Deliberate Practice: Your Pathway to Growth and Mastery
For decades, scientists believed that we were born with our brain circuitry pretty much fixed and that this circuitry determined our abilities. Either your brain was wired for something or it wasn’t. And, there wasn’t much you could do to change it.
Since the 1990’s, researchers have come to realize that the brain (even for adults!) is far more adaptable than we imagined.
In fact, the brain responds to the right sorts of triggers by rewiring itself in various ways. Ok, so what does this amazing brain gift mean? Basically, there is no such thing as “predefined ability.” Instead, our potential as humans can be considered an expand-able vessel.
The problem is, a traditional approach to improvement and achievement – desire and hard work – will not get you very far. What is needed instead is the “right sort of practice.”
In fact, becoming an “expert” in something is largely a matter of improving your mental processes.
As humans, our goal should be not just to reach our potential, but to deliberately build it, to make things possible that were not possible before.
Still, you might wonder why some people are so amazingly good at what they do. The secret? They engage in dedicated training that literally changes their brain.
Deliberate Practice Changes the Brain
The most effective forms of practice do more than help you LEARN how to do something better; they actually increase your ABILITY to do better. With such practice, you are challenging homeostasis and modifying parts of your brain and, in a sense, increasing your “talent.”
One thing to note is that cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training and they start to go away.
What makes practice “deliberate?”
Let’s clarify what we mean by DELIBERATE practice. The verb “practice” means to “perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one's proficiency.” This is what we call repetitive or naïve practice – you can engage in this type of practice endlessly with little to no improvement in performance.
Why? It isn’t necessarily challenging, which allows you to become distracted and zone out. If you’ve ever been in a group exercise class and your mind starts to wander, then you know what I’m talking about here. Also, there is no specific goal or direction for the practice other than “getting better” or “overall improvement.”
Purposeful practice is distinct from repetitive practice in that it is:
Focused and free from distraction
Challenging to the point of pushing you out of your comfort zone
Done in an effort to reach specific goals
Incorporates feedback constantly to improve
Requires problem solving to overcome any issues that arise during performance
Deliberate practice builds on purposeful practice. It requires all of the elements of purposeful practice, plus:
It occurs in a well-defined field where novice vs. expert performance is identifiable
A teacher or coach who can:
Tailor practice activities to challenge you
Guide development of your mental objects
Help maneuver plateaus, maintain motivation and engagement
Identify problem areas
Provide effective feedback
Deliberate Practice Example: Free Throws
Let’s look at an example. Say you wanted to improve your ability to make free throw shots.
If you were doing repetitive practice, you’d casually shoot 100 free throws at the park. You might get incrementally better, but you’ll still be far from an expert performer with this type of practice.
If you were doing purposeful practice, you would:
Create focused time and space for shooting free throws every week
Set a specific goal to make 50 shots this session, and 60 next
Involve a friend who could provide feedback on your form
And you would evolve your form in response to the feedback
With purposeful practice, your performance will likely improve a great deal, but only to the level that you (or your feedback friend) could achieve on your own. You won’t be able to troubleshoot or create specific practice techniques to overcome issues or push past plateaus. It is likely that you will lose motivation and engagement once you have reached a certain level.
With deliberate practice, you have all of the tools to become an expert free throw shooter.
First, you have a clear understanding of the skills required for being a high-performing free throw shooter (evidenced by professional basketball players and free throw champions). You know the form and follow through.
You also have a clear mental object, which we’ll explore in a moment, that represents how to effectively make a free throw shot, which becomes stronger and clearer with practice.
You have a qualified coach with effective, proven training techniques that generate expert free throw skills. You and your coach are clear on your current ability level and any areas where you struggle.
And, you have the ability to self-diagnose issues and solve problems during solitary practice. This last element will get stronger over time as you practice, but it is a critical component to deliberate practice and improving your performance.
