Why do some athletes improve at a faster rate than others? The answer, it seems, may (partly) lie in how they train. Researchers have been exploring the psychology of practice to explore what helps athletes develop quicker.
Psychologists use the phrase ‘Deliberate Practice’ to describe the type of training that yields the best results. It is defined as ‘engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance’. When it comes to training, it’s not just how much you do, but what you do and how well you do it that really counts.
How Important Is Deliberate Practice?
How much difference does engaging in deliberate practice make? Some have claimed it makes all the difference (i.e. the person who practices will be the best). These people would be wrong. After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Dan McLaughlin quit his job as a photographer to start clocking up his 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in golf with the aim of becoming a golfing champion.
So what does the research actually say about the impact of deliberate practice? The most comprehensive and thorough review of the research on deliberate practice, which included almost 90 studies and over 11,000 participants, found that it accounted for 18% variance in sporting performance.
This is no small number. 18% variation is a big amount. But not the 100% Dan McLaughlin is hoping for. The researchers conclude that ‘deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued’.
Much of this misunderstanding of how much impact deliberate practice can have on your performance has stemmed from journalists misinterpreting the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson (his seminal work on elite musicians and how much deliberating practice they do is often seen as the genesis for this 10,000 hour myth).
Keen to put that right, he has recently released his book ‘Peak: Secrets for the new science of expertise’. This book is set to be very popular in both sport and education circles. (For a comprehensive review, see Daniel Willingham's thoughts here).
How To Maximise Training and Practice
Knowing that deliberate practice accounts for 18% of variation in sporting performance (and not 100%) is interesting. The shift from interesting to useful comes via the tips that Anders Ericsson gives in his book on how to maximise training. What are some of the criteria to ensure you are engaging in deliberate practice?
Be targeted at improving a specific part of your game – imagine you are practising a song on an instrument and struggle with the middle section. Would it be better to practice the whole song through, or focus on the part you struggle with? The answer is definitely on the latter. With limited time, you want to target your training and focus on specific parts.
Take you out of your comfort zone – you don’t want to step so far out of your comfort zone that your ambitions far exceed your abilities. Stretching yourself means trying to improve to an amount that is just possible if you push yourself.
For example, it is difficult to improve at sports like tennis if you are always playing weaker players.
Likewise, if your opponent is so much better than you, then it is unlikely you will improve. Playing a slightly stronger opponent will help you improve the most.
Reinforce and build on previous training – A random scatter gun approach is unlikely to yield to long term games. Being able to link to and build upon previous training sessions will help solidify information into your long term memory. Psychologist often call this ‘scaffolding’ as it literally helps you build upon previous experiences.
Provide feedback on what you are doing – Feedback is the guide that athletes can follow to better performance. The voice of an older, wiser and more objective person can offer a perspective and vision that may be difficult for individuals to come up with themselves, especially if they are so engrossed in the task itself.
Strengthen your weakness and build on your strengths – Some athletes and coaches prefer to work on their weaknesses. The rationale being that this can make your harder to beat. Others prefer to work on strengths. This can help boost confidence and also provide athletes with real ‘weapons’, hopefully meaning they are more likely to win. Which you do will depend on the situation, context and the individual. This is where coaching becomes more of an art than that of a science. Whichever you choose, having a clear focus and rationale for why you are doing it matters.
Require hard work, intensity and full concentration – You can only maximise training if you give it your full focus. Developing skills is hard. By not putting in maximum effort, it’s unlikely that you are doing the other points previously mentioned (i.e. taking yourself out of your comfort zone). As the saying goes, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’.
It is interesting to note that the previous review on the impact of deliberate practice (the one that found it explained 18% variance in sport) concluded that it only impacted up to 4% of performance in education. This research is undoubtedly very valuable. It indicates how to maximise training and practice. It just seems that this knowledge is more valuable in the sporting rather than the education world.
For athletes looking to maximise their training in order to improve, the above tips provide a handy checklist to ensure that they are doing it right. If not, they may be working hard, but are unlikely to be working smart.