How deliberate practice works

John's reflections, leadership 2 Comments

Before writing last week about my excursion to Northern California with the group from Portugal, I had spent two weeks on the concepts of talent, practice, and the origins of greatness. In particular, I had written posts about how the “gift for speaking” of Churchill or the “natural talent” of Michael Jordan were pubic perceptions, even misconceptions, rather than true images of how they learned their craft.

So, what exactly can we glean from these two stories, the accounts of the road to mastery of Winston Churchill and Michael Jordan? Though they played in vastly different arenas and time periods, their underlying message is the same: Greatness—whether in sport, in public speaking, or in any other field—takes years of hard work, attention to detail, and determination.

As we have seen previously on this blog, a growing number of researchers today are concluding that giftedness and talent play only minor roles on the road to mastery, if indeed they play any role at all. What one can say conclusively is this: While genetics may exert some influence, it is certainly far less than most of society has tended to assume.

In his book Talent is overrated, Geoff Colvin writes that hundreds of research studies have converged on some major conclusions that contradict most of what we all think we know about great performance.  In Colvin’s work, and also in the writing of others, I am finding a recurring theme in the explanation of greatness. More than any sort of innate talent or genius, true mastery of any complex activity requires roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

A precise definition of what constitutes deliberate practice, and what does not, is critical to our understanding of how to master anything. In fact, what most of us think of as practice, repeating a specific activity over and over, does not lead us to mastery or greatness. If we think of practice as simply repetition, we practice things all the time—in sport, in music, and even in some aspects of our work.

When we have organizational roles in which we must make presentations to a group, for instance, most of us will do some form of practice. For most people, however, preparation for a speech or presentation might consist of jotting down some notes, collecting a few thoughts, and perhaps doing a few “run-throughs”. On its own, this sort of practice by repetition will make one more comfortable with the exercise, and thus will lead to some improvement. On the other hand, most people practicing this way reach a proficiency level that satisfies them, and they tend to stop improving after that.

As we saw in the case of Churchill, those who become outstanding speakers are fundamentally different in their approach. The “great” ones go on improving far longer because they continue with practice routines that are simply more rigorous and intensive than the “good” ones. If we truly want to keep learning and improving, to master any skill or activity, we must change our concept of practice.

Practice vs. deliberate practice: A number of points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us usually do when we learn an activity. The first element is the design of the practice itself. Perhaps the most important aspect of the practice of future masters is that it allows them to grow continuously. Someone—usually a coach or mentor—designs exercises and activities that allow learners to advance a bit beyond their current levels of expertise. As the pupils’ proficiency grows, further specifically conceived exercises take them beyond—or sometimes around—the obstacles that cause most people to stumble.

Consider just this first point. In most of our activities, we do not have guides with the competency to design the demanding exercises that push us incrementally beyond our current capabilities. With most coaches, we tend to repeat sets of typical, standard exercises over and over. While we may continue to learn, we inevitably reach a point where we learn at far slower rates. As such, people trying to master any activity often comment that they have “reached a plateau”. Only an extraordinary coach, and an extraordinarily dedicated one, will design the type of deliberate practice that engenders constant learning and improvement.

A second characteristic of deliberate practice is the presence of a constant stream of feedback. This feedback is most effective when it is immediate and constructive. Of course, a qualified teacher, coach or mentor is vital in providing this continuous, expert guidance. So, the coach not only designs the practice but also has the discerning analytical eye that can deconstruct the process and provide the requisite criticism and advice.

When I say that most people do not encounter coaches capable of designing their practice or giving them feedback at high enough levels, I do not mean to be critical. While many individuals learning skills and practicing them do find competent mentors, these are rarely coaches who can take their students far enough down the long and rigorous road to mastery. One simply does not become Mozart or Tiger Woods without some truly remarkable—in their cases, even world class—coaching along the way.

Next week, we will examine the remaining components of true deliberate practice, and we will explain how “geniuses” such as Mozart or Tiger do emerge every now and again.

2 Responses to How deliberate practice works

  1. wa;ter blass says:

    John: The movie ” The King’s Speech” is a perfect example of what you are stating about coaches. Obviously it took King George VI some time even to admit and face up to his speech impediment. The refusal of his coach to call him anything but David ( like any other mortal ) initially caused him to refuse treatment. Once he admitted directly what was wrong, only then did the coach agree to work with him. He used very unusual methods, but ones that ultimately worked–if not perfectly, good enough. In executive coaching he problems are almost identical–aren;t they– the client has first to express her/his own fears, poor self-image, etc. and only then can the coach/therapist work effectively with the client. The coach has to display empathy and firmness, warmth and practical steps to allow the individual, high or low, to learn to trust, to face the demons, to overcome whatever the impediment is. Then comes that practice whereof you speak. That movie shows how laborious the practice was, especially at the beginning when the client despairs of ever reaching the objective.

  2. John Trainer says:

    I would like to know where to find your explanation of the remaining components of deliberate practice!

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