competizione I do – but to have to keep repeating a 7 minute lap because of a variable that I could have controlled was nonsensical time-wise.
The rest of the car was totally standard. Its setup was what Assetto Corsa thought it would be good for ‘out of the box’ and the only variables I changed were:
Fuel – 30 litres (for consistent weight with fuel hold active)
Tyres – Semi Slick (with no tyre wear)
Part 1: The Practise Phase.
Driving the BMW Z4 GT3 on the Nordschleife.
I didn’t know the Nordschleife at all – it’s a complicated circuit to learn as it’s so long with significant height variation and very little run off area. I turned the damage off as I kept hitting the barriers – this allowed me to keep practising without having to restart the lap. I found that I was getting familiar with the first half but the back-end of the circuit was still causing me issues. It took me a while to really get into it. The Z4 GT3 (with 55% stability set – the online forums suggested this) was well balanced and the ABS meant that the car’s ‘squirrely’ nature under heavy braking could be controlled by temporarily releasing and reapplying braking. The traction control allowed me to get the power on early but would bite if I used the kerbs too much under full load. This kept me necessarily respectful of both car and circuit. In fact the kerbs on the Nordschleife were a surprise to me – they seemed very aggressive and the circuit itself was very unsettling for the car due to its undulating surface.
The Assetto Corsa engineers had laser scanned the circuit so it was known in online race forums as the most accurate portrayal of the ‘Ring’ next to actually driving the real thing.
It took me about 25-30 laps before I was able to see stagnation in lap times.
At this point I went for the best 10 complete laps that I could do.
Lap times (Practise ONLY)
Fastest Lap: 6:54.707
Average Lap Time: 6:55.477
Standard Deviation: 00:00.705
Part 2: The Education Phase.
In this phase I couldn’t use the sim until the sixth day so I scoured the internet for anything and everything to do with the Nürburgring or the BMW Z4 GT3. Any YouTube Nürburgring educational video I would use, one of the best is of a guy going around it in what looks like a Suzuki Swift (which you can hire, apparently). I watched them, rewound them, looked at the braking points, which apex was being used on a double apex corner such as Kallenhard so that you can maximise exit speed which is all important. I read forum discussions on which part of the circuit would get you the biggest gains, was it Hatzenbach into Hocheichen or Brünnchen into Eiskurve? I looked at how the track could unsettle the car in certain parts; did I carry speed into Schwedenkreuz and allow the car to be unsettled prior to Aremburg which would give me speed into the corner but I’d have to brake later; this would mean I’d turn later into it and sacrifice exit speed for the run into Fuchsrohne?
Yeah, for a week, I geeked it out on it like the best of us would – if you’ve read this far, you’d do the same – don’t lie!
So, what did happen?
Lap times (Practise WITH Education)
Fastest Lap: 6:49.551
Average Lap Time: 06:50.853
Standard Deviation: 00:00.831
Fastest Lap 6:54.707 vs 6:49.551
Av. Lap Time 6:55.477 vs 06:50.853
Standard Deviation 0.705 vs 0.831
So, for the practise sessions early on in the week my average lap time over 10 laps was 6:55.477 minutes with a standard deviation of 0.705 seconds.
Later in the week, after a week of significant learning about the track and car, my average lap time was 06:50.853 minutes with a standard deviation of 0.831 seconds.
From this data we can conclude that if you absolutely want to be the ‘number 1’ at something then a combination of practise and education is very necessary. It looks like education just goes that little bit further in making a difference but if, however, you just want quick results, don’t put off the practise as you wait for the right learning opportunities – stop thinking about it so much and start doing it – you’ll learn on the way.
Practise has learning built in!
So, Justin never did become the world darts champion but he did get better as he put more effort in. He realised that there was a lot more to learn than he initially thought and a lot of it, like anything, was psychological – especially when he was on stage playing against good players. He eventually was welcomed into the darts community and started to learn from them which improved his playing significantly.
Just as Justin discovered, practise alone will make you competitive but it won’t get you to the very top unless you can combine it with education. But I still believe that practise is the dominant factor in success.
“I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot .. and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life.
And that is why… I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
My fastest lap, after educating myself, was a staggering 5.156 seconds faster than my fastest lap with just practise – a 1.24% reduction in lap time or a culmination of 0.067 seconds per corner. The standard deviation of 0.831 seconds on my educated laps was higher than for the practise which I was not expecting. With a little research, however, it seems that when you are performing close to the limit of your ability you are more likely to make an error which will have an obvious effect on the lap time. Of my fastest laps the difference in lap times for 10 consecutive laps was a mere 2.553 seconds over almost 7 minutes of driving per lap – incredible!
So, if you’re an amateur race car driver, skip a couple of laps and go and talk to another driver (probably one who’s not in your race) and ask about how they are tackling the circuit. If you are trying to get ahead in business go and seek out advice from someone higher up than you, maybe ask them to be your mentor – they’d be flattered, I’m sure.
But whatever you do, keep practising – it will get you, in my case, 98.76% of the way there! As I’ve said before, getting into that top 1% isn’t difficult, it just takes a little more effort!
Thanks for reading – I know it was a long post, now go and watch the drive!
I know it was a long post, now go and watch the drive!
I was lucky to find Uwe Alzen’s BMW Z4 GT3 lap of the ring back in 2013 – truly incredible.
The most influential video I used to gain precision was that of the late Sean Edwards – truly a master and a talent lost. (This video is of a master at work.)
For both cases we had to find out the mean lap time (the average of all lap times for the session) and, using the average of the squared differences from the Mean, we can find the variance. When we find the variance we can find the Standard Deviation (which actually means something to us) and therefore we can work out how consistent I was over the 10 laps.
Population Standard Deviation
Σ = Sum of
σ = Standard Deviation
μ = Mean Lap Time
x = Lap time
N = Number of Laps
Numerous forums and guides to many to mention – and I mean..a lot!