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Secrets from the experts: Deliberate practice

Catherine Brandon, Director, Genazzano Institute

What does it take to be at the top of your game, a leader in your field?  Are some people just blessed with special talents? When we think of people like Mozart, Da Vinci, Bolt and others of extraordinary ability, we may well assume that some people are gifted with talent beyond others.

Anders Ericsson is a Psychology Professor at The Florida State University who specialises in peak performance.  In a recent book co-authored with Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, Ericsson contends that such a ‘gift’ of talent is simply a myth.   For many years Ericsson studied people who were exceptional or highly successful in their fields – elite sports people, musical prodigies, gifted thinkers and more.  

He learned that exceptional individuals have done something that we have the ability to do – develop their minds and bodies through persistent effort.  You may have heard of the popular notion that it takes ‘10,000 hours’ of practice to become an expert.  While this is a catchy idea, it does not accurately reflect Ericsson’s research.  Ericsson stresses that while it is true that a great deal of practice time is required to develop expertise, the more important idea is that to truly become proficient in any area, it is necessary to engage in purposeful practice that pushes the individual to grow.   

For any school based or extracurricular activity, such as learning mathematics, studying languages, song writing or public speaking, students can benefit from knowledge of how to optimise the time spent training, learning or rehearsing.  Efforts should be ‘deliberate.’  

Deliberate practice is about engaging in an activity in a structured and focused way, with the aim and motivation to increase performance.  Merely repeating an activity at a level already attained is not an effective way to increase skill.  Individuals need to extend themselves and reach beyond their comfort zone to improve.   Purposeful practice strengthens and builds neural pathways.  It improves learning, memory and consolidates skills.  It develops speed, accuracy and technique. Read here for more from Ericsson, Krampe &Tesch-Romer on deliberate practice 

The following tips may assist students to learn or rehearse in a deliberate way:

  1. Develop your growth mindset  and understand that your deliberate intense effort will result in improvement.  Experts are not ‘born’, their skill and knowledge is the result of many hours of focus and work.
  2. Practice with the intention to really improve. Don’t mindlessly repeat what you already know. 
  3. Challenge yourself and strive to reach beyond your current skill level. 
  4. Identify your weaknesses and focus on strategies to improve. 
  5. Measure your progress and find ways to seek feedback on your work or performances. 

This information will inform your practice strategies. Repetition will consolidate your skills and develop neural pathways. It will take time and perseverance.  In order to grow and really become proficient in any skill.  Practice should be regular and structured, but also paced well to avoid burn-out or fatigue. Know your motivation. Deliberate practice is the key to developing expertise, but it can be challenging to keep it going over a long period. What is driving you and how can you keep your passion burning?  

References: Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. Ericsson, A & Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. UK: Penguin Random House. Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R. and Tesch-Romer, C. (1993) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3) pp.363 -406.Further Reading: 

Coyle, D. (2013). The talent code (1st ed.). New York: Bantam Books. Syed, M. (2010). Bounce (1st ed.). New York: Harper.