Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 2

On Tuesday, I wrote what was apparently a surprising article for this site (judging by some comments) but in that I’m going to at least try to tie it into training, I’m not sure why.

In Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 1, I introduced some concepts related to the development of expertise and a theory called deliberate practice as developed by a researcher named Anders Ericsson.

In Part 1, I looked at some of the things that seem to determine expertise and primarily focused on the issues of time involvement and the quantity of practice and how the increasing amounts of practice that are typically undertaken by those who actually achieve expert performance leads to massive (but NOT exponential) increases in total time.

I also made the point point, that in the real world, simply putting in your time (e.g. 10 years or 10,000 or so hours) is no guarantee of anything related to the development of expertise.  You can find folks who have lifted weights or performed a sport for the requisite time who still don’t have a skill level that would be even remotely called expert.

And that’s because any old practice doesn’t seem to be sufficient.  The second part of Ericsson’s model and the part I want to focus on today is what type of practice seems to be related to the eventual development of expertise in a given domain.  I’ll finish up by looking at some criticisms of some of Ericsson’s ideas to answer the question “Can everyone become an expert?” and then try to reach some kind of actual point.

So what is deliberate practice?   That is, since it’s clear that just going through the motions for 10 years doesn’t get it done, what type of practice has to be done to get it done?  The specific type of practice in this case is referred to as deliberate practice and I want to look in some detail at the various aspects that comprise it.

What is Deliberate Practice?

As I mentioned on Tuesday and again above, clearly just practice in general doesn’t get it done and that’s really the more interesting aspect of Ericsson’s model, the idea that the practice must meet certain criteria to have any value towards the development of expert performance.  That’s where the idea of deliberate practice comes into play.

While there is more to the complete model, the primary tenets of deliberate practice according to Ericsson are that deliberate practice

  1. Is not inherently enjoyable.
  2. Is not play or paid practice.
  3. Is relevant to the skill being developed.
  4. Is not simply watching the skill being performed.
  5. Requires effort and attention from the learner.
  6. Often involves activities selected by a coach or teacher to facilitate learning.

I’d note that critics of this model can point to exceptions to nearly each of the above tenets but, on average they do tend to hold when looking at what types of activities expert performers engaged in.   I want to look at each briefly and then I’ll tie it into some training applications.

Tenet 1: Deliberate Practice is Not Inherently Enjoyable

Of all of the factors inherent to deliberate practice, this may be the most contentious and least supported by the data.  But some of this is clearly semantics.

Individuals who want to develop expertise at something will generally allow that deliberate practice is tedious, boring and not so much fun.  A pianist practicing scales or drills or an athlete performing drills to improve some component of their technique will not generally describe such as activities as ‘fun’.

However, they often derive enjoyment from the benefits that occur from the practice.  That is, doing drills and such is not usually enjoyable per se; it’s the benefits to performance that provide the enjoyment (and necessary positive feedback to keep doing it).  So saying that deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable comes down to how you look at it.

There are other exceptions as well, athletes in team sports have apparently reported that certain types of practice are inherently enjoyable.  As I said above, this is one of the most contentious of all of Ericsson’s original tenets.

Tenet #2: Deliberate Practice is Not Play or Paid Performance

There are actually a couple of aspects to this tenet.  One is that, generally speaking, deliberate practice is not the same as ‘playing the sport’.  This tends to be especially true in team sports where a given situation might only come up once or twice in the context of a specific game.  The odds of athletes improving their ability to handle that situation are unlikely with so few exposures to it are low.

In deliberate practice situations, coaches can set up common patterns (e.g. a blitz in football) and run it over and over within a single practice to give the players a chance to learn how to deal with it.  You could conceptualize a similar situation in becoming an expert at chess.  A given board configuration might only come up ever so rarely, attempting to learn how best to deal with it by playing chess would be inefficient compared to being able to examine it over and over again in a practice situation.

At the same time being able to perform in competition is a critical aspect of expert performance and clearly that is a component of developing expertise.  It simply tends not to be the major form of expert development.

Similarly, one aspect of deliberate practice is that there tends to be/needs to be a strong internal drive to engage in the practice in the first place.  If you have to pay someone to do it, well….

That said, there are exceptions, especially to the first aspect of the tenet, the issue of playing yourself to expertise.  I described one in the comments of Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 1 when I talked about Brazilian soccer players.  A group that often develops some amazing athletes without much if any formal input from coaches or family.

Rather, formal coaching is only started after the athletes make a team; development proceeds (seemingly successfully) without it.  One might also look to inner city black dominance in basketball as another (potentially) similar model.

Tenet 3: Is Relevant to the Skill Being Practiced

This tenet should be fairly obvious although it actually has relevance to something I’m going to write about in the future (the argument over specificity vs. variety).  If you want to become a great pianist, you don’t generally spend time practicing the flute.  If you want to become a great football player, you don’t spend time swimming.

