“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear that man who has practices one kick 10,000 times.”
If you are aspiring to be the next Kobe Bryant, Mozart, or Picasso, then you must embrace deliberate practice.
Searching for a surefire strategy to elevate your own performance to a high level? Look no further.
Deliberate practice is a focused, systematic, and purposeful practice technique for achieving expert performance in any field.
It was once widely assumed that innate talent and skills were what led to elite level performance. Have you ever abandoned a dream or a goal because you believed you lacked the necessary skills or abilities?
So, what separates a good sprinter from the Usain Bolts of the world? Or a lounge pianist from Lang Lang, one of the most remarkable pianists of the 21st century?
Two words. Deliberate practice.
Something that involves concentration and is done with the express purpose of raising performance.
“The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.”
Ericsson, who spent 30-plus years analyzing elite-level performers, had one conclusion:
Achieving top-notch results have more to do with practice than talent.
The legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was hailed as a child prodigy. He has dazzled audiences in music halls across Europe since the age of 6.
According to Ericsson, Mozart’s meteoric rise to fame as a musical prodigy was not the result of innate talent. It was brought on by a unique set of circumstances.
Mozart was born to a family of musicians and was first exposed to music at the age of four. By age 6, he had notched thousands of hours of practice.
Ericsson acknowledged that Mozart’s flexibility and adaptability combined with appropriate training “develop a capability that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess it.”
But he advocates that Mozart’s gift is not unique. Mozart’s ability to recognize a musical note accurately after hearing it once is deemed attainable.
Ericsson believes that everyone has the same highly adaptable brain and that, given the appropriate circumstances, anything is possible. This implies that anyone may learn to accurately recognize a musical note with the right teaching and exposure.
Ayako Sakakibara, a psychologist, conducted an experiment at the Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo. She proved that a perfect pitch can be learned via disciplined practice.
Elite-level performers are not freaks of nature with superhuman powers or special individuals endowed with unique talents. They are just individuals who know how to maintain a high level of practice and enhance their performance.
A single technique known as “deliberate practice” is the secret to reaching elite-level performance.
Conceived by Ericsson, this technique can be applied to any field. Whether you are a musician, writer, teacher, entrepreneur, or sportsperson, it can transform you from an amateur into an expert.
In regular practice, your practice involves repeating the same thing over and over until it runs on auto-pilot. Conversely, deliberate practice utilizes a structured and systematic approach, which requires your attention and intense focus at all times.
If your intention is to get your performance to an elite level, deliberate practice is what you need. Deliberate practice also ensures that your skill development doesn’t hit a plateau.
With constant progress as its objective, deliberate practice forces you to find what to improve and how to improve it. This enables you to improve as rapidly as possible or to reach expert status in a short amount of time.
Deliberate practice consists of four key principles:
In order for deliberate practice to work, you must establish a specific and achievable goal. When you set your practice goals, aim for intensity rather than duration.
Deliberate practice’s effectiveness is determined by the quality of your practice, not by how much time you devote to it. One effective way to ensure this is by breaking your goal down into small, manageable chunks.
Smaller goals make it easier for you to gauge which area you need to put more focus on. Ericsson explains that:
“Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal…The key thing is to take that general goal–get better–and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.”
To get the most out of your deliberate practice, you need to be intensely focused. You will be able to cut out the distractions and give your practice undivided attention.
Elite performers use this to move past plateaus and experience a marked increase in their skills. Intense focus allows your brain to create shortcuts and make it easier to repeat the same things at the same level.
Ericsson mentioned in his book, Peak, that:
“Over my years of studying experts in various fields, I have found that they all develop their abilities … through dedicated training that drives changes in the brain (and sometimes, depending on the ability, in the body) that make it possible for them to do things that they otherwise could not …”
Neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire did a study on London cab drivers’ uncanny ability to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets.
The navigation skills of these London cabbies are the result of their intense focus through deliberate practice.
One of the important components of deliberate practice is immediate feedback. Because feedback tells you what you need to focus on.
You must be able to measure your current level of performance in specific detail and also track your progress accurately.
Ideally, avoid practicing solo and get a coach who can help you devise a feedback system. This will help you identify and improve on your weak areas and help you set better goals.
