# Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice is practice that is purposeful, informed and structured by an understanding of the skill being developed and which incorporates clear, rapid feedback loops.

The idea was developed by Professor Anders Ericsson and colleagues and made famous in books by Malcolm Gladwell and others.

Key principles applicable for us:

  • Start from an assumption that anyone can learn and improve significantly through practice.
  • Deliberate practice is structured and intentional (it’s not casual).
  • Establish structures for regular feedback. Try and make that feedback objectively based e.g. record meetings or coding sessions and involve expert coaches.
    • Clear measurable results (win/lose in chess) plus an ability to analyse the source of those results is optimal.
  • Break down performance into smaller parts which can be worked on individually.
  • Get outside your comfort zone – you improve most rapidly just beyond the edge of your current capability.
  • Practice is probably distinct from day-to-day work though there is a potential to design it in.
  • Practice with intensity: it requires your full attention and conscious effort.
  • Search for experts and high performers and analyse what they do.

For anyone in the business or professional world looking for an effective approach to improvement, my basic advice is to look for one that follows the principles of deliberate practice: Does it push people to get outside their comfort zones and attempt to do things that are not easy for them? Does it offer immediate feedback on the performance and on what can be done to improve it? Have those who developed the approach identified the best performers in that particular area and determined what sets them apart from everyone else? Is the practice designed to develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess? A yes answer to all those questions may not guarantee that an approach will be effective, but it will certainly make that much more likely.

All excerpts that follow are from Ericsson and Pool (2016).

# Strict Definition

With this definition we are drawing a clear distinction between purposeful practice—in which a person tries very hard to push himself or herself to improve—and practice that is both purposeful and informed. In particular, deliberate practice is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel. Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.

In short, deliberate practice is characterized by the following traits:

  • Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.
  • Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.
  • Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. Improving some aspect of the target performance allows a performer to see that his or her performances have been improved by the training.
  • Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions. It isn’t enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal for his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice.
  • Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback. Early in the training process much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly. Such self-monitoring requires effective mental representations.
  • Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and to correct it.
  • Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance. Because of the way that new skills are built on top of existing skills, it is important for teachers to provide beginners with the correct fundamental skills in order to minimize the chances that the student will have to relearn those fundamental skills later when at a more advanced level.

# Strict Version is Quite Limited

As defined, deliberate practice is a very specialized form of practice. You need a teacher or coach who assigns practice techniques designed to help you improve on very specific skills. That teacher or coach must draw from a highly developed body of knowledge about the best way to teach these skills. And the field itself must have a highly developed set of skills that are available to be taught. There are relatively few fields—musical performance, chess, ballet, gymnastics, and the rest of the usual suspects—in which all of these things are true and it is possible to engage in deliberate practice in the strictest sense.

But not to worry—even if your field is one in which deliberate practice in the strictest sense is not possible, you can still use the principles of deliberate practice as a guide to developing the most effective sort of practice possible in your area.

# Example of Top Gun – Applying Deliberate Practice in Less Well-Defined Fields

IT WAS 1968, AND THE VIETNAM WAR was in full swing. U.S. fighter pilots from the navy and air force were regularly engaging Soviet-trained North Vietnamese airmen flying Russian-made MiG fighter planes in dogfights, and the Americans weren’t doing so well. In the previous three years, the pilots of both the navy and the air force had been winning about two-thirds of their dogfights: they downed two North Vietnamese jets for every one jet they lost. But in the first five months of 1968 the ratio for the navy pilots had dropped down to about one-to-one: the U.S. Navy had shot down nine MiGs, but lost ten of its own jets. Furthermore, over the summer of 1968, navy pilots had fired more than fifty air-to-air missiles without shooting down a single MiG. The navy’s brass decided that something had to be done.

That something turned out to be the establishment of the now-famous Top Gun school, properly known as the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (and originally the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School). The school would teach navy pilots how to fight more effectively and, it was hoped, increase their success rate in dogfights.

The program that the navy designed had many of the elements of deliberate practice. In particular, it gave the student pilots a chance to try different things in different situations, get feedback on their performance, and then apply what they had learned.

