Today I want to talk about becoming an expert. I mean, how hard can it be? Towards this goal, I want to quote something from Dan John’s book Never Let Go from a story he told about a wrestling coach named Dan Gable. Basically Gable’s philosophy was this:
If it’s important, do it every day; if it’s not important, don’t do it at all. – Dan Gable
And while he was discussing this quote in a slightly different context (how he programs training for different movement patterns), it gave me the idea for today’s article which is about learning skills and becoming “expert” at something. Of course, I’ll be focusing on training applications in this article but, as it turns out, the ideas are general enough to apply to a lot of different areas.
What Defines an Expert?
It may surprise some readers to realize that there is actually quite a bit of research into the topic of developing expertise. And I’m not talking solely in terms of motor learning (e.g. how we learn new skills) but rather what separates expert performers from less-expert performers.
I’d note that researchers have actually had trouble defining or identifying true expert performance and this has been a difficulty in performing research. I’m not going to get into this in any detail because I think it’s a bit boring and isn’t really relevant to what I want to talk about. You can check out the book I mention below if you’re particularly interested.
This research actually dates back to the early 20th century when scientists became interested in things like typing ability and the sending of Morse code; as well, chess has been a perennial area of study. Early ideas of expertise held that there must be some type of genetic advantage (e.g. better reaction time or finger movement speed for typing) held by expert performers. For the most part, this idea was not supported by direct research.
If nothing else, the simple fact is that expertise tends to almost always be domain specific. That is, being an expert at one task has almost no bearing on the ability to be expert in another task, even if those tasks are somewhat related. That alone suggests that expertise has less to do with inherent biology and more to do with practicing the specific skill.
Essentially, rather than being due to some biologically relevant advantage among expert performers, the development of expertise came down primarily to practice, practice and more practice (please note my use of the word primarily in this sentence).
More accurately, it came down to the right kind of practice.
For example, studies found that faster touch-typists were faster not because they had inherently faster fingers or reaction times. Rather, over years of practice they got better at looking ahead and moving their fingers to a proper place sooner in anticipation of the next letter. When those expert typists have their view blocked (so that they can’t look as far ahead), their speed drops to that of the slower typists. That skill, the ability to look ahead while typing is one that is simply learned over years of practice.
Chess has been studied extensively in this regards and makes a particularly interesting example for a variety of reasons that I’m not going to go into. But whereas early ideas held that chess experts were more expert by dint of some inherent mental processing capacity, research has failed to bear this out (clearly you have to have the basic intelligence to understand the game).
Rather, over years of study and practice, chess experts developed a couple of inter-related and relevant skills that improved their chess performance. One of these is something that researchers call chunking information. On average, the human brain has the ability to store roughly 7 pieces of information in short-term memory which seems to put a limit on what we can remember.
Which brings us to a bit of useless trivia: the inventor of the game Tetris actually developed the game based around this human limit on recalling bits of information. That is, there’s a reason that there are 7 distinctly shaped pieces in the game, that’s the limit of what the human brain can remember (on average). Sadly, this bit of trivia has never changed the fact that I suck at Tetris. But I digress.
In any case, research shows that, with practice, people can remember more than those 7 items by chunking information. For example, individuals can learn to remember massively long lists of numbers over time and they do it by chunking the information. So rather than trying to remember hundreds of individual numbers, people learn to relate sequences of numbers together to chunk them.
So they might relate the sequence 357 t the gun or 420 to getting stoned. In one study, a runner started chunking 4 digit sequences to his running times. This helps because if you can chunk 3 bits of information into a single chunk, that gives you the ability to remember 21 items of information (7 chunks * 3 bits/chunk = 21 bits).
And this is part of what happens with chess players. While a non-expert may only remember the position of 7 pieces on a board, the expert, by chunking multiple pieces into patterns can remember far more. And much of this occurs by constant study of chess positions and the games of others (as well as playing their own games). By exposing themselves to common positions and patterns of pieces on the board, expert chess players improve their ability to recall patterns of chess pieces.
So rather than remembering only a handful of pieces, expert chess players can remember the positions of far more pieces. This can be demonstrated by the fact that, while expert chess players show superior recall of standard chess positions (e.g. positions that would occur in a normal game), they are no better than non-experts at recalling random positions (e.g. those that wouldn’t occur in a game setting).
