Deliberate practice: what is it? Why is it important? How to practice it

Deliberate Practice by Anders Ericsson: What It Is and How Can You Deliberately Practice Something

May 31, 2021    •   minute read

Anders Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice is an approach to improving performance and attaining expert performance. He and his team first introduced deliberate practice in 1993 in his research paper titled, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Since then, Ericsson has continued to develop on the theory and published at least 17 other articles. (You can find the list of Ericsson’s research articles at the end of this post.)

I believe that deliberate practice is scientific enough to be worth studying further to improve performance or even achieve expert performance.

In this post, you will learn about the role of deliberate practice in achieving exceptional performance. Specifically, these are what you will know:

  1. What is deliberate practice?
  2. Why deliberate practice?
  3. How can you deliberately practice something?

Before we begin, it is crucial to keep in mind that deliberately practicing something requires time, effort, and a great deal of motivation and discipline.

Let’s get started.

What Is Deliberate Practice?

Again, Anders Ericsson and his research team from the Department of Psychology at the Florida State University introduced the deliberate practice framework in his journal article in 1993 titled, “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.”1

Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity aimed at improving the current level of performance. During deliberate practice, you work on high specific tasks assigned to overcome weaknesses, and you would have your performance monitored carefully for further improvement. It is effortful and not enjoyable.

The person who made the framework famous was a bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Stories of Success. The book stresses the importance of practicing for 10,000 hours and cited the research about deliberate practice. However, in his paper on the same topic published in 2020, Ericsson claimed that he “never argued for a magical number.”

Ericsson, in his various articles on the topic, emphasizes the importance of practicing with a professional coach, and this is an interesting quote from his 2020 article, referring to the example of how the Beatles attained their expert performance playing for thousands of hours in Germany:

Most importantly, they clearly argued that practice alone was not just any type of experience, such as the famous pop group, Beatles, playing for thousands of hours at music clubs in Hamburg, but rather a very particular type of practice activity, which reflected mostly deliberate practice, namely practice dedicated to improvement under the guidance of a teacher.2

Why deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice could help ordinary people attain expert performance if they have the motivation, time, and discipline to pursue it.

Ericsson and his team wrote in his paper (1993, p.400):

We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

Ericsson et al., 1993 (p.400)
Deliberate Practice Quote

Note that it is not for everyone, but only those with the motivation, time, and discipline to sustain all the pain for the long-term gains that this practice could provide.

With that in mind, let’s explore how you can practice it.

How Can You Deliberately Practice Something?

The initial focus of the deliberate practice research was on music performance, but it has now covered other domains of practice, too, especially in sport. Before we begin, it is vital to bear in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to expert performance. However, Ericsson pointed out certain characteristics of deliberate practice.

Prepare your time and energy.

Deliberate practice could extend for at least ten years and involves optimization within several constraints. So, it would help if you prepared your time and energy for the long-term benefits.

Set goals for your deliberate practice

Practice means doing something repeatedly; deliberate practice requires repetition, often with the goal to improve performance. In the 1993 paper, Ericsson and his research team wrote that “deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance” (p. 368).

Keep yourself motivated

Ericsson stresses the importance of motivation as part of the practice. He wrote in his article (1993), “Engagement in deliberate practice is not inherently motivating. Performers consider it instrumental in achieving further performance improvements.” So, it would be best if you prepared what you can do to keep yourself motivated for the practice, especially when you do not feel like doing it.

Perform the same or similar tasks repeatedly and effortfully

The main goal of deliberate practice is to improve performance, so it requires that you keep your effortful practice and do not fall for automaticity as you get good at it. Expert performers should not settle for a certain level of performance until achieving their goals.

Develop a system for immediate and continual feedback

To keep your performance effortful, it is essential to develop a system for immediate and continual feedback on your performance. Deliberate practice trainees should also develop a system that helps them continually receive feedback from their performance.

That’s why Ericsson and his research team recommends having a coach.

Practice under the guidance of a coach

One of the main differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice is that the former requires a coach. Ericsson writes in his 2020 study, “In this study, the athletes’ practice activities, however, were not guided by a coach and thus would be described as purposeful practice.”

Why is having a coach so important? It is the feedback that makes deliberate practice different from other types of practice. Expert performers need to have a system to receive continual and immediate feedback on their performance.

Feedback from a coach can help identify areas of improvement and focus your practice on them. It could also provide encouragement when the training gets challenging and deliberate practice is supposed to be tough. After all, we cannot obtain mastery so quickly. Another benefit of a coach in deliberate practice could be creating the right conditions for learning to happen, and therefore, mastery.

However, the coach must understand the “appropriate sequences of learning and physiological adaptions” to help their trainees attain exceptional performance.

Only by better understanding the mechanisms mediating the appropriate sequences of learning and physiological adaptations will coaches and teachers be able to guide athletes to acquire expert performance in a safe and effective manner.3

Practice in solitude

In various articles he published on the topic, Ericsson emphasizes the importance of solitary practice as a characteristic that differentiates deliberate practice from other types of practice.

The study found that the amount of solitary practice affected the level of performance.

A similar pattern from an analysis of SCRABBLE players, where the amount of solitary study (purposeful practice) was associated with higher levels of performance (Moxley, Ericsson, & Tuffiash, 2019), whereas the amount of playing SCRABBLE games was not a significant predictor.

