deliberate practice

Where does talent come from? Is it innate or is it from hours and hours of practice?

Picture the dancer who is the most skilled performer you have ever seen… how did she get there? I believe it’s a combination of talent and effort.

But is all effort created equal? Many of us drill and drill and drill… but is that actually going to make a difference? I’m here to say no, rote repetition does not equal improvement.

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deliberate practice

Sometimes an athlete with superior talent plateaus before you’d expect. Other times, weaker athletes with more consistent effort surpass everyone around them. No one achieves success from natural talent alone.

People aren’t just naturally talented, no one is born an expert.

Maybe some people have a genetic gift in a certain realm. But that gift will never be realized without consistent and deliberate practice. Even the very best of the best in their field engaged in deliberate practice to get to the top of their game. There is a key part of this argument to notice: It’s not just practice but the deliberate practice that makes the difference from good to great.

Deliberate Practice is NOT Rote Repetition

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. Regular practices often include mindless repetitions. We find a drill we like and start doing the same skill over and over again.  We hope (and assume) that repeated drills will ingrain the movement and the dancer will improve.  Practice that is done deliberately, however, requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

Deliberate Practice Must be Intentional

Deliberate practice is a repetitive performance of intended skills. It’s not just a drill. It’s not the same warm-up over and over again, or the same jump drill repeated weekly with the hope of improvement through repetition. It includes rigorous skills assessment and specific feedback. First, you have to show up and repeat skills over and over. But eventually, if you don’t stay focused on improvement, you’ll miss opportunities for growth.

When an athlete is engaged in deliberate practice, he is practicing beyond his current skill level, not just repeating the skill he has already achieved. Instead, you practice a skill, get feedback on what you’ve done wrong, reflect, and try the practice again. Over and over. Every day. If an athlete is not pushing himself and learning every repetition, he’s missing an opportunity to improve and probably isn’t getting any better.

When We Become Mindless Robots in Practice

The more we repeat something, the more it becomes mindless. We turn to autopilot. Think back to when you learned how to drive. You used to have to think about every little detail.  Where’s the blinker, look over my shoulder to the blind spot, slowly let out the clutch, ease the gas… Now that you’ve been doing it for a few years it’s probably pretty mindless. On a clear day, you just drive on autopilot.

That’s fine if you’ve achieved the skill level that you want. However, if you want to get better, you can’t just repeat everything at the same skill level. Sport works the same way.  At first, a new skill takes a lot of focus, but once you’ve done it for a long time, it quickly becomes second nature. If you want to keep improving, your focus has to change.

If you’re doing it perfectly every time, then great, keep going. Let autopilot take over. But assuming there is still room for growth, you don’t want the skill to become mindless just yet. You want to have clear focused attention on the process of skill improvement.

Brain Research: Taxi drivers vs. Bus drivers

If you’ve ever been to London, you know that the streets are rarely, if ever, straight. There is no simple grid system, and navigating around the city is very complex. London taxi drivers take years of training to master the skill of driving through the complicated streets. It turns out, that the process of creating so many memories related to these maps and mastering said maps actually changes the brain.

Scientists compared the brains of some London taxi drivers to London bus drivers who always drive the same route over and over again (rote repetition). The taxi drivers’ brains show more activity (implying more neural connections) in certain areas of the brain. Namely, the hippocampus, which is largely responsible for memory formation. Parts of their brains are actually bigger!

The lesson here is that once you reach a level of “acceptable performance” and you simply repeat the same skill over and over again, additional years of practice don’t necessarily lead to improvement.

We shouldn’t assume that continued practice and repetitive drills are of any inherent value.

Repetition Doesn’t Equal Improvement

You can’t assume you’re getting better just because you are practicing the same skill repeatedly. Repetition doesn’t equal improvement. You may have heard of the idea that 10,000 hours makes you an expert.  Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion in a wonderful book, but it’s actually based on research done much earlier and “10,000 hours” only gives part of the story.

It’s not just that you must do 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. You need a teacher, or coach, or someone to help with deliberate practice. The practice has to include time where you take in feedback and make deliberate changes in order to improve. Rote repetition for 10,000 hours likely won’t lead to much improvement.

Want to know more? This is an excellent read on how to be an expert and achieve personal best!

So What is Deliberate Practice Exactly?

Deliberate practice always follows the same pattern: 1) break down the overall process of the skill into parts 2) identify your weaknesses 3) test new strategies for each section of the skill and 4) integrate your learning into the overall process.

This is where coaching plays an invaluable role. In order for an athlete to improve she must receive continual feedback during deliberate practice in order for it to be helpful. Coaches are the cornerstones of deliberate practice. It is up to the coach to track the athlete’s progress, identify areas of weakness, know how to improve, and hold athletes accountable.

Strategies to Implement Deliberate Practice:

  • deliberate practice

    Never allow your athletes to go on autopilot

  • Ensure they are focused and engaged at all times
  • Some skills must be repeated, but do so with intention and deliberate attention to improvement.
  • It is essential to have consistent pre-performance preparation
  • Athletes must consistently engage in self-reflection

There is no substitute for hard work, but that hard work needs a coach.


Want to know more about the best possible practice? READ ON!

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