Deliberate Practice: The Secret Sauce to Progress

“Nobody develops extraordinary abilities without tremendous amounts of practice”

– Anders Ericsson

This is a bold statement and perhaps a controversial ethos. It forms one side of the nature versus nurture debate. Which is more important? It’s hard to argue against the advantages a tall dude has in basketball. I think most anyone would agree that athletic prowess is multifactorial. However, in his book Peak, Anders Ericsson purports that nurture accounts for much more than you might think. Superlative short-term memory, perfect pitch – these are some things that have previously been thought to be controlled by genetics. The genome was the limiting factor for those who did not possess such admirable talents. Nowadays, data exist that refute such assertions. This raises the question, if you believe in the adaptability of the human body and mind, where does the upper limit lie for a given individual? I would say that genetics alone cannot adequately answer this question. The only way to know for sure is to throw yourself, whole-heartedly into whatever inspires you. Live it in real-time. At the end of it all, you might be surprised how far you get.

If “tremendous amounts of practice” are indeed so pivotal in determining a person’s abilities, why are we not all Formula One drivers? There are millions of people, all over the globe, practicing driving for hours and hours each and every day. Yet, only a select few make it to the start line in Monaco. Why? Simply because it is not only the quantity of practice that matters, but also the quality. Anders Ericsson describes 3 forms of practice:

  • Usual/Naïve Practice

  • Purposeful Practice

  • Deliberate Practice

Usual practice is what most of us engage in, most of the time. It places an emphasis on repetition. Little energy is given to the thinking behind what we are doing, but rather focused on the doing itself. A few years ago, I took up indoor climbing and this was my approach. I bought the shoes and the chalk bag. I dropped into a few group lessons, bought a book on bouldering. Then I would spend a couple of evenings a week at the local climbing gym practicing. I made rapid progress. Every evening, I would come home having accomplished a new set of problems or routes. Alex Honnold, sit down - I was a climbing sensation! However, there came a point where progress stalled. No matter how hard I tried, there were particular problems that always bested me. Frankly, I was confused. I watched little kids stick to the wall like glue and flash those same problems! Of course, this type of progression is not uncommon in climbing and it is indeed typical of this approach to practice. With this method, you will often get to a point of ‘good enough’ but no further. It’s important to acknowledge that this is absolutely fine! I had a great time learning to climb and I still enjoy it as a hobby. The point though is that, with ‘usual practice’, eventually repeating the same thing over and over again will no longer yield success like it used to.

In Peak, Ericsson sets out the following criteria that differentiate purposeful practice from usual practice:

  • Purposeful practice has clear, specific goals

  • Purposeful practice creates a plan to reach these goals

  • Purposeful practice requires absolute focus

  • Purposeful practice involves feedback

  • Purposeful practice operates right at the edge of your abilities

I might add, that to truly reap the rewards of purposeful practice, you must always be asking questions; questions like what, why, how, when, who, where. You need to explore and embellish the thinking behind what you are doing. This is the key to purposeful practice. Understanding that the thinking is at least as important as the doing is essential. Let’s consider these elements with an example from freestyle kayaking:

1. Your goal is to be able to do a flatwater loop

Ask questions. Explore the thinking behind this further. Do you just want to do it once in your life? Do you want to be able to do it every single time on command? Why do you want to be able to do this; does it feed in to a larger picture? If so, where does it fit in? What would achieving a flatwater loop do for you as a person?

2. You need a plan to get you to your goal.

What are the intermediary skills between your current skill level and the skill level you desire? How can you refine and develop these intermediary skills? For example, you know you need to be able to bow stall before you can flatwater loop. Developing this intermediary skill might involve increasing the time you can bow stall for, remaining in control when pirouetting on the bow, initiating a stall in the middle of a sequence of cartwheel ends. These intermediary skills can all become goals in themselves – stepping stones on the way to achieving the ultimate aim.

3. You agree to be focused when practicing for your flatwater loop.

How can you ensure your environment is distraction free during your practice? Are there ways to improve the quality of your focus?

4. You ask your friend to give you feedback on your progress.

Go further than simply “it worked” or “it didn’t work”. Why did it not work? What part exactly didn’t work? What do you need to change to make it work? If it was better, why did it improve? How does your friend communicate the feedback to you? Would video be useful? How can you get the most value from any video feedback?

5. You aim to make sure your goals challenge your current abilities

What are your current abilities? How do you know when they have changed? How must your goals change to reflect the development of your skills?

If you apply these principles, you will see progress one way or another. However, I can also guarantee that eventually you will hit a roadblock. You will encounter some part of a skill that you just can’t seem to grasp. This is completely normal and it requires the final component of purposeful practice; whenever your progress stalls, “don’t try harder try differently”. Change your approach. Think about it in a different way. Get creative. You might have to change tack quite a number of times. But if you manage to stick with it, eventually you will see a breakthrough. In my opinion, this is often the difference between the greats and the very-goods; the ability and willingness to change and adapt, the tolerance for failure and the dissociation of failure from one’s identity – failing regularly does not make you a failure.

If you compare usual practice to purposeful practice, they truly are worlds apart. Usual practice seems mindless and clumsy when compared to the dynamism and refinement of purposeful practice. In truth, purposeful practice is an excellent model. It is possible to make it even better, however.

Deliberate practice is the fillet steak, the gold standard of practice. It shares all the great qualities of purposeful practice, but with one extra ingredient. In deliberate practice, the plan you put in place is known to be the most efficient route from where you are to where you want to be. Your plan is informed.

Such a supposition raises the question; where does this all-important information come from? How do we know that the path we are on is the shortest and easiest route to accomplishing our goals? What it boils down to is really quite simple – someone else has done it already. In fact, droves of people may have already succeeded in accomplishing your goal. Who are these people? More importantly, can you identify who are the best among them? Studying those that are best at what you are trying to learn can yield great insight. What do they do? What do they not do? Harnessing this insight is the key to deliberate practice.

Studying expert performers in your field, noticing the patterns that link them, integrating this information into a learning strategy; this often falls under the remit of a coach. Another hallmark of deliberate practice, engaging with a coach is one way to steepen your learning curve. The coach assimilates the relevant information from expert performers and uses it to help you design your plan and create intermediary goals to pursue along the way. As you encounter obstacles, a coach’s experience can help you overcome them swiftly. Session-to-session they help you implement the principles of purposeful practice but also ensure these sessions align with a longer-term objective. They give your plan direction.

But what if your goal has never been achieved before? This can be the case. Some skills or areas of expertise are more highly developed than others. Let’s take an example from freestyle kayaking. The McNasty was first developed by Eric Jackson in 2002 – almost 20 years ago now. At the time, only a select few could successfully replicate it. Since then, countless athletes, young and old, have learned to McNasty. Over time, the trick has become a highly-developed skill. The move’s mechanics and the pre-requisites are well understood. A sport like freestyle kayaking is constantly developing, however. New combinations and linked sequences are always in the pipeline. New or recently evolved skills are essentially uncharted territory. By definition, deliberate practice cannot be applied in such circumstances. We don’t yet know the quickest or best way to get there. In these scenarios, the best we can do is purposeful practice.

So, if you want to fast-track your progress, practice deliberately. Get a coach. Define a goal. Make a plan on how to get there. Be focused. Take feedback and use it to reorient your approach. Be willing to work just outside your comfort zone. Expect challenges. This is what Anders Ericsson’s research has found is the secret sauce for progress. I couldn’t recommend his book Peak more highly. So, if you’re looking for a place to start, maybe that’s it.

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