Deliberate practice: How can athletes and coaches optimise training?
Only 9,999 hours to go!
More than a decade ago, Gladwell (1) proposed that a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice was required to reach what might be considered an expert-level of performance. This magic number was echoed across the sport and performance literature for some time after Gladwell’s book on success was published, with other authors supporting the notion that simply accumulating the number of hours spent practicing would lead to performance improvements. However, unbeknownst to most people the minimum requirement of 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence was in fact misinterpreted by Gladwell (1), from Ericsson’s (2) seminal paper on deliberate practice. Whilst Ericsson (2) did find that expert violinists had, on average, accumulated over 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20, Ericsson had never argued there was a magic number. Likewise, whilst Ericsson acknowledged that a large quantity of practice hours were undoubtedly necessary to attain skill mastery, Ericsson never claimed a minimum number of practice hours were required to achieve an expert-level of performance. In summary, the 10,000 hours of practice rule does not translate literally, rather, it emphasises that it can take many hours of practice to master any particular skill or set of skills together (and importantly, that there is no rule regarding specifically how many hours are required to become successful in any domain).
What kind of practice are we doing today?
For any athlete or coach invested in improving performance, it is important that they are aware of different types of practice at their disposal. For instance, purposeful practice (3) involves athletes being in receipt of immediate feedback from their coach during practice activities, where a particular skill can be repeated until a specific goal is reached (and this process would repeat). Purposeful practice is quite common in individual sports, given that an athlete and coach are able to work within close proximity of one another with direct and frequent communication. In comparison, naïve (pronounced “nie-eeve”) practice (3) refers to engaging in an activity (such as a game or task, e.g. volleyball match/javelin throw) to improve performance or fitness specific to that particular performance domain. It is thought that by engaging in naïve practice an athlete is able to enhance their skills without consciously exerting their attention towards learning and mastery. And of course, Ericsson (2) proposed deliberate practice, which they defined as “engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain”. According to Ericsson an individual’s level of performance, or the extent to which they are successful, is a direct consequence of their overall engagement with deliberate practice over time. And this statement is supported by reviews of research studies consistently showing that expert athletes accumulate thousands of hours of deliberate practice, and comparatively more hours than non-expert athletes in their sport (4). Ericsson is careful to consider that other types of practice may also lead to expert-level performance, but deliberate practice is considered the optimal type of training and if done correctly will most consistently lead to gains in skill mastery and improvements in performance.
EXPERTS: The 7 key principles for applying deliberate practice (5)
Established training techniques
Deliberate practice relies on the use of established coaching techniques, which have already been trialled and validated. It is equally important that the practice activities are delivered by a coach who is familiar with the athlete in question, with respect to their needs and abilities, and that has expertise regarding how the athlete’s abilities can be developed further.
Example: A rugby coach can instruct athletes how to perform a tackle effectively using already established coaching techniques, such as the ‘ear-to-rear’ or ‘cheek-to-cheek’ rule, tackling below the waist, driving forward using flexed knees, and making sure the tackler is top side as to avoid being trampled on.
For the example above it is fairly easy to access effective coaching practices, for tackling is a key element in rugby and therefore a popular coaching practice. However, there may be some skills which have relatively sparse examples of coaching practices, which may be more challenging for athletes/coaches to learn/teach. Nonetheless, careful and thorough investigation should invariably yield some kind of useful information that may be used to aid the coach in teaching an athlete a new skill. For instance, a golfer who intends to learn how to play a low slinging draw (a draw is characterised by the golf ball moving from right to left during its flight, the ball will start out right of the target and move left back towards the target) might intuitively ask a coach for guidance on how to hit a shot with a lower ball flight, then subsequently enquire about how to hit a draw. Combining what they had learnt about how to play a lower shot and how to play a draw, the golfer can go about figuring out how to play the low slinging draw they initially desired.
eXisting skills as building blocks
Deliberate practice is based on the principle that performers build on the skills they already possess. Over time existing skills are developed and improved, which leads to enhanced performance. Coaches are thereby required to teach athletes the fundamental skills necessary to excel in the specific domain they operate in, higher expert-level skills are largely influenced by the quality of lower beginner-level skills which are developed earlier on. Regular communication and performance tracking between the coach and athlete will contribute towards the learning process of transitioning between skills already learnt and more challenging complex skills. It is important that developmental skills are learnt thoroughly until mastery, otherwise performers may be required to relearn fundamental skills later on.
