Deliberate practice

This is the most valuable piece of advice I can give anyone who is wanting to succeed at anything and the piece of advice I wish I had discovered long, long ago. So what is deliberate practice? Deliberate practice is very intentional practice. Powell, Honey, and Symbaluk (2013) define it as, “Practice that is not inherently enjoyable and does not involve mere repetition; it instead involves intense concentration and considerable effort with a view towards improving one’s performance.” It’s practice that is done by yourself, away from teammates, away from others, away from any kind of recognition or praise. It’s training with a purpose. It’s training with 100% focus and attention. And it’s training that cannot be amounted for by any other kind of supplemental training. There is no short cut to success, only deliberate practice.

I want to copy an excerpt from my collegiate Learning and Behavior textbook that discusses this concept. Each season, I scan and highlight this article and give it to the kids that I coach as “homework” to read. I try to reinforce this idea of deliberate practice every training session because it really is the most valuable piece of advice I can offer.

 

Deliberate Practice and Expert Performance

Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nurture over nature in determining human behavior is often viewed with a great deal of skepticism. This is especially the case when it comes to behaviors that are indicative of exceptional ability. Most people, including many psychologists (e.g., Gardner, 1993), assume that, unless a person is born with a certain amount of talent, there are limits in how far he or she will be able to progress in a particular endeavor. Indeed, the notion that a Babe Ruth, Albert Einstein, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is to a large extent born, and not made, is part of the mystique surrounding these individuals.

But consider the following:

  • Expert performers in almost all fields of endeavor, ranging from music to athletics to chess, require a minimum of 10 years of intensive training before achieving a high level of performance. Even Mozart, who started composing at age 4, did not compose world-class music until his late teens. Mozart’s father was also a professional musician who published the first book on violin instruction and provided his children with intensive musical training from an early age. (Mozart’s reputation has also benefitted from dubious claims: for example, the notion that Mozart could compose entire works in memory and then write them down with little or no editing is based on a single passage in a supposed letter of his that is now believed to be a forgery [Colvin, 2008]).

  • As an experiment, a Hungarian educator, Polgar, set out to systematically train his daughters to become expert chess players. All three daughters have achieved high rankings in international chess, and one daughter, Judit, at one point held the record for becoming the youngest grand master ever, at 15 years of age.

  • The superlative abilities shown by experts are almost always specific to their field of endeavor. For example, chess experts have the ability to memorize the exact positions of all the chess pieces in a game after only a few seconds’ glance at the chessboard. But they perform no better than non-chess players at memorizing chess pieces randomly distributed around the board in a non-game pattern. As well, their performance on standard memory tests is typically no better than that of the average person.

  • Almost all of the remarkable feats displayed by savants - individuals of low intellectual ability who nevertheless possess some remarkable skill – have been taught to normal individuals. For example, the ability of some savants to name the day of the week for any arbitrary date (e.g., “What day of the week was June 30, 1854”) has been duplicated by ordinary college students after only a few weeks of training.

  • Excellent musicians often have perfect pitch, which many people assume is something a person is born with. Researchers, however, have been able to systematically train this ability in some adults. More importantly, people who display perfect pitch have almost always had considerable exposure to music at an early age. This suggests that, as with language development, there may be a critical period in early childhood during which perfect pitch can be more readily acquired.


Based on findings such as these, Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993; see also Ericsson & Charness, 1994) argued that the most critical factor in determining expert performance is not innate ability but deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is practice that is not inherently enjoyable and does not involve mere repetition; it instead involves intense concentration and considerable effort with a view toward improving one’s performance. More than any other variable, the accumulated amount of deliberate practice in an activity is strongly predictive of an individual’s level of performance.

For example, Ericsson et al. (1993) compared student violinists who were the “best” with those who were merely “good” and with those who were in training to become music teachers. The best students had accumulated about 7400 hours of deliberate practice by the age of 18, compared to 5300 hours for the good students and 3400 hours for the teachers-in-training. Such differences account for why elite performers so often report having begun their training at an early age. An early start enables one to accumulate the huge number of practice hours needed to outperform others. Those who begin at a later age are simply unable to catch up.

Because deliberate practice is so effortful, the amount that can be tolerated each day is necessarily limited. For this reason, elite performers often practice about 4 hours per day. Ericsson et al. (1993), for example, found that the best violin students engaged in solitary practice (which was judged to be the most important type of practice) for approximately 3.5 hours per day, spread out across two to three sessions, each session lasting an average of 80 minutes. Note that this did not include time spent receiving instruction, giving performances, or playing for enjoyment. The students also devoted about 3.5 hours a day to rest and recreation and obtained more than average amounts of sleep.

Top-level performers in intellectual pursuits display similar characteristics. Novelists typically write for about 3 to 4 hours each day, usually in the morning. Eminent scientists likewise write for a few hours each morning – the writing of articles arguable being the most important activity determining their success – and then devote the rest of the day to other duties.

B.F. Skinner is especially instructive in this regard. In his later life, he would rise at midnight and write for 1 hour, then rise again at 5:00 A.M. and write for another 2 hours. The remainder of the morning was devoted to correspondence and other professional tasks, while much of the afternoon was devoted to leisure activities such as tinkering in his workshop and listening to music. He deliberately resisted any urge to engage in serious writing at other times of the day, feeling that this often resulted in poor-quality writing the next morning. However, the limited amount of writing he did each day was more than compensated for by the consistency with which he wrote, resulting in a steady stream of influential articles and books throughout his career (Bjork, 1993). Skinner (1987) recommended that students adopt a similar approach to improve the quality of their writing. Congruent with this, effective college students are more likely to describe themselves as utilizing a balanced approach to studying, involving regular study sessions with frequent breaks, than a driven approach, involving few breaks and studying to the point of exhaustion (Bouvier & Powell, 2008).