In Peak, Ericsson stressed the importance of feedback:
“Without feedback–either from yourself or from outside observers–you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goal.”
Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else states that:
“Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance, and tons of it equals great performance.”
No doubt, practice that makes you better often feels unpleasant, annoying, or even grueling. As Ericsson puts it:
“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”
To become an expert in your field, the quality of your practice is as crucial as the quantity of it. But how much practice do you need in order to reach that level?
Ericsson did mention in his book that elite performers spend 10,000 hours gaining expertise in their field. Many have misunderstood this 10,000-hour rule (or approximately 10 years).
Does this imply that you will instantly become an expert if you have dedicated 10,000 hours to your craft? The key to the 10,000-hour rule lies in the quality, not the quantity, of the practice.
In a recent Freakonomics podcast, Ericsson made clarification on this much misunderstood rule:
“But I think there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours. Just the amount of experience performing may in fact have very limited chances to improve your performance. The key seems to be that deliberate practice, where you’re actually working on improving your own performance – that is the key process, and that’s what you need to try to maximize.”
The 10,000 rule won’t apply if one is engaging in “naive practice.” This is where one repetitively goes through the motions without a specific objective, strong focus, or rapid feedback.
Because, according to Ericsson, in nave practice:
“People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless…”
He added that length of practice may have no bearing on improved performance at all:
“But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.”
Deliberate practice can be used in any discipline, although it works best in ones that have well-established training methods. In some fields, expertise is difficult to measure.
This makes it difficult to develop a structured system for deliberate practice. Does this suggest that you cannot use deliberate practice in an area where training systems are not available?
One strategy would be to look for a coach, teacher, or mentor who can assist you in reaching that level. Strive to understand how they got there before embarking on your deliberate practice.
If no systemized method is available, you might need to create your own training structure.
Another drawback of deliberate practice is the requirement for a skilled coach to lead you through it. Your focused practice will be significantly less effective if you don’t receive immediate, helpful feedback.
One of the best examples of deliberate practice is found in James Clear’s article. (Click here to read his article: Lessons on Success and Deliberate Practice from Mozart, Picasso, and Kobe Bryant.)
The late basketball legend Kobe Bryant was a winner of 5 NBA championships and 2 Olympic gold medals. His conditioning work begins at around 4:30am, followed by running and sprinting until 6am. He lifted weights from 6am to 7am and ended his morning at 11am after making 800 jump shots.
Kobe’s training regimen has all the elements of deliberate practice. Firstly, he had a very specific goal – to achieve 800 made jump shots.
Let’s make the math simple and just assume that his shooting percentage was 50%. To meet his daily target of 800 jump shots, he would need to make 1600 baskets.
And secondly, we have no doubts about how intensely focused Kobe is during his deliberate practice sessions.
Thirdly, he gets immediate feedback from his shooting coach. He also gauges how the ball moves toward the hoop when he misses. Then, he would make adjustments to his posture, trajectory, and mindset.
Fourthly, Kobe understood what price he had to pay in order to play basketball at an elite level. Thus, he willingly endured frequent bouts of discomfort in his deliberate practice. His mantra was, “Rest at the end, not the middle.”
Kobe’s longtime personal trainer, Tim Grover, revealed that he had to constantly remind Kobe not to overwork himself.
If you are engaged in a fun activity or hobby, then deliberate practice is not a requirement. But if you want to achieve excellence or become an expert in your field, deliberate practice will be beneficial.
Being an elite performer or an expert in any field does not come easily. It takes more than just deliberate practice. You would also need grit and determination.
Deliberate practice is a systematic and structured way to challenge yourself to strive towards greatness. Of course, its value and effectiveness lie in its constant immediate feedback and the guidance of a coach or mentor.
Are you ready to exceed your current level of performance? On your path to mastery and being an expert, ask yourself:
How far am I willing to go? Am I willing to pay the price to achieve my goals?
For you to excel in any field, deliberate practice is essential. But this alone will not get you there. In any competitive field, the best performers are skilled and conditioned for success.
So, to become an expert at anything, consistently immerse yourself in deliberate practice. And, as James Clear puts it, “align your ambitions with your natural abilities.”
Like this article? Then you might want to read this: