Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 1

A few weeks back, I reviewed Dan John’s new book Never Let Go and, in one of the chapters, he related a story about a Wrestling coach named Dan Gable and his basic coaching philosophy which was this:

If it’s important, do it every day; if it’s not important, don’t do it at all. – Dan Gable

And while he was discussing this quote in a slightly different context (how he programs training for different movement patterns), it gave me the idea for today’s article which is about learning skills and becoming ‘expert’ at something.  Of course, I’ll be focusing on training applications in this article but, as it turns out, the ideas are general enough to apply to a lot of different areas.

To avoid this being too long, I’m going to divide it into two parts.   Today, in Part 1, I want to look briefly at what makes an expert (as opposed to a non-expert performer) as well as being looking briefly one of the primary models of the development of expertise.  On Friday, in Par 2, I’ll look at that model in more detail and tie some of the ideas into training and sport performance.

What Makes an Expert?

It may surprise some readers to realize that there is actually quite a bit of research into the topic of developing expertise.  And I’m not talking solely in terms of motor learning (e.g. how we learn new skills) but rather what separates expert performers from less-expert performers.

I’d note that researchers have actually had trouble defining or identifying true expert performance and this has been a difficulty in performing research.  I’m not going to get into this in any detail because I think it’s a bit boring and isn’t really relevant to what I want to talk about.  You can check out the book I mention below if you’re particularly interested.

This research actually dates back to the early 20th century when scientists became interested in things like typing ability and the sending of Morse code; as well, chess has been a perennial area of study.  Early ideas of expertise held that there must be some type of genetic advantage (e.g. better reaction time or finger movement speed for typing) held by expert performers.  For the most part, this idea was not supported.

If nothing else, the simple fact that expertise tends to almost always be domain specific.  That is, being an expert at one task has almost no bearing on the ability to be expert in another task, even if it’s related.  That alone suggests that expertise has less to do with inherent biology and more to do with practicing the specific skill.

Essentially, rather than being due to some biologically relevant advantage among expert performers, the development of expertise came down primarily to practice, practice and more practice (please note my use of the word primarily in this sentence).

More accurately, it came down to the right kind of practice, a topic I’ll come back to in more detail in Part 2.

For example, studies found that faster touch-typists were faster not because they had inherently faster fingers or reaction times.  Rather, over years of practice they got better at looking ahead and moving their fingers to a proper place sooner in anticipation of the next letter.  When those expert typists have their view blocked (so that they can’t look as far ahead), their speed drops to that of the slower typists.  And that skill, the ability to look ahead while typing is one that is simply learned over years of practice.

Chess has been studied extensively in this regards and makes a particularly interesting example for a variety of reasons that I’m not going to go into.  But whereas early ideas held that chess experts were more expert by dint of some inherent mental processing capacity, research failed to bear this out (clearly you have to have the basic intelligence to understand the game).

Rather, over years of study and practice, chess experts developed a couple of inter-related and relevant skills that improved their chess performance.  One of these is something that researchers call chunking information.  On average, the human brain has the ability to store roughly 7 pieces of information in short-term memory which seems to put a limit on what we can remember.

Which brings us to a bit of useless trivia: the inventor of the game Tetris actually developed the game based around this human limit on recalling bits of information.  That is, there’s a reason that there are 7 distinctly shaped pieces in the game, that’s the limit of what the human brain can remember (on average).   Sadly, this bit of trivia has never changed the fact that I suck at Tetris.  But I digress.

In any case, research shows that, with practice, people can remember more than those 7 items by chunking information.  For example, individuals can learn to remember massively long lists of numbers over time and they do it by chunking the information.  So rather than trying to remember hundreds of individual numbers, people learn to relate sequences of numbers together to chunk them (e.g. you might relate the sequence 357 to the gun or 420 to getting stoned or whatever, in one study a runner engaged in a memory study started chunking 4 digit sequences to his running times).  If you can chunk 3 bits of information into one, you gain the ability to remember 21 items of information (7 chunks * 3 bits of information = 21 bits of information).

And this is part of what happens with chess players.  While a non-expert may only remember the position of 7 pieces on a board, the expert, by chunking multiple pieces into patterns can remember far more.  And much of this occurs by constant study of chess positions and the games of others (as well as playing their own games).  By exposing themselves to common positions and patterns of pieces on the board, expert chess players improve their ability to recall patterns of chess pieces.

So rather than remembering only a handful of pieces, expert chess players can remember the positions of far more pieces.  This can be demonstrated by the fact that, while expert chess players show superior recall of standard chess positions (e.g. positions that would occur in a normal game), they are no better than non-experts at recalling random positions (e.g. those that wouldn’t occur in a game setting).

