by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.
Dr. K. Anders Ericsson has been the leading researcher on practice and mastery of skills in all domains of performance. Many people have heard his theory that it takes 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at anything. It’s clear that time is a critical factor in skill development; however, time is only one aspect of the theory. What defines practice as “deliberate” is possibly even more important than the time aspect, since the 10 year / 10,000 hour clock doesn’t really start ticking without it! There seem to be three important factors that dictate the quality of one’s practice time that coaches and athletes should strive to work toward. These factors might seem obvious, but there are not many athletes who train this way 100% of the time to maximize time and energy during practice sessions.
1) Practice a task that is challenging. If the task is too easy to achieve, very little learning occurs because success is nearly automatic and eventually boredom sets in. If the task is too difficult to achieve, very little learning occurs because the individual is struggling so much that frustration typically leads to lack of effort. The designers of video games are masters at creating this first element of quality practice. They understand that if a game is too easy and the levels do not progress beyond one’s current ability, the player will get bored and quit playing the game. They also know that if they start a player at the hardest level right at the beginning without allowing them to slowly build skills and stretch their ability, the player will become extremely frustrated and quit because the challenge is too hard. In order to achieve element #1 of quality practice, practice drills and experiences should be challenging, without becoming overwhelming.
2) Have an objective for every repetition. In golf, many players go out with a bucket of balls to the driving range and “just hit” or bring some balls to the putting green and “roll some putts”. While at the range, each ball should be directed at doing something specific (i.e., trying to hit a high draw at a target or working to feel the sensation in a specific part of your body while learning a new swing technique). While on the putting green setting up a specific drill or task to achieve will improve the quality of practice. While working on technique, training aids can assist the quality of practice, as long as the training aid is used with a specific purpose. This ensures that there is total attention and engagement in the activity. Since the mind runs the body, this is a critical element of learning and trains the body to feel the motion, rather than just making strokes with no real plan or purpose. This message clearly transfers to any sport or skill.
3) Look for feedback from every repetition. Just to keep the golf example rolling – every shot hit at practice tells a story. If this information is ignored because of lack of attention, an emotional reaction, or any other distraction the learning curve is not advancing as quickly as it would from total engagement in the activity. Feedback allows for the recognition of patterns, immediate error correction from poorly executed shots, and positive reinforcement from well executed ones – all critical factors for effective learning and mastery of skills.
If an athlete follows these three principles of quality practice during sessions the individual is doing everything possible to reach their potential. Add 10 years and 10,000 hours to the equation and expert performance is likely to follow!