Deliberate practice is what turns advanced players into professionals. As a general concept, “practice” means to prepare. Our players rehearse what to do in low-pressure situations in order to be better at using a skill in situations where the stakes are really high, such as in a competition. While this definition may seem obvious, it is essential to distinguish between doing something and practising it, because they are not always synonymous.
The key distinction between doing and practising is that you are only practising something when you are doing it in a way that makes you better, or at least with that intention.
Unlike habitual practice, where they work on a skill by repeating it over and over again until it becomes almost meaningless, deliberate practice is a goal-focused activity. It requires you to pay unwavering attention to what you are doing at any given moment.
Deliberate practice is an activity specifically designed to improve players’ performance; it can be repeated a lot; they have continuous feedback on results; it is very mentally demanding; and it is not much fun.
To practise deliberately, the coach has to look for mistakes or areas of weakness in each player. Once you identify one, you set up a plan to improve it. If one approach doesn’t work, we keep trying new ones until we find one.
If we want players to improve a skill, they have to know what exactly needs to be changed and what can get them there. Otherwise, they will stagnate. They need to know what they are working on, why and how we intend to help them improve it.
Day by day, the achievements of deliberate practice may seem modest. But when we look back over a longer period of time, small advances become giant leaps.
HOW WE DESIGN DELIBERATE PRACTICE
We look at the skill we want to improve in our players and break it down into the smallest possible components. We devise a plan to work on them in a logical order, starting with the fundamentals and then building on them. We decide which parts they would like to master over the next month and plan precisely which parts of the skill they will work on in each session.
Deliberate practice is not necessarily fun while they are doing it. In fact, most of the time it is a process of repeated frustration and failure. We have to explain to our players that they have to fall a dozen times for every step they take. That is what it is all about.
Because deliberate practice requires them to keep targeting their weakest areas, it means they are going to spend time doing things they are not good at.
Deliberate practice is not boring. It is frustrating, yes. Maddening, yes. Annoying, even. But never boring. As soon as practising a skill becomes comfortable for our players, it’s time to up the ante and devise new plans for each of them.
We teach our players to self-evaluate, that is, to decide what caused their mistakes. Average performers believe that their mistakes are due to factors beyond their control: my opponent was lucky, the opponent was far superior or I just don’t have the natural ability to do it. In contrast, high performers believe that they are responsible for their mistakes.
If we want our players to master a skill, they have to commit to working on it over a long period of time, probably with little reward. While there is no guarantee that with effort comes reward, without it the chances are virtually nil.