What do all high performers have in common? Decades of research and scientific studies have revealed the answer. The best of the best follow the same strategy for improving their abilities ― they harness the power of deliberate practice.
What Is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice is a systematic, more efficient and more effective way of developing a skill. It recognises the fundamental neurological mechanics of the brain and body and is based on the scientific discovery of myelin. Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown.
Unlike conventional learning theories which claim that the ability to acquire a skill is dependant on practicing longer, deliberate practice is about practicing better. More simply, it’s about quality not quantity.
Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown.
Every thought, feeling or action that you engage in creates an associated network in your nervous system which transfers signals. Myelin insulates these networks which increases the strength, speed and accuracy of the signals. The more we activate a particular network, the more that myelin optimises it, the more efficiently signals can be processed, until eventually these signals can be processed with such efficiency that the “skill” ― whether mental, emotional, or physical ― becomes automatic.
In short, skill is myelin. The magic of myelin is that it can be cultivated and nourished. Deliberate practice is the most effective and efficient way of cultivating myelin.
The 3 Components Of Deliberate Practice
There are three components to deliberate practice. They are: Rehearse, Reflect and Refine. Together, these three components form a neurological feedback loop that exponentially accelerates the mastery of any skill.
When you test your practice and make mistakes, when you reflect on your practice and identify mistakes, and when you refine your practice and correct mistakes, you lay the foundation for mastery.
Thus, deliberate practice, in the service of mastery, is a feedback loop of making errors, identifying errors and correcting errors.
Below we’ll unpack each of the three components in detail.
- 1) Rehearse
The first step is to test your practice and make mistakes.
Begin by identifying someone who has already attained mastery of your skill and observe them performing it. Then break down the skill into individual chunks and target those that are right on the edge of your current capabilities.
Mastery begins where your comfort zone ends. Stretching yourself is the only way to grow. Simply repeating what you already know how to do is unproductive and won’t enhance your level of performance. Furthermore, research shows that we experience peak levels of motivation when we are working right on the cusp of our abilities.
Work slowly and gradually increase the speed as you get more and more comfortable with each individual chunk. By going slow, you can catch and attend to errors more easily, allowing you to attain a higher level of precision when you fire signals. Then move onto more complex variations by combining multiple chunks together.
- 2) Reflect
The second step is to reflect on your practice and identify mistakes.
Feedback is essential for evaluating your progress and pinpointing your strengths and weaknesses. It allows you to identify areas of improvement in order to achieve your goals.
One of the best ways to obtain feedback is through measurement. You can’t improve what you can’t measure. It is only through measurement that we can measure our progress.
Identifying mistakes requires a Growth Mindset. You can depersonalise “mistakes” by framing them as opportunities to build new, better neural networks in your nervous system.
- 3) Refine
The third step is to refine your practice and correct mistakes.
Myelin reinforces what we do the most, which is why correcting mistakes is essential. Attend to mistakes as soon as they happen ― the sooner you correct them, the sooner you can attain mastery.
By constantly correcting your mistakes and then re-firing the correct neural network, you build the necessary myelin around the appropriate circuit.
Together, these three steps form a neurological feedback loop that allows you to maximise the growth of myelin and ultimately master any skill.
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” — Vince Lombardi
“Mastery is the process of narrowing down your focus to a specific chunk of success, repeating it until you have internalised the skill and then using it as a foundation for the next.”
Developing proficiency in any skill isn’t easy. Therefore, motivation during all stages of deliberate practice is essential in order to overcome the inevitable moments of failure, frustration and periods of slow progress.
Without the motivation to push past obstacles, the natural inclination will be to give up. So when selecting a skill to improve, ensure it is something you are passionate about and are willing to devote a significant amount of time and effort to.
Motivation evokes energy, while deep practice transforms that energy into progress via the growth of myelin.
“The process of mastery is progressively layering improvements one on top of the other, each layer building upon the last until a new level of performance has been reached and a higher level of skill has been internalized.”
In many cases, coaches are essential for sustaining deliberate practice, particularly in disciplines where it is almost impossible to both engage in practice and measure progress simultaneously.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle writes: “…master coaches are the human delivery system for the signals that fuel and direct the growth of myelin of a given skill circuit, telling it with great clarity to fire here and not here.”
A good coach is able to identify your strengths and weaknesses and provide instant feedback. They hold the ‘roadmap’ that will guide you through an evolving and optimised practice regime that pinpoints areas of improvement and hones your skills in a systematic order.
Coaches ignite motivation, and as previously mentioned, motivation evokes energy, while deep practice transforms that energy into progress via the growth of myelin.
Human beings possess a remarkable ability to develop their skills and acquire mastery in almost any area of life. While practice plays a role in developing skill, not all practice is created equal. We can accelerate our rate of learning by harnessing the power of deliberate practice.
Grounded in science and drawing on cutting-edge neurology and extensive research, deliberate practice is a systematic, more efficient and more effective way of developing a skill.
By understanding the three components of deliberate practice; Rehearse, Reflect and Refine, we can optimise our performance and maximise our potential and growth.