Deliberate Practice

There is probably not a single coach who haven’t heard about the “10.000 hour rule” and with it a small fraction of the research done by Swedish professor Anders Ericsson at Florida State University.

As a consequence you get coaches all over the world, in different sports, preaching that every player needs to train for at least 10.000 hours if they want to become good. This preaching from coaches combined with early specialization is something that doctors and physiotherapist has noticed with the amount of overtraining injuries such as for example ACL injuries increasing in pre-pubescent children. 

Now, if you’d ask most coaches in more detail about this 10.000 hour rule they would have a difficulty explaining a couple of simple facts about this study. Firstly this study was conducted on violin players who, although doing something extremely difficult, does not run or get tackled while playing.

Secondly the number of 10.000 hours was the average amount of hours Elite violin players practices. Ranging from around 5.000 to almost 20.000 hours for some. This gives you a couple of problems as a coach if you’re preaching to your players that they need to practice for a minimum of 10.000 hours over 10 years.

  1. The research has not been conducted in your sport and it would be a thinking mistake to assume that it is directly transferrable. Sure, there’s a possibility that some things from the study is transferrable, but there’s also a possibility that some are not. 
  2. From the study you emphasize the average number of hours, meaning that out of the relatively low number of Elite violin players in the study there was a large individual variation. This partly implies that there could be something else than the amount of training hours that is more important, and partly that, well, there are differences depending on the individual.

What professor Ericsson found most important and interesting in the study and what has become the focus of his research since, was what he labels Deliberate Practice. The quality of the training, reflection and recovery was the biggest differentiator between the Good and Elite groups.

In short this means that more contextual training, thinking about what, how and why you are practicing will improve you more than if you “just train”. Reflecting on your performance and making sure you recover between training sessions is more important than adding an extra hour of non-contextual training without focused thinking.

So what should coaches preach from this eminent research by Professor Ericsson? Obviously that the players should have contextual training in regards to their sport. Football players should play football in training, not run around the pitch or dribble through cones. In addition you as the coach should also be able to explain Why the players are doing a certain exercise and ask them questions afterwards to help them reflect.

The next question is if coaches are able to conduct deliberate practice themselves in the context of improving their players. Do you plan your session from a clear reference of the periodisation of your playing style, conduct the session as a research experiment and then evaluate (reflect on) your session to see if your plan was correct?

If you do this you have the possibility to improve your planning by learning from what worked and didn’t work before the next session. Your planning theory might look good on paper, but it’s only in the training session (and the game) you can confirm or falsify this theory.   

However, if you do not have a clear reference for planning your training session, conduct non-contextual sessions, do not explain to your players why you do certain things and do not evaluate your own planning, it is not deliberate practice. And if the coach is not able to do deliberate practice, how likely is it that the players can?

Further reading: World famous Swedish psychologist reveals how to become the best in your field (Business Insider Nordic)

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