For a type of deliberate practice to be beneficial, it needs to be relevant to the skill set of the domain that the person is trying to develop.  Which isn’t to say that someone needs to only practice the activity in question to improve.  There is a continuum of activities that may be relatively more or less relevant to a given activity or domain although, in general, they should all have some relevance to it.

Of course, figuring out what is and isn’t relevant is a big part of the whole game and this is often where a coach or teacher come into play.  I’ll come back to this at the end.


Tenet 4: Deliberate Practice is Not Just Watching the Skill Being Performed

As a generality this is certainly true.  You can watch another expert perform a skill over and over again and clearly you’re not going to magically pick up that skill.  It may be useful in other ways (e.g. analyzing technique or seeing what’s happening at a certain part of the movement), mind you, but not from the framework of deliberate practice per se.  It may be a tool in the toolbox but it won’t make you an expert.

Of course, there is clear evidence that visualization is of benefit but at this point you’ve moved from passive observation to active involvement of the individual.  Which brings me to #4.

Tenet 5: Deliberate Practice Requires Effort and Attention from the Learner

While this one should be obvious, to a great degree I think it’s perhaps the most important of all of the various tenets.  In Part 1 of this article and above I mentioned that it’s easy to find folks who have spent 10 years doing something without much to show for it (from a technical or skill standpoint).  We clearly wouldn’t call them experts.

Much of the difference could probably be put down to focus (in addition to everything else I’ve talked about).

As I mentioned in the article Warming up for the Weight Room Part 1

An additional aspect of warming up is to practice and reinforce good technique and ‘groove’ movement patterns. This tends to be relatively more important for beginners and intermediates but it’s interesting to note that you’ll usually find top level athletes going through basic drills daily as part of their warm up.


It’s also important to note that those same athletes put just as much focus into doing their warm up drills properly as they do during the workout itself.  This is a key aspect that I find is often missed, too many people simply ‘go through the motions’ when they warm up rather than using it as an excellent time to accumulate more perfectly done reps (which is a key aspect of motor learning).

And that’s a huge part of Tenet 4.  Most people, performing any given activity, only put a minor amount of effort or attention into the task.  Usually, they pay some attention when they are first learning the skill, but tend to stop once they have achieved what they consider sufficient proficiency.  At this point they simply go on autopilot.

So consider someone learning to ski for example.  They might pay a lot of attention (especially given the cost of lessons) to getting better initially until they reach a point where they can get around the mountain well enough (in their own mind).  At that point they no longer focus on improving or pay attention to what they are doing: performance improvements taper off rapidly.  The same holds for any activity you care to name: people pay attention to improvement until they reach basic competency and then stop paying attention to improvement; and they stop improving.

Contrast that to the typical elite athlete who has spent years with a literally constant and laser like focus on every aspect of their technique and they do this for years.  Every time one aspect becomes easier or automated, they start working on the next level of proficiency. In some activities, this might mean being able to perform the activity under more adverse situations.  Or they might change their conception of it so that they are forced to continue to focus on what’s happening so that they keep improving.  It’s this type of active focus that is involved in the overall learning and automation process along with mastery.

Or, as was put much more simply by Powerlifting Coach, Guru and Innovator Louie Simmons “Even after 20 years, we are still always working on technique.”  That sums up most experts in most fields, they are always working towards the next level of improvement, always keeping themselves focused on the next skill or ability; that’s what keeps them improving.  I think if there’s as single point to this article series, in terms of improving in terms of training skill, this may be it.

Of course, being able to do that means knowing what next to work on: in some cases, this can be established through self-study or what have you, more often than not, it requires the input from a coach or teacher which is Tenet #6.

Tenet 6: Deliberate Practice Often Involves Activities Selected by a Coach or Teacher to Facilitate Learning

While a great deal of deliberate practice (especially among musicians) is done alone, the simple fact is that in many situations, development of expertise is guided by a teacher, mentor or coach.  There are a number of reassons for this not the least of which is that a good coach can typically guide the development in terms of setting deliberate practice tasks that meet the criteria I mentioned above: being relevant to performance improvement, that aren’t play, and that require attention.

The last one is important, at least one aspect of learning is that the task that is being learned has to be both acheivable (on at least some level) by the performer as well as being enough of a challenge to require attention and focus (and be relevant and improve performance).  Good teachers and coaches have developed progression paradigms that tend to meet both of those requirements.

So while a rank beginner might be given the simplest of drills (think of scales for a pianist or basic positions for an Olympic lifter) as those are mastered and autonomized, gradually increasing demands are made so that the individual not only keeps progressing but has to continue to focus on what they are doing, that being a key to the deliberate practice framework.

I’d note and I’ll come back to this in a  bit that there is a HUGE assumption built into this model.

