What is deliberate practice?
For the uninitiated, deliberate practice is a focused form of practice wherein you proactively look for improvement in whichever craft you’re trying to become better. Deliberate practice was first advocated by Anders Ericsson, who suggested that the top performers in any field reach the levels they do through deliberate practice. Think Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Magnus Carlsen. Anyone can practice deliberately though, and improve her/ his level at a rate much faster than others’.
How is deliberate practice different from the practice that most of us go through?
Most of us don’t actively look for improvements. (Note, improvements can come from your own observation as well as that of an expert, say a coach, who is supervising your practice.) Think of typing on your laptop. How many of you think of ways you can improve your typing speed? Hardly any. Little wonder typing speed and accuracy remains more or less the same even after years of typing. Take swimming. When we first learn swimming, we improve fast. And then we plateau. That’s because in the beginning you actively spot errors and improve, but after a while your strokes become automatic. Automaticity is the enemy of improvement. In contrast, professional swimmers keep looking – often through the help of a coach – for improvements even when they attain a high level.
You would have possibly heard of 10,000-hour rule to become an expert in any field. (That again was propounded by Anders Ericsson.) Those 10,000 hours won’t make you a top performer if you let automaticity creep into your practice. You’ve to keep practicing deliberately. You’ve to keep looking for improvements, stretching your limits little bit every time.
Without further ado, here are examples of deliberate practice from different fields:
Deliberate practice in sports
When an amateur golfer swings towards a flag some distance away, he tries to get the ball as close to the flag as possible. But he is not sure how far away the flag is and what trajectory the ball took. If the ball doesn’t go as intended, he is not sure why the ball deviated: grip, alignment, club speed, or something else.
In contrast, a professional golfer during practice sessions is focused on details that will help him improve. Jack Nicklaus, the legendary golfer and a master in deliberate practice, had a clear idea of what he wanted to get out of his practice session:
I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a very sharp, in focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie. First I ‘see’ the ball where I want it to finish, nice and high and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I ‘see’ the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing.
A professional golfer will have a much more detailed feedback on each bad shot. After each unintended outcome, he’ll know the precise reason behind it, and he’ll adjust his next stroke accordingly. He’ll also have an independent perspective of a coach who can offer inputs on small technical glitches that the player may not have noticed.
When a professional golfer faces a difficult lie (‘lie’ in golf means the position of the ball on the ground), he makes multiple attempts to master that difficult shot, so that he knows what exactly to do when he faces a similar lie in a competition.
This is so unlike amateur practice.
When Serena and Venus Williams were young, their father, Richard, asked them to serve at traffic cones to improve precision.
If you look at Roger Federer’s incredible resurgence in 2017, you’ll see that this was a result of improvements he made – more attacking game and greater consistency in backhand to name few – when on a long layoff after 2016 Wimbledon. This is what Marin Cilic said on Roger Federer after losing to him in 2017 Wimbledon final:
I think his ability and his desire to continue to improve is definitely one of the best in the game. Even at his age now, he’s still improving and challenging himself to get better. All credit to him and his team for finding ways to get him to another level.
Improvement is the key. That’s the foundation of deliberate practice. However, when we see top sportspersons on song, we often erroneously assume their performance to be a result of their inborn ability.
Cricket bowlers often bowl at a single stump to improve their accuracy (in a real match, there are three, and it’s relatively easier to hit them). Similarly, batsmen practice with narrower bats, even with a stump or a baseball bat, to improve reading the trajectory of the incoming ball.
Studies on figure skating have found that elite skaters regularly attempt jumps beyond their current capabilities, and therefore fall much more than regular skaters.
Brazil’s preeminence in soccer has been credited to the unwitting deliberate practice youngsters go through when playing futsal, a variant of soccer.
Futsal is played on a smaller field with a smaller ball with less bounce. These stark differences combine to make futsal a much faster game than soccer (according to a Liverpool University study, futsal players touch the ball six times more often per minute than soccer players), which requires sharp passing and quicker reaction. That’s why when futsal players take to full-size soccer game, they see lots of gaps and spaces on the field.