The navy picked its best pilots to be the trainers. These men would play the role of the enemy North Vietnamese pilots and engage the students in air-to-air “combat.” The trainers, who were known collectively as the Red Force, flew fighter planes that were similar to the MiGs, and they used the same Soviet tactics the North Vietnamese pilots had learned. Thus they were, for all practical purposes, top-notch North Vietnamese fighter pilots, with one exception: instead of missiles and bullets, their aircraft were equipped with cameras to record each encounter. The dogfights were also tracked and recorded by radar.

The students who attended the Top Gun academy were the next best fighter pilots in the navy after the trainers, and collectively they were known as the Blue Force. They flew U.S. Navy fighter jets, again without the missiles or bullets. Each day they would climb into their planes and take off to face the Red Force. In those combats the pilots were expected to push their planes—and themselves—right up to the edge of failure in order to learn what the planes were capable of and what was required to get that performance out of them. They tried different tactics in different situations, learning how best to respond to what the other guys were doing.

The pilots of the Red Force, being the best the navy had, generally won the dogfights. And the trainers’ superiority only increased over time, because every few weeks a whole new class of students would enter the Top Gun academy, while the trainers stayed there month after month, accumulating more and more dogfight experience as time went on and getting to the point at which they had seen pretty much everything the students might throw at them. For each new class the first few days of dogfights, in particular, were usually brutal defeats for the Blue Force.

That was okay, however, because the real action occurred once the pilots landed, in what the navy called “after-action reports.” During these sessions the trainers would grill the students relentlessly: What did you notice when you were up there? What actions did you take? Why did you choose to do that? What were your mistakes? What could you have done differently? When necessary, the trainers could pull out the films of the encounters and the data recorded from the radar units and point out exactly what had happened in a dogfight. And both during and after the grilling the instructors would offer suggestions to the students on what they could do differently, what to look for, and what to be thinking about in different situations. Then the next day the trainers and students would take to the skies and do it all over again.

Over time the students learned to ask themselves the questions, as it was more comfortable than hearing them from the instructors, and each day they would take the previous session’s lessons with them as they flew. Slowly they internalized what they’d been taught so that they didn’t have to think so much before reacting, and slowly they would see improvement in their dogfights against the Red Force. And when the class was over, the Blue Force pilots—now much more experienced in dogfighting than almost any pilot who hadn’t been to Top Gun—returned to their units, where they would become squadron training officers and pass on what they had learned to the other pilots in their squadrons.

The results of this training were dramatic. U.S. forces had stopped their bombing throughout all of 1969, so there were no dogfights that year, but the air war resumed in 1970, including air-to-air combat between fighters. Over the next three years, from 1970 to 1973, U.S. Navy pilots shot down an average of 12.5 North Vietnamese fighter planes for every U.S. Navy plane that was lost. During the same time, air force pilots had approximately the same two-to-one ratio they had had before the bombing halt. Perhaps the clearest way to see the results of the Top Gun training is to look at the “kills per engagement” statistics. Throughout the entire war, U.S. fighters downed an enemy jet an average of once every five encounters. However, in 1972, which was the last full year of fighting, Navy fighter pilots shot down an average of 1.04 jets per encounter. In other words, on average, every time navy pilots came in contact with the enemy they would down an enemy plane.

The question that the navy had faced in 1968 is familiar to people in organizations and professions of almost any type: What is the best way to improve performance among people who are already trained and on the job?

In the navy’s case, the problem was that the pilots’ training hadn’t truly prepared them to face other pilots in other jet fighters who were trying to shoot them down. Experience in other wars had shown that pilots who had won their first dogfight were much more likely to survive their second, and that the more dogfights a pilot fought and survived, the more likely he was to win the next one. Indeed, once a pilot had won twenty dogfights or so, he had almost a 100 percent chance of winning the next one and the one after that. The catch was, of course, that the cost of that sort of on-the-job training was unacceptably high. The navy was losing one plane for every two planes it managed to shoot down, and at one point it became an even trade—losing a plane for every enemy plane that was shot down. And with every plane that went down there was a pilot and, in the case of two-seater jets, a radio-intercept officer who might be killed or captured.

