How to Practice with Purpose

Ideal putting pathThe argument about whether practice or natural talent counts most in producing world-class athletes has been debated for eons.  Dr Anders Ericsson (1993) has conducted research on the developmental pathways of elite performers in a variety of spheres of performance. His conclusions fall in favour of the argument that hard work will ultimately triumph over natural talent in producing world-class performances.

One of a number of themes was uncovered in Ericsson’s studies; it seems to take around 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become considered elite at international level.  The 10,000 hour rule has been popularised in books over recent times with the most significant being Outliers (Gladwell, 2008), The Talent Code (Coyle, 2009) and Talent is Overrated (Colvin, 2008).

A long held standard of motor skill learning is the Learning Stages Model (Fitts & Posner, 1967), which states that there are three distinct stages in attaining expertise with a skill: cognitive, associative and autonomous.

Three Stages of Learning
The Cognitive Stage demands mental effort due to the amounts of conscious processing of verbal instruction and feedback.  For a beginning golfer who is receiving instruction this is the time where they are trying to create the feel for a new motion.

The Associative Stage is where the skill begins to be performed more or less consistently and spontaneously.  When I’m coaching athletes at this stage, there is a greater focus on specific parts of the golf swing.  For example I focus exactly on how the hips turn; the extent of the turn in both directions and how to keep the hips centred during the swing.

After what is normally a lengthy Associative Stage, an athlete will progress to the Autonomous Stage where the skill has become more or less automatic.  Being automatic, much of the movement is performed unconsciously.  Achieving improvement from this point is a case of diminishing returns, where large amounts of practice are required for small returns.

The way instruction might vary across the three stages regarding hip turn in the golf swing is

  • Cognitive Stage: hips turn away from the target during the backswing and toward the target during the downswing and follow through.
  • Associative Stage: explain how much the hips turn and how to keep the hips centred.
  • Autonomous Stage: the plane of the hip turn during the swing and the role of the hips in transferring momentum and power.

The theory of Deliberate Practice challenges the Learning Stages Model, suggesting a skill may never truly be automated.  This infers that there is always going to be a need for at least some level of conscious processing for a skill to remain robust and expertly executed.  It also means that continued improvement is possible even when the skill has been performed over a long period of time.  Competitive athletes believe and demand of themselves that continued improvement can and must occur, so this is good news to them.

There are a significant number of influences on technical performance.  They can include things like weather, response to ball flight (for golf), mental state, opponents’ performances, fatigue and injury.  Given these influences, an athlete’s technical skill can be subject to change at any time.  This means that it’s important for skill levels to be monitored, as well as enhanced and improved.  It also questions whether there is any time that a skill is truly automated.

“Control over the motor system is never perfect and is typically attained by indirect means and in gradual increments.  My argument with respect to the gradual improvement of expert golf performance is that it is not a process of automating its procedures but rather an extended quest for increased control” (Ericsson, 2001).

Characteristics of Deliberate Practice
Specifically designed for improvement
Deliberate Practice is where an activity is designed with the intention of improving performance.  That improvement might not necessarily show immediately.  Training needs to be designed for the athlete to be able to focus on a specific part of training; there needs to be a training plan.

This assumes there needs to be some assessment of current skill level.  This can be done using statistics, video, coach’s input or other means.

Energy and focus
Deliberate practice requires available time and energy for training.  There is a finite amount of time an athlete is able to focus intensely in training, so they must also schedule breaks to mentally recharge: deliberate rest.

There must be a way of monitoring progress.  Immediate feedback from a coach allows the student to make adjustments and continue progressing.  Where there is no coach, the athlete needs to have ways to self-monitor.  Studies have shown that students perform better in one-on-one practice with a tutor than those who study on their own.  Tutors also design specific practice activities for the individuals to engage in between meetings, which further enhances the quality of the student’s study/practice. There is always the challenge of access to teachers, training material and training facilities.  The best athletes work through these challenges or work around them by adapting their training where they need to.

Ericsson states that Deliberate Practice is not inherently enjoyable, nor motivating.  Interestingly, golfers who participated in a programme of Deliberate Practice interventions to improve their putting (Hayman et al., 2013) were actually more motivated to continue using the ideas of Deliberate Practice in subsequent training; they were motivated by the benefits they received.

This type of training is no short-term fix.  While improvements will occur more rapidly with a Deliberate Practice mindset, excellence requires that this approach must also extend over multiple years.