Example: If a beginner runner were to enter into the London marathon without any prior training, the task would be near impossible, and the likelihood of successful completion would be very low. Alternatively, if the beginner runner decided to train to run 2.5km first, until they could confidently run that distance without tiring. Then subsequently train to run 5km, and then 7.5km, 10km, 15km, 20km, and so on. Gradually the runner would become fitter, able to run greater distances without tiring, to the extent that, with continued training and progression, they might be able to complete a marathon without stopping for a break. And in future marathons, the previously beginner-level runner could improve their pace, overall time, or finishing position. The ‘X’ in EXPERT is built on the idea that “you must learn to walk before you can run”.
Pushing the envelope
Deliberate practice involves taking athletes outside of their comfort zone, often because they are challenged with attempting skills they have not already mastered. “Pushing the envelope” originates from aeronautical sciences, wherein space craft have a calculated envelope (not the kind of envelope you’re thinking of, the type of envelope in question cannot be posted through a letter box), this refers to the limit to which the vessel can not exceed safely (6). To ‘push the envelope’ is to execute a daring manoeuvre, in relative terms in the domain of sport and exercise, it requires the learner to try something they are not naturally comfortable doing. In which case, the learner (which may be the athlete or the coach in this situation, but typically the athlete) may be pushed to their maximal limits, physically or mentally. Hence, deliberate practice is purposefully effortful and taxing, which makes it distinguishable from other modes of practice.
Example: An athlete might want to utilise the practice of mindfulness during competition, to manage their attention and arousal. To learn the fundamental skills required for mindfulness techniques the athlete might be taught by a sport psychologist to first use mindful skills during conditions that are not challenging, quiet, and sedentary (e.g. whilst eating). Once the athlete becomes more apt at using the mindful techniques they have learnt, they are encouraged to use mindfulness in more demanding situations, such as during simple movements and elementary performance skills. Subsequently, the athlete might push the envelope by engaging in mindfulness during higher intensity practice, and even competitive environments.
Enhancing mental representations
Deliberate practice facilitates the creation of mental representations in relation to any particular skill and how it should be executed. Through continued deliberate practice, mental representations become more detailed, sophisticated, and effective. As a result, training becomes more efficient, and performers are able to independently assess their own mistakes, which aids subsequent learning. Once mental representations are fine tuned and adapted accordingly, based on mistakes made in the past, performers may be able to prevent past mistakes occurring again by picking up on tell-tale subtle cues.
Example: A recreational tennis player is working on their serve, specifically, being able to consistently execute a topspin serve to their opponent’s backhand. As a result, they concentrate on their technique, timing, and output, their thoughts are specific and not distracted by unrelated factors (e.g. what are they having for dinner tonight?). During each serve the player pays closer attention to the technical aspects of their serve, like the point of contact, the ball toss, how far they drop the racket behind their head. At the end of each training session, the player notes down in their journal what went well and what needs more attention. Gradually, the player is able to enhance their senses with regard to judging the spin on the ball, where to make contact, how far to toss the ball, and where to land their serve each time. The mental representations of this tennis player become more detailed over time, they are now able to prevent more double faults because they can compensate for errors better, and win more points on their serve because they have improved feel regarding where to land the serve and how much spin to use.
Responding to feedback
Deliberate practice relies on obtaining individualised feedback, ideally from an experienced and well-informed coach. Preferably, feedback is provided on a one-to-one basis, specifically, feedback that is based on constant performance monitoring, that identifies an athlete’s areas for improvement and recognises their strengths, and prescribes explicit step-by-step instructions regarding how to enhance performance. Feedback should also include a variety of avenues, in terms of the different directions that can be taken to eventually arrive at the desired destination, which in this case is improved performance. Whilst the coach may encourage some methods over others, the athlete in question should be given the opportunity to select the training technique they think would be most beneficial. It is not uncommon for coaches and athletes to disagree on the best course of action, but with negotiation and adaptation a fitting solution can be introduced that appeases the needs of the coach and athlete.
Example: A basketball coach observes one of their players and notices that their free throw success percentages have decreased in recent games. The coach decides to consult the player in a one-to-one meeting where they can discuss potential avenues for improving their free throw. The coach provides technical feedback, such as bending the knees more to improve the strength of their base, and demonstrates to the player what the correct technique looks like. Over time, the player starts to pick up on subtle cues that indicate whether they are bending their knees sufficiently, and now they are better able to detect when they are making mistakes (mental representations).
