The Practice Of Deliberate Practice

AJW applies the ‘practice makes perfect’ concept to trail and ultrarunning.

By on March 24, 2017 | Comments

AJW's TaproomSeveral years ago in his wildly popular book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author and researcher Malcolm Gladwell drew the attention of many in his description of what he called the “10,000 Hour Rule.” This rule, simply stated, suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in anything. Music, sports, science, the arts, it doesn’t matter, 10,000 hours is the baseline for expertise.

Much of the research upon which Gladwell based his assertion had been conducted by the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has spent much of his academic career exploring the idea of human excellence and expertise in particular. Ericsson’s book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, takes the notion of the 10,000 Hour Rule and moves it several steps further. As Ericsson articulates, not only are hours and hours of practice necessary for the acquisition of expert status but those hours must be purposeful, specific to the task, and focused. He calls this “deliberate practice.”

In his research, Ericsson found four key components of deliberate practice. First, he found that experts always set goals and address their practice toward achieving those goals. Second, in their practice, true masters are able to break down complex tasks into simple, easily repeatable chunks, allowing them to build consistency through drill. Third, deliberate practice is such that it forces the subject out of their comfort zone to problem solve along the way and provide meaningful, memorable learning experiences. And fourth, deliberate practice requires the time and space for meaningful, consistent, and often harsh feedback from others such as teachers, coaches, and advisors. The sum total of these four components is a practice that not only requires a significant commitment of time but also requires adherence to a set of proven mechanisms to arrive at that place of expertise.

In thinking about these concepts in the context of my running, it is interesting to find some meaningful parallels. Certainly, 10,000 hours of running is not easy to achieve. That’s an average of 500 hours a year for 20 years. Being a regular runner for 28 years, I think I am probably just a little bit past that number but not by much. With respect to my deliberate practice when it comes to running, I think I do check the four boxes but perhaps not as boldly as I could. Here is how they play out for me:

  1. Goals: I set goals with my running and strive to achieve them. Of course, like most of us, I don’t always succeed but it is usually the process more than anything that makes the goal setting worthwhile. Grade B+
  1. Complexity to Simplicity: I try to do this with most things in my life and running actually helps in other areas. There is much about running that is inherently simple so perhaps this is easier done with running than it is with, say, playing the violin. That said, I cannot stress enough the importance of simplicity in my training and the joy I get out of the repetition that many consider boring and mind numbing. Grade A-
  1. Comfort Zone: I wish I could say I do this all the time but the truth is I don’t. Like many, I am a creature of habit and tend to stay where I am comfortable in my training and racing. Reading Ericsson has inspired me to work on this component, however, and we’ll see if it leads me any closer to expertise in the coming years. Grade C
  1. Feedback: As my own worst critic, I am constantly giving myself feedback and seeking feedback from others. I don’t always like what I hear but I do think of myself as a good listener and try to improve on all aspects of my running when presented with areas of challenge. Grade A-

All in all, I find Ericsson’s research fascinating. While I found Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule compelling, I also thought it was a bit too simplistic. The notion of deliberate practice, distributed over those 10,000 hours, however, seems much more believable and is, in my view, something worth pursuing given the time, fortitude, and commitment.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Tree House Brewing Company Julius IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Tree House Brewing Company in Monson, Massachusetts. I’d been trying for years to get my hands on their Julius IPA and finally got a four pack last week. It did not disappoint. Light and fruity with a gentle hoppiness, this is a really nicely balanced IPA. At 6.5% it’s quite drinkable and bursting with flavor.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • In what parts of life have you found that specific and habitual practice does make ‘perfect?’ And in what areas does this concept not apply?
  • Applying the concept to something like technical downhill trail running, what amount of practice does your body and mind need for you to feel proficient at it? How about other aspects of trail and ultrarunning, such as night running or running the last 20 miles of a 100 miler?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.