On a personal note, my own coach (speedskating, remember) has been doing this shit to me for the past 4.5 years.  Every time I think I have some aspect of skating mastered, he’ll give me something new to suck at for a little while, just a slight increase in difficulty or whatever to move me closer to his optimal model of skating technique.  And as soon as I get comfortable with that new addition, he’ll give me something else to suck at for a little while.  I think you get the idea.

Of course, this can backfire is the coach gives the individual something that is so far beyond their current capabilities that they become overwhelmed (or frustrated) and give up.  Proper coaching/teaching requires knowing when the individual is ready (or willing) to work on the next level of improvement.

But again, there is a built in assumption to this and brings me to the near wrap-up for this piece.


Can Everyone Become an Expert?

Reading through this, I may have made it sound that becoming an expert is as simple as performing the right kind of practice for sufficient periods of time.  And there may be an element of truth to that.

Ericsson is often accused of making this claim (and denying the role of innate abilities or genetics) but a closer reading of his actual writing show this not to be the case.  I don’t have space to cover that here, get the book I mentioned in Becoming an Expert – Deliberate Practice Part 1 since it’s dealt with at the end.

However, he does roughly claim that, in the apparent absence of any massive inherent differences in innate ability, the primary determinant of whether one becomes expert or not is the engagement of deliberate practice.  That is, in comparison of expert to non-expert performers, the primary determinant of succcess among expert performers is the engagement of enormous amounts of deliberate practice.

But does this either:

  • Deny the role of innate talent
  • Imply that everyone can become an expert given sufficient time and practice

I think some of this comes down to semantics, I suppose and how one defines expertise.  Even the scientists are having issues figuring that out to do the studies and define expert vs. non-expert performance.  Clearly expertise can’t be equated with being the best at something.

For example, consider the top 20 athletes in any sport, all of whom would be expected to have put in at least the requisite 10 years/10,000 hours of practice.  We would tend to say that they are all experts, but clearly only one can be the best.  But again, Ericsson isn’t saying that deliberate practice can make on the best at something, only expert compared to non-experts.

Another issue is one of causation.  Since it’s fundamentally impossible to do a study tracking a couple hundred kids subjected to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and see if they all become expert, most of the data is retrospective.  That is, expert performers are given questionnaires to determine what they did during their development.

And while the commonality is the engagement in massive amounts of deliberate practice, this only proves that expert performers have all engaged in the same level of practice; it doesn’t prove that anyone who engages in that amount of deliberate performance can become an expert.  That said, intervention studies show that people can vastly improve performance in certain skills (e.g. digit memory) with properly performed practice so there is at least some support for the idea that practice drives improvement.

But it’s worth noting that, outside of the issue above, there may be other, lesser recognized innate differences that are impacting on this.  A question we might ask is who is able (or wants) to engage in the 10 years of deliberate practice necessary to become an expert.  It doesn’t seem far fetched that individuals would differ in their innate desire (on some behavioral, genetic of biological level) to engage in that type of practice.

Clearly, a constraint on the development of expertise is a motivational one; does someone have the inherent temperament to engage in the duration and type of practice (in the absence of any seeming rewards) to become an expert.  That’s in addition to any resource constraints that might exist.  In the literature, a concept called ‘rage to master’ is often spoken in terms of children who show a near obsession with mastering a skill.

That type of personality aspect is likely to occur in all individuals who want to become great at something.  And there is likely to be a huge innate component.  It’s usually safe to say that people who are successful in almost any field are a bit, shall we say, obsessive and driven.  While there may be other factors, at least one reason they succeed is that they put in the time to get better when others have stopped.

Beyond that, what about the issue of innate talent, which is often downplayed in the literature?  Certainly, despite popular claims to the contrary, few if any beginners show any true talent at a given skill, nobody is magically good at something the first time they try (generally speaking).   A lot of that depends on the skill in question, of course but for complex skills, nobody is great at it out of the gate.  At best you see relative differences in the level of suck.

Even supposed child prodigies don’t usually start really producing their best work until they’ve put in a solid decade of practice (there is speculation that autistic idiot savantism is actually just years of obsessional grinding on whatever they happen to get obsessed with although other in the field disagree with this claiming that savant artists show skill at an early level that other children lack).

But consider for example a situation where you have 20 kids exposed to a given activity (say hockey).  Of those 20, perhaps 5 suck at it, 10 are average and 5 seem to show some innate ability (i.e. they are a little better than the other kids).   In all likelihood, the bottom 5 will drop out; a lack of success will keep them from pursing it.  Some of the middle 10 might stick with it but the top 5 are not only likely to get a lot of positive feedback (either from beating their competitors or from family/coaches) but to continue pursuing it.