Other considerations
Consider keeping a diary to track training and progress.  This serves as a motivating tool showing the progress you make.  It is also somewhere to compile notes of thoughts about what works for you.  I keep videos of players’ golf swings so there is a history of their improvement.

Olympic athletes think in terms of one or more Olympiads (4-year periods).  They set multiple objectives for these periods.  They also set objectives for the coming year, month and week and for the next training session.  So should you.

Deliberate practice should start in small doses and then gradually extend in time and intensity.  If practice in the past has been haphazard (or a social event), then Deliberate Practice will be mentally fatiguing to begin with.  Periods of rest should be built into the training session so that the player does not fatigue concentration-wise. This will also be called deliberate rest.

The objective of each session is to improve.  Find ways to challenge yourself.  If what the athlete is doing seems too easy, then adjust the difficulty so the challenge remains.  There needs to be a balance between challenge and the athlete’s skills; if the challenge is set too high, the athlete won’t feel they are able to experience any success; if the challenge is too low the athlete runs the risk of becoming bored and improvement is less likely.

The majority of this paper has talked about athletes improving.  The same principles apply to any activity.  Studies into the philosophies and techniques of US College coach John Wooden (Gallimore and Tharp, 2004) showed that Wooden kept a record of every practice session in a notebook for future reference, and he “could tell you what we did every minute of every practice in my twenty-seven years at UCLA”.  He was reputed to spend more time planning his training sessions than conducting them.

So much of what we learn through our lives is through modelling.  Some of this is conscious modelling, such as the apprentice watching and copying the master and much of it is unconscious.  Deliberate Practice brings conscious awareness to what it is that we wish to model.

Deliberate Practice is usually thought of in the development of motor skills.  In elite performance, motor skills are only part of the overall picture.  An athlete needs to have good control of their mental and emotional state.  The most successful athletes are superior strategists.  These are also skills that can be developed through the principles of Deliberate Practice.

Final thoughts
In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy ponders: “What is the difference that allows some to fit into that narrow window to the top?  And second, what is the point?  If ambition spells probable disappointment, why pursue excellence?  In my opinion, the answer to both questions lies in a well-thought-out approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and day-to-day enjoyment of the process.  The vast majority of motivated people, young and old, make terrible mistakes in their approach to learning.  They fall frustrated by the wayside while those on the road to success keep steady on their paths.”

“In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.” (Waitzkin, 2007).

What is the criteria for being an expert in your field?  Who is to say?  And whether or not it takes 10 years to become an expert is irrelevant for most people.  What is true is that the satisfaction that comes from training with the intention to improve a skill, and for that skill to be improved is incredibly satisfying.  That sense of satisfaction can come with any skill and any beginning level of performance.  It can also be enjoyed with the smallest incremental improvement.  That means it can occur almost every day.


Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Penguin.

Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. Bantam, New York.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine.

Ericsson, K. Anders., Krampe, Ralf Th. and Tesch-Römer, Clemens (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406

Ericsson, K. A. (2001) The Path to Expert Golf Performance, Optimising Performance in Golf, Australian Academic Press

Ericsson, K. A. (2003a). Development of elite performance and deliberate practice: An update from the perspective of the expert performance approach. In J. L Starkes & K. Anders Ericsson (Eds.), Expert performance in sports: Advances in research on sport expertise (pp. 49-84). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Fitts, P., & Posner, M. (1967) Human Performance.  Belmont, CA: Brooke/Cole

Gallimore, R., & Tharp, R. (2004). What a coach can teach a teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and reanalysis of John Wooden’s teaching practices. The Sport Psychologist, 18, 119-137.

Gilbert, W. Ph.D., The Role of Deliberate Practice in Becoming an Expert Coach: Part 1 — Defining Coaching Expertise, Fresno State University, USA and Pierre Trudel, Ph.D., University of Ottawa, Canada

Gladwell, M. (2008).Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Hayman, R., Polman, R., Borkoles, E. and Taylor, J.  The Influence of a Deliberate Practice Intervention on the Putting Performance and Subsequent Practice Behaviours of Aspiring Elite Adolescent Golfers.  Talent Development and Excellence, Vol 5, No.  2, 2013, 67-84

Horton, S and Deakin, J., Setting the Stage for Deliberate Practice: The Role of the Coach in the Contextualisation of the Practice Environment.  School of Physical and Health Education. Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada

Waitzkin, J. (2007) The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence.  Free Press, New York.

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