Friday, March 18, 2016

Deliberate Practice

When we think about professional athletes or actors or singers, we often assume they must be unique. They must have been born with some special talent or gift or luck that separated them from the rest of civilization at some early age and set them on the path to stardom. However, this may be a false assumption.

That being said, for this week, I read “The Role of DeliberatePractice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer which argues against the belief that natural talent is the determining factor of high performance. Instead, ongoing, intense practice, also known as deliberate practice, is what enables certain people to reach this level; to be truly good at something, a person should expect to perform deliberate practice for at least ten years.

During those ten years, the individual should be intensely focused on progression in their domain. “Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further” (368). Eventually, with the right amount of time, effort, motivation, and focus, individuals can reach skill levels previously thought unattainable to them. There are some constraints on deliberate practice, though. One of which is referred to as the effort constraint.

A keys to success in deliberate practice is discovering and practicing with the optimal amount of effort. Too much effort can result in severely diminished or negative results. Ignoring the constraint can lead to physical problems in athletes and motivational issues in all domains. The effort constraint tends to be inflexible in the short-run but can and should gradually increase in the long-run as ability improves. It’s important to note that exceeding the effort constraint does not lead to higher levels of improvement. “Too rapid increases in the intensity of practice lead to 'overuse and overtraining,' . . . Bailey and Martin (1988) report many instances of successful 9- to 11-year-old children increasing their training to very high levels, only to experience motivational burnout and quit the domain altogether” (371). Children are expected to train only about an hour a day while higher-level practice can require over fifty hours a week in domain-related activities.

Two other constraints on deliberate practice are resource and motivation. The former relates to costs in time and money; if parents can’t afford to buy their child a violin, it’s going to be difficult for the child to get a hold of one. The resource constraint can be a result of external factors. The latter relates to achieving short-term performance goals and seeing actual improvement over time.

Motivation can be exceedingly hard to sustain over long periods of time. The motivational constraint is a result of the fact that “deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and that individuals are motivated to engage in it by its instrumental value in improving performance. Hence, interested individuals need to be engaging in the activity and motivated to improve performance before they begin deliberate practice” (371). That is to say ten years worth of non-pleasurable practice must be completed in order to achieve high performance. Therefore, choosing the right domain is a must. It takes massive amounts of willpower and perseverance to practice something for the ten-year minimum. Considering certain domains have age as a factor, such as for athletes, the pressure to achieve is being put on children who may rather be at leisure than, for example, practicing the violin.

To help prove the theory of deliberate practice, the article includes a study of three groups of violinists: the best students, good students, and a third group comprised of students who will likely become music teachers rather than particularly great musicians. The results of the study conclude that the best students reached their current level by practicing harder, practicing longer, taking less leisure time, and getting plenty of sleep (including naps). In addition, they also tended to be more structured, organized, and knowledgeable about their daily schedule. A second study included in the article on pianists confirmed the first study’s results (373-387).

There is one caveat to deliberate practice. Different people, especially children, may or may not struggle with the motivation constraint. Some individuals will want to practice and some may not. Whether this propensity to practice is inherited from the parents or is a result of environmental factors is a question proposed by the authors at the end of the article. Furthermore, a few other concerns, such as early guidance, the resource constraint, and the health of the individual are necessary considerations for whether or not a person will commence and sustain practice (400).

Regardless of the time and effort that is required of an individual to achieve expert performance, it’s uplifting to know that we may not be predestined to average levels of skillfulness. While there are some additional concerns, as stated above, they do not entirely detract from the implication that deliberate practice, rather than luck of the draw, is the ultimate deciding factor.

1 comment:

  1. You must know the Edison quote:
    "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
    I think Ericsson's work is consistent with that. I don't believe it is necessary to have a 100% theory - either all talent or all practice. I'm okay with some mixture. Nature and nurture.

    The bigger issue is the inference of others when seeing expert performance. They typically don't see the practice part ahead of time. Applying this to learning, broadly considered, there is a book called Mindset, by Carol Dweck, that argues many people block the necessary practice part because they assume "I'm not good at that" and don't understand that they will be better at it if they practice.

    On the motivation thing, one of the interesting questions for me is what counts for play and what counts for work. Can practice be play? If so, that would address a lot of the motivational issues. Also, kids probably should be involved in lots of different areas - music, sports, particular academic areas from school. Maybe they become proficient in these without becoming expert. I took piano lessons for six years, as an example. I can still pick out a slow popular song from a musical, with the music in a fakebook, but I'm certainly not expert. Maybe that is okay.

    At some point in life, at around your age, maybe you need to choose some specific area to become expert in that, though maybe that doesn't happen still for another 5 or 10 years. I do think many kids plateau in college too early and don't use college as a way to generate good deliberate practice habits that will stand them in good stead later.

    Anyway, there is quite a lot to talk about on this topic.