Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Deliberate practice

We live in a global, interconnected economy. Anyone can sell anything to anyone anywhere in the world. The average performance is not good enough. Unless we have world-class skills in highly competitive fields or some unique and needed expertise, we are in trouble. When we are truly masterclass, the rewards are magnificent. We need to acquire skills through practice and the general principles of the best way to do it are the same in almost every field. This is called the deliberate practice.

Definition of deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is a highly structured act of rehearsing a behavior or engaging in an activity over and over consciously and intentionally, for the specific goal of improving or mastering it. Deliberate practice has four components:

  1. The person practicing has a strong motivation and is focused on getting better in every action.
  2. The task is designed to take person´s existing skills into account and be understood by her.
  3. There should be immediate informative feedback.
  4. There should be a possibility to repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

Examples

Figure skater is learning a new jump with the help of her coach. The jump should be a little bit harder than skater has ever succeeded in. Coach should give feedback after the jump about how the skater did and what she can improve when she repeats the jumping action. A professional chess player is studying a certain position that he played wrong in the last game with his coach. The study could be consisted of the games played before by the best chess players in history.

Some of the fields of expertise are better for applying deliberate practice

Many fields of expertise have already developed broadly accepted training principles and these can be called deliberate practice. Most of the professional sports, classical music, and mathematics use the principles of deliberate practice. These fields have some common characteristics. First, there are at least semiobjective ways of measuring performance such as evaluation of expert judges. It is impossible to improve performance, unless we are not aware of what constitutes improvement. Second, fields typically have to be competitive enough to have enough motivation to practice for the goal of improvement. Third, the relevant skills of these fields have been developed for a long time, normally for decades. Fourth, these fields have professional coaches who are improving training methods used by the experts. Otherwise it is not possible to increase the skill level of the top performers in the fields.

The four components

It is hard to have an intense focus and a superb motivation, while we practice things we have not yet managed to do well enough. We need to push outside of our comfort zone and stay focused, when we experience the pain of failure or disappointing result. We can do two things to have a better focus. First, we need general maintenance like enough sleep and good nutrition. The second, is to limit the length of the practice sessions for not more than an hour. Humans have a basic rest-activity cycle which lasts about 80-120 minutes. When we are awake, our brainwaves are faster during the first half of the BRAC cycle and we feel alert and focused. Then our brainwaves slow and we start feeling dreamy and little tired and our focus gets lost. We must also have a motivation to get better. Practicing years and thousands of hours and constantly failing is nearly impossible without high intrinsic motivation.

The practice needs to push the person outside of his/her comfort zone. The path of least resistance is not enough. Specific practicing activities, and exercises should be designed to exceed the person´s current skills, adapt to the person´s ways of doing things and get him/her to the next level. A figure skater needs to learn a jump that is harder than the previously learned jump. She should also understand what is the purpose of everything. What are the reasons to do something in a particular way. And what will the results be by doing things that way. For example, in which part of the feet should touch a certain part of the football while practicing a certain kick. And what kind of spin will the ball have after the kicking action is done right. All the practice should have concrete clear goals. What to do, how to do it and why it should be done that way.

We all need feedback to improve. In many cases, it is not possible to know what we have done wrong. It is hard to improve in many activities without somebody watching us while practicing. We should get this feedback immediately. Feedback should be delivered in a way it is understood by the person. Most of us need some advice after failure. For example, skater needs to know why her new jump failed. Was it because of not enough speed, or was the position of a skate´s blade wrong. Why did it happen? What should she do differently? Practicing without feedback may lead to the strengthening the wrong chains of nerve fibers. Too many repetitions in a wrong way will lead to wrong ways of doing things and practice won´t be useful. The better we are the more we can understand what we did well and what we did wrong. Watching the performance from the videos or may be enough for many experts.

All the practice should be repeatable. It is not possible to strengthen the right nerve fiber chains without repetition. These nerve chains won´t get strong without it. If this is not possible, deliberate practice cannot be done. There are many situations where conditions are not always the same. In these cases, the practice can be done through simulations. For example, practicing about flying an airplane in a storm needs to be practiced in a simulator, or practicing the emergency landing is not possible in natural conditions. Repeating things over and over again will achieve unconscious competence. Things become automatic and repetitions need less thinking. When the critical mass of repetition has been done, the unconscious action becomes the new norm.

Deliberate practice creates better mental models

Every skill has its own mental models. To achieve an expertise through deliberate practice happens by developing latticework of mental models in the field. Experts have more developed and accurate latticework than ordinary people. This is true in physical skills too. Most of the practice is done to form a clear mental model of what the action should feel and look like at every moment in terms of moving your body and it´s position. These models are held in a long-term memory and can be used to have a fast and effective response to certain types of situations. Better models make it possible to process larger amounts of information despite the limitations of short-term memory. Complicated activities require more information than our short-term memory is capable of processing, therefore, we are always building mental models. Everyone has their own models. What really makes the difference between experts and novices is the quality and quantity of the models.

Sources:

Peak, Anders Ericsson
Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin
The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin

-TT

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