Deliberate Practice: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else

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21-05-2020

6 min read

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What makes Jack Welch, Tiger Woods, Steven Spielberg, Garry Kasparov or Hilary Hahn stand out from the rest?

Natural talent? Hard work? Years of experience?

None of the above.

Excellent performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever expected. In the past 30 years, scientists have looked into top-level performance in a wide variety of fields.

The findings:

  • Natural talent doesn’t explain top-level performance – if talent even exists.
  • In fields such as chess, music, business, and medicine, high IQ doesn’t necessarily correlate with top-level performance.

Deliberate practice is the key

This is based on research by Anders Ericsson who came up with the 10,000 hours to mastery rule. But it turns out that the 10,000-hour rule isn’t a rule at all, and simply doing something for hours and hours is no guarantee that you’ll improve.

Anders says that doctors who have practised for 20 years are no better than doctors who’ve been practising for five years if they feel they’ve reached a level of acceptable performance.

That is why deliberate practice is necessary to push yourself out of your comfort zone and force yourself to come up with what he calls mental representations.

He says what sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and the quantity of their mental representations through years of practice that they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situation.

For example, Grandmaster chess players can play an entire game of chess blindfolded. Alexander Alekhine, the world-champion from 1927 to 1935 could play 32 games of chess simultaneously while blindfolded. To do so, he visualises the chess boards in his memory and move pieces around in his mind trying out various lines of play.

Similarly, rock climbers are also able to visualise and experience each movement that they’re about to make before they attempt to climb up a rock face. An example is Alexander Honnold who free soloed (without ropes) by climbing the El Capitan which is about 3,000 feet from base to summit.

Alexander Honnold el capitan

Alex Honnold, free soloing on El Capitan. Image source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com.au

Golfers are also able to condense an entire string of complex movements that make up the golf swing and replicate that swing with a single thought or feeling.

Orchestra composers too. They know what each instrument sounds like, and when composing, they can combine the various instruments in their head to predict if the result is any good. They don’t actually have to get people to play it out. Hence why Beethoven was able to compose even when he was deaf.

Experts on a subject no longer need to physically do something to see if it works – they are able to play out entire scenarios in their mind. Using their knowledge of separate pieces of information, they piece it together and play it out.

So what is deliberate practice?

The following definition might help us further comprehend the concept:

Deliberate – ‘done consciously and intentionally’

Practice – ‘repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it’

And why is deliberate practice extremely difficult?

  • The chief constraint is mental
  • The required concentration is so intense that it’s exhausting

Yet why do some put themselves through it day after day, decade after decade? The passion of these individuals is related to their intrinsic motivation – whereby they simply enjoy it as an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualise their potential.

Talent is an innate ability to do something better than others. But without practice, talent alone won’t carry you far.

You might be interested in: Give Your Children The Space To Learn And Practice

Practice is what counts – deliberate practice, the following are some examples:

  • Mozart’s talent is a myth. He didn’t get great until after he had 10,000 hours of intentional practice.
  • Tiger Woods talented? Tiger’s father gave him a putter when he was seven months old. Before he was two he and his father were on a course practising regularly. Both father and son attribute Tiger’s success not to talent but to ‘intentional hard work’.
  • London Taxi Drivers – who must learn ‘the knowledge’ (all the routes/roads of London) have areas of their brains that are far more developed than an average person.

We all have the gift of adaptability. The difference between an average performer and an elite performer is deliberate practice. This should be brilliant news for everybody. Why? Because it means you and I can get better at anything we want. The brain and physique don’t discriminate. When you push yourself out of your comfort zone, you will adapt and create a new normal.

So now that we understand what deliberate practice is, the question is where do we start?

The following is an integrated approach which I found worked extremely well for me based on research and Anders Ericsson’s methods:

1. Set well-defined, specific goals

You need to establish an overall goal for your practice, a purpose if you will. The purpose will provide you with a reason and motivation to train. With an overall goal in mind, further break that down into well-defined, specific goals.

For example, an overall goal may be to climb Mount Everest. Before embarking on this monumental feat, you may instead want to break it down into smaller achievable (specific) goals, focusing on climbing the smaller peaks first (such as Mount Kinabalu in 6 months), and then work progressively by building yourself physically and technically towards a 5000m mountain, 6000m mountain…and so on in 3 years to summit the highest peak in the world.

Goal setting

2. Give 100 per cent undivided attention

You need to give 100 per cent to whatever it is you’re practising. No distractions or interruptions allowed. Full focus. High concentration. Staying on the task can be difficult, but it can be particularly challenging when you are surrounded by constant distraction.

In today’s always-connected world, diversions are nothing more than a click away. To eliminate distractions, one way to deal with this is to set aside a specific time and place daily to focus on training/practice. It helps to have a training partner who has a similar purpose and goal.

3. Get a coach/teacher

A coach/teacher can provide practice activities designed to help you improve your performance. Based on research, most successful sportsperson, musician, business professionals have an army of coaches to help accelerate their success. The advantage of having a coach is that your goal becomes their goals too, and they expect you to ‘do what you say’.

4. Ask for feedback

You must know what you’re doing wrong and how you can improve. In other words, you need feedback, and the more immediate, the better. A coach will work with you to reframe your attitude and to expand your thinking. Coaches will be able to put you in a position by helping you to clarify your challenges, guide you in how to overcome the challenge or negative self-talk and move forward.

5. Step out of your comfort zone

Deliberate practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. According to Ericsson, this is the most important aspect of purposeful practice. If you don’t push yourself, you won’t trigger adaptation, and you won’t get better.

In summary

There are no short cuts. To reach an expert level of performance, you have to put in the hours of practice. Anyone willing to go through enough deliberate practice can become great at what they’re doing.

Perhaps you might think that you’re just naturally untalented; bad at maths; terrible at languages. The truth is none of that is true.

Want to get better at something? Here’s a plan. Emulate best performers/players. Find out how they train and what makes them so good.

Look out for a coach who can help you by implementing training techniques and programs that can propel you to perform as good as or even better than the experts. Then practice with the deliberate practice guidelines:

Set clear goals. Focus hard. Learn from feedback. And most importantly, push yourself past your comfort zone.

Getting better at something isn’t rocket science. If you’re prepared to put in the time and effort, you can do it.

Read also: Just Practice! If Achieving Great Performance Was So Easy, It Wouldn’t Be Rare


TM Nagarajan is the managing partner of The Renaissance Group, a company that focuses on Strategy & Leadership transformation. Rajan is passionate about inspiring and creating impact in the transformation of people/organisations. He gets his adrenaline rush from adventure sports (rock-climbing, paragliding, paddleboarding, triathlons) and on a quest to climb the highest mountain on each continent. To contact Rajan, email us at editor@leaderonomics.com.

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