Essentially, over years of practice and study and game-playing (including the study of games of master chess players), expert chess players increase their repertoire of different chess positions, coupled with an improved ability to chunk several pieces into a pattern and they are better able to recognize patterns on the board and how to best play them (based on optimum play of previous players). But it’s not due to any inherently better ability for memory or some deep-seated intellectual ability to play better chess. It’s simply learned over years of practice.
This same basic pattern holds across a variety of domains including sports (for a semi-readable but technically heavy introduction to the topic, I’d suggest the book Expert Performance in Sports: Advances in Research on Sport Expertise).
Getting a bit ahead of myself, this is likely why coaches of team sports tend to expose their players to a lot of different situations over years of practice; much of “becoming good” at certain sports is being able to recognize a certain pattern of play (e.g. a quarterback recognizes a blitz or what have you) based on something they have seen or been exposed to before. Tennis players learn to anticipate the other players next shot based on their exposure to specific game situations, the same holds for volleyball.
However, none of the above really says anything about how expertise is developed, it simply supports the idea that a majority of the development of expertise comes down to practice and improvements in the skill set involved in that activity moreso than some inherent genetic ability (of course there may be underlying genetic factors that limit or determine the ability and/or desire to practice or the ultimate level achieved).
But as I mentioned above, simply ‘practicing’ doesn’t appear to be sufficient or anybody who had spent 10 years doing something would be an expert at it. Clearly that’s not the case.
Rather, the right kind of practice would seem to be required. So what’s the right kind of practice?
Anders Ericsson and The Theory of Deliberate Practice
In 1993, a researcher named K. Anders Ericsson published an epic paper called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (you can click the link to download the original full paper) were he developed a general theoretical framework for the development of expertise by examining the development of expertise across a variety of different domains to see what commonalities arose.
I’ll look at some details of his model below. For now, I want to discuss some other constraints that are relevant to the development of expertise that will clearly limit what can and cannot be achieved.
One of these is a simple resources constraint, you have to have the ability to actually engage in practice of the skill you want to develop.
That is, if you want to become an Olympic lifter, but have no access to a bar, bumpers to someone to teach the movement, you are likely to have a problem with becoming an expert. If you want to be a figure skater and have no access to a rink or can’t afford coaching, you may have issues with becoming a great skater.
There is also a time constraint with Ericsson assuming that improvement was related in a monotonic fashion to the amount of practice time put in. This idea had actually been stated before in terms of the 10-year rule. That is, on average, from beginning an activity to the development of expertise, it takes roughly 10 years of proper practice or so (in some domains, it may take longer than that). Others put this in terms of hours with approximately 10,000 hours of practice being required to develop expertise.
In that vein, one commonality among expert performers (compared to non-expert performers) is that they engage in deliberate practice for longer periods than non-expert performers. And over years, this adds up enormously. That is, consider someone engaging in 3 hours of practice per day vs. 1 hour of practice per day and this is done 4 days per week (208 day/year) and how that adds up over years of practice.
It’s a pretty stark contrast and you see that the person practicing 3 hours/day accumulates the same number of hours in their first year as the person practicing 1 hour/day does in 3 years. And the fact is that in many domains, people are practicing far more than that.
Even if they aren’t practicing that much more per day they may be practicing more days per week. Someone practicing 3 hours/day 6 days/week will accumulate vastly more hours of practice than someone only practicing 1 hours/day 3 days/week. At the one year mark alone, the difference is 936 vs. 208 hours of practice. By year 5 this has jumped to 5000 vs. 1000 hours.
Assuming it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise (and this is highly up to debate), it’s fairly clear that (within some limits), the person who puts in more hours will get there faster. In fact, the person doing less may never get there in any realistic time frame (i.e. at 200 hours/year, it would take 50 years to accumulate 10,000 hours).
I am simplifying things a little bit, clearly in many domains (and sport is one of them), there is a limit to how much practice can be done per day (within the limits of mental and physical fatigue). But, within that limitation, clearly the person who puts in more hours of practice will achieve mastery more quickly at least to a first approximation. And absolutely when you examine the habits of expert performers, they put in more hours of practice than lesser performers.
