The popular account of deliberate practice is wrong
No one, no matter how gifted, is born an expert in chess, or with the ability to play the violin.
And no one, no matter how much they practice, can be an expert in everything.
It is widely accepted that the path to becoming an expert is a long one — hard work is unavoidable.
Whether the domain is athletics, music, chess or computer programming, it takes hours, possibly over months and years to develop expertise. For some, it comes easier than for others.
Psychologists, cognitive scientists, and computer scientists have for decades grappled with the answers to the following questions:
- What does it mean to be an expert?
- How does someone become an expert?
As with any discussion regarding human ability, the focus usually returns to the question of whether it is acquired as a result of nature or nurture. Are we born with the capacity to be one of the best or can anyone achieve greatness with the right training?
This debate is as old as philosophy itself, with Plato favouring nature, and Aristotle promoting nurture.
However, as with all binary decisions, the argument is usually far more complex than it first appears.
Innate talent versus deliberate practice — a difference in timing?
The real difference between innate ability and deliberate practice, is the former happens over many generations, whilst the latter over one.
If you research expertise online, you will inevitably stumble across the famed 10,000 hours rule. To understand what it means to become an expert it is key that we understand deliberate practice and debunk some of the popular myths.
Undoubtedly our genes are important, but they do not contain the whole story with regarding learning skills.
The popularity of the seemingly mythical ‘10,000 hours of practice’ that apparently enables us all to reach the level of an expert, in any field, owes much to the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Matthew Syed’s “Bounce”. Both books borrow, possibly oversimplify, and probably incorrectly package, research by Anders Ericsson.
According to Ericsson’s many years of research, the acquisition of expertise is a result of long-term, deliberate practice, based on four important prerequisites:
- The task should be neither too easy, nor too hard.
- Ongoing feedbackmust be received by the learner to optimise performance
- The learner has the opportunity to repeat the task,
- The learner has the opportunity to correct errors and improve
The quality and the form the deliberatepractice takes is considerably more important than the number of hours devoted to performing that task.
Gaining experience, without focus, will not result in expertise. Instead, practice must be with purpose and result from breaking the bigger challenge into a set of smaller ones.
Measurement and feedback is also key to improving skills. Without such feedback, it is impossible to continuously realign efforts, and focus, to ensure improvement.
In Ericsson’s 1991 experiment, cited by Gladwell, violinists were divided into 3 groups:
- Outstanding (likely to become international performers as soloists )
- Extremely good (likely to play in top orchestras but not as soloists)
- Good (likely to become music teachers)
The backgrounds of each group were similar, but the volume of training differed considerably. Outstanding violinists, likely to perform as international soloists, on average completed 10,000 hours of practice. Their training (again, on average) involved 6,000 additional hours than those hoping to become music teachers.
According to Ericsson, to be exceptional requires persistent, deliberate practice often over many years.
Gladwell’s interpretation, and made extremely popular in the best seller ‘Outliers’, was that 10,000 hours of practice is the magic number of hours required to become an expert — hence the popular 10,000 hours rule.
This has resulted in the popular, and largely misleading, belief that
Deliberate practice is all that is required, for anyone, to develop expert performance
As we shall see, this is not what Ericsson concluded from his research.
How does practice help
According to Anders the benefit of practice is a reduced reliance on limited working memory.
For a novice to learn, and interpret, the positions on a chess board, relies heavily on working memory to store and process information, albeit briefly. The expert relies more strongly on both her experience and expertise and is able to store large amounts of information directly in memory.
This results in a lower cognitive load, for the expert, and the opportunity to engage in increasingly difficult challenges.
Genetics and Inheritance
The importance of genetic inheritance cannot be underestimated. Any sport, skill, or challenge we engage in will be impacted by the biological adaptations we have inherited.
The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 was epic. After 13 years of hard work, teams of scientists collaborating around the world completed the mapping of the entire human genome. However, despite providing information regarding where to look for the roots of human traits, it did not clearly identify ‘how’ the body is built to perform.
In the years since, research has been undertaken to better understand the impact of both individual, and groups of genes.
Research soon provided evidence that both nature and nurture are important to performance excellence, in all aspects of human ability.
The challenge for science is to better understand where that balance lies, and its variation across the many areas of capacity in our species.
