Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Deliberate Practice and Project Coach

Don Siegel

When growing-up I spent hours and hours in parks and playgrounds trying to hone my basketball skills. During those hours and years, my peers and I came to believe that some kids had more talent for basketball than did others. Better players seemed to be able to practice less, yet still excel, earning a spot on the coveted high school basketball team for which 100s tried out. I’m not sure whether I had talent for basketball or not, but I certainly practiced as much as I could to develop the skills I needed to make the team. But, in retrospect, I now wonder why I was not better; given the time I spent practicing? Did I only have a limited amount of talent for the game, or was I not practicing the right things in the right way? Now, a new book entitled PEAK: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool[1] provides answers to my questions.

Over decades of study, Ericsson has found that better performers in a domain typically are made, rather than born. His research that attempts to explain how expertise across an array of domains is acquired shows that experts typically practice a great deal more than others who are less proficient. Yet, his critical observation is that it is not just the absolute number of practice hours in which they engage that matters, but the way those hours are structured. He used the term deliberate practice, to differentiate it from traditional practice to distinguish what was special about what they did during practice. In contrast to how I honed my basketball skills, which entailed simply repeating over and over again what I did well, deliberate practice requires learners to acquire skills that more advanced performers are able to execute well, and typically are on the outer boundary of what they are able to do. In essence, they are constantly pushing their envelop by acquiring more advanced capabilities, rather than simply repeating over and over again what they already are able to do well. In PEAK, Ericsson and Pool point out that the reason why so many recreational players across sports appear to hit performance plateaus, even after years and years or participation, is because they rarely venture beyond their comfort zones, as they simply do the same things over and over again. They state:

The sorts of activities that most people consider "practice" are generally not very helpful in improving one's performance. A golfer gets in at least eighteen holes every week and tries to hit a bucket of balls at the driving range beforehand. A pianist plays the same exercises over and over until they are completely automatic. A teacher has been teaching the same material in the same way for twenty years, thinking that practice must eventually make perfect. None of these people are likely to see much improvement despite all that "practice."

So what is deliberate practice? For practice to be maximally effective, Ericsson and Pool assert that it should have the following qualities:

1.     It is a specialized--and particularly effective--form of purposeful practice where an experienced coach designs the training exercises and monitors a player’s progress, modifying the training as necessary to keep the player progressing steadily. A critical point is that the coach is able to assess the strengths/weaknesses of her player, understand the knowledge and skills that she needs to acquire to move to the next level, and be able to design and run practice sessions in which players practice these things.

2.     Such sessions require a great deal of effort on the player’s part, as they typically focus on attempting to execute skills on the edge of their comfort zone. If the skills practiced seem easy or executed automatically, probably not much new learning is occurring.

3.     Effective practice requires precise feedback—a player needs to know what he is doing wrong so that he can figure out ways to make corrections. The resulting progress comes as a series of baby steps, none very impressive on its own, but they can add up to performing quite complex skills in a very expeditious manner.

4.     The focus should be on the acquisition of skills, with knowledge of the domain being a by-product of learning, rather than it’s main focus. That is to say, no one ever learned to become a great basketball player, a great violinist, a great surgeon, or a great coach by reading how to do these things from a book, or by being lectured to about them.

5.     With regard to knowledge, Ericsson’s focus is on the creation of mental representations that develop during practice. These are multifaceted representations of the skills to be executed, as well as the real world situations in which they should be deployed. Essentially, what is asserted here is that advanced skills must have internal mental representations, which help both in their execution, and in the assessment process, which compares what was done to what was attempted. By having such a representation, internal feedback is meaningful, which entails comparing what was attempted with what actually happened. Mental representations develop over time, and make it possible to execute a skill with greater and greater precision.

6.     As one can surmise, a critical factor in deliberate practice is having the motivation to continue doing activities that are challenging, and often frustrating because of a lack of success (at least at the beginning). Ericsson asserts: When a student is first learning a skill, it is critical to limit their practice time to 15-20 minutes per day so they are able to concentrate fully and make observable improvements. Ericsson has found that experts practice multiple times each day for shorter sessions. This allows them to allocate full concentration and effort to improving on those things that they do not do very well.

A book such as PEAK is critical for a program such as Project Coach, as one of our core goals is to develop coaches who can help their players improve their skills at a variety of sports. Of course, this is not our only objective. We also want kids to have fun engaging in a variety of physical activities, while learning to be good teammates and sports persons. Yet, the deliberate practice approach also is a means to teaching youth what it takes to become good at something, whether it be sports, as a student in school, or as a community leader.  

Whatever the domain, the formula of deliberate practice entails identifying what one does well, and what one needs to do better, and then to design activities that help one to overcome weaknesses. This takes time, and the crafting of practices in a deliberate manner, that are guided by a coach or teacher who can inspire an individual to keep working at difficult tasks. Feedback is critical to motivating individuals and helping them to understand where they are at, where they need to go, and how to get there. While these ideas many not be very complex, being able to operationalize them is.  Developing coaches who can help their players to improve, while making practices fun and rewarding also entails deliberate practice. For a quick and snappy video about deliberate practice click here.