Reaching Peak Job Performance with Deliberate Practice

deliberate practice and peak performance image

We like fun as much as the next workplace performance blog, but the truth is sometimes you’ve got to work hard to learn, excel, and become a master at something.

We touched on this recently in our blog post on desirable difficulties, a term used for a group of counter-intuitive learning strategies that make learning a little harder and slower at first but that increase long-term retention and application on the job in the long term. And we’re going to be discussing desirable difficulties and more thoughts related to how hard or fun learning should be in an upcoming interview with learning research professional Patti Shank that you’ll see here soon.

And in this article, we’re going to continue that focus on the hard work involved in learning, and in particular in evidence-based research into how exactly experts in a field become experts. Hint: if you guessed it involved hard work, you’re right.

In particular, we’re going to focus on a concept called deliberate practice, which research shows is a difficult but reliable way to attain mastery in a field. If you’re involved in learning and development at your workplace, this is important information for you to know because you can use deliberate practice to help employees at your organization more rapidly improve their performance on the path to expertise.

This article is based on the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

OK, let’s start learning how to use deliberate practice to develop expertise and become peak performers at work.

Two Types of Practice: Naive Practice and Deliberate Practice

If you want to get good at something, practice, practice, practice. Sounds good, right? Most of us think that.

But Ericsson says “not so fast” to this. He says there are two forms of practice–naive practice and deliberate practice–and that it’s deliberate practice that leads to expertise.

What Is Naive Practice?

Naive practice is what a lot of us do. Basically, it’s going out and doing something over and over again, perhaps even with a general or vague goal of “getting better.”

By way of an example, think of something you do for fun or as a hobby–maybe something like cooking at home or playing  basketball–and that you’ve hoped to get better at. By now, maybe you’ve cooked a lot or maybe you’ve played a lot of  basketball. But do you have your own cooking show (or are you lauded as a culinary god in the food press)? Are you currently playing in the NBA?

Probably not. Why? Well, there may be several reasons, but the most likely reason is that used naive practice instead of deliberate practice. And naive practice doesn’t lead to expertise.

Ericsson shares some telling statistics about doctors to drive this point home. ds

What Is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is different than naive practice, as you probably already guessed.

Deliberate practice doesn’t involve doing something and just kind of hoping you’ll get better because you’ve done it a lot.

Instead, deliberate practice involves four components. We’ll get into each of these four components in more detail just a little further down in the article, but they are:

  • Specific improvement goal(s)
  • Intense focus
  • Immediate feedback
  • Operating at or just beyond current performance limits and/or comfort zone

Keep reading to find out exactly what each of these means and how to use them while deliberately practicing to create expert performance.

Malcolm Gladwell and the False Rule of Attaining Mastery in 10,000 Hours

Not to get too far off track here, but you may be familiar with something known as the “10,000 Hour Rule” put forth by the well-known and well-regarded author Malcolm Gladwell (he wrote The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers).

In his book Outliers, Gladwell claimed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a certain field, citing Ericsson while making that claim. Ericsson has since noted that he disagrees with this, since the 10,000 hours may be spent in naive practice and may not lead to expertise.

If you’d like to read more about this brou-ha-ha, both Ericsson and Gladwell discuss it in this Freakonomics H0w to Become an Expert podcast and it also comes up in this article at The Debunker’s Club.


4 Necessary Elements of Deliberate Practice

Now let’s get down to the meat of the matter here and fully explain what deliberate practice is by explaining the four elements Ericsson claims are necessary to differentiate it from (1) simply doing nothing as well as (2) naive practice.

Deliberate Practice Element One: Specific Goal(s)

When people use naive practice (as explained above), they commonly have a vague and general goal to “get better.”

In deliberate practice, the goal is much more specific. The learner identifies a problem and then deliberately practices on that specific issue until that specific issue improves.

By way of an analogy, let’s think of a basketball player who wants to be a better shooter. He or she can simply play a lot of basketball games and hope his/her shooting improves, but that’s not likely in itself to lead to expert performance. Or, he or she can practice shooting a lot, but even that’s not likely to do the trick. Or, he or she can specifically focus on shooting while paying attention to this position of his/her shooting arm, making sure (1) there’s a 90-degree angle at the elbow, (2) the shoulder, elbow, ball, and basket are all in line during the shooting motion (there elbow is not pointing “out”), (3) the shooting hand is correctly placed under/behind the ball (and not to the side), (4) the player bends the legs and uses the legs to power much of the shot (instead of simply the arm and/or upper body), and (5) the player’s arm smoothly follows through both during and after the shot until the ball falls through the basket.

