Practice does NOT make perfect. Anyone can go out and mindlessly work on a skill, in hopes of chasing after that magical 10,000 hours. The truth is that just any form of practice is not enough. What you need to improve is deliberate practice.
Have you ever noticed that people who are really good at a skill practice with a different level of intention? When they are working on their craft, they are not just doing anything they feel like doing. Every practice and each rep of that practice has a purpose. They are working towards things that others are not.
“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” ― Anders Ericsson
What is Deliberate Pracitce?
Deliberate practice is a type of practice that is specific and based on a system that includes three different parts.
- Focused Attention
- Specific Goals
- Immediate Feedback
When you engage in deliberate practice, you're trying to take a skill from good to great! You can get pretty good without deliberate practice, but you will never become of the best without it.
It's really easy to assume that time spent doing a skill helps you to master it. It's like people who work at a position for a long time and claim that they have 15 years of experience. They often have 1 year of experience repeated 15 times.
Why Do People Choose Mindless Practice?
Mindless practice is the enemy of deliberate practice. Similar to how good is the enemy of great. You can't get to deliberate practice unless you're ready to let go of mindless practice.
For example, if a child is playing and practicing a sport for the first time, stay as far away from deliberate practice as you can. You need to give them space to find the fun in what they are doing. When things are fun, it will spark a curiosity to improve.
But as time goes on, this mindless practice will begin to plateau. The reason is because the fun stage is over. The only way improvement will come at this point is by having focused practice, with the intention of improving a specific skill.
Things change from needing positive feedback to keep going, to only wanting negative feedback so you can make changes.
The hardest part of deliberate practice in modern society has focused attention. You have to be locked in on what you're doing. There can't be multitasking or any distraction that takes your focus off the specific thing you're working on.
You're doing very hard work. The practice you're engaged in is taking you from being good to being one of the best. Picture someone practicing a hard corner kick in soccer or learning how to make sushi from a Japanese master.
You can't be watching TV or have casual chit chat as you do. All your focus needs to be on doing it the right way.
What you have to understand is that if you're not focused and you do things in a sloppy way, you reinforce those same sloppy habits. Instead of practice a skill at a mastery level, you're doing things the way you always have.
Think about the first time you ever parallel parked a car. Did you have the music blasting? Were you talking on the phone? No way! You were locked in and as focused as you could be to make sure you get it right.
Anytime you're doing things in an unfocused way, you're relying on habits to pull you through. If those habits are not at the highest level, you're in trouble.
The second aspect of deliberate practice is having a specific goal. You're not just practicing for no reason. You are working on something that you need to improve for your game to improve. Think about a musician that struggles to hit certain chords effortlessly.
To set a specific goal, a practice session would look like this:
- Going to choose the hardest song with these chords I struggle with
- Will only play this song daily for 2 hours
- Will not stop playing this song until that chord is mastered
- Will play the song for a mentor or coach each week to check progress
The musician sets specific goals for what needs to be improved due to weakness, how much practice will happen each day, how long this practice will happen, and how results will be measured.
When you get this step right, it brings clarity to why you're doing this and how you plan to succeed in this area.
It's important to note that deliberate practice is far from easy. It would be much easier for the musician to play the songs that have already been mastered. Playing something that you know you suck at for 2 hours and each day until you get it right and having frequent tests is not easy.
That is the point, though, mastery is hard, and you need to pay the price.
Getting immediate feedback can be the easiest to accomplish, but it can also be the most crushing to your ego. The goal of immediate feedback is to keep you from straying into bad habits.
When most people think of working on a skill, they want to do it alone. The reason for that is because when you do something alone, you can feel as good about it as you want to. When you have someone giving you feedback, you know that there are going to be criticisms.
One of the most significant marks of a beginner vs. someone who wants to be an expert is that experts could care less for compliments. They want to know what they are doing wrong and where improvement can be found.
You have to seek out coaches and mentors. You need people who know how to coach people to improve or people who have done it themselves for much longer than you.
In the example given above with the musician. This could mean that every two-hour session is recorded, and parts are sent to a coach or mentor for feedback. You then take that feedback to heart and use it for your next session to get better.
Example of Deliberate Practice
I ran track since the age of 7, but by the time I got to high school, I was very serious about it and knew I had a shot of getting a scholarship. I engaged in deliberate practice at this time, but I did not know it.
My training sessions were very focused. We were not allowed to goof around unless we were resting. When we were warming up, doing drills, or sprinting, we needed to be 100% focused on what we were doing. I never realized how focused the group was until new people joined and struggled to focus.
There was always something that I was focusing on in every training session. Whether it was the first step out of the blocks, hand position, knee lift when I was getting tired. I never remember doing anything without a reason or a purpose.
The third aspect and probably the easiest to see in sports is that I had a coach. It was him who helped to keep us focus, set goals, and provided immediate feedback. Every single rep I did, I would go and talk with my coach about it after. Bad habits did not have the chance to sneak in because of the constant correction and help to refocus on the practice's goal.
This is what deliberate practice looks like.
How Do You Get Started With Deliberate Practice?
To get started with deliberate practice, you have to get out of the beginner stage. Deliberate practice is for people with experience who want to go towards mastery.
The best place to get started is to identify some weaknesses that you have. Be critical of your work. Approach your craft as if you are your own worst critic.
Once you identify some areas you're struggling with, develop goals and a game plan to improve. What are your practice sessions going to look like day to day going forward?
Then lastly, you need to find a coach and some mentors to work with you. Coaches are trained in knowing how to help you improve, whereas mentors are more raw, but they give you more perspectives and real-world experience.