Not Every Practice Makes Perfect: The Need for Deliberate Practice

Posted by Tyler Bradstreet

Scott_Elrod_baseball_practice__with_coach_Wes_Davis_at_the_Oru_Indoor_Baseball_Facillity___October_7_2011_1Practice makes perfect – this means that the more you practice, the better you will become. If you want to become great, then you should practice as much as possible. “See how fast you are getting better at hitting the baseball? Practice makes perfect.” To practice is to do something regularly. Perfect is the best you can be. Practice makes perfect means that the way to become the best is to practice often. “Do you know how a player like Pete Rose gets to be so good? By taking rounds and rounds of batting practice every day. Practice, practice, practice! Practice makes perfect.” Practice makes perfect is said to encourage people to keep practicing so they will become better at what they are doing. “Come on kid, do it again! I want to see you getting this right. Practice makes perfect!”

However, is this really the case? There is the rule of 10,000 hours, which states that in order to reach elite “expert” status (such as collegiate and professional athletes) 10,000 hours of sport-specific experience (e.g., practice; performance), or roughly ten years, is necessary (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993).

But, my question is…..

Are all practices equal? Is player X’s 10,000 hours of practice the same as player Y’s 10,000 hours?

What’s more effective – A player who goes out at practice for 2 hours and throws the ball around, takes a round of batting practice, fields a few ground/fly balls and heads home….OR…. A player who goes out for an hour and fields game-situation ground/fly balls and throws from his position and takes batting practice incorporating game-situations? I’ll take the latter.

This second example leads me into deliberate practice – practice that is effortful, highly structured, organized, and direct toward extrinsic goals and rewards (Colvin, 2010). In order to be most effective, practice/training must be structured in a systematic and purposeful manner. So, how do we deliberately practice? The following paragraphs will provide the most effective ways to practice.

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Specific vs. Variable Practice Composition

Specific practice is a practice composition where the performer performs a single variation of a motor skill (Shea & Kohl, 1990; Shea & Kohl, 1991; Landin, Hebert, & Fairweather, 1993; Schoenfelt, Snyder, Maue, McDowell, & Woolard, 2002). An example of specific practice:

A baseball player wants to work on his throw accuracy from centerfield to second base. He takes a bucket of balls to the outfield and makes 100 throws from the exact same position in the outfield to second base.

Variable practice composition is a practice composition where the performer performs many variations of a motor skill (Shea & Kohl, 1990; Shea & Kohl, 1991; Landin, Hebert, & Fairweather, 1993; Schoenfelt, Snyder, Maue, McDowell, & Woolard, 2002). An example of variable practice:

A baseball player wants to work on his throw accuracy from centerfield to second base. He takes a bucket of balls and places 20 balls at 5 different locations in centerfield and makes 100 throws total to second place from the 5 locations.

Research has consistently shown that when variable practice and specific practice are compared, participants who are in the variable practice group perform better on transfer and retention tests (Additional references will be provided at the end of this post).

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Blocked vs. Serial vs. Random Practice Schedules

Blocked practice is a practice schedule where one motor skill is practiced repeatedly before moving on to practice another motor skill (Shea & Morgan, 1979; Lee & Magill, 1983; Goode & Magill, 1986; Hall, Domingues, & Cavazos, 1994). An example would be:

A baseball player wants to practice: (a) fielding grounders; (b) catching pop-flies; and (c) playing hits off the outfield wall. Therefore, he works solely on fielding grounders during day 1. On day 2, he works solely on catching pop-flies. Lastly, on day 3, he works solely on playing hits off the outfield wall.

Serial practice is a practice schedule where several motor skills are practiced in a specified and repeating order (Shea & Morgan, 1979; Lee & Magill, 1983; Goode & Magill, 1986; Hall, Domingues, & Cavazos, 1994).

A baseball player wants to practice: (a) fielding grounders; (b) catching pop-flies; and (c) playing hits off the outfield wall. Therefore, on day 1 he works on fielding ground-balls, then moves to pop-flies, and then finishes up with playing hits off the outfield wall. He repeats this same order on day 2 and day 3.

Random practice is a practice schedule where several motor skills are practiced in no specified order (Shea & Morgan, 1979; Lee & Magill, 1983; Goode & Magill, 1986; Hall, Domingues, & Cavazos, 1994).

A baseball player wants to practice: (a) fielding grounders; (b) catching pop-flies; and (c) playing hits off the outfield wall. Therefore, on day 1 he works on playing hits off the outfield wall, and then moves to catching pop-flies, and finishes up with playing hits off the outfield wall. On day 2, he works on fielding grounders, and then moves to playing hits off the outfield wall, and finishes up with catching pop-flies. On day 3, he works on catching pop-flies, and then moves to fielding grounders, and then finishes up with fielding more grounders.

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Research has consistently shown that when blocked and serial practice is compared, participants who are in the serial practice group perform better on transfer and retention tests. Additionally, when serial and random practice is compared, participants who are in the random practice group perform better on the transfer and retention tests (Additional references will be provided at the end of this post).

This is evidence of the reconstruction hypothesis, which states that skills are strengthened as a result of a “breaking down and building up” process. Thus, performers who practice according to a random practice schedule are required to continually regenerate the plan of action each time the variation is presented.