Focusing on these specific, actionable items will create much more improvement in the player’s shot than the player would see simply by playing a lot of basketball games or even by just shooting a lot.

Here’s how Ericsson puts it in Peak:

…[a] hypothetical music student would have been much more successful [than if he/she has used naive practice] with a practice goal something like this: Play the piece all the way through at the prper speed without a mistake three times in a row.” Without such a goal, there was no way to judge whether the practice session had been a success. Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal…The key thing is to take that general goal–get better–and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.

Source: Peak, page 14

Deliberate Practice Element Two: Intense Focus

Once that goal (or those goals) are set, the learner has to focus intensely on meeting those goals. This may include:

  • Paying strictly attention to the task at hand during practice sessions
  • Practicing for long periods of time
  • Practicing on a regular basis
  • Getting many repetitions during practice

Again, here’s how Ericsson puts it in Peak:

You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.

Source: Peak, page 15

Deliberate Practice Element Three: Immediate Feedback

During that practice session, the learner needs to:

  • Get some form of immediate feedback about his or her performance
  • Pay attention to that feedback
  • Try to use the lessons from that feedback to improve the next performance

Let’s talk a little more about feedback. Feedback can take one of several forms, including:

  • The consequences of the learner’s actions while practicing
  • Verbal or other forms of feedback from an observer
  • (Slightly) delayed feedback from watching or listening to a recording of the performance shortly after it’s performed

We’re going to talk soon about getting feedback from a third party (in particular, an expert) a little later in this article, so let’s focus on having the learner observe his or her own performance and the consequences of his or her own performance and using those consequences as a form of feedback.

What what Ericsson says about this in Peak:

You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong…Generally speaking, no matter what you’re trying to do, you need feedback to identify exactly where and how you are falling short. Without feedback–either from yourself or from outside observers–you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goal.

Source: Peak, page 16

Deliberate Practice Element Four: Operating Just Past Limits of Current Comfort Zone

The final critical element of deliberate practice is for the learner to practice right at his or her performance limits, slightly stretching the envelope and his/her own current abilities. Practice on something very simple won’t create improve or expertise, and it’s also not helpful to practice on something that’s well beyond the learner’s current abilities.

To put this into a familiar context, you’ve probably heard tennis players say they want to play with other tennis players who are just a little better than they are. This is because it forces the less-skilled tennis player to operate at the limits or even just beyond his or her current abilities. It’s not such a great deal for the more-skilled player, but perhaps the less-skill player is a good conversationalist or buys drinks later 🙂

Here’s how Ericsson puts it in Peak:

This is perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice….This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve….We have especially strong evidence of this phenomenon as it applies to physicians. Research on many specialties shows that doctors who have been in practice for twenty or thirty years do worse on certain objective measures o performance than those who are just two or three years out of medical school. It turns out that most of what doctors do in their day-to-day practice does nothing to improve or even maintain their abilities; little of it challenges them or pushes them out of their comfort zones.

Source: Peak, page 17

The Deliberate Practice Force Multiplier: Expert Coaching

Although it’s possible for a person to observe his or her own performance, provide him- or herself feedback, and then improve as a result, it’s often very helpful to have a third-party observer providing the feedback.

In particular, it’s helpful to have an expert performing the role of third-party observer and feedback provider.

This obviously has lots of applications to job training, including not only who should be in the room while employees are trying to learn new skills but also the value of mentorship/job shadowing programs.

To learn more about providing feedback during learning opportunities, check out these two white papers by learning researcher Dr. Will Thalheimer:

Also, I discussed feedback and consequences in this discussion with scenario-based learning design expert Anna Sabramowicz.


Additional Resources on Deliberate Practice

For more on using deliberate practice to develop expertise and peak performance on the job, we of course recommend you read Ericsson’s book Peak. You may also enjoy the article linked below:

You may also enjoy this quick video overview of Ericsson’s theories on deliberate practice for developing expert performance. A hat tip to the folks who created it–nice job.

Conclusion: Deliberate Practice

We hope you enjoyed this introduction to deliberate practice and see ways you can implement it into your workplace training programs to help workers achieve peak performance on the job. Let us know if you have questions or comments about this.

And before you go, please feel free to download our free guide to learning objectives, below.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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