I'm sure you've heard the saying that practice makes perfect, that the way to improve, say, our forehand in tennis, is to spend hours practicing our forehands. Yet we often don’t see the improvement we’re hoping for.
Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, knows why. We’re not using “deliberate practice,” a term he coined to describe how world-class performers practice. He compared the practice methods used by world-class performers versus lower level performers in areas such as swimming and playing the violin. He concluded that the top people in their fields practiced in a different way. He presented his conclusions in a paper titled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance and in a book written for the laymen, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In a nutshell, “An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback. Another important feature of deliberate practice lies in continually practicing a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.”
The article referenced in the title of this post is by James Clear in which he criticizes the idea of "deliberate practice." Clear challenges the idea that we can accomplish anything we want if we use deliberate practice. “The myth of deliberate practice is that you can fashion yourself into anything with enough work and effort. While human beings do possess a remarkable ability to develop their skills, there are limits to how far any individual can go. Your genes set a boundary around what is possible.” He shows that top baseball players have better than 20/20 vision or that tennis players like Steffi Graf who when “tested against other elite tennis players as a teenager, she not only scored the highest on physical attributes like lung capacity and motor skills, but also on competitive desire. She was that once-in-a-generation talent who was both the most-gifted and the most-driven person on the court.”
This to me this has the hallmarks of debates (such as nature versus nurture) where neither side is 100% right. I’m sure it’s true that top athletes or other performers benefit from genes that give them a permanent edge on the rest of us who don’t have these genes expressed as strongly. Clear and others who have questioned deliberate practice hold that there are inherent differences that separate those who sit at the lofty peak of performance from us weekend warriors. I think we’re being presented with a false alternative. Yes, our genes can prevent us from aspiring to win a Gold Olympic medal in the slalom. On the other hand we can still apply the principles of deliberate practice to get us to perform better than we would by just blindly practicing without a plan. We might not be able to become the best in the world but we can become the best we can be.
Speaking from my own experience, I’ve applied deliberate practice to my tennis game, to skiing and even to my work-related presentations. I know my performance in all three areas has improved. My tennis game has improved more in the last five years while using deliberate practice than I did before applying deliberate practice.