To its credit, the navy was able to devise a successful way to train its pilots without putting them in much danger. (Though not completely out of danger, of course. The training was so intense and close to the edge of the pilots’ flying abilities that planes sometimes did crash and on rare occasions pilots did die, but it was far less likely than if the pilots had had to rely on on-the-job training.) Top Gun provided pilots with the opportunity to try different things and make mistakes without fatal consequences, to get feedback and figure out how to do better, and then to put their lessons to the test the next day. Over and over again.

It is never easy to design an effective training program, whether for fighter pilots or surgeons or business managers. The navy did it mainly through trial and error, as you find when you read histories of the Top Gun program. There was a debate, for instance, over how realistic the combat had to be, with some wanting to dial it back and lessen the risk to the pilots and the planes, and others arguing that it was important to push the pilots as hard as they would be pushed in real combat. Fortunately, the latter viewpoint eventually prevailed. We know now from studies of deliberate practice that the pilots learned best when they were pushed out of their comfort zones.

# Deliberate Practice in Business

His message to clients starts with mindset. The first step toward enhancing performance in an organization is realizing that improvement is possible only if participants abandon business-as-usual practices. Doing so requires recognizing and rejecting three prevailing myths.

The first is our old friend, the belief that one’s abilities are limited by one’s genetically prescribed characteristics. That belief manifests itself in all sorts of “I can’t” or “I’m not” statements: “I’m just not very creative.” “I can’t manage people.” “I’m not any good with numbers.” “I can’t do much better than this.” But, as we’ve seen, the right sort of practice can help pretty much anyone improve in just about any area they choose to focus on. We can shape our own potential.

The second myth holds that if you do something for long enough, you’re bound to get better at it. Again, we know better. Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.

The third myth states that all it takes to improve is effort. If you just try hard enough, you’ll get better. If you want to be a better manager, try harder. If you want to generate more sales, try harder. If you want to improve your teamwork, try harder. The reality is, however, that all of these things—managing, selling, teamwork—are specialized skills, and unless you are using practice techniques specifically designed to improve those particular skills, trying hard will not get you very far.

The approach acknowledges that businesspeople are so busy that they have hardly any time to practice their skills. They are in a totally different situation than, say, a concert pianist or pro athlete who spends relatively little time performing and thus can devote hours to practice each day. So Art set out to come up with ways that normal business activities could be turned into opportunities for purposeful or deliberate practice.

Its regional sales managers regularly visit the company’s primary accounts—the grocery store chains and other businesses that sell lots of ice cream products—and several times a year each regional sales manager will meet with the company’s senior sales managers to talk about strategy for an upcoming sales call. Traditionally these account reviews were just sales updates, but the company found a way to add a practice component. For the most challenging aspect of the upcoming sales call, the meeting is carried out as role-play, with the regional sales manager making his presentation to a colleague who pretends to be the account’s primary buyer. After the presentation, the regional sales manager gets feedback from the other managers in the room, telling him what he did well and what he needs to change or improve. The next day the manager makes his presentation once more, again with feedback. Both practice rounds are videotaped so that the managers can view and review their performance. By the time the manager gives the actual presentation to the client, it has been polished and improved beyond what would have otherwise been possible.

For anyone in the business or professional world looking for an effective approach to improvement, my basic advice is to look for one that follows the principles of deliberate practice: Does it push people to get outside their comfort zones and attempt to do things that are not easy for them? Does it offer immediate feedback on the performance and on what can be done to improve it? Have those who developed the approach identified the best performers in that particular area and determined what sets them apart from everyone else? Is the practice designed to develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess? A yes answer to all those questions may not guarantee that an approach will be effective, but it will certainly make that much more likely.

# Skills more than Knowledge

This distinction between knowledge and skills lies at the heart of the difference between traditional paths toward expertise and the deliberate-practice approach. Traditionally, the focus is nearly always on knowledge. Even when the ultimate outcome is being able to do something—solve a particular type of math problem, say, or write a good essay—the traditional approach has been to provide information about the right way to proceed and then mostly rely on the student to apply that knowledge. Deliberate practice, by contrast, focuses solely on performance and how to improve it.

When you look at how people are trained in the professional and business worlds, you find a tendency to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. The main reasons are tradition and convenience: it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice. [drunkard and the lamp-post]

# References

Ericsson, K. Anders, and Robert Pool. 2016. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. 1993. ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.’ Psychological Review 100 (3): 363.