Deliberate Practice

There is no secret recipe. Everyone is looking for the number one thing, but it’s simply hard work. It literally takes hours and hours and hours of repetition. Just showing up every day and being consistent.” – A.J. Pollock, MLB All-Star

I love this quote from Pollock because it is spot on in so many different ways. In an age where everyone is looking for the next big thing or the quickest route to success, nothing can – or ever will – replace hard work. As a baseball player, the time and quality of your practice will ultimately dictate the type of player you become. As Ron Wolforth of the Texas Baseball Ranch says it best, “Practice does not make perfect. It makes permanent.” 


This brings up my main point for this article: There is a right way to practice, and a wrong way to practice. You can’t fake working hard – you get out of it what you put into it. If your practice lacks focus and concentration, centers on your strengths, and is done sporadically, it will never help you achieve the results you desire. There is nothing engaging about the practice you’re creating – it’s simply what you want to do, when you want to do it, and it’s done without precise attention to detail. 


To discover the origins of what we know as talent, Daniel Coyle took a trip around the globe to discover the key ingredients for what created hotbeds of talent in various occupations. He recorded his findings in New York Times Best Seller The Talent Code (a great read for those interested). Through his work, Coyle found three themes that allowed for the optimization of performance in just about everything. We’re going to center in on one of those themes today – the idea of deliberate practice.


Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson was fascinated with the idea of talent and decided to explore it from several different angles. To discover the nature of skilled performance, Ericsson vigorously studied the time and characteristics of practice from several professions. What he discovered is nearly all experts were the product of around 10,000 hours of committed practice. Ericsson called this process deliberate practice, defining it as “working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses.”


The key part of Ericsson’s deliberate practice definition is the idea of commitment. While acquiring hours of practice is critical (Mozart was estimated to have 3,500 hours of practice by his sixth birthday), not all practice is created equal. To understand this, see the example below from Aubrey Daniels:


“Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?”


Not only does Player A get up more shots, but the focus and concentration is exceptionally better, there is feedback on every single shot, and that feedback is reviewed every 10 minutes throughout the training session. There’s a system to Player A’s training. Player B is just getting shots up at their leisure.


Any sensible athlete would understand how Player A’s training is much better, but most fail to practice the necessary focus and concentration required for deliberate practice. James Clear, author of New York Times Best Seller Atomic Habits, spoke about this saying, “The greatest challenge of deliberate practice is to remain focused. In the beginning, showing up and putting in your reps is the most important thing. But after a while we begin to carelessly overlook small errors and miss daily opportunities for improvement.” 


This carelessness comes from our brain’s natural tendency to throw skills on autopilot once we begin to master them. This is the reason why we don’t have to think about how to ride a bike or drive a car the way we once used to. With practice, our brain is able to build and strengthen neural circuits required to perform the skill with great efficiency. This makes our day a lot easier by helping us conserve cognitive energy for other places, but it works against us when we’re trying to improve performance. Mindless repetitions and activity do not help us improve. If anything, they’re the start to our regression.  


To avoid falling into the trap of mindless practice, we need to practice strategies that help facilitate deliberate practice. To really and truly be engaged in your work is difficult to do, but it’s how high performing individuals separate themselves from the field. They’re not interested in practicing the puts they could put in blindfolded. They’re on the practice course going through their in-game performance routines, trying new and difficult shots, making mistakes, learning from them, and becoming their own best coach through trial and error. As Ericsson says, “There’s no cell type that geniuses have that the rest of us don’t.” 


How to Design Deliberate Practice


Coyle divided deliberate practice into three rules. The first rule, chunk it up, is where participants absorb the entire activity, break it into its smallest possible chunks, and then practice it by slowing it down – eventually speeding it up – to learn its “inner architecture.” The second rule, repeat it, is where participants practice the skill through mindful repetitions. The last rule, learn to feel it, is where we put it all together and create awareness for when we’re using deliberate practice. 


Absorbing the skill sets the framework for how the participant views the skill and how they can ultimately perform it themselves. Given our natural tendency to imitate, it is incredibly valuable to watch and study high performers in our field. By seeing what they do really well, we can unconsciously learn how to take on similar movements and actions that set us up for long term success. Watching Bryce Harper’s highlight reel isn’t just to admire his 400-foot bombs – it’s a way to spark early interest and engagement. 


Once we have the blueprint for what we want to accomplish, we need to break it down into the smallest chunks possible. By memorizing individual parts of the intended movement, we can learn how to master each one and ultimately put them together in one complete sequence. In baseball, this could be breaking the swing down into a move out of balance, foot plant, initial move to the ball, contact, rotation, and extension. By seeing and feeling how each of these parts should fit together in the whole movement, we’re able to build greater awareness for what it should all feel and look like.


After this point, we can start to put it all together by slowing it down. A slow pace enables a high degree of precision which allows you to be more attentive to small errors. This helps unlock what Coyle calls “a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints.” We become in tune with the rhythm and relation of the interlocking circuits required for the skill. We don’t just go through the motions – we do it with such a high degree of concentration that we become completely immersed in it. It’s our way to deliberately leave no stone unturned. 


Once we’ve been able to do these three things, we can move on to Coyle’s next rule of deliberate practice: repeat it. As Coyle says, “There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do – talking, thinking, reading, imagining – is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.” 


To explain this, he brings up a question: What is the quickest (non-injury) way to diminish the skills of a superstar? The answer is simple – “Don’t let them practice for a month.” Nothing physically about the athlete has changed, but the channels responsible for firing the skill have begun to decay. Just like nature – if it isn’t growing, it’s dying. 


While nothing can replace repetition, it is only useful if it is done on the edge of your capabilities. Coyle calls this area the “sweet spot” for the facilitation of deliberate practice. More doesn’t always mean better if you’re not challenging yourself and finding areas of your game that need improvement. 


After we’ve chunked it up and repeated it, we need to learn what it feels like to be immersed in deliberate practice. Creating awareness for how we feel helps counteract the natural tendency to dislike deliberate practice. It’s very tough to find a particular struggle, invest 100 percent focus and concentration, and consistently evaluate to see whether you are making progress or not. As a result, you need to praise the right things and hold participants accountable to the standard you create. 


To give you an idea of what deliberate practice should feel like, Coyle composed a list of words that experts from around the world used to describe the practice:


    • Attention
    • Connect
    • Build
    • Whole
    • Alert
    • Focus
    • Mistake
    • Repeat
    • Tiring 
    • Edge
    • Awake


Here is a list of words that DID NOT make the list:


    • Natural
    • Effortless
    • Routine
    • Automatic


To give you an idea of how deliberate practice should occur, follow these four steps:


  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one


If you can chunk it, repeat it, feel it, and crush these four steps on a consistent basis, you’re on the right track to deliberate practice. 


After your training sessions, journal and record what your goals were, how you set out to achieve them, the results of your training, what helped you, and what didn’t help you. Get measurables and record film that you can use to track how you’re progressing or regressing throughout your training. Ask for input from others and see if there’s anything they would do to try and help you achieve what you’re striving for. Research things you don’t understand and seek people who understand it very well. Exhaust every possible resource you can – you only have one career. 


If experts from all around the world have invested close to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you’ve got no time to waste.       


Keep learning, growing, and practicing deliberately


This article was written by Andrew Parks.   

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