Deliberate Practice: How Experts are Built Not Born

Einstein came up with his first revolutionary theory of relativity when he was 26 years old. He changed the course of science and shaped much of our understanding of the world as we know it. Mozart was composing full symphonies well before his 10th birthday. He died young at age 35, but still managed to create some of the greatest musical masterpieces that have lived on over 200 years later. Jordan won his first Olympic gold medal at 21 years old, and would go on to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

If I asked you what made these men great, you’d probably say that they were geniuses or born with innate talent. How else could you explain their superhuman achievements? But if we dig into the research on world-class experts, there’s more to the story. . .

We know that practice makes perfect. But scientists have found that the type of practice is what matters most. This purposeful and focussed work is known as deliberate practice. It’s one of the key building blocks of success in disciplines ranging from sports to the arts. The good news for us is this:

Expert-level performance is mostly attributed to deliberate, focussed practice. Experts are NOT born with superhuman gifts.

Now, I’m not suggesting we can all be the next Einstein, Mozart, or Jordan. There are many complex factors (like environment and motivation) that are needed to produce world-class skills. But my point is this: experts are built not born. And one of the key components to becoming an expert is deliberate practice. Let’s take a look at what deliberate practice is, and more importantly, how you can use it to be your best version.

Deliberate Practice Defined

Deliberate practice is working on one specific skill in a systematic and focused way to improve performance. So instead of going to the gym to do a workout, you’d go to the gym to practice sticking points in your deadlift. The specific goal is to increase your 1 rep max by working on a weakness.

When Kobe Bryant practices making over 1,300 three-pointers a day in the offseason, he’s deliberately practising. The purpose of his practice is not to spend a certain amount of time every day shooting three-pointers. It’s to make 1,300 shots a day. The single skill he’s intensely trying to improve.

We can think of regular practice as mindlessly going through the motions, while deliberate practice is intensely focused on improving performance in one specific area.

Why Deliberate Practice Matters to You

Deliberate practice changes the rules of the game as we know it. Research has shown us that experts are not outliers or freaks of nature. They’re people who have put in countless hours of hard, deliberate practice to master their crafts. They’ve continuously exposed weaknesses and improved on them through feedback, as psychologists and scientific researchers out of Florida State University explain:

We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

Ah, scientists. The masters of turning a simple concept into a wordy novel that needs to be deciphered.

Put simply, outside of some specific genetic differences that are advantages (like height in basketball), we’re all capable of developing expert skills with deliberate, life-long practice. Like I said earlier, this doesn’t mean we can all be like Mike or Einstein. But it does stop us from building a barrier to success in our heads. So, let’s take a look at how you can structure deliberate practice.

Four Components of Deliberate Practice

There are 4 key components of deliberate practice. By structuring practice around these, you’ll improve accuracy and speed of performance on cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks.

  1. Motivation: you need the drive to be able to show up and put the effort in. Deliberate practice is much harder than regular practice. This is because we like to practice things we’re good at. But when you deliberately practice, you’re working on weaknesses. You need to have a strong why for wanting to improve a particular skill. This will see you through the tough times when you feel like you’re getting nowhere.
  2. Pre-existing knowledge: the task you’re practising should be built on pre-existing knowledge. You need to be able to understand what you’re working on, and the objective after some initial instruction (from a coach, friend, or your own research if needed).
  3. Immediate feedback: this is the most important aspect of deliberate practice. You need someone with experience in the skill you’re working on to provide objective feedback. This can be a coach, teammate, friend, or just a video of yourself.  Feedback allows you to adjust and correct your technique, instead of reinforcing bad habits.
  4. Repetition: you need to practice the same or similar tasks over and over again until the skill becomes second nature. Once you’re good at it, move on to the next skill.

Here’s a quick video that gives you some geeky details, and gets into the 'how to' at about the 2.30-minute mark.

Ok, so that’s the science on deliberate practice. But how does this translate to the real world? Let’s look at an example of how you can apply it.

Example of Deliberate Practice in Action

You can apply deliberate practice to any skill by breaking it down into specific tasks to work on. The single focus should be improving performance. Each task should be a building block for the next level of progression. Here’s an example of how you might break down the steps to learn to deadlift.

  • Step 1: during the first session, you learn about setup (stance, gripping the bar, body position, and bracing). The single focus is to understand how to get into a good position.
  • Step 2: after getting comfortable with the setup, you move on to practising the deadlift with a dowel. You’re now focusing on training the movement pattern without weight. You get feedback at this point to make sure you’re in the right position.
  • Step 3: now that you’re comfortable with the setup and movement pattern, you practice with a barbell. Your single focus is completing the lift with an unloaded bar.
  • Step 4: once you’re comfortable with the barbell, you add weight and practice your first pull from the floor. Your focus is now working on the lift with a light load.
  • Step 5: now that you’re working with weights, you shift your focus to heavier loads. You continually get feedback or review your form. And work on any weak areas to continue to progress.

Deliberate Practice Takes Work

Before we finish off with some strategies you can use, it’s important to understand that deliberate practice is hard. It requires sustained effort and focus. People who successfully use it are lifelong learners that have powerful motivation for wanting to master their craft.

How to Apply Deliberate Practice to Your Life

I write to share my experiences and knowledge with you. But my ultimate goal is to give you information that’ll help you eat, move, and live optimally. Get these right, and you’ll transform your body and change your life. So, I like to end each post with some actionable steps you can take immediately.

To get the most out of this post, apply the below framework to a goal or skill you’d like to learn. Set a date and time for doing this right now before the opportunity passes. If you really can’t drop everything, write a reminder on a post-it note and stick it to your forehead for later. Decision creates action. Action creates results.

  1. Pick a skill you’d like to get good at.
  2. Define your motivation. Write out why you’d like to develop the new skill. How will it change your life? What would it feel like to achieve it? Review your answers. Do they have a strong emotional pull that will see you through the long hours of practice?
  3. Break down the skill into small pieces that you can work on in a structured way. Each skill should be a prerequisite for the next. Get help from someone with experience if needed.
  4. Structure your practice. You need to understand your weaknesses and isolate a specific skill to address them. You always need to be working on challenging tasks that are beyond your current level. Don’t waste time practising the stuff you’re already good at.
  5. Perseverance matter most. Developing skills is like investing in the stock market. You’re playing the long game. You can’t build expert skills in weeks or months. You need to be able to stick with your practice for as long as it takes. Deliberate practice done right is intensely focused. As such, you need to structure it in a way so that you don’t burn out (mentally and physically).

Add a comment below and let me know what skill you’re going to work on, or if you’ve used deliberate practice in the past.

Finally, if you want me to design a program that includes the deliberate practice framework, hit me up here.

P.S. If you liked this blog post, I’d owe you one if you could get it out there by emailing it to a friend or sharing it on social media. You might also be interested in my free e-book: The Battle Tested Body Transformation Guide.