Anders Ericsson carried out extensive research on what it takes to become an expert. Ericsson (1993) says that it takes 10,000 hours (20 hours for 50 weeks a year for ten years = 10,000) of deliberate practice to become an expert in almost anything. ‘10,000 hours, brilliant I’ll become a pro golfer in 10 years’! If only it was that simple.  Most of the coaches or managers (sport and organisational) I hear referring to this research forget to mention the main principle, it has to be deliberate practice.

Practice is practice right? Wrong, this is probably the misconception that leads coaches and managers to leave out the main principle of Ericsson’s research. Consider this simple example of the difference between the activities of two players practicing penalties in football. Player A takes 250 penalties in his/her hour, Player B takes 60. Player B is on his/her own retrieving the ball after every attempt, not taking note of any of his/her penalties. Player A has a teammate who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The team mate takes notes on the accuracy, power and how Player B strikes the ball. After every 10 penalties Player B receives feedback from his/her team mate. They both have had an hour or practice at penalties but to catergorise that hour as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming they are of similar skill at the start and this is typical of their practice routine, which would you predict would be the better penalty taker after only 100 hours of practice?

Working in a football academy I see players who aren’t switched on to what the coach is saying, who’s minds wonder and take nothing from the session. Coaches can produce an amazing session with lots of feedback for players, but if the players don’t concentrate it becomes less deliberate and more just practice. It is my job to educate the coach, through working with them, to help improve concentration so the players are more deliberate in practice.  Here are a few things coaches and players can do to help make practice more deliberate:

Repetition:

The key to deliberate practice is repetition (Abrahams, 2012). Players become world class because they practice over and over again

Stretching:

I don’t mean stretching your muscles here, stretch your ability, and challenge yourself. World class players don’t stand still, they continually stretch themselves to improve. Do this both mentally and physically. A simple distraction training exercise can make concentrating harder, such as small crowds jumping up and down waving shouting in training.

Concentrate:

Concentrate on what? Goal setting here is a great technique for players to use, particularly specific process goals (Moran,2010). Process goals should involve specific behavioural actions that need to be undertaken to achieve a specific goal such as deliberately swinging slowly in golf. Goal setting is a great technique that everyone should use, I will go more in to the benefits in another article. Other ideas that Moran (2010) states will help concentration are pre-performance routines, trigger words and imagery.

Feedback:

As shown in the example earlier feedback is essential to deliberate practice but it needs to be specific feedback. Coaches should be specific; here is an example of good and bad feedback.

‘You need to catch more crosses’ is bad feedback, ‘you need to time your jumps better to enable you to catch more crosses’ is good feedback. Feedback from a mentor is essential however deliberate practice also involves feedback from others (verbally and visually) and feedback from yourself (self-analysing), which can involve watching yourself play or kinesthetically.

Train don’t watch

We all watch our own sports, but do we all take the time to model the players we watch who are professionals at what we do. We learn from watching others, so watching people better than you is helpful. If you can also imagine executing the skills of the person you are watching it helps to improve confidence and motivation. Then take it to the next step and literally get up and follow their movements, mirror them. Ask yourself what are they thinking, feeling, seeing? The process of learning from others like this a genuine part of the 10,000 hours deliberate practice (Abrahams 2012)

Feedback and concentration for me are the two points that stand out to make practice deliberate. Peter Shilton (1992; retired English goalkeeper) summed up his deliberate practice in a couple of sentences:

When I was 11, I would come home and do drawings of practice and training routines. I would also draw diagrams to work out the sort of angles I should be taking to stop shots and cut crosses. Then I’d take my studies down to the park and get my friends to help me put them in to practice. Instead of just kicking the ball around and shooting, I would work on certain disciplines to attempt to improve my skills. You should not think that because you are still young you cannot work constructively on your game.     (p17)

Peter here tells us how he would review his training, use his personal feedback effectively to set goals. He then used performance goals (stopping shots and cutting crosses) to concentrate on specific behaviours (process goals). These couple of lines from Peter Shilton goes some way to showing what deliberate practice means. So the next time you go to practice or are coaching someone, think how can I make this deliberate practice?