Deliberate Practice Misunderstood: Will Bad Practice Make You Better?

It shouldn't come as a surprise to me that the topic of deliberate practice continues to find its way into the headlines. As a matter of fact, one of my most-read articles is one questioning Dr. Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.  I guess it goes to show that people are always trying to uncover the secret sauce recipe (usually a short-cut)  for what ails them or what can propel them to be better than others. The latest headline is one that encompasses some newly found research about how deliberate practice (Ericsson, 1993[i]) does not make perfect.  As a matter of fact, in this new research, Hambrick and Oswald say it really is only a small part of what makes one world class or expert at anything.

They looked at games, music, sports, education and the professions to see what role deliberate practice played in becoming an expert.  They claim the variance explained by deliberate practice in each of these domains was 26% in games, 21% in music, 18% in sports, 4% for education and 1% for professions. I guess if this were to be true, someone should tell the Olympic hopefuls that all that getting up at 4am to practice before school and late nights in the gym, rink, slopes and a variety of other practice venues is basically a waste of time.  While it may be that very few people think that practice makes perfect, I assure you that if you practice the wrong thing, you will certainly get better at the wrong thing. I knew a man whose father was a scratch golfer, meaning that he often shot par for 18 holes. 

As a young man when playing with his father, if my friend took a practice swing on the course, his father would send him to the clubhouse. The father’s rationale was that he was only practicing a bad swing.  I don’t think his father was a good teacher, but I do know that there is such a thing as bad practice.  I know many such examples as I know people who have been practicing a bad golf swing for over 50 years and are no better today than they were 50 years ago. Almost no one reading the blogs and newspaper articles about Hambrick and Oswald’s findings believes them, nor should they.  I will explain.

  1. They cannot define deliberate practice. They seem to have accepted any researcher’s definition of what it might be as their definition of deliberate practice is left open to interpretation. In other words, it’s not scientifically valid.  Ericsson defined it as a planned attempt to improve by reading, being coached or taught. The authors do not report the variance in the practice routine described as deliberate practice. I am sure that in the 88 studies they included in their analysis, the variance was considerable. If you average 10 bananas, 20 oranges, 30 apples and 100 grapes, what is the average? While the average number of items is 40 what does that tell you? 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—number of reinforced trials and speed of responding—to name two.
  2. Hours of practice appears to be self-reported. Even if these data were obtained from practice logs or diary entries or even interviews where participants were asked to recall and estimate their past engagement in deliberate practice, these numbers have to be of questionable reliability. More importantly, time-based performance criteria mean nothing, but rather the rate and accuracy of behavior should be the focus for sustained improvement.
  3. What counted as an hour of practice? Was half of the time spent talking to a friend about a party last night? Was it spent practicing the wrong thing in the wrong way? Did the person count the time playing a game as practice? Again, time is insignificant, but a focus on the rate and accuracy of the behavior will lead you to obtain your desired outcome.

There are many more questions that need to be asked before taking this research seriously. Learn more about pinpointing specific behaviors that lead to expert performance and how recognizing and reinforcing those behaviors for success leads to personal and operational efficiency.

[i] Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Romer, C. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.  Psychological Review, 100, 363-406

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.