October 16, 2011

Deliberate practice: crucial factor behind top performance

These last few decades, a sub discipline has evolved within psychology which has produced knowledge which has replaced the traditional view on how top performance is developed. Researchers working in this discipline, of who Anders Ericsson (photo) in the most prominent, have shown that there is a lack of evidence for the claim that natural ability is the main reason for top performance. They have found out that what is crucial is the amount of time the individual has practiced and the specific way in which he or she has practiced.

Achieving top level performance requires many years: the researchers have shown that in practically every discipline the key to elite performance is to keep practicing for many years. What is remarkable about this is that it applies to a wide range of performance domains such as science, sports, and music. Research suggests that an optimal strategy is to spend 3 to 5 hours of concentrated practice per day.

Deliberate practice is the key:  this concentrated way of practicing is called 'deliberate practice'. With deliberate practice individuals work concentrated on tasks which are just outside their current realm of reliable performance, yet can be mastered within hours of practice. Deliberate practice is mentally taxing and not per se pleasant. A reason for this is that the individual constantly focuses on areas of performance which are not yet satisfactory. The practice is focused very specifically on these areas. Deliberate practice requires that there is reliable and immediate feedback on performance. Deliberate practice helps improve performance by constantly stretching it beyond its current capabilities, by correcting specific weaknesses, while preserving other successful aspects of performance. People who are already at the top of their discipline may remain there by continued deliberate practice.

The role of automaticity: by practicing one automates actions. Automaticity means that one can execute the activity faster, more fluent and with greater ease. This releases attention which can focused on other aspects of performance. Remaining aware of what is not yet satisfactory is very important. It helps to keep from repeating the same mistakes which would lead to the automatization of these mistakes. It helps to keep on stretching ones abilities. As soon as an individual stops focusing on improving performance he or she will be left to what automated skills and development is arrested.

Cumulativity: An interesting thing about deliberate practice is that its effect is cumulative. You can compare it with a road you're traveling on. Any distance you have travelled on that road counts. So, if you have started at an early age, this will lead to an advantage over someone who started later. Research shows that the progress to top performance happens rather gradually. There is no evidence for phases of stagnation and phases of rapid development.

New connections in the brain and more myelin: Many people know that learning means that new connections are formed between neurons. New connections in the brain create news paths which enable signals to be transported through the brain faster which contributes to a faster and more fluent performance. What is not known by many people is that myelin, white matter, also seems to play an important role. Myelin is the substance that is wrapped around neurons to isolate them (much as plastic is wrapped around electric wiring) and accounts for more than half of the brains mass. When neurons fire, supporter cells called oligodendrocytes and astrocytes sense the nerve firing and respond by wrapping more myelin on the neuron that fires. The more the nerve fires, the more myelin is wrapped around it and the faster the signal can travel, up to 100 times faster than signals sent through an uninsulated fiber. Apart from the function of increasing signal speed, myelin also has the capacity to regulate signal speed so that signals can even be slowed to reach synapses at the right time.


  1. This is an interesting post Coert, because it points out that our current schoolsystem works the wrong way. One person must tell twenty to thirty people what to practice and then observe them individually and tell them what to do differently.

    So maybe that guild system of master and companion was not that bad. It meant someone told and showed you what to do and you got the time to practice with someone looking over your shoulder at what you were doing right or wrong. Maybe deliberate practice also explains why many companies complain about the fact that students know so little about the reality of the workplace. It might also explain why many people like simulations better than classroom trainings. Or why people rather learn on the job, then of the job.

  2. One solution for the first problem you mention is to have IT help generate practice material and feedback for students. Someone who is doing very innovative stuff on this is Sal Kahn of Kahn Academy (http://bit.ly/ca53oI).

  3. Coert, have you read David Perkins' latest book on education, "Making Learning Whole?" I feel as if he takes the relevance of expertise research very seriously and takes the concepts several steps farther.

  4. Hi Todd, i did read it, right after it came out. In what sense do you feel he takes expertise research further?

  5. In the sense that he expands the traditional concept of "domains of activity" to instead "navigable realms of activity" so that expertise becomes not just he ability to reproduce skilled performances but also the ability to transfer elements of performance to other activities.

  6. That is an interesting theme.

    Research into deliberate practice suggests "there is little transfer from high-level proficiency in one domain to proficiency in other domains - even when the domains seem, intuitively, very similar." (Paul Fletovich, Michael Prietula, and Anders Ericsson, p47; http://bit.ly/o2ZJ0h).

    But the topic of transferability remains interesting.

    Intuitively I think there must be some cross-fertilization. For instance, I imagine that different performance domains to some extent overlap in the demands they make on our capabilities. For instance, composing a piece of music and writing a text both demand that you create an appealing structure, that you organize complexity in such a way that it is understandable etc.


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