Mental Objects or Models
Expert performers use strong, effective “mental objects” to improve their performance. OK, but what is a “mental object?”
A mental object is the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered or learned. It is a mental structure or process that corresponds to an idea, a collection of info, or anything else (concrete or abstract) that the brain is thinking about.
Mental objects allow the brain to process complex information with ease. Mental objects are what allow us to make decisions, spot issues, and solve problems without needing to consciously consider every piece of information related to the situation.
A simple example is a visual image. For example, when you think of the Mona Lisa painting, you will likely “see” this image in your mind.
Another simple example relates to practicing music. Musicians that have a clear idea of what the piece they are practicing SHOULD sound like more able to improve how they play the piece.
A more complex example is what happens when you hear a word, such as “dog.” Imagine you’ve never heard of or seen a dog.
When you’re first introduced to the idea, you understand the concept of a “dog” as a collection of information: four legs, furry, eats meat, run in packs, can be trained, etc.
Then, after you’ve spent some time around dogs and start to understand them, all of the information you’ve collected becomes a single object in your mind representing “dog.”
Now, when you hear the word “dog” you don’t have to search your memory to remember all of the various details about dogs. Instead, it’s immediately accessible because it is a clear mental object.
Deliberate practice, and improving your skills and performance, hinges on your ability to create clear, effective, ever-evolving mental objects that help you make sense of the information and experiences you’ve gathered over time.
As you practice, your knowledge and skills become more developed and you improve your mental objects. And, as your mental objects become clearer, your performance improves. It’s a virtuous cycle.
But, which comes first? Mental objects? Skills? It’s a bit like practicing to become an elite figure skater. You don’t have a clear mental object for what it is like to perform a double axel until you do one. And you can’t improve your skill for a double axel unless you have a clear mental object for it. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?
Working with a teacher or coach, you can utilize effective training techniques to build your skills, which improves your mental object…and the cycle continues to strengthen with ongoing deliberate practice.
Specialized mental objects make it possible for experts to recognize patterns, anticipate problems, quickly consider options and select the best option to pursue.
Specifically, expert performers use mental objects to:
Monitor and evaluate their own performance
Identify where they need to focus their efforts for improvement
Match appropriate practice techniques
Adjust their mental objects to make their performance more effective
Deliberate Practice + Mastery
By now, you might be wondering to yourself: “if anyone can improve with deliberate practice, then why aren’t we all experts already?” One reason why we aren’t all experts is that it takes a lot of time and effort!
Rooted in research by Anders Ericsson, and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, the 10,000 hours rule has proliferated our culture as the “magic” amount of time it takes for someone to become a master at some specific skill, such as golf or making sushi.
And, while research shows that the clear difference that separates experts from other performers is the sheer amount of time spent engaged in deliberate practice, 10,000 hours is a somewhat arbitrary number.
An excellent pop culture example to consider is stand up comedians. These standup “experts” spend countless hours in front of audiences practicing and evolving their bits. In fact, many of them never stop practicing.
Even those considered to be experts in their field hone their new bits in front of low stakes audiences in comedy clubs – tweaking as they go – so that when they record a one-hour special their content is tight and their delivery is meticulous. It is very likely that many comedians have more than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice!
OK, but how do I practice the art of deliberate practice?
Once you know what you what to improve, you can use deliberate practice to master any skill and rewire your brain with new default habits.
First, you’ll identify relevant experts related to the skill or area you want to improve. For example, if you want to get better at public speaking, research examples of high performers and top speakers.
Next, you need to determine what makes the experts stand apart from the amateurs. Which skills and habits do the experts possess that make them the experts?
Then, you’ll need to find a coach or teacher that has coached others to improve in this area. Continuing with the public speaking example, you’ll want to find a public speaking coach with a track record of turning novices into highly sought after speakers.
Finally, you’ll engage in an ongoing cycle of practicing and perfecting through the use of self evaluation, problem solving and expert feedback from your coach.