The Power of Deep Practice

If there is one concept I wish I had a stronger grasp on when I was younger it has to be the idea of "deep practice". According to Daniel Coyle in the book Talent Code, deep practice is the methodical, slow, and painstaking way that people with world class talent practice. It's filled with errors and upon first glance doesn't appear to be anything special. However, it is the key to developing talent. If I had adopted and learned the techniques that distinguish deep practice I would have been a better hockey player, musician, student and any other role I pursued participated in. The oft-cited 10,000 hours needed to become an expert at something is built on the back of deep practice.

What is it?

Defining deep practice and recognizing or adopting it yourself are two vastly different abilities. True deep practice is characterized by chunking a skill into manageable parts, repeating it, and learning to "feel it". Basically, deep practice can be characterized by the following process:

  1. Pick a target.
  2. Reach for it.
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.
  4. Return to step one over and over and over and over and over.

Another metaphor that Coyle uses is that of a baby learning to walk. You will feel wobbly, off balance, and you will fall when you are in the throes of deep practice. And that's ok. That willingness to keep trying, to keep improving, to keep taking baby steps is "the royal road to skill."

WHAT DOES DEEP PRACTICE LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?

This is a question I have struggled with for a long time. How can I deeply practice being a blogger? A hockey coach? A conscious person?

How can you adapt the principles of deep practice in your own work? Are there specific skills you can practice that will translate into gains at your job?

  1. Slow down - Deep practice is not something that can be rushed through. It’s something you have to approach slowly and deliberately. It's not about the number of hours you put in but what you put into the hours. With that being said, you can't expect to fly through a practice session and expect to improve very much.
  2. Focus - Daniel Coyle compiled a list of words people used to describe the sensations of their most productive practice. Here is a partial list: attention, connect, alert, focus, mistake, tiring, and awake. All of these words point to the importance of being able to focus solely on your practicing for a period of time. Deep practice is distraction free, so turn off the cell phone, get away from the internet, and focus on practicing.
  3. Make mistakes - If somebody were to watch you while you were practicing, they would probably wonder why you are making so many mistakes. That's ok--practice is supposed to be like that. You should be right on the edge of your abilities because that is how you push the edge a little bit further. I always tell my hockey players that if they aren't occasionally falling down during basic skating drills, they aren't skating hard enough or pushing themselves during turns and transitions. Practice beyond your ability and your ability will catch up.
  4. Break it down - Deep practice must be conducted on very small subsets of skills at a time. Instead of practicing an entire piece of music on the piano, you must practice on a very small piece of it. A master chefs doesn’t crank out a 5 course gourmet meal the first day of cooking school. Sidney Crosby did not rip a shot into the top corner the first time he ever took a slap shot. Anything you’re trying to improve can be broken down into the most basic of skills.

It is only by learning how to practice deeply that you will see a large increase in skill. Anything is up for grabs. The way you do your job, a particular hobby that you enjoy, or a skill you wish you had but never tried to develop. Nothing is out of reach when you are willing to spend a lot of time practicing - and practicing correctly.

Where have you applied the principle of deep practice in your own life?