Total application and focus
Deliberate practice is focused, meaning that the athlete’s full attention is required. Eccles et al., (5) propose the “lunch test”, essentially meaning, if the athlete is thinking about their lunch during practice, it is not deliberate practice. The athlete’s focus should be undistracted, and pinpointed on the current goal of the practice session. A typical training technique is to repeat a particular skill repeatedly until the ability becomes autonomous (pronounced “or-ton-oe-muss”, i.e. automatic, without conscious thought). However, if a rugby player takes 10 practice penalty kicks from the 22m line, is there attention and focus equally attuned for each of the 10 kicks? Research suggests not (7). For deliberate practice the infamous “quality over quantity” is the key, performing drills will inevitably slowly withdraw athletes’ attention and their thoughts will ultimately begin to drift away from the task at hand. At the end of each training session athletes should ask themselves: How focused were you on your current goal during this session? And note down their responses on a scale from to 1 (not focused at all) to 10 (totally focused).
Finally, deliberate practice is underpinned by well-defined goals which are directly related to a particular area for improvement. In terms of goal setting, there are numerous frameworks that already exist, that can help guide athletes and coaches in their attempts to set effective goals (*I will most likely submit a blog based on goal setting in the near future). Any goal, big or small, should be specific, and often along the way are a sequence of small changes or “stepping-stones” that indicate to the athlete that they are improving. It is important for both the coach and athlete to recognise these small improvements, and also to monitor the progress that is made, and then to devise what can be done to edge closer to the larger end goal. With progress and improvement the athlete or coach may wish to adapt the original goal that was set, so that it is in keeping with the progress already made. Whilst all aspects in the EXPERTS framework contribute towards the design of specific goals, “responding to feedback” and “existing skills as building blocks” are particularly important. None of the previous components of deliberate practice can be achieved without the acknowledgment and implementation of goal setting.
At this point, you (the reader) have been given a fairly quick, not overly detailed, description of what deliberate practice entails and how you might go about implementing it. Whilst deliberate practice is revered as almost a gold-standard framework for training, and most successful performers will engage in deliberate practice, deliberate practice is not the be all and end all. And by this I mean, deliberate practice doesn’t need to be the only type of practice you engage in. There are many other forms of practice, for example, massed practice (8) involves mastering a skill by repeatedly executing said skill for a extended period of time (could be few hours). The benefit of massed practice is that the performer has plenty of opportunities to learn the skill and be able to use that skill when experiencing tiredness and fatigue. Whilst massed practice may last twice as long (and sometimes longer) compared to deliberate practice, and may even oppose the fundamental concepts associated with deliberate practice, it has its benefits. Having made it all the way to the end of this blog, what I would like you to take away is that deliberate practice is perhaps one of the best forms of practice, and if you engage in deliberate practice on a regular basis, (whilst you are not guaranteed to improve) it is very likely that you will improve performance in one way or another. And by following the framework laid out in this blog, I hope you have a good understanding of what is required for you to fulfil the criteria in order for deliberate practice to be successful.
1. Gladwell, M. Outliers: The story of success. New York : NY: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008.
2. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T. and Tesch-Romer, C. 1993, Psychological Review, Vol. 100, pp. 363-406.
3. Ericsson, K. A. and Pool, R. Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York : Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt, 2016.
4. Eccles, D. W. Expertise: The state of the art. [book auth.] G. Tenebaum and R. C. Eklund. [ed.] 4th. Handbook of Sport Psychology. s.l. : Wiley, 2020, pp. 465-486.
5. Deliberate practice: What is it and how can I use it? Eccles, D. W., Leone, E. J. and Williams, A. M. 2020, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action.
6. Merriam-Webster. 'Pushing the Envelope' : Don't Mail It In : The outer limits of an idiom. [Online] 2022. [Cited: ] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/push-the-envelope-idiom-space-aeronautics-origin.
7. Cognitive mediation of putting: Use of a think-aloud measure and implications for studies of golf-putting in the laboratory. Arsal, G. Eccles, D. W. and Ericsson, K. A. 2016, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Vol. 27, pp. 18-27.
8. Variability and distribution of practice. Pennington, C. G. 2021, Academia: Accelerating the world's research, p. 252.