Optimize your training with deliberate practice
Most of us are familiar with the story of the man racing up New York’s Seventh Avenue when a stranger stopped him.
“Pardon me,” he said, “can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The man paused before answering
“Practice, practice, practice”.
There are many versions of the story which can be traced back to the 1950s, including one referencing Yankee Stadium, and one of the reasons this quote has endured for so long is not simply because it is humorous, but because it also contains a huge element of truth. The underlying message is quite clear in that natural talent alone is not enough to get you to the top of your chosen field, but hard work and perseverance is the key element in achieving success. It may sound like a very obvious concept but it wasn’t always that way as early analysis of successful individuals, particularly in sport, suggested that natural talent and genetic make-up were most instrumental in determining who was going to succeed. However, the view has changed considerably in recent times and now it is accepted that while there clearly has to be a certain amount of natural ability, it is the dedication and desire that sees an athlete put in long hours of practice and training that is regarded as the pathway to success. This led to a belief in some sections that any discipline could be mastered by hours of practice, and it was a theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, which suggested that anyone can master a skill with 10,000 hours of practice. Recent research has challenged this simplistic approach and cast doubt on the assertion that practice alone would lead to success. As a consequence, what is now accepted is that while practice is vitally important in mastering a discipline, it must be structured and planned because what you practice and how you practice is the key to translating the hours of effort into success. The concept is known as Deliberate Practice and the approach is regarded as one of the most important for both coaches and athletes.
Train smart to improve performance
It is an area that has been researched extensively in recent years and one of the most highly regarded studies comes from K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and scientific researcher at Florida State University, entitled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Corbett Barr in Deliberate Practice: What It Is and Why You Need It sums up the approach by stating:
Experts then, aren’t people with freakish natural abilities in a particular domain. Experts are experts at maintaining high-levels of practice and improving performance. In other words, it’s not about what you’re born with. It’s about how consistently and deliberately you can work to improve your performance.
In many cases it can be a monotonous experience for the athlete, but this usually is as a result of the need for repetition of exercises to ensure particular skills are perfected over time and as a result will be repeated automatically or instinctively under the pressure of competition. Therefore, for an athlete determined to perfect skills and get to the top in their chosen field, they must accept the significance and potential rewards of deliberate practice and ensure it is incorporated into their daily routine.
Key elements of Deliberate Practice
Many experts have put forward their views on what are the key elements of deliberate practice and most are broadly in agreement. The essential concepts are encapsulated by Dr Olav Krigolson in a lecture on motor learning at the University of British Columbia as he listed the following:
- Highly structured
- Specific and relevant
- Weaknesses are targeted and performance monitored
- Mentally & physically focused
Meanwhile, Ericsson suggests that the four essential components of deliberate practice are:
- You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance
- The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction
- You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance
- You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks
In essence, deliberate practice requires the athlete
- to be motivated in terms of being willing to put in the hours of practice in order to improve
- to be highly organized in terms of structuring their practice session to ensure relevant skills are being developed
- to be able to access feedback
- to be disciplined in regard to the fact that repetition is required and the rewards in terms of fun and satisfaction are not immediately experienced
- to be mentally focused to be able to work through periods that may be monotonous
Challenges can be overcome
Like a lot of things that go into reaching the top, deliberate practice is a philosophy that can be challenging and Ericsson points out some of the difficulties that have to be overcome, particularly for those who want to start deliberate practice at a young age. These include resource constraint in terms of access to facilities whether that is musical instruments or sports facilities such as tennis courts or swimming pools etc. Also the cost of pursuing such levels of training can prove too great a burden, along with the demands of time put on parents. Another challenge that must be overcome is what Ericsson describes as Effort Constraint and points out that mental and physical concentration must be at its maximum for the duration of the practice.
The hurdle of Motivational Constraint is also something that must be overcome in order for Deliberate Practice to be effective. This is due to the fact that the concept is not inherently enjoyable and a high level of motivation is required to see them through what can often be monotonous and maintain the goal of performance improvement.
Worth persevering with Deliberate Practice
There is no doubt that as a concept deliberate practice is not straightforward, but like everything else that brings reward those difficulties have to be overcome, and Loren Fogelman in Five Deliberate Practice Steps for Athletes to Dominate the Competition sums up why it is important to persevere with the approach when she states:
Instead of “normal” or “regular” practice, deliberate practice focuses primarily on the seemingly miniscule aspects of your sport. Additionally, though the milestones you set may seem strange, for example, making 100 free-throws, the consistency of the repetition helps you improve.
Many athletes simply believe that practice is practice. Don’t buy into that philosophy. Choose to optimize your training time for efficiency to achieve better long results in the long run.
Working and mastering miniscule abilities will boost your confidence. When you work on becoming an expert in all aspects of your sport, even the seemingly boring or unimportant parts, you gain a deep level of understanding and confidence.
The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports: A Meta-Analysis by Brooke N. Macnamara, David Moreau, David Z. Hambrick
Deliberate Practice: What It Is and Why You Need It by Corbett Barr
Deliberate Practice by Wayne Elderton, Advanced Coaching Education
5 Deliberate Practice Steps for Athletes to Dominate the Competition by Loren Fogelman
Scientists Debunk The Myth That 10,000 Hours Of Practice Makes You An Expert by Shaunacy Ferro
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