Additionally, this is evidence of the elaboration hypothesis. Performers who practice according to a random practice schedule engage in cognitive processing activities that render the memory more distinctive. All variations of the task are stored in memory, which provides the performer with opportunities to compare and contrast. Recall is enhanced because memory of each skill variation is more distinctive.

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Final Thoughts

If you are going to devote your time and effort into something, wouldn’t you want to do so in a manner that will accomplish maximum results? By utilizing variable and random practice, one can enhance their sport-specific skills in a more effective way.

Practice makes perfect….. I’d say No.

Effective practice makes perfect.

Until next time…

Kind Regards,

Tyler C. Bradstreet
———
Master’s Student: Sport and Exercise Psychology
Teaching Fellow: Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion, and Recreation
Sport Psychology Consultant: Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence
University of North Texas: Denton, TX
E-mail: tyler.bradstreet@unt.edu

References

Colvin, G. (2010). Talent is Overrated. Portfolio Trade

Hall, K.G., Domingues D.A., & Cavazos, R. (1994). Contextual interference effects with skilled baseball players. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 78, 835-841.

Goode, S.L., & Magill, R.A. (1986). Contextual interference effect in learning three badminton serves. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 57, 308-314.

Goodwin, J.E., Grimes, C.R., Eckerson, J.M., & Gordon, P.M. (1998). Effect of different quantities of variable practice on acquisition, retention, and transfer of an applied motor skill. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 87, 147-151.

Graydon, J., & Griffin, M. (1996). Specificity and variability of practice with young children. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 83, 83-88.

Landin, D.K., Hebert, E.P., & Fairweather, M. (1993). The effects of variable practice on the performance of a basketball skill. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 64, 232-237.

Lee, T.D., & Magill, R.A. (1983). The locus of contextual interference in motor-skill acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 9, 730-746.

Schoenfelt, E.L., Snyder, L.A., Maue, A.E., McDowell, C.P., and Woolard, C.D. (2002). Comparison of constant and variable practice condition on free-throw shooting. Perceptual Motor Skills, 94, 1113-1123.

Shea, C.H., & Kohl, R.M. (1990). Specificity and variability of practice. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 61, 169-177.

Shea, C.H., & Kohl, R.M. (1991). Composition of practice: Influence on the retention of motor skills. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 62, 187-195.

Shea, J.B., & Morgan, R.L. (1979) Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5, 179-187.

Simon, D.A., & Bjork, R.A. (2001). Metacognition in motor learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27, 907-912.

Wrisberg, C.A., & Liu, Z. (1991). The effect of contextual variety on the practice, retention, and transfer of an applied motor skill. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 62, 406-412.

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10 thoughts on “Not Every Practice Makes Perfect: The Need for Deliberate Practice

  1. Very interesting stuff, Tyler. What about the effects deliberate practrice can have on dropout? You made no mention of when to start focusing on high-intesity and focused workouts.

  2. Hey Peter. I’m not sure about the relationship between deliberate practice and dropout. If you come across anything, send it our way.

    These ideas come from the field of motor behavior. The practice schedules and compositions I mentioned can be used for any type of “skill” acquisition – doesn’t necessarily have to be high-intensity sport-related…. could simply be studying for one’s college exams. Thus, in terms of WHEN to start…. you know…. I think it’s more about just always practicing in a purposeful manner, since the research concludes these types of “practices” allow for greater success on skill acquisition.

    Thanks for the feedback!

    – Tyler

    • Right on – I can respect that. Knowing not just what to practice but HOW is definitely important, and you did a really good job outlining that here. With one of my current focal points for research being transitions in sport, I always advise those coaching developing athletes to take into account multiple aspects of the players growth – psychosocial and physiological for example.
      One of the constant problems our coaches have, regardless of the sport, is that they are rarely educated in understanding the other aspects of the athlete’s development – which can often lead to dropout. Deliberate practice, as I have understood the concept, is the opposite of deliberate play (I must admit I am not familiar with the Colvin, 2010 you cited). Depending on the sport (in your case, baseball), we would much rather encourage young athletes (until the age of 12 or 14 in some cases) to focus on deliberate play – lower intensity, many different sports, and simple focus on building athletic ability and enjoyment.

      • Yeah – I get what you’re saying. That makes sense. I hadn’t heard of the term deliberate player prior to your comment.

        The Colvin (2010) reference is the only thing I had laying around that provided a definition for deliberate practice at the time of writing this post. It’s from a book called “Talent is Overrated.”

        – Tyler

  3. I’m so happy to see you write on this topic. Ironically, I wrote on it myself yesterday. Your presentation is much more scientific but the message rings loud and clear! Good job!

  4. Thanks for the support! I took a graduate motor behavior class last year, so I still had a lot of research articles laying around to help with that! I wanted to provide hard evidence for these techniques to increase the effectiveness of skill acquisition.

    -Tyler

  5. Great blog. I think it was author Tim Ferriss who said this another way which is that the phrase should not be “practice makes perfect” but “practice makes permanent”. Quality of practice matters. I have experienced this myself first hand, spending many hours practicing martial arts in a really misdirected way and I didn’t see much progress, not surprisingly.
    This is also why the phrase “80% of success is just showing up” bothers me. Definitely showing up is important, but just showing up does not in any way mean you will succeed at what you are doing (for instance if your idea of “success” is seeing improvement in your game). Focused effort is the key.
    Once again, great blog. Keep it up!

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