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Deliberate practice.

"Practice makes perfect."

"Practice makes permanent."

"Perfect practice makes perfect."

"10000 hour rule."

"Practice, practice, practice."

All of these are slight variations on phrases that indicate how important practice is to become great at something. However, there are numerous types of practice that a learner could engage in. These include:

  1. Maintenance practice - practice of an aspect of performance that can already be performed.

  2. Naive practice - repetition after repetition

  3. Play-Practice - for fun and enjoyment

  4. Competition practice - against an opponent

  5. Purposeful practice - defined goals, monitoring, feedback and challenge.

  6. Deliberate practice - require cognitive or physical effort, do not lead to immediate personal, social or financial rewards, and are done with the purpose of improving performance.

Referring to the commonly used phrases above, they are related to deliberate practice. Although the theory of deliberate practice indicates that the amount of time an athlete engages in deliberate practice determines their eventual attainment, expert performers have likely engaged in all of the types of practice mentioned above. However, a main difference between deliberate practice and the others mentioned is the targeting of specific, objective measures of performance, and the evaluation of practice. Hence, practice is deliberately planned to enhance performance.

There are three constraints that learners must overcome in order to engage in deliberate practice consistently.

  • Motivation: performers must be primarily motivated to engage in practice to improve performance and not for some other reason (e.g. enjoyment, social interaction).

Understanding players and their why is critical to align coaching practices to the group of learners they are working with. Not all players will aspire to be an elite performer. Some are playing for the social interactions with friends and peers, some for the health benefits.

  • Resources: the parents’ interest is important for aiding the transition from initial forms of playful involvement to more structured forms of deliberate practice. Parents provide much of the financial resources to secure facilities for practice (e.g. access to tennis courts for tennis players or ice rinks for skaters and ice-hockey players).

This highlights the importance of educating parents and working with parents throughout a development program. Feeding kids the right foods, transporting kids to training and paying for the membership of various teams/clubs. This can mean that kids are not on a level playing field when competing, but also that coaches must have empathy with kids who are struggling for whatever reason.

  • Effort: deliberate practice requires high levels of cognitive and physical effort, optimal training adaptations require a balance between training effort required to move the performer to the next level of skill and the rest required to recuperate from this high level of training effort.

Coaches who embody an "always grinding" attitude are doing athletes a disservice. Rest and recovery is vital from a physical point of view to ensure adaptation occurs, but also to ensure learners can sustain deliberate practice to improve performance.

Ford and Coughlin created a framework to operationalise deliberate practice for practitioners working with athletes, called the ASPIRE framework:

  • Analyse how current experts in the domain perform key aspects of performance successfully (e.g., through observation, performance analysis or evaluation of scientific findings).

  • Select the aspect to be practiced and select or design the best method/s (e.g., tactics, techniques) for performing that key aspect/s successfully in your performance context using information from Step 1.

  • Design and run practice in which the performer practices the key aspect of performance using information from Steps 1 and 2.

  • Monitor practice and provide (include) feedback to the performer during and after practice on aspects related to goals set at Step 2. Increase challenge, difficulty or complexity of the practice activity as athlete/s progress, or vice versa.

  • Include repetition of the key aspect of performance, but do not exact repetition in all aspects of the practice. Ensure that the practice is highly representative of the performance/competition environment when appropriate, with associated aspects of variability and context.

  • Evaluate current performance to determine whether and to what degree the key aspect of performance that required improvement has improved in relation to normative values.

Operationalising deliberate practice in a school environment.

The differences between purposeful practice and deliberate practice are steps 1 and 6. A great example of deliberate practice came in school cricket at my school this week.

  • The coaches (who possess great knowledge about and of the game) observed that the batters were trying to smash the ball every rep (Step 1).

  • They set up a task constraint of "drop and run" zone to encourage the learner that to score, he does not hit a 4 or a 6, but he can just identify the space closer to the stumps. If he was successful he was rewarded with a free hit (Steps 2 & 3).

  • This occurs in a modified game that was representative of a game of cricket, with high levels of variability and suitable context (Step 5).

  • At the end of the session, the coach recorded the number of times the batters successfully "dropped" the ball in the zone, and provided this feedback (step 4) to the playing squad and identified it as an area the group needs to improve over the coming weeks (step 6).

An organisation with greater resources and at a higher level may be able to combine coach observations of elite performers with video analysis of elite performers to better highlight the issue for the playing squad, but this is a great example of how deliberate practice can be operationalised in a school environment. However, it is also important to note that in a school environment, players should not only practice deliberately. A school environment is a great place for learners to compete and play in a wide variety of contexts, with sporadic exposure to practicing deeply.

Further reading:


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