But this raises an important question. Clearly just going through the motions for 10 years (or 10,000 hours) isn’t sufficient. You can prove this to yourself by walking into any commercial gym in the world. Look around and you can find folks who have spent 10 years lifting weights who still suck at it. And I don’t mean in terms of weight on the bar but guys who, despite having “lifted for 10 years” still can’t bench or squat with anything approximating proper form.
Here’s the question:
Why didn’t they become experts by putting in their 10 years?
Because just practice per se doesn’t appear to sufficient. Rather, the right kind of practice has to be done to improve performance and develop expertise or skill. That is what Ericsson refers to as “deliberate practice” and I want to look in some detail at the various aspects that comprise it.
Defining Deliberate Practice
As I mentioned on Tuesday and again above, clearly just practice in general doesn’t get it done and that’s really the more interesting aspect of Ericsson’s model, the idea that the practice must meet certain criteria to have any value towards the development of expert performance. That’s where the idea of deliberate practice comes into play.
While there is more to the complete model, the primary tenets of deliberate practice according to Ericsson are that deliberate practice:
- Is not inherently enjoyable.
- Is not play or paid practice.
- Is relevant to the skill being developed.
- Is not simply watching the skill being performed.
- Requires effort and attention from the learner.
- Often involves activities selected by a coach or teacher to facilitate learning.
I’d note that critics of this model can point to exceptions to nearly each of the above tenets but, on average they do tend to hold when looking at what types of activities expert performers engaged in. Rather than fixate on those exceptions, I want to look at each briefly and then I’ll tie it into some training applications.
1: Deliberate Practice is Not Inherently Enjoyable
Of all of the factors inherent to deliberate practice, this may be the most contentious and least supported by the data. But some of this is clearly semantics.
Individuals who want to develop expertise at something will generally allow that deliberate practice is tedious, boring and not so much fun. A pianist practicing scales or drills or an athlete performing drills to improve some component of their technique will not generally describe such as activities as “fun”.
However, they often derive enjoyment from the benefits that occur from the practice. That is, doing drills and such is not usually enjoyable per se. It’s the benefits to performance that provide the enjoyment (and necessary positive feedback to keep doing it). So saying that deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable comes down to how you look at it. If you reframe deliberate practice as a necessary task that takes you closer to your goals, it may very well become “fun” in a sense. Or at least less tedious.
There are other exceptions as well, athletes in team sports have apparently reported that certain types of practice are inherently enjoyable. I imagine you would find that skateboarders are having fun as they are doing the work to learn a new trick. Watch the video and you can see that Johnny Giger, a professional skateboarder, is having fun.
As I said above, this is one of the most contentious of all of Ericsson’s original tenets.
2: Deliberate Practice is Not Play or Paid Performance
There are actually a couple of aspects to this tenet. One is that, generally speaking, deliberate practice is not the same as “playing the sport”. This tends to be especially true in team sports where a given situation might only come up once or twice in the context of a specific game. The odds of athletes improving their ability to handle that situation are unlikely with so few exposures to it are low.
In deliberate practice situations, coaches can set up common patterns (e.g. a blitz in football) and run it over and over within a single practice to give the players a chance to learn how to deal with it. Tennis and volleyball coaches will set up common situations so that the athletes can practice offense or defense repeatedly. Thus, when it comes up in a match, it’s already engrained.
You could conceptualize a similar situation in becoming an expert at chess. A given board configuration might only come up ever so rarely, attempting to learn how best to deal with it by playing chess would be inefficient compared to being able to examine it over and over again in a practice situation.
A pool player might set up common ball positions to practice specific shots over and over again. Done in match play they might only come up against them very infrequently. During deliberate practice, they can drill it so that it’s not a surprise when it does come up.
At the same time being able to perform in competition is a critical aspect of expert performance and clearly that is a component of developing expertise. It simply tends not to be the major form of expert development.
Similarly, one aspect of deliberate practice is that there tends to be/needs to be a strong internal drive to engage in the practice in the first place. If you have to pay someone to do it, then they are doing it for the money more often than not. If the money goes away, so does the drive.
That said, there are exceptions, especially to the first aspect of the tenet, the issue of playing yourself to expertise. I described one above when I talked about Brazilian soccer players. A group that often develops some amazing athletes without much if any formal input from coaches or family.
