Deliberate Practice

Don’t laugh, I’m secretly a shark.

Billiards seemed fitting for this article. I have a special bonus for AofWL readers today, I recorded an audio version of this post! Deliberate Practice Podcast I love the work of professor K.Anders Ericsson at the University of Florida, and you’ve seen his work quoted on AofWL before. You may have even read about him in best-selling books like Malcolm Gladwell‘s ‘Outliers.’ He’s is the man who came up with the term ‘deliberate practice,‘ and it completely puts to bed the whole notion, that ‘talent is born and not created.’  True talent is created, even if there are a multitude of factors that influence it. Sure it might have some natural help along the way, basketball players being taller than average people for example, but there are plenty of tall people who can’t play basketball too. Essentially having a ‘natural aptitude‘ won’t make you a world-class-anything, without a hell of a lot of solid, deliberate practice. Actually it won’t even make you particularly proficient in anything either, without at least a little deliberate practice too. How often have you told yourself, ‘I’m just not naturally skinny?’  Turns out, all is not lost for you — especially if you learn to adopt a growth mindset — if you can learn to practice things better. One of Ericsson’s core research findings was that becoming an expert at a skill or ability has more to do with how one practices that skill or ability, than it has to do with merely performing a skill a large number of times. So ya, you can show up to a fitness class and practice your squats all you want, but it might not actually make you better at squatting. Likewise, you can practice any of the skills I’ve listed in the past on AofWL and still come up short. What friggin’ gives, right? Well the expectation that merely going through the motions will make us better at things, is inherently flawed. If you want to get better at things, you have to stop going through the motions and start deliberately thinking about how you’re executing them. You have to start thinking like an Expert.

How to Think Like an Expert

Experts adopt deliberate practice mindsets. You know that guy or gal in school, who always got top grades? Ya you might have chalked it up to a rather typical assumption that they were just naturally gifted, but the more probable thing happening? They were going home every day and deliberately practicing their homework for two-three hours every night, while we played video games or watched TV. Experts break down skills — from now on referred to synonymously with ‘abilities’ — that are required to be an expert and focus on improving the skill ‘chunks‘ or ‘pieces‘ during their practice sessions. If you want to get better at squares, then you’ll need to know multiplication very well, and if you want to know multiplication well, then you had better know how to add very well first. The best in their fields, also tend to focus on addressing their weak links, and not playing to their strengths, when they do practice.

My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.

~ Michael Jordan  

Or as I would say, deliberate practice is for working on your weaknesses, game time is for playing to your strengths. Another important concept within deliberate practice lies in continually practising a skill at more and more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it. Once you’ve turned something into a strength, it’s important to continue increasing the difficulty, to incur subsequent growth. So it is important to understand the nature of progression here. I’ve talked about developing mastery at length before. Anders research also notes that this deliberate practice is often paired with immediate coaching feedback. That same guy or gal getting top grades? Teachers Pet, right? Again, turns out they were probably just better at getting the right amount of feedback and coaching from teachers, rather than trying to learn everything in class, like the rest of us. Anyone wonder why I love coaching so much anymore? Coaching is a critical component to getting better at losing weight and keeping it off, just like any other skill or ability. We all need an objective viewpoint to help us come back to addressing the stuff we don’t necessarily want to do, but must improve, if we’re attempting to grow our skill-set.

People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults. We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

~K. Anders Ericsson

If for instance you wanted to learn how to lose weight and keep it off, then you should start educating yourself on the successful skills that skinnier people possess. Notice I said skills and not ‘program’ or ‘meal plans.’ Let me know what you think about the podcast version of this too! For further reading on the concept of deliberate practice check out the following books: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin “The Talent Code‘ by Daniel Boyle “Bounce” by Matthew Syed Or straight from the horses mouth: “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance” by K. Anders Ericsson, et al

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