In this post, we’ll unpack all you need to know about Deliberate Practice, defining exactly what it is, the science behind how it works, the three components of Deliberate Practice and more.
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.
While practice plays a role in developing skill, not all practice is created equal.
Skill, Myelin & Deliberate Practice
To understand Deliberate Practice, we must first understand myelin.
Myelin is a fatty white substance that forms an electrically insulating layer around nerve cells. Its role is to increase the speed that signals can be processed it is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. The production of the myelin sheath is called myelination.
Every time we practice a skill ― whether it be mental, emotional or physical ― we create an associated network in our nervous system. The more we practice the skill, the more myelin we build around the network, the quicker that signals can be processed, until a point that it becomes automatic which is what we refer to as a habit.
In short, skill is myelin. The magic of myelin is that it can be cultivated and the most effect way to cultivate it is through Deliberate Practice.
Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.
The 3 Components Of Deliberate Practice
A skill can be broken down into various incremental sub-skills and working on one sub-skill at a time generates a compounding effect that improves the overall skill.
Thus, 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.
Below we’ll unpack each of the three components in detail.
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.
Growth 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 also ignite motivation which, as previously mentioned, is key to cultivating myelin.
“Master coaches are the human delivery system for the signals that fuel and direct the growth of a given skill circuit telling it with great clarity to fire ‘here’ and not ‘there’.” – Daniel Coyle
How Long Should You Train For?
Focused attention, just like a strained muscle, gets fatigued the more you use it. In his book, Peak, Anders Ericsson explains how during his time analysing world-class competitors — whether weight lifters, pia-mists or a dog sled team — he found that they tended to limit arduous practice to roughly four hours a day. When it comes to elite performers, rest and restoring physical and mental energy get built into their training regimen.
Deliberate Practice is a systematic, more efficient and more effective way of developing a skill. It is predicated on the cultivation of myelin.
The three components of Deliberate Practice are Rehearse, Reflect and Refine. By understanding these components, we can optimise our rate of learning and maximise our potential.