Basically, there is the potential for some (admittedly slight) innate talent to become part of a feedforwards loop where initial early talent becomes the driver to pursue deliberate practice, which improves performance, which drives them to keep pursuing it.  Again, I think you get the idea.

As well, there may be physical constraints involved in the ability to perform some skills necessary for expertise (one of the assumptions I alluded to in Tenet 6 above).  It’s all good and well to say that with the proper teaching/coaching progression you can take someone from beginner to expert but even that assumes that certain physical characteristics are present (in pursuits such as chess or medicine, there may be a minimum requirement for basic brain power, intelligence of simply memory and while I’m not going to get into the debate over the biology of that, just keep it in mind).

And while many of these can be modulated, not all can.  In some cases, it’s an issue of when the person starts.  Ballet dancers won’t don’t start young enough may never be able to physically achieve certain positions required for top performance.  There may be other physical or genetic limitations that limit what a person can actually accomplish.  If a gymnastic wannabe can’t achieve full side splits because of structural limitations of their hips, that will be a limitation that simply cannot be overcome.

That said, there are also examples where folks overcome a physical limitation by altering technique or what have you to work around it.  Athletes who were lacking in a given skill or capacity can sometimes make up for it by working towards a different strength.

As an example of both, my mother a concert pianist (and teacher) started late and while she certainly achieved expert status with years of grinding practice, physically cannot perform some musical things on the piano (relating to how many keys she can reach from thumb to pinky).  In talking to her about this topic, she mentioned that she gets around this on certain pieces by utilizing a slightly different technique (called redistributing).  Rather than getting both keys with the same hand, she simply uses her other hand.  She has found away around a physical limitation that allows her to perform at the highest level.

None of which really answers the question I started this section with.  There’s clearly no doubt that, given the right settings and types of practice that almost anyone can improve in almost any domain.  Can they become an expert given sufficient time and devotion.  That is perhaps the more interesting question but the harder one to answer so I’ll leave it there.


Summing Up: What is My Damn Point?

I started this article series by quoting Dan John on the topic of training

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

I managed to go off on a major tangent (even for me) by looking at the issue of deliberate practice and how it relates to the development of expertise.  But I want to tie it back in to that quote and training.

While cause and effect may be reversed, there is little doubt that a primary commonality among experts across many different domains is the engagement of a lot of practice.  But not any old practice will do, rather a certain type of practice defined by Anders Ericsson as deliberate practice seems to be the commonality among expert performers (with some interesting exceptions).

What are the implications of this for training?  Now, I’m assuming here that anybody reading this has some desire to get good at whatever they are doing.  Perhaps they want a perfect bench, or squat clean, or something else.  I doubt you’re reading this if your only goal is to be ‘ok at something’.

I think Dan John’s quote of Dan Gable’s statement sums much of this and there are really two parts to it.

If improving something is important to your training, performing it more (within limits) not less is probably the way to go.  Consider two trainees, both of whom want to become great bench pressers.  Who is going to improve (technically at least), the guy who benches once per week for 20 reps or the guy who performs 20 reps 4X/week?  I think we’d all agree the latter (again with consideration given to overall loading, etc.).

This is where warmups (how Dan John implements this idea) can be used to great benefit.  Consider someone who wants to get better at the Olympic lifts.  If they were to start every workout with a warmup consisting of some basic barbell complexes including power or squat cleans such that they got 15-20 good reps at the start of every workout (on top of whatever they did in training), imagine how many reps they might achieve over the course of a year compared to someone training the movement once or twice per week without the warmups.  If doesn’t go up exponentially, but it adds up.

The same holds for warm up sets prior to work sets.  This is as good a time as any to practice good technique, get feedback (if you have a training partner) and really focus on what is happening technically or muscularly.  It may only be a handful of reps per workout but again, this adds up over time.  And since you have to to them anyhow, you might as well make them of benefit to long-term improvement.  Don’t just move the bar for 10 quick reps on bench press, focus on where your elbows are, where the bar is hitting, your bar path.  And if there are issues, correct them.  Over time, that type of deliberate practice leads to improvements.

I’d note that this is also the rationale behind systems of training such as Pavel’s Grease the Groove.  There is a huge neural aspect to performance of most skills and performing them frequently (even if submaximally) goes a long way towards improving those neural abilities.  Even if 10 reps per day doesn’t seem like much, over the course of 6-12 months (or more) it adds up significantly.

Of course, as to the second part of this article, which is now far too long, all of this depends on that individual actually paying attention to what they are doing during the warmups.  As I quoted myself on above, I find that most trainees just go through the motions on warmups, they are listening to their MP3 player or watching the hot chicks on the steppers or whatever; what they aren’t doing is focusing on what they are doing.

But, they bitch, drills are boring and not fun and that chick is really hot.

Yes, all true.  But if you want to improve (or eventually become an expert) that’s what you have to do.