Rather, formal coaching is only started after the athletes make a team. Development proceeds (seemingly successfully) without it. One might also look to inner city black dominance in basketball as another (potentially) similar model. The game is taken up early in life for “fun” and there are rarely formal coaches (if they exist at all) until much later.
3: Is Relevant to the Skill Being Practiced
This tenet should be fairly obvious although it actually has relevance to something I’m going to write about in the future (the argument over specificity vs. variety). If you want to become a great pianist, you don’t generally spend time practicing the flute. If you want to become a great football player, you don’t spend time swimming.
For a type of deliberate practice to be beneficial, it needs to be relevant to the skill set of the domain that the person is trying to develop. Which isn’t to say that someone needs to only practice the activity in question to improve. There is a continuum of activities that may be relatively more or less relevant to a given activity or domain although, in general, they should all have some relevance to it.
In many team sports, there is often a fairly mixed background that builds some general physiological characteristics. In contrast, in sports such as swimming or gymnastics, athletes specialize early and literally do almost nothing but the sport itself.
Of course, figuring out what is and isn’t relevant is a big part of the whole game and this is often where a coach or teacher come into play. I’ll come back to this at the end.
4. Deliberate Practice is Not Just Watching the Skill Being Performed
As a generality this is certainly true. You can watch another expert perform a skill over and over again and clearly you’re not going to magically pick up that skill. It may be useful in other ways (e.g. analyzing technique or seeing what’s happening at a certain part of the movement), mind you, but not from the framework of deliberate practice per se. It may be a tool in the toolbox but it won’t make you an expert.
Of course, there is clear evidence that visualization is of benefit but at this point you’ve moved from passive observation to active involvement of the individual. Which brings me to #4.
5: Deliberate Practice Requires Effort and Attention from the Learner
While this one should be obvious, to a great degree I think it’s perhaps the most important of all of the various tenets. In Part 1 of this article and above I mentioned that it’s easy to find folks who have spent 10 years doing something without much to show for it (from a technical or skill standpoint). We clearly wouldn’t call them experts.
Much of the difference could probably be put down to focus (in addition to everything else I’ve talked about).
As I mentioned my guide to warming up for the weight room
An additional aspect of warming up is to practice and reinforce good technique and “groove” movement patterns. This tends to be relatively more important for beginners and intermediates but it’s interesting to note that you’ll usually find top level athletes going through basic drills daily as part of their warm up.
It’s also important to note that those same athletes put just as much focus into doing their warm up drills properly as they do during the workout itself. This is a key aspect that I find is often missed, too many people simply ‘go through the motions’ when they warm up rather than using it as an excellent time to accumulate more perfectly done reps (which is a key aspect of motor learning).
And that’s a huge part of Tenet 4. Most people, performing any given activity, only put a minor amount of effort or attention into the task. Usually, they pay some attention when they are first learning the skill, but tend to stop once they have achieved what they consider sufficient proficiency. At this point they simply go on autopilot.
So consider someone learning to ski for example. They might pay a lot of attention (especially given the cost of lessons) to getting better initially until they reach a point where they can get around the mountain well enough (in their own mind).
At that point they no longer focus on improving or pay attention to what they are doing: performance improvements taper off rapidly. The same holds for any activity you care to name: people pay attention to improvement until they reach basic competency and then stop paying attention to improvement; and they stop improving.
Contrast that to the typical elite athlete who has spent years with a literally constant and laser like focus on every aspect of their technique and they do this for years. Every time one aspect becomes easier or automated, they start working on the next level of proficiency.
In some activities, this might mean being able to perform the activity under more adverse situations. Or they might change their conception of it so that they are forced to continue to focus on what’s happening so that they keep improving. It’s this type of active focus that is involved in the overall learning and automation process along with mastery.
Or, as was put much more simply by Powerlifting Coach, Guru and Innovator Louie Simmons “Even after 20 years, we are still always working on technique.” That sums up most experts in most fields, they are always working towards the next level of improvement, always keeping themselves focused on the next skill or ability. That’s what keeps them improving. I think if there’s as single point to this article series, in terms of improving in terms of training skill, this may be it.
Of course, being able to do that means knowing what next to work on: in some cases, this can be established through self-study or what have you, more often than not, it requires the input from a coach or teacher which is Tenet #6.