Essentially, over years of practice and study and game-playing (including the study of games of master chess players), expert chess players increase their repertoire of different chess positions, coupled with an improved ability to chunk several pieces into a pattern and they are better able to recognize patterns on the board and how to best play them (based on optimum play of previous players).  But it’s not due to any inherently better ability for memory or some deep-seated intellectual ability to play better chess; it’s simply learned over years of practice.

This same basic pattern holds across a variety of domains including sports (for a semi-readable but technically heavy introduction to the topic, I’d suggest the book Expert Performance in Sports: Advances in Research on Sport Expertise).

Getting a bit ahead of myself, this is likely why coaches of team sports tend to expose their players to a lot of different situations over years of practice; much of ‘becoming good’ at certain sports is being able to recognize a certain pattern of play (e.g. a quarterback recognizes a blitz or what have you) based on something they have seen or been exposed to before.  Tennis players learn to anticipate the other players next shot based on their exposure to specific game situations, the same holds for volleyball.

However, none of the above really says anything about how expertise is developed, it simply supports the idea that a majority of the development of expertise comes down to practice and improvements in the skill set involved in that activity moreso than some inherent genetic ability (of course there may be underlying genetic factors that limit or determine the ability and/or desire to practice or the ultimate level achieved, a topic I’ll come back to in Part 2).

But as I mentioned above, simply ‘practicing’ doesn’t appear to be sufficient or anybody who had spent 10 years doing something would be an expert at it.  Clearly that’s not the case.

Rather, the right kind of practice would seem to be required.  So what’s the right kind of practice?


Anders Ericsson and The Theory of Deliberate Practice

In 1993, a researcher named K. Anders Ericsson published a paper called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (you can click the link to download the original full paper) were he developed a general theoretical framework for the development of expertise by examining the development of expertise across a variety of different domains to see what commonalities arose.

Before looking at some of the specifics of Ericsson’s model in Part 2, I want to discuss some other constraints that are relevant to the development of expertise that will clearly limit what can and cannot be achieved.

One of these is a simple resources constraint, you have to have the ability to actually engage in practice of the skill you want to develop.

That is, if you want to become an Olympic lifter, but have no access to a bar, bumpers to someone to teach the movement, you are likely to have a problem with becoming an expert.  If you want to be a figure skater and have no access to a rink or can’t afford coaching, you may have issues with becoming a great skater.

There is also a time constraint with Ericsson assuming that improvement was related in a monotonic fashion to the amount of practice time put in.   This idea had actually been stated before in terms of the 10-year rule.  That is, on average, from beginning an activity to the development of expertise, it takes roughly 10 years of proper practice or so (in some domains, it may take longer than that).  Others put this in terms of hours with approximately 10,000 hours of practice being required to develop expertise.

In that vein, one commonality among expert performers (compared to non-expert performers) is that they engage in deliberate practice for longer periods than non-expert performers.  And over years, this adds up enormously.  That is, consider someone engaging in 3 hours of practice per day vs. 1 hour of practice per day  and this is done 4 days per week (208 day/year) and how that adds up over years of practice.


Years of Practice 1 Hour/day 3 Hours/day
1 208 624
2 416 1248
3 624 1872


Of course, in all likelihood the person trying to become an expert will engage in more than what I described above and the non-expert less.   Someone practicing 3 hours/day 6 days/week (certainly not unheard of in many sports or among musicians) will be increasing their hours of practice significantly compared to someone only doing 1 hour/day three days/week.  In that case, at the 1 year mark, you’re looking at 936 vs. 208 hours of practice.  By 5 years, you’re looking at nearly 5000 hours vs. a mere 1000 hours.

Assuming it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise, it’s fairly clear that (within some limits), the person who puts in more hours will get there faster.  In fact, the person doing less may never get there in any realistic time frame (i.e. at 200 hours/year, it would take 50 years to accumulate 10,000 hours).

I am simplifying things a little bit, clearly in many domains (and sport is one of them), there is a limit to how much practice can be done per day (within the limits of mental and physical fatigue).  But, within that limitation, clearly the person who puts in more hours of practice will achieve mastery more quickly (and certainly, examining the habits of expert performers, they do put in more hours of practice than lesser performers).

But this raises a question that I’m going to use to finish up Part 1 and lead into Part 2.  Clearly just going through the motions for 10 years (or 10,000 hours) isn’t sufficient.  You can prove this to yourself by walking into any commercial gym in the world; you can find folks who have spent 10 years lifting weights who still suck at it.  And I don’t mean in terms of weight on the bar but guys who, despite having ‘lifted for 10 years’ still can’t bench or squat with anything approximating proper form.

Why didn’t they become experts by putting in their 10 years?

Because just practice per se doesn’t appear to sufficient.  Rather, the right kind of practice has to be done to improve performance and develop expertise or skill.  That is what Ericsson refers to as ‘deliberate practice’ and I’ll look at the details of his model along with how to apply it to training on Friday in Part 2.

Read Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 2