Mind Mastery

What's the difference between the pros and the poseurs? Believing you can.

Jun 6, 2006
Outside Magazine
Going Up

Professor Ericsson's Keys to Deliberate Practice

1. Set a Goal: Identify a specific skill you want to improve say, your tennis backhand or a kayaking roll.

2. Practice: Design a detailed plan for improvement. Break the skill into its components, then address them in a logical progression of drills (e.g., foot position, racket grip, stroke), perhaps with coaching guidance.

3. Critique: Analyze your advancement. If you're not getting better, consider a new practice plan or a new coach. Don't move on to a new skill until you've reached a consistent success rate.

"I DON'T THINK natural athletes exist," says K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-editor of Expert Performance in Sports. It's a bold statement, but after 25 years of researching how we sharpen our skills in athletics and a broad range of other fields, including music and academics, Ericsson has concluded that elite performers aren't born, they're made.

That doesn't mean we all have what it takes to be the next Lance or Tiger. DNA perks like longer legs or an abnormally large heart offer some athletes significant advantages. But Ericsson and a number of experts in other fields argue that few of us make the most of what we've got. The problem, whether we're surfers or skiers or golfers, is that we pick up the basics quickly, then hit a plateau where getting better starts to feel much harder. At this point, we assume we lack the innate talent to make it to the next level and submit to a future of mediocre performance.

"Ninety-nine percent of people, once they learn how to do something, stop improving," says Ericsson, who claims that competency in many recreational sports can be reached in as few as 50 hours. The secret to elevating your game to the point where you're winning instead of just playing, he says, is simple: practice. Which, as most of us tend to forget, is different from just participating. Practice requires the sort of frequent and diligent skills repetition that we usually ditch once we get comfortable with a sport's basics. Play pick-up basketball three days a week and you'll coast along with little progress; take the time for ball-handling, rebounding, and jump-shot drills and you might become the king of your local court. The good news is that it doesn't take very long Ericsson claims that expert-level skills are attainable in as few as 200 hours.

Based on analysis of dozens of studies looking at such topics as how people become faster runners, smarter chess players, and even use strength training to alter their muscle-fiber type (from slow-twitch to fast-twitch), Ericsson has devised a simple strategy for improving your skills regardless of your game called Deliberate Practice (see "Going Up," right). This type of disciplined approach is what makes the difference between the Lairds and the left-behinds.

And you can practice your own way, too. Brazilian-born pro skateboarder Bob Burnquist, 29, had never heard of Deliberate Practice, but he seconds the concept. He's mastered an astounding repertoire of complex, stylish moves by breaking them down into steps and then repeating them over and over and over in his daily skating. "When I make a trick, that doesn't mean I've learned it just that I did it," says Burnquist. "You've learned it when you can do it every time. That's when the muscle memory is created."

For Burnquist, the key to developing any kind of elite skill is passion. "I grew up asthmatic, but I wanted to skate so bad, nothing else mattered," he says. "Once you find something you love, that's when nature I'd say even providence begins to work for you."

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