6: Deliberate Practice Often Involves Activities Selected by a Coach or Teacher
While a great deal of deliberate practice (especially among musicians) is done alone, the simple fact is that in many situations, development of expertise is guided by a teacher, mentor or coach. There are a number of reasons for this not the least of which is that a good coach can typically guide the development in terms of setting deliberate practice tasks that meet the criteria I mentioned above: being relevant to performance improvement, that aren’t play, and that require attention.
The last one is important, at least one aspect of learning is that the task that is being learned has to be both achievable (on at least some level) by the performer as well as being enough of a challenge to require attention and focus (and be relevant and improve performance). Good teachers and coaches have developed progression paradigms that tend to meet both of those requirements.
So while a rank beginner might be given the simplest of drills (think of scales for a pianist or basic positions for an Olympic lifter) as those are mastered and autonomized, gradually increasing demands are made so that the individual not only keeps progressing but has to continue to focus on what they are doing, that being a key to the deliberate practice framework.
I’d note and I’ll come back to this in a bit that there is a HUGE assumption built into this model.
On a personal note, my speed skating coach did this to me for 5.5 years straight. Every time I thought I had some aspect of skating mastered, he’d give me something a little bit harder to suck at for a little bit, moving me closer to his optimal model of skating technique. As soon as I got comfortable with that new addition, he’d give me something else to suck at. It wasn’t fun but always kept me on the high edge of the progress curve, automating what I had already gotten right while having to focus on the new bit.
Of course, this can backfire is the coach gives the individual something that is so far beyond their current capabilities that they become overwhelmed (or frustrated) and give up. Proper coaching/teaching requires knowing when the individual is ready (or willing) to work on the next level of improvement. You always have to give them a task that is challenging but can still ultimately be accomplished.
But again, there is a built in assumption to this and brings me to the near wrap-up for this piece.
Can Everyone Become an Expert?
Reading through this, I may have made it sound that becoming an expert is as simple as performing the right kind of practice for sufficient periods of time. And there may be an element of truth to that.
Ericsson is often accused of making this claim (and denying the role of innate abilities or genetics) but a closer reading of his actual writing show this not to be the case. I don’t have the space to cover that completely and you can buy the book I referenced on the topic if you really care.
However, he does roughly claim that, in the apparent absence of any massive inherent differences in innate ability, the primary determinant of whether one becomes expert or not is the engagement of deliberate practice. That is, in comparison of expert to non-expert performers, the primary determinant of success among expert performers is the engagement of enormous amounts of deliberate practice. Perhaps.
But does this either:
- Deny the role of innate talent
- Imply that everyone can become an expert given sufficient time and practice
I think some of this comes down to semantics and how one defines expertise. Even the scientists are having issues figuring that out to do the studies and define expert vs. non-expert performance. Clearly expertise can’t be equated with being the best at something since only one person in any field can be the best. So what defines expertise?
For example, consider the top 20 athletes in any sport, all of whom would be expected to have put in at least the requisite 10 years/10,000 hours of practice. They are all likely to have the genetics required for success as well.
We would tend to say that they are all experts, but clearly only one can be the best. But again, Ericsson isn’t saying that deliberate practice can make on the best at something, only that it can make them an expert compared to non-experts.
But this still doesn’t exactly define what an expert is. Does it mean reaching some percentage of the highest levels? Chess was always an interesting domain because there are scored rankings for different levels of player from beginner up to grandmaster. That makes objective comparison possible. Many sports could certainly be examined from the same direction.
In contrast, I’m not sure how you’d define an expert in the piano or the violin. Does it mean playing for the symphony or simply achieving some level of skill? If the latter, how would you define that skill level objectively. I mean, for violin, I guess it would be the ability to play The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
But for other more subjective domains?
Causation vs. Correlation
Another issue is one of causation. Since it’s fundamentally impossible to do a study tracking a couple hundred kids subjected to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and see if they all become expert, most of the data is retrospective. That is, expert performers are given questionnaires to determine what they did during their development.
And while the commonality is the engagement in massive amounts of deliberate practice, this only proves that expert performers have all engaged in the same level of practice. It doesn’t prove that anyone who engages in that amount of deliberate performance can become an expert.
