All of us who are sport lovers are often fascinated by the unbelievable performance display of many world class athletes. Whenever we admire their epic achievements, we ask; how do they perform so well? Usually, the answer that follows is simple: “by years and years of practice/training”. It is common to think that athletes achieve expertise by several years of practice and that is true. However, if we would like to understand exactly what “type” of practice is the most effective to build expertise, the answer becomes a little more complicated.
We usually think that experts are simply born and it is all about innate talent, however, research has shown that although there are some important factors that an athlete is born with (for example, height), expert performance is a result of practice. Additionally, it has been found that it is not simply about the amount of practice, it comes down to the quality. World-class athletes have managed to consistently and deliberately work on improving their performance. This is what K. Anders Ericsson has called deliberate practice and his research has shown that this is fundamental for the development of expertise.
You may be wondering what does it take to transform my ‘regular’ practice into ‘deliberate’ practice and how do I become better at what I do? Here are some of the characteristics of deliberate practice to increase the quality of your time practicing:
- Your practice should be designed to improve performance
If you are a football player and you want to improve a particular skill, identify it and work specifically for it. For example, if you want to be better at shooting free kicks, then design a practice routine that makes you a better at it. Do you remember watching movies showing great football players staying after practice to improve their free kick abilities? Exactly like that.
- You need to repeat that skill… a lot!
There is a proverb “practice makes perfect” and it is true, you need to repeat movements and skills over and over again to make them better and better. Are you proud of your golf swing? I am pretty sure this is not the third time you have done it. It is necessary to repeat the same movement or skill several times in order to master it.
- You need feedback
You may be practicing a lot, going to the court a lot of hours to develop your skill, but what if you are doing it wrong? What if you are simply doing the same mistake over and over again? This is the time and place when feedback is essential. Ask a coach, a friend or even record yourself performing. Analyze what you are doing, evaluate your success and mistakes, and identify what you need to improve (remember point 1?) and practice it repeatedly (yes, point 2).
- Mentally and physically demanding practice
Deliberate practice is mentally and physically demanding. Remember, you are trying to become better at your sport, this means that you need to push yourself to the limit. If you are practicing something that is easy, something that you can achieve with no major effort, you are not really improving. Challenge yourself, set a new goal that is a little bit higher that what you can do right now (not too high, it should be achievable). Are you great at free-throws in basketball? Awesome, now challenge yourself for the 3-pointers.
- Not (much) fun
This is probably one of the most controversial characteristics of deliberate practice, but if you give it a second thought, it makes sense. Making mistakes, failing, running one more lap, pushing yourself to the limit is not fun. It requires a lot of effort to push the boundaries of your performance, that is why some practices and trainings are not (inherently) fun. The fun comes afterwards, seeing what you can achieve. If you are having “too much” fun in your practice, you are probably not pushing yourself. There is nothing bad about this, we need to have some fun sometimes, but it is when you push yourself to the limit that you considerably increase your performance.
The underlying characteristic of deliberate practice and the pursuit of mastery is motivation. These five characteristics of practice to become a better athlete need motivation, otherwise it becomes difficult to challenge yourself and become better at any endeavor you want to pursue. It will cost you sweat, blood and tears, but if you put enough time and effort in your skill, if you turn your practice into committed deliberate practice, I am convinced that you will improve your performance as never before. You will be using your practice time in the same way that those great athletes you admire.