What is Deliberate Practice?

In his seminal book “Outliers: The Story of Success” Malcolm Gladwell introduced much of the world to the so-called “10,000 hour” rule which was largely based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson.

The basic idea Gladwell pitched was that success requires a lot of practice.  In fact, Gladwell opined that in order to become world class (at anything) you need to put around 10,000 hours of practice into it.  He shared many examples including how the Beatles practiced for many, many hours before making it big.

The thing I immediately appreciated about this rule was that it stressed the importance of hard work.  In our world of fad diets, and the desire (need?) for instant gratification, many of us need to be reminded that, in the end, hard work pays off.

Unfortunately, as good as Gladwell’s intentions were… there is an extremely important aspect of this rule many failed to grasp.  Specifically, for this rule to have any validity there is a very specific TYPE of practice required.  Allow me to explain.

Two Approaches to Practicing

Let’s say there are two young soccer players hoping to master, as best they can, the skill of taking penalty kicks.  Let’s also say each player is willing to practice for 1 hour per day.  Here’s how things play out.

Player one shows up to the field with a bag full of 15 soccer balls.  He sets the first ball down and shoots it into the net.  Once the 15th ball has been shot he casually collects the balls (some are in the net, some are not).  He continues this process for the entire hour.

Player two also shows up to the field with a bag full of 15 soccer balls.  She then begins to execute her plan of shooting the first 5 balls to the left corner, the next 5 balls to the right corner, and the last 5 balls to the middle.  She mixes things up from time to time but she always has a plan.  In fact, sometimes her plan simply involves striking the ball with her laces in a very specific manner.

Player two has also asked a friend to come and help her.  This friend logs how many of the shots went where they were supposed to along with the details of any “misses” enabling the player to reflect back, and consult her coach, on why she may have missed.  Her friend also helps collect the balls after each round allowing the player to maximize her time on the pitch.

After a few months each player has put many hours of hard work into improving their penalty kicks.  In fact, time wise, they’re equal since both practiced for 1 hour per day.  But, as you might imagine, the second player has almost certainly realized more improvement as a result of the way she went about practicing.  Specifically, she practiced deliberately.

What is Deliberate Practice

James Clear, who has studied this topic extensively, defines deliberate practice as follows:

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

This is why player two, who had a plan each and every time she hit the pitch, practiced deliberately versus player one who simply hit the field and kicked some soccer balls for an hour.

How to Practice Deliberately

With all of this said, deliberate practice isn’t easy.  It requires at least three things.

First, deliberate practice requires patience.  Many of us long to be able to snatch 225 pounds but we’re not willing to practice the not-so-exciting “down and up” aspect of the Burgener Warm-up using a PVC pipe on a daily basis.

Second, deliberate practice requires planning.  If you hope to master a musical instrument and you have no plan for how to go about it… you’re obviously going to struggle.  And while player one has gotten a bad rap in this article I imagine many of us are guilty of thinking that “showing up” and “putting the work in” is enough.  Don’t get me wrong, showing up is important… but it’s not sufficient if you hope to practice deliberately.  You must have a well thought out plan.

And, last, but certainly not least… deliberate practice requires the help of a coach or, at a minimum, some way to get unbiased feedback even if it means video taping yourself so you can ask someone with more experience to verify you’re on track.  Unfortunately, this is the biggest downside for those of us who attempt to learn new skills on our own.

So, yes, hard work is important.  Practice is important.  But if we want to really move the needle and unlock our true, God given, talents we need to learn how to practice deliberately.

Obviously, there are other characteristics that also come into play when it comes to excellence.  Those with above average height will have a better shot at excelling at basketball.  And Major League Baseball All Stars have been shown to have extremely good eye sight.  But, it’s also a very safe bet that these same basketball and baseball players also practiced, and continue to practice, in very deliberate ways.

Until next time… be holy, eat clean, and do more push-ups!

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