That said, intervention studies show that people can vastly improve performance in certain skills (e.g. digit memory) with properly performed practice so there is at least some support for the idea that practice drives improvement. Does this make them an expert per se? Again we’re down to semantics and what defines and expert.
Because outside of some studies showing total non-responders, most everybody can improve at a task if they practice. That doesn’t mean they can become an expert.
Other Components of Becoming an Expert
But it’s worth noting that, outside of the issue above, there may be other, lesser recognized innate differences that are impacting on this. A question we might ask is who is able (or wants) to engage in the 10 years of deliberate practice necessary to become an expert. It doesn’t seem far fetched that individuals would differ in their innate desire (on some behavioral, genetic of biological level) to engage in that type of practice.
Clearly, a constraint on the development of expertise is a motivational one; does someone have the inherent temperament to engage in the duration and type of practice (in the absence of any seeming rewards) to become an expert. That’s in addition to any resource constraints that might exist. In the literature, a concept called “rage to master” is often spoken in terms of children who show a near obsession with mastering a skill.
Invariably when you read the biographies of successful athletes they describe something like this. How when they found their passion, it’s all they would do. Tony Hawk described doing hundreds of attempts at a rock and roll, one of his first tricks. Jeanette Lee, The Black Widow, told a story of first playing pool and having to be dragged out of the pool hall after 8 hours.
That’s the rage to master and you have to wonder if some people aren’t simply wired to be like that while others are not.
That type of personality aspect is likely to occur in all individuals who want to become great at something. And there is likely to be a huge innate component. It’s usually safe to say that people who are successful in almost any field are a bit, shall we say, obsessive and driven. While there may be other factors, at least one reason they succeed is that they put in the time to get better when others have stopped.
When you read as many sports biographies as I do, you see this all the time. Invariably the individual has an early experience that make them dedicate every waking moment to their activity of choice. It happens almost without fail. Without that, the likelihood of becoming an expert seems near zero.
What About Talent?
Beyond that, what about the issue of innate talent, which is often downplayed in the literature? Certainly, despite popular claims to the contrary, few if any beginners show any true talent at a given skill, nobody is magically good at something the first time they try (generally speaking). A lot of that depends on the skill in question, of course but for complex skills, nobody is great at it out of the gate. At best you see relative differences in the level of suck.
Even supposed child prodigies don’t usually start really producing their best work until they’ve put in a solid decade of practice (i.e. Mozart started when he was 5 and didn’t his his stride until 15 a full decade later).
There is some speculation that autistic idiot savantism is actually just years of obsessional grinding on whatever they happen to get obsessed with although other in the field disagree with this claiming that savant artists show skill at an early level that other children lack.
But consider for example a situation where you have 20 kids exposed to a given activity (say hockey). Of those 20, perhaps 5 suck at it, 10 are average and 5 seem to show some innate ability (i.e. they are a little better than the other kids). In all likelihood, the bottom 5 will drop out as a lack of success will keep them from pursing it. Some of the middle 10 might stick with it and succeed but as many will not. However, those in the top 5 are likely to get a lot of positive feedback and support and continue pursuing the activity. They are the ones who succeed and become “experts”.
Basically, there is the potential for some (admittedly slight) innate talent to become part of a feedforwards loop where initial early talent becomes the driver to pursue deliberate practice, which improves performance, which drives them to keep pursuing it. Again, I think you get the idea.
Consider Physical Constraints
As well, there may be physical constraints involved in the ability to perform some skills necessary for expertise (one of the assumptions I alluded to in Tenet 6 above). It’s all good and well to say that with the proper teaching/coaching progression you can take someone from beginner to expert but even that assumes that certain physical characteristics are present.
In pursuits such as chess or medicine, there may be a minimum requirement for basic brain power, intelligence of simply memory and while I’m not going to get into the debate over the biology of that, just keep it in mind. In any activity there are likely to be some basic requirements to even have a chance.
And while many of these can be modulated, not all can. In some cases, it’s an issue of when the person starts. Ballet dancers won’t don’t start young enough may never be able to physically achieve certain positions required for top performance.
There may be other physical or genetic limitations that limit what a person can actually accomplish. If a gymnastic wannabe can’t achieve full side splits because of structural limitations of their hips, that will be a limitation that simply cannot be overcome no matter how much deliberate practice they perform.