There was a similar effect in solitary music study.

A greater amount of solitary music practice accumulated during development is associated with higher levels of attained music performance (Ericsson, 2002; Ericsson, et al., 1993).

And his chess study found the same impact of solitary practice.

Similarly in chess, Charness and colleagues (Charness, Tuffiash, Krampe, Reingold, & Vasyukova, 2005) found that the amount of solitary chess study was the best predictor of chess skill, and when this factor was statistically controlled, there was only a very small benefit from other types of chess-playing experience, such as the number of games played in chess tournaments.

The importance of rest and recovery

Engaging in deliberate practice requires full concentration. For example, Ericsson found that musicians only engaged in it for around an hour without taking a break and limited the total time in deliberate practice to 4-5 hours each day. His study and reviews have further found that age and skill level affect the maximal daily concentration time. “Beginners seemed to be limited to around 15-20 minutes of full concentration, whereas individuals with many years of daily training only gradually reached the 5-hour limit.”

As human beings, our energy is limited. You must “avoid exhaustion and limit your practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.” For this reason, it is essential to use the Pomodoro technique to strike the right balance between performance and breaks for work performance.

Conclusion

Anders Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice may not be the only method to achieve expert performance. Still, Ericsson’s continuing research on the topic from 1993 until today has proved that deliberate practice is scientific. More importantly, it is also evident that the practice can enable ordinarily gifted people like you and me to attain expert performance if we have the motivation, time, and discipline to pursue it.

I hope that the advice I share here from my reading of Ericsson and his teams’ research on the topic could help you get started and improve your performance.

If you want to dig deeper, check out my recommended list of deliberate practice books here.

Deliberate Practice: Further Reading List

This section contains a list of several articles that Ericsson has published about deliberate practice for your further reading.

  • Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363. https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1993-40718-001
  • Ericsson, K. A., and Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: its structure and acquisition. Am. Psychol. 49, 725–747. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.49.8.725
  • Ericsson, K. A. (1996). “The acquisition of expert performance: an introduction to some of the issues,” in The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games, ed. K. A. Ericsson, (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum), 1–50.
  • Ericsson, K. A., and Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (1998). The scientific study of expert levels of performance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity. High Ability Stud. 9, 75–100. doi: 10.1080/1359813980090106
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2003). “How the expert-performance approach differs from traditional approaches to expertise in sports: in search of a shared theoretical framework for studying expert performance,” in Expert Performance in Sport: Recent Advances in Research on Sport Expertise, eds J. Starkes, and K. A. Ericsson, (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics), 371–401.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2007). Deliberate practice and the modifiability of body and mind: toward a science of the structure and acquisition of expert and elite performance. Int. J. Sport Psychol. 38, 4–34.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2013). Training history, deliberate practice and elite sports performance: an analysis in response to Tucker and Collins Review – “What makes champions?”. Br. J. Sports Med. 47, 533–535. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-091767
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2014). Why expert performance is special and cannot be extrapolated from studies of performance in the general population: a response to criticisms. Intelligence 45, 81–103. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2013.12.001
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2016). Summing up hours of any type of practice versus identifying optimal practice activities: comments on Macnamara, Moreau, and Hambrick (2016). Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 11, 351–354. doi: 10.1177/1745691616635600
  • Ericsson, K. A., and Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt.
  • Ericsson, K. A., Hoffman, R. R., Kozbelt, A., and Williams, A. M. (eds) (2018). Revised Edition of Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2018a). “Capturing expert thought with protocol analysis: Concurrent verbalizations of thinking during experts’ performance on representative tasks,” in Revised Edition of Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 2nd Edn, eds K. A. Ericsson, R. R. Hoffman, A. Kozbelt, and A. M. Williams, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 192–212. doi: 10.1017/9781316480748.012
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2018b). “Superior working memory in experts,” in Revised Edition of Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 2nd Edn, eds K. A. Ericsson, R. R. Hoffman, A. Kozbelt, and A. M. Williams, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 696–713. doi: 10.1017/9781316480748.036
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2018c). “The differential influence of experience, practice, and deliberate practice on the development of superior individual performance of experts,” in Revised Edition of Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 2nd Edn, eds K. A. Ericsson, R. R. Hoffman, A. Kozbelt, and A. M. Williams, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 745–769. doi: 10.1017/9781316480748.038
  • Ericsson, K. A., & Harwell, K. W. (2019). Deliberate practice and proposed limits on the effects of practice on the acquisition of expert performance: Why the original definition matters and recommendations for future research. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2396. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02396/full
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2020). Towards a science of the acquisition of expert performance in sports: Clarifying the differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice. Journal of sports sciences, 38(2), 159-176. https://bit.ly/3i4tCff

I strongly recommend that you read the articles if you are serious about using the method to improve your performance or that of your team.

References:

  1. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363. https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1993-40718-001
  2. Ericsson, K. A. (2020). Towards a science of the acquisition of expert performance in sports: Clarifying the differences between deliberate practice and other types of practice. Journal of sports sciences, 38(2), 159-176. https://bit.ly/3i4tCff
  3. Ericsson, K. A. (2007). Deliberate practice and the modifiability of body and mind: toward a science of the structure and acquisition of expert and elite performance. International journal of sport psychology. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-06716-002
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