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Expert Performance: Apologies to Dr. Ericsson, But it is Not 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice

Expert Performance: Apologies to Dr. Ericsson, But it is Not 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice

Dr. Anders Ericsson's research on expertise has finally received some good attention in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers and Geoff Colvin's book, Talent Is Overrated. These books place a new emphasis on behavior and designing in deliberate practice to get to extraordinary performance. Ericsson (1990)¹ 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. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Ericsson's research has brought to the importance of experience in the development of expertise as opposed to some innate intelligence or talent that is often assumed to be beyond ‘training'. In fact, however, it cannot be hours or years of practice that makes the difference.

Practice, yes; hours of practice, no. While there is a high correlation between hours of practice and activity during practice, it is not perfect. While some readers may consider this a trivial point, I think it is an important one. The two words ‘deliberate' and "practice" are in fact essential, but it is the conditions that surround both of these words that provide the real boost for turning average performers into world class performers. The current infatuation with 10,000 hours is no guarantee of world-class expertise.

There are a great many factors involved in skill acquisition. For a simple example, consider the activity of two basketball players practicing free throws for one hour. Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?

When you understand the behavioral concept of shaping, you know that no habits or skills can be developed without many repetitions of the behavior or behaviors that make up that habit or skill. In addition and most critically, the behavior that you want to occur again, must be positively reinforced during the building of habits. Repetition alone, outside of a deliberate plan by which consequences are applied, is not sufficient. It is the conditions that surround that repetitive practice that will begin to answer the question of how long it takes to get to habit strength.

I have heard several people in the behavior-based safety arena say things like, "Do something 30 times and it is yours." They mean that it takes only 30 repetitions to develop a safe behavior as habit. I'm sorry but 30 repetitions do not create a habit. Not even close. Ten times that number is closer, but with some skills, it is much more. Most coaches know that in order to develop athletic skill it is repetitions, or "reps" are important. Few seem to know just how many are required.

Christina (1990)² in a study on improving the skills of a defensive back in football showed an improvement in accuracy of responding to offensive sets from 25 to 95% but their training involved 640 trials! In a study at ADI in training customer service reps, training time was reduced from 44 days to 29 days and on the job training was reduced from 26 weeks to 3 weeks. Trainees were outperforming seasoned employees by week two of the training. The difference was that in the prior training students had about 50 problems to solve. We developed over 800.

To reiterate, it is not the repetitions alone that make the difference. I have known rabid golfers who have practiced for over 30 years, and they are no better today than they were 30 years ago. All that practice did not lead to anything even close to expert status. What is important is the feedback and the reinforcement for improvement associated with the repetitions that make the difference. Under these conditions students become addicted to information that helps them improve.

I have heard many times that a given performer needs more time in a job before he/she will be ready for a promotion. It is not time; it is not experience. Benjamin Franklin said: "Experience is a dear school and fools will learn in no other." It is a special kind of experience that is important. What we know is that it requires lots of repetitions where correct behaviors are specified, where information on results are readily available and where small improvements are positively reinforced.

Business has to get away from time-based performance criteria and begin to focus on rate and accuracy of behavior as the criteria for workplace recognition and reward.Thousands of studies have demonstrated the superiority of ratio-based performance schedules of reinforcement over time-based schedules. In spite of what is known about how to accelerate performance, business, industry and government continue to pay for time, not performance. I am confident that world economic conditions will ultimately force a change from paying for time to paying for performance. The bottom-line difference is too great to be ignored. Whether in training or in daily work activity, it is performance not time that should be reinforced, recognized and rewarded. 

I was talking to an old fella once and I told him I was going to do a particular thing I had always wanted to do when I got the time. He responded, "Son, you got all the time there is. There ain't no more." It is not the time, but what you do with it that counts.

¹Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.Th. and Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, pp393-394. ²Christina, R.W., Barresi, J.V., & Shaffner, P. (1990). The development of response selection accuracy in a football linebacker using video training. The Sport Psychologist, 4, 11-17.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.


Aubrey makes a great point here and one that I have argued with Ericsson himself. "Deliberate" practice is basically a cognitive concept with no reference in behavioral psychology. As Aubrey describes it it is not the practice but rather practice plus feedback that improves performance. Ericsson implies that the individual can provide their own feedback but this is an unreliable method. The example of the two basketball players is perfect. We should probably run that little experiment some time just to show the cognitive people how it's done. JB

Aubrey’s blog of July 21st reminds me of a quote, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Dr. Ericsson doesn't think that practicing deliberately for 10,000 hours in any manner you like, with as little feedback or coaching as you like, makes you an expert. Read a little bit of his work before you assume he's that ignorant...

I know Dr. Ericsson and had him speak to ADI consultants in December. I don’t know where you got the idea that Jon Bailey (above) or I think he is ignorant. In reality, I think his research has broken new ground in understanding expertise. He has more knowledge of the area than anyone I know. I hope you have written to Malcolm Gladwell as his writings go beyond what Ericsson has written. My comment was only to the point that if expertise is commonly acquired in x years or months, I believe that it can be accomplished in considerably less time with a trainer who increases the frequency of feedback and rate of positive reinforcement beyond what the average performer typically receives during training.

I suppose it depends on how one defines expert. If I want to achieve an Expert level in chess I think I could do that with some good books, a chess computer program and about 2 years of practice. However, if I want to achieve Master or Int'l Master then devoting about 5 to 6 hours a day for another 5 to 10 years might have gotten me there when I was in my teens or twenties. The same goes with running. After a few years of deliberate practice and some OK coaching I was able to run a 4:34 mile in my senior year of HS (not even state qualifying). If I had run all summer and winter then I might have qualified for States. So that would have been about 5000 hours of deliberate practice. Is 10,000 hours a reach? Probably. Is it unreasonable? Not really. I also know from experience and my own observational studies that a genetic disposition toward that activity is important. Although, practice is more important.

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