That said, there are also examples where folks overcome a physical limitation by altering technique or what have you to work around it. Athletes who were lacking in a given skill or capacity can sometimes make up for it by working towards a different strength to compensate for what they will never achieve.
As an example of both, my mother a concert pianist (and teacher) started late and while she certainly achieved expert status with years of grinding practice, physically cannot perform some musical things on the piano (relating to how many keys she can reach from thumb to pinky). I
n talking to her about this topic, she mentioned that she gets around this on certain pieces by utilizing a slightly different technique (called redistributing). Rather than getting both keys with the same hand, she simply uses her other hand. She has found away around a physical limitation that allows her to perform at the highest level.
None of which really answers the question I started this section with. There’s clearly no doubt that, given the right settings and types of practice that almost anyone can improve in almost any domain. Does this mean that they can become an expert given sufficient time and devotion? That is perhaps the more interesting question but the harder one to answer so I’ll leave it there.
What is My Actual Point?
I started this article series by quoting Dan John on the topic of training
If it’s important, do it every day; if it’s not important, don’t do it at all. – Dan Gable
I managed to go off on a major tangent (even for me) by looking at the issue of deliberate practice and how it relates to the development of expertise. But I want to tie it back in to that quote and training.
While cause and effect may be reversed, there is little doubt that a primary commonality among experts across many different domains is the engagement of a lot of practice. But not any old practice will do, rather a certain type of practice defined by Anders Ericsson as deliberate practice seems to be the commonality among expert performers (with some interesting exceptions).
What are the implications of this for training? Now, I’m assuming here that anybody reading this has some desire to get good at whatever they are doing. Perhaps they want a perfect bench, or squat clean, or something else. I doubt you’re reading this if your only goal is to be “ok at something”. Not that there is anything wrong if that is your only goal. Many people are content with simply achieving competence in a given domain and there is zero wrong with that.
But let’s assume that’s not the case. That whatever activity you want to perform is one you want to master. How do you go about it?
I think Dan John’s quote of Dan Gable’s statement sums much of this and there are really two parts to it.
If improving something is important to your training, performing it more (within limits) not less is probably the way to go. Consider two trainees, both of whom want to become great bench pressers. Who is going to improve (technically at least), the guy who benches once per week for 20 reps or the guy who performs 20 reps 4X/week for 80 total reps? Each month the first guy does 80 reps and the second 320 reps. Over a year that’s 960 vs. 3600 reps. Even assuming they both use good technique, who’s would you expect to be more stable after that?
This is where warmups (how Dan John implements this idea) can be used to great benefit. Consider someone who wants to get better at the Olympic lifts. If they were to start every workout with a warmup consisting of some basic barbell complexes including power or squat cleans such that they got 15-20 good reps at the start of every workout (on top of whatever they did in training), imagine how many reps they might achieve over the course of a year compared to someone training the movement once or twice per week without the warmups. Or without focused deliberate practice warm-ups. If doesn’t go up exponentially, but it adds up over time.
The same holds for warm up sets prior to work sets. This is as good a time as any to practice good technique, get feedback (if you have a training partner) and really focus on what is happening technically or muscularly. It may only be a handful of reps per workout but again, this adds up over time.
And since you have to do them anyhow, you might as well make them of benefit to long-term improvement. Don’t just move the bar for 10 quick reps on bench press, focus on where your elbows are, where the bar is hitting, your bar path. If there are issues, correct them. Over time, that type of deliberate practice leads to improvements.
I’d note that this is also the rationale behind systems of training such as Pavel’s Grease the Groove. There is a huge neural aspect to performance of most skills and performing them frequently (even if submaximally) goes a long way towards improving those neural abilities. Even if 10 reps per day doesn’t seem like much, over the course of 6-12 months (or more) it adds up significantly. So 10 reps per day 6 days/week is 60 reps/week or 240 reps per month and suddenly you’ve done 2800 reps in a year compared to the guy who did 20 reps once/week for a total of 1040.
To reiterate all of that depends on the person actually performing those activities deliberately, not just going through the motions. If you want to improve at something or, perhaps, become, an expert, that’s what you will probably have to do.