 

Wow. Powerful stuff right? So why is this so valuable? It’s valuable because it confronts the nature / nurture debate and provides ample evidence that elite performers are made, not born. This is powerful because it means that we are all capable of becoming elite in whatever it is we desire. The only pre-requisite? Deliberate practice.


Every week I give the kids that I coach homework. Their homework is typically to go home and juggle. Every. Single. Day. Why do I make them juggle? For numerous reasons. Firstly, it’s easily measurable. Once a week at practice I give the girls 5 minutes to juggle to reach their highest score which they report to me and I record in a journal. I believe children love to see their progress and this is an objective way to achieve that. Secondly, juggling improves their first touch. Thirdly, juggling requires nothing but space and a ball. And lastly, it’s less about juggling and more about adopting this mentality of deliberate practice. Recording their juggles makes it very clear to me as a coach which players have this mentality and consequently, the players I am more likely to invest in. I have been doing this specific training with most of these girls for a year now and one of my players, who started off with just 6 juggles, is now reaching over 500. How often does she juggle? Every day for 30-45 minutes. Does she have schoolwork? Absolutely. But she prioritises juggling because she wants to succeed in soccer. And with this mentality, she will.

I explain to my kids that the role of a coach is to provide their players with the resources to become better players, but we can’t do the work for them. Much like in school, if students wish to learn, they have to invest time in studying and doing homework. Sport is no different. Team practices are like school. I am a teacher. I provide the girls with the resources and the feedback to become better players, but the improvement comes outside of practice. Or, as I like to say, champions are made when the stands are empty. In other words, elite players become elite because of what they do when no one is watching. They have integrity. They have commitment. And they have focus.

Let me clarify what I mean by commitment – showing up to team practice, despite what my college teammates believed, is not commitment. That’s the bare minimum. As mentioned in the article, “Elite performers often practiced for 4 hours per day…this did NOT include time spent receiving instruction, giving performances, or playing for enjoyment.” Showing up to team practices will not make you elite. It will make you average. Will you improve? Yes. But gradually. And very, very slowly. When you practice by yourself though, that is when you see significant improvements. That is when you accomplish big milestones. That is when you become elite.

I often share two personal stories with my girls about this. When I was around 12 years old, I couldn’t chip the ball in the air and I really wanted to be able to. There was no way that I was going to learn at team practice when I could only attempt it maybe 10 times at most. So I went out on my tennis court and I would kick hundreds of balls. And I failed. Boy did I fail. Over and over again. But that is why I succeeded. I eventually kicked it in the air. But, I didn’t stop there. I kept trying until I wasn’t just competent with my right foot, but with my left foot too. Now I can play long balls with almost pin point accuracy.


And then there were national camps. At 14, I went to my first Australian camp. The coaches asked us all to juggle for ten or so minutes, which seems like a seemingly simple task for a 14 year old attending a national camp right? Not for me. I couldn’t even get the ball in the air let alone juggle 10 times. Meanwhile, all the other girls were juggling well into the hundreds. I felt so embarrassed. I was humiliated. I SUCKED! I was way out of my league. I wanted to cry. And I wanted to get on the first flight back to Adelaide. But I didn’t. I endured the humiliation. And I survived…just. When I returned home, I vouched to never feel like that again. I went out every morning for 15 minutes and taught myself how to juggle. I started juggling on my thighs just to get the rhythm of left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg, then I progressed to using my feet – both feet – by kicking it in the air once and catching it. Then twice and catching it. And I did this until I could comfortably juggle with both feet well into the hundreds.

Would I have achieved either of these milestones had I not practiced by myself? Probably not. How much time at practice can one actually devote to learning a new skill? As a coach I can tell you, it’s not much. In practice, you might touch the ball what, 200, 300 times, but by yourself, you can accumulate 5-10 times that amount in the same duration. In college, I used to love summer when we didn’t train with the team, why? Because that’s when I actually saw myself improve. When you think about it logically, deliberate practice isn’t just the right way to improve, it’s the only way.

I have written exclusively about soccer in this post, but this concept applies to every aspect of your life that you wish to improve upon. Take love and relationships for example. Most of us believe that we will become better at relationships by being in them. And yes, there is some truth in that. But being in a relationship is like showing up for a team practice – the coach, your partner in this instance, is providing you with the resources to become better, things you can work on. But, much like in sport, your improvement will happen outside of your relationship. So long as you never intentionally invest in yourself outside of your relationships, your relationships will only gradually get better. If you wish to see significant improvements or accomplish milestones in your love life and your relationships, then you must obtain this mentality of deliberate practice with yourself. And I’m not just talking about being “single” for a few months. I’m talking about investing significant time and effort in getting to know who you are. For whatever reason, we think that love and relationships are exempt from this kind of mentality that anything good in life we have to work for. Much like elite athletes don’t magically stumble upon playing professionally without working for it, we cannot magically stumble upon exceptional, intimate, and authentic love. We too, have to work for it. Want somewhere to start? Check out www.authenticlovecoaching.com. And if you aren’t willing to intentionally invest in yourself, you will never experience “elite” kind of love.

Elite athletes and elite performers and elite musicians are not born with exceptional abilities. We are all born with a plastic brain that is capable of learning and becoming whatever it is that we desire, but only through intentional, focused, and effortful practice. Learning this, accepting this, and implementing this mentality will change your life. Previous seemingly unrealistic dreams are now realistically obtainable through this method and belief that nurture trumps nature. So if excellence is what you seek, deliberate practice is your answer.

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