Deliberate practice in writing
Benjamin Franklin, widely believed to be the most accomplished American of his time, became better at writing through what we now call deliberate practice. At 16, he was bad at writing. Determined to improve, he picked few good pieces of writing from one of his favorite magazines, The Spectator, and encapsulated the message briefly in few sentences. Then, he set his notes aside and came back to them after few days to expand them in his words. (If you write within a short span of time after reading something, you’ll subconsciously copy the style you read. But if you space reading and writing by few days, then your writing won’t be influenced.) After writing the piece afresh, he then used to compare his work with the original and learn where he was lacking.
To quote Benjamin Franklin:
I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
And in order to improve structure in his writing, he scrambled up his notes on a particular article, waited few weeks, and then rearranged them into the most logical order he could think of. To quote him again:
I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts.
And after he rearranged the sentences, he compared them with the original to know how he did.
That’s seeking improvement, and not just mindlessly churning out paragraphs.
I too have deliberate-practiced writing in my own little way?
When reading a book (I read non-fiction books), I slow down on three random pages. These three pages take me 15-20 minutes to complete, many times more than what I take in normal reading. On the three pages, I actively notice choice of words, grammar rules (or how they’ve been broken), variation in length of sentences, transitory words between sentences, transitory sentences between paragraphs, punctuation (especially comma, which can be confusing), and so on.
By learning almost 4-5 times a week from the very best, I could fast-track my progress in writing.
Deliberate practice in education
Start with gaining conceptual clarity on a topic, say differential calculus or coordinate geometry. (If you haven’t, then consult your friends or teachers to get it. Or if need be go back to the simplest of books, even those from previous grade.)
Then attempt the simplest problems in that topic. If you get stuck on a problem, resist the temptation to immediately refer to the solution. Make an attempt or two, and if you can’t get through it, come to it after a day or two. Make another attempt. This process of stretching your limit on problems which are slightly beyond your ability improves your math skills. That’s deliberate practice. Solve as many problems as you need to feel confident at that level of problems. And, in the process, if you come across a novel method or a difficult problem, mark it for later reference.
Then graduate to slightly difficult problems and repeat the above process.
And then raise your level further.
Why do you note down the novel methods or a difficult problem? Hint: earlier in the post you read about how professional golfers practice more on difficult lies.
It’s to not get thrown off-guard when you face similar difficult problems in a real test. When you see someone scoring high even in a tough test, you believe they’re really strong in the subject. However, the main underlying reason for their strength isn’t their genius. The reason is that they encounter less surprises (compared to average students) in the real test. This is similar to how professional golfers look so different.
Guess what, I followed this process to improve my math from mediocrity to exceptionally high level. I’ve written about it on Quora.
Vocabulary building or communication
This is how I have adopted deliberate practice to improve my vocabulary. I note down words that I want to use (and not just know the meaning of), their meaning, and how they’re used. Here is a screenshot containing two words:
(Whereas the text in italics are examples of how the word can be used, the not-italicized text is the meaning of the word. Some of the usages may look too simple (example: slice of pizza) to you, but the real purpose is to include not-so-common usage such as those underlined in red.)
Besides the above list, I also prepare a bare-bone (without meaning or usage) list of above words and print them out. Here is a screenshot of one of the pages:
Now, after I’ve gone through the word, its meaning, and usage, I look at the list of these words (second screenshot) after a day to try recall the meaning (sometimes, a word may be used in 5+ different ways) and reel off 4-5 examples where I would use this word. Sometimes I get stuck struggling to think of more than 2-3 examples and sometimes I rattle off 7-8. Although it’s little discomforting, the effort has improved my vocabulary, and more important usage of it, tremendously. For the same set of words, I repeat the process after a week, a month, and three months to make it embed even further. (This is called