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May 4, 2016       

How to Practice Like an Expert
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

tennis practice
The tendency for most people is to choose what they enjoy. When it comes to practicing a skill, it is more enjoyable to practice a more successful skill than a weaker skill. However, expert athletes, instead, choose to practice what is most effective for long-term success even though it doesn't bring as much enjoyment during the practice. This is likely true of experts outside of athletics as well.

When researchers (Coughlan, et al., 2014) compared the practice of expert athletes to intermediate athletes they found the experts engaged in more deliberate practice and the improvements they made were sustained over time. The intermediate athletes who practiced in a way more similar to the experts also showed more lasting improvements. However, most intermediate athletes focused on their stronger skills. These athletes reported greater enjoyment than the experts but did not show long-term gains.

How Can You Practice More Like An Expert?

1) Greater effort. The experts tended to put more effort into their practice even though it may not be as enjoyable.

2) Focus on weaker skill. The experts challenged themselves more by focusing on improving their weaker skill whereas the intermediate group tended to focus on their stronger skill.

3) Feedback. The experts readily used feedback more effectively.

4) Random order. The experts practiced their skills more randomly which probably helped to sustain the improvements. When skills are practiced in a block, rather than random, they tend to be associated in muscle memory together and are more difficult to access individually as needed.

In my opinion, this research demonstrates the concept of delay of gratification. The expert athletes are willing to forgo enjoyment so as to improve their skills. The intermediate athletes pursue immediate gratification even though it may not contribute to long-term goals.

We can apply this same concept to the development of other skills. For instance, I have seen many people drop out of Tai Chi which can teach relaxation and mindful focus as well as improve physical conditioning because it requires sustained effort and practice overtime. Even though people see some initial benefit, they are unwilling to forgo the immediate pleasure that other activities may provide.

So we may conclude that the people willing to delay immediate pleasure are the ones more likely to become experts.

Coughlan, E.K., Williams, A.M., McRobert, A.P. and Ford, P.R. (2014). How Experts Practice: A Novel Test of Deliberate Practice Theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 449–458. DOI: 10.1037/a0034302

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