What IS Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is practice that is intensely focused, purposeful, and systematic. Let’s break down each of those three components individually so we can fully grasp the concept of deliberate practice.

Intensely Focused

Deliberate practice requires intense focus. Intense focus means that your attention and concentration are locked in to the task at hand. Distractions are eliminated. Your brain is not wandering or daydreaming or thinking about “the next thing.” When you are intensely focused, it means that all your effort and energy is directed at the task at hand.

Purposeful

What are you trying to accomplish? How is this particular drill helping you improve a specific skill?

Answering these questions provide purpose. Purpose means that you have a specific direction. You know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and you have a plan. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?

Purpose provides direction for your intense focus. It ensure that you are working on the things that actually help you develop your skills and accomplish your goals.

Systematic

A system is “an organized or established procedure” (1).

A system is organized, which means that it’s focused and purposeful.

A system is established, which means that you know it works.

And, most importantly when it comes to deliberate practice, a system is that it’s repeatable. This means that you can follow the system consistently again and again, day after day.

Without One You Have None

The key to deliberate practice is that you have all three components working together – intensely focused, purposeful, and systematic. If you’re missing one of these components, then you’re missing the entire thing.

Picture a tripod for a camera. It requires three legs to stand. When all three legs are present, you have a functioning tripod that holds your camera steady. If you are missing just one leg, though, then the whole apparatus fails. A tripod cannot function properly without all three legs. Yes, each leg is important on its own, but it’s the combination of all three that make the tripod work.

The same goes for deliberate practice. Each element of deliberate practice is valuable on its own. If you want to experience the full benefit of deliberate practice for your skill development, though, you need all three components working together.

Deliberate practice is practice that is intensely focused, purposeful, and systematic.

What IS NOT Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is not simply experience or repetition.

Experience does not automatically equal expertise. Simply doing more of something – aka getting experience – does not mean that you’re better than when you started, let alone better that someone else. You can go to the gym every day for a year. Simply being at going to the gym, though, does that mean that you’re actually getting bigger, faster, or stronger. You have to be training with intense focus, purpose, and a system – deliberate practice – in order to see improvements.

Similarly, repetitions do not automatically lead to improvement. Simply repeating something over and over doesn’t make you better on its own. Repetitions merely reinforce the habits or skills that are being repeated. To stay with the gym analogy, you could bench press every day for a year. But, if you’re bench pressing the same weight every single day then you are not going to get any stronger. You would have a ton of reps on the bench, but you would not have any gains in the strength or size of your muscles.

Author and habits expert James Clear sums this up well,

Mindless activity is the enemy of deliberate practice. The danger of practicing the same thing again and again is that progress is assumed. Too often, we assume we are getting better simply because we are gaining experience. In reality, we are merely reinforcing our current habits – not improving them (2).

What Does Deliberate Practice Look Like?

The Key Ingredient: Feedback

Feedback defines the difference between deliberate practice and simple repetition. You can’t have deliberate practice without feedback.

There are many forms of feedback, but there are two that you should be focused on in deliberate practice:

1) Measurement. Improvement requires measurement. Measurement is provides the only proof of whether we are getting better or getting worse. Player A uses measurement by tracking his successful execution in his drills. Tracking his execution provides a record of progress (did I successfully execute more swings today than I did yesterday?) and it allows him to reflect on his workout and plan his next workout accordingly.

2) Coaching. Coaching is an essential element of deliberate practice. What you feel versus what is real can be nearly impossible to differentiate on your own. Whether you use video to coach yourself, or you have a teammate/coach who is there with you to provide feedback and guidance, deliberate practice requires coaching feedback. Player A uses his phone to record his swings and get objective, external feedback on his execution.

The Promise of Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is not comfortable. It involves sustained, intense focus. It requires pushing past the limits of your comfort zone and current skill level. This means that deliberate practice is not always fun and enjoyable. It is work.

Deliberate practice is not a magic pill. It’s not an easy button that guarantees anything. But, if you can manage to maintain your focus and commitment, then the promise of deliberate practice is quite appealing: to get the most out of what you’ve got (3).


FOOTNOTES

  1. Merriam-Webster definition of system.
  2. James Clear quoted in https://jamesclear.com/beginners-guide-deliberate-practice
  3. James Clear quoted in https://jamesclear.com/beginners-guide-deliberate-practice

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