Jerry Rice is widely considered to be the greatest wide receiver in the history of the National Football League. In addition to winning three Super Bowls, Rice holds nearly every single season and career receiving record available. He is also the NFL’s all-time leader in yards, receptions, and touchdowns.
Many experts say he may be the best football player ever, regardless of position. Basically, Rice was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Literally, the best of the best.
But in Geoff Colvin’s popular book, Talent is Overrated (audiobook), he shares an interesting story about Rice’s work ethic and his approach to deliberate practice. As you’ll see, it wasn’t just talent that made Rice successful and we can all learn from his approach and use similar strategies to improve our health, our work, and our lives.
The Training Schedule of Jerry Rice
In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers would trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of them got sick before the day was over.
It is obvious that Jerry Rice put in an incredible volume of work. This is no surprise. Unwavering consistency is a requirement for achieving excellence. To put it simply, you can’t expect to become great at something without practicing it over and over.
But it wasn’t just the amount of time he spent practicing that made the difference, Rice used other strategies to master his craft.
Excellence Requires More Than Just Practice
Excellence requires more than just a lot of practice. It requires the right kind of practice. The natural tendency for humans, professional athletes included, is to fall into a routine once we achieve an adequate level of performance.
For example, you might practice a golf swing the same way over and over. Or a professional wide receiver might practice running their routes the same way over and over. In the beginning, this repetition is required to develop skills. As I’ve mentioned here, here, and here, it’s only by going through a volume of work that beginner’s can hope to reach a level of excellence.
At some point, however, you reach a certain skill level and simply repeating the same pattern again and again doesn’t foster much additional growth. (In fact, this is true at any level of skill: practice in the same way you always have and you’ll get the same results you always have.)
Anders Ericsson, the psychologist behind the 10,000 Hour Rule, explained this important caveat by saying, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal. You have to tweak the system by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”
This is where Jerry Rice separated himself from the rest of the pack. He finished college as an All-American wide receiver, but he didn’t let his skills plateau. Even at a high level, Rice found ways to practice deliberately rather than mindlessly and push the edge of his abilities rather than repeat old patterns without improvement. In other words, Rice always found ways to become one percent better.
Let’s talk about how Rice decided which areas to focus on improving.
Focus on Your Areas of Greatest Leverage
The classic test for speed in the NFL is the 40-yard dash. Before being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, Rice was reported as running the 40 in 4.7 seconds. For reference, in 2014 there were multiple quarterbacks and even a defensive lineman that posted faster times than that. And yet, it is unlikely that any of these players will have a career half as prolific as that of Jerry Rice.
Compared to other wide receivers, Rice’s mediocre speed could be seen as a weakness. How did he overcome it? By leveraging his greatest strengths.
He designed his practice to work on his specific needs. Rice didn’t need to do everything well, just certain things. He had to run precise patterns; he had to evade the defenders, sometimes two or three, who were assigned to cover him; he had to outjump them to catch the ball and outmuscle them when they tried to strip it away; then he had to outrun tacklers. So he focused his practice work on exactly these requirements. Not being the fastest receiver in the league turned out not to matter. He became famous for the precision of his patterns. His weight training gave him tremendous strength. His trail running gave him control so he could change directions suddenly without signaling his move. The uphill wind sprints gave him explosive acceleration. Most of all, his endurance training — not something that a speed-focused athlete would normally concentrate on — gave him a giant advantage in the fourth quarter, when his opponents were tired and weak, and he seemed as fresh as he was in the first minute. Time and again, that’s when he put the game away. Rice and his coaches understood exactly what he needed in order to be dominant. They focused on these things and not on other goals that might have seemed generally desirable, like speed.
Consider how easy it would have been for Rice to practice in a different way.
Nobody would have questioned him if Rice spent all of his time training to improve his relative weakness (speed) and simply maintaining his other skills. Instead, he focused on mastering his assets — precision, endurance, and strength — to a degree beyond anyone else.
It doesn’t matter what skill you are trying to perfect, finding the areas where your particular skill set provides the greatest leverage and focusing on those areas will reap enormous benefits.
Applying This to Your Life
Jerry Rice was blessed with incredible talent, but it was his work ethic and his commitment to continual improvement that allowed him to transform that talent into one of the greatest careers that the NFL has ever seen.
For you and me the skills and circumstances may be very different from that of Jerry Rice, but the principles are the same. If we want to execute in real life and master the skills that are important to us, then we need to:
- Put in a volume of work.
- Focus on the areas of greatest leverage for your skill.
- Find ways to continually improve and move the needle forward rather than falling into routines and patterns once we develop adequate skill levels.
Masters of Habit is a series of mini-biographies on the rituals, routines, and mindsets of great athletes, artists, and leaders.