If deliberate practice sounds familiar to you, it formed the basis of the 10,000-hour rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell. One of Ericsson’s first papers on deliberate practice suggested that elite performers spend 10,000 hours, or approximately 10 years, training in this focused way before they reach the top of their field. But it is misleading to think that anyone who spends 10,000 hours doing anything will somehow become world-class. “You need to be practising with purpose, and it takes a certain type of person, psychologically, to do that,” says Ericsson.
“It’s not about the total time spent practising, it needs to be matched with the commitment of the student,” he says. “Are they correcting, are they changing what they do. It’s not clear why some people think that doing more of making the same mistakes will make you better.”
‘Focus on mastery’
The sporting world has adopted many of Ericsson’s lessons. “It’s the players who do the work. They have to be very determined to be a player who reaches the top,” says Roger Gustafsson. A former footballer-turned-coach, Gustafsson managed IFK Goteborg to five league titles in the 1990s – more than any other manager in Swedish league history. Now in his 60s, Gustafsson is still involved in the youth system at the club.
“We tried to teach 12-year-olds [in the IFK Goteborg youth system] the Barcelona passing triangle through deliberate practice and they developed incredibly [fast] in five weeks. They reached a point where they were doing the same number of triangle passes as Barcelona in competitive games. It’s not quite like saying they were as good as Barcelona, of course, but it was incredible how quickly they could learn.”
Video has become an essential tool for providing immediate feedback. “If you only tell the player, they might not get the same picture that you have,” says Gustafsson. “They have to see themselves and compare with a player that did it differently. Young players are very comfortable with video feedback. They are used to filming themselves and each other. As a coach it’s difficult to give everyone feedback because you have 20 players in a squad. Deliberate practice is about empowering people to give themselves feedback.”
Gustafsson emphasises that the more immediate the coach can make their feedback, the more value it has. By correcting mistakes in training, less time is wasted doing things wrong.
“The most important part of this is the intention of the athlete, they have to want to learn,” says Hugh McCutcheon, head coach of volleyball at the University of Minnesota. “The athlete has to feel like they are in a safe space to make it worse. They might get worse to get better. This might turn off casual learners, but technical mastery is hard. It’s the same across any sport; what separates the very best is technical mastery and that requires a big commitment.”