Sport, due to its opportunity for measuring and comparison, provides an excellent focus for expertise research. Top level sports performers are usually recognised by their levels of fitness, their strength, and their incredible reaction times. All of which would be expected to have a strong genetic contribution. However, when tested, top performers in sport had no better reaction time than beginners. Instead, research suggested quick and appropriate responses were not reliant on physical mechanisms, but rather the use of mental processes, including the ‘chunking’ of information. This grouping of multiple objects into single concepts is likely to further reduce cognitive load.
However, despite practice honing such skills, the findings still do not confirm, or reject, the 10,000 hours hypothesis. Many international performers in sports have practiced far below 10,000 hours, often not entering their sport until late teens. There will also be individuals who have practiced beyond 10,000 hours but never reached elite status.
Scientists cannot explain the huge variation in athletic and sporting ability, between champions and novices, as a response to 10,000 hours of practice.
Two fields of research, important to sport are that of aerobic fitness, and psychological profiles. According to the work of geneticist Claude Bouchard and his team, 50% of the variation in our aerobic capacityis a result of approximately 200 genes. Our genetic makeup is clearly critical to athletic ability, as is the complex interaction of multiple genes.
Horsburgh’s work with identical twins found that personality and mental toughness are also both 50% inheritable. This means that in spite of anything that happens in our life, half of our personality traits are hereditary. If this is true of personality then it perhaps is equally valid for mental skills including ‘chunking’, or at least their acquisition.
Combining nature and nurture and redress the balance
Ericsson’s 2012 article attempts to address a number of mistruths and misunderstandings that entered the public domain (likely a result of newsworthy headlines) whilst integrating expertise into current genetic research.
criticisedwhat he described as an overly simplistic view of his work regarding expertise. He rejected the misinterpretation that with a sufficient number of hours practice any individual will automatically becomean expert or a champion.
Ericsson also clarified his position regarding genetics. He did not suggest that genetics plays no part in expertise, but rather that at present there is no evidencefor the influence of genetics on expertise. Indeed in some of his earlier studies, he made the important point, that for many elite athletes height is an important factor, and that clearly this is genetically determined. On the other hand increased heart size, which tends to identify athletes, islargely a result of training (though some genetic factors may also play an important role in the starting size, and the effectiveness of the training).
Ericsson also recognised the importance of motivation, and enjoyment of activities, their potential underlying genetic influences, and the impact on hard work and deliberate practice.
The ‘10,000 hour rule’ alone is too simple to either identify or predict a top performer and assumes that an expert must have 10 years of accumulated practice that adds up to 10,000 hours.
Deliberate practice aloneis not sufficient to explain the acquisition of every aspect of expert performance. It is unlikely that all fields of expertise, and performance, have the same development path.
In the 2012 paper, Ericsson further challenges the incorrect representation of findings from the earlier study into violinists. One of his musicians had only 5000 hours of deliberate practice — 10,000 hours was only ever an average and not a magical number.
Furthermore Ericsson makes clear that a future, more complete understanding, and model, of performance development is only possible by comparing both objective performance measures and genetic and training factors.
Environment and success
Deliberate practice is clearly crucially important when it comes to becoming the very best, within the limits of our genetic predispositions. 10,000 hours has no mystical, or secret, performance-enhancing value, but rather is an easily digested headline.
Rather, a good environment, with focussed training, providing clear feedback will allow us to achieve what is possible. This does not mean we all have the capacity to be Serena Williams, or Usain Bolt, but does enable progression and goal achievement.
Finally, it is worth considering what we identify as marking top performance, and what individual success looks like. The assumption throughout the research is that winning, fame, and accreditation are what marks the best. For many of us, success in a sport, or past time, maybe measured by enjoyment, and improvement, which is likely to be available to all of us.
Bouchard, C., Leon, A. S., Rao, D. C., Skinner, J. S., Wllmore, J. H., & Gagnon, J. (1995). Aims, design, and measurement protocol. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 27(5).
Epstein, D. J. (2013). The sports gene. Rearsby: Clipper Large Print.
Ericsson, K. A. (2012). Training history, deliberate practice and elite sports performance: An analysis in response to Tucker and Collins review — what makes champions? British Journal of Sports Medicine,47(9), 533–535.
Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A students handbook. Hove (UK): Psychology Press.
Gladwell, M. (2013). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company.
Horsburgh, V.A., Schermer, J.A., Veselka, L., Vernon, P.A. (2009). A behavioural genetic study of mental toughness and personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 100–105.
Syed, M. (2011). Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice. London: Fourth Estate.