Deliberate Practice for Skill Mastery - FocusU

Deliberate Practice for Skill Mastery

There is a huge difference between just learning for knowledge’s sake and learning to achieve expertise in any field. Whether it is writing, teaching, sports, programming, music, medicine, therapy, chess, or business, it takes something called deliberate practice to achieve expert performance and master the skill.

Deliberate practice, unlike regular practice, involves repeatedly performing certain specific activities with the goal of improving one’s performance in a particular area.  It is this systematic and purposeful effort that creates top performers, turns amateurs into professionals, and is absolutely essential to stay on top of the game. Repeating the same actions and behaviours, for hours each day or over years together cannot make you an expert. With regular practice, you tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over again and reach a plateau with your skill level. So, deliberate practice is what is required for:

  • Reaching expert level performance to achieve competitive success.
  • Enhancing a skill much faster than through regular practice
  • Overcoming plateaus in existing skill levels.

So, what are some of the deliberate practices, we need to follow to get proficient in any type of skill?

1. Clarity about the skill or subject:

 “Aman with clarity reaches his goal sooner than the man with confidence.”
 Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words

First and foremost, deliberate practice is about having clarity on the specific component of the skill in which you want to improve. Then, you need to learn, how exactly you would go about improving on that skill. The more you practice, the greater the improvement in your capabilities.

2. Methodical and disciplined practice:

“I could only achieve success in my life through self-discipline, and I applied it until my wish and my will became one.”

– Nikola Tesla

Being lazy will not help. You need to come out of your rut – it is easy to fall back on the old and tested methods that are much more effortless. Focus on what you can’t do, seek out your weaknesses and improve upon them. Set measurable goals to gauge whether you are moving towards them. The easiest way of doing this would be to take your skill, break it into smaller components and trying to achieve these smaller targets one at a time.

3. Stepping outside your comfort zone:

“We have to be honest about what we want and take risks rather than lie to ourselves and make excuses to stay in our comfort zone.”
 Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

 Like a baby, taking her first steps and falling repeatedly, it is a process of repeated failure and frustrations. So, get out of that complacency and push yourself out of that comfort zone even if it means failing a couple of times before you succeed.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development centre at Crotonville, classifies the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zonethe learning zone, and the panic zone.

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The comfort zone- in which we tend to practice all the time, the panic zone – which leaves us scared and uncomfortable and the learning zone – which is always out of our reach, but the only way to make progress.

4. Making time for rest and recovery:

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”

—Homer, The Odyssey

As deliberate practice can be exhausting and can result in burn out, it is important to restrict this practice to just 2-3 hours in a day. Though you may work the whole day, intense practice of any kind needs to be restricted to smaller time periods, as it has to be sustainable in the long run. Adequate sleep and rest are equally important, as the brain is working all the time and cannot work endlessly on focused mode.


5. Taking constant feedback and measurement:

“Feedback turns good into better and better into best.”
 Frank Sonnenberg, Listen to Your Conscience: That’s Why You Have One

 Practicing something without constantly evaluating yourself is pointless. During deliberate practice, you need to constantly measure your performance metrics to check if there is an improvement or not. Just like how a film actor might go over his acting performance in a movie – frame by frame. This gives him valuable feedback, and helps him figure out how he could improve his performance and what might have held him back from performing better.

6.  Engaging a coach or a teacher

“A good teacher always makes you do something a little bit more than you thought that you could do”.

– John B. Goodenough

Though mastering any skill involves a lot of solitary practice, having a specialist coach or a good teacher has been found to be very beneficial. It is very common for most achievers, especially in the field of music or sports, to have a coach. A good teacher can give feedback, point out errors, suggest techniques for improvement, and provide vital motivation.

They help you correct the mistakes which you might be repeating again and again, without knowing it. An experienced coach or a good mentor can see your performance from the outside, identify blind spots and will be able to push you to outperform yourself.

7. Tapping on to intrinsic motivation:

“If you are working on something that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”

 – Steve Jobs

If you’re planning to engage in deliberate practice to reach expert-level performance, make sure you feel excited about it and enjoy it even if it won’t always be fun. Intrinsic motivation basically means that it should come from inside you, because you want it or you feel passionately about it. Extrinsic motivations like getting a reward or winning a competition are not always ineffective. But, since deliberate practice involves a lot of hard work, facing repeated failures and requires dedicated time and focus, it is imperative to focus on intrinsic reasons and benefits, such as feeling fulfilled or the feeling of having achieved something.

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8. Investing time and making a lifelong commitment:

“Success doesn’t happen overnight. Patience and persistence are the keys to long-term success”. 

– Veronica Stahl

Mastering any skill can take years or even decades – it is a lifelong process. When we felicitate any achiever in any field, little do we know the sweat, toil, and years of hard work that have gone behind his achievement.

Even Winston Churchill, who was known as a great orator and had given about 3000 speeches in his career, would rehearse his speeches before a mirror, taking notes, planning his pauses and movements and memorizing the works of history’s great orators. No one is born an expert, not even prodigies. Behind every great achievement, are hours and hours of strenuous practice and extensive preparation.

9. Putting in intense focus:

“I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals and I try to ignore the rest.”

— Venus Williams

 Intense focus is required to increase skills and break through plateaus.Top performers need to keep an eye on the metrics and keep away any distractions in life. In addition to a long attention span, they need to concentrate on the micro and macro levels. You need to focus your attention on the current practice sessions at the micro level as well as, at the macro level – have the knowledge of where your practice fits into the bigger picture.


10. Spaced repetitions or the spacing effect:

“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong……ever”.

– Ziad K. Abdelnour

In order to commit more to memory and retain information better, you need repeated exposure to the same material, over a period of time, rather than a longer exposure in a single session. We simply cannot practice something once and expect to remember it. By leveraging the spacing effect, we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple sessions with increasingly large intervals between them.

These 10 strategies are obviously not the only ways of practicing deliberately when you seek to achieve expertise.

Have you used other strategies that have worked well for you? Do share it with us and join the conversation!

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