Deliberate Practice: How to become great at anything

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What is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice, in essence, is high concentration practice beyond your comfort zone.

Do you want to learn a new instrument, have ambitions to become a professional athlete or get better at painting? Deliberate practice is what you’ll have to do if you want to get really, really good at something.

practicing the piano

Are there any good books about deliberate practice?

There are surprisingly few popular books directly on the important concept of ‘deliberate practice’ (Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ popularised the ’10,000 hours’ concept, but didn’t use the phrase ‘deliberate practice’). There is, however, a frequently cited academic paper on it ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’ by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer’s. You can read that here:

Ericsson subsequently went on to write a popular book with Robert Pool called Peak: How All of Us Can Achieve Extraordinary Things’  where the concepts below are expanded upon. 

Deliberate practice vs regular practice

Deliberate practice is a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. Regular practice is mindlessly repetitive. 

Deliberate practice versus regular practice
  • Deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.
  • Deliberate practice is not a comfortable activity. It requires sustained effort and concentration
  • Deliberate practice relies on small, achievable, well-defined steps to help you work your way towards meaningful improvement.
  • The greatest challenge of deliberate practice is to remain focused. Repetition is important at the outset but we quickly start to carelessly overlook small errors and miss daily opportunities for improvement.
  • Mindless activity is the enemy of deliberate practice. The danger of practising the same thing again and again is that progress becomes assumed
  • Too often, we assume we are getting better simply because we are gaining experience. In reality, we are merely reinforcing our current habits – not improving them.

Deliberate practice always follows the same pattern:

  1. break the overall process down into parts
  2. identify your weaknesses
  3. test new strategies for each section, and
  4. then integrate your learning into the overall process.

Deliberate practice in more detail

1. Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally; high levels of focus and concentration are required

No pain, no gain. You have to be “fully absorbed” in your practice for it to be truly effective. Discipline is needed, your implicit motivation is more important – it’s very hard to engage in deliberate practice unless you’re clear about why it matters to you.

2. Deliberate practice must be specifically designed to improve performance – to strengthen it beyond its current levels. 

Consistently stretch yourself, and then stretch some more.

If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.

Avoid autopilot. If you’re not getting better, then you’re probably getting worse!

3. It must be consistent and persistent

Like Gladwell’s 10,000 hours/10 years, your deliberate practice must be consistent and persistent. Keep going no matter what!

4. It must be repeated 

Repetition alone won’t make you excellent at something, but you won’t get there without it. “Practice, practice, practice” as the saying goes. You’ll need an hour or more each day to practice where you can give your full concentration.

5. Continuous feedback on the results

This is the main difference between practice and deliberate practice.

You need feedback because:

  1. Measurement: it is the only through measurement that we have any proof of whether we are getting better or worse
  2. Coaching: coaches are often essential for sustaining deliberate practice. Get a coach who has demonstrated an ability to help others improve the desired area of expertise.

6. Performance preparation is essential

Goal-setting should involve not merely outcomes, but also the processes involved in reaching those goals.

7. Reservation and real-time self-assessment

As you practice, you need to be continually aware of your own performance and be focused on correcting and adapting as appropriate. In-the-moment self-assessment is critical regardless of whether a coach is involved. You have to develop a strong ability to objectively assess your own performance in real time, so that you can make any necessary adjustments to your practice.

In many cases, it is nearly impossible to both perform a task and measure your progress at the same time. That is why a good coach is so important.

8. Careful reflection on performance after practice

In addition to being aware of your performance as you are practising, you need to review it once you’re finished to determine where you stand against your goals.

An example of normal practice versus deliberate practice


  • Start with the general idea of what you want to do e.g. play tennis
  • Find tennis lessons and/or play with friends
  • Practice until you get to an acceptable level of performance
  • Get a coach
  • Play more
  • Continue improving

Deliberate Practice

  • Start with the general idea of what you want to do e.g. play tennis
  • Find tennis lessons and/or play with friends
  • Practice until you get to an acceptable level of performance
  • Get a coach who can set specific targets and tailor practice to improve those areas (e.g. improve forehand, or very rallies)
  • Measure improvement, so if forehands are a weakness the coach delivers lots of those strokes progressively makes them harder to return, and demands that the player places strokes in a specific spot. Progress is tracked constantly. 
  • The coach and the player have channels for feedback so that the modifications are continuous e.g. like learning how not to reveal the player’s intentions to an opponent)
  • The player develops a mental map of excellent performance e.g. What to do in various game situations; how to respond to certain shots; went to take risks and try new things
  • The coach design is developmentally appropriate training sessions to achieve maximum effort and concentration. It is counter-productive for the coach to push the player for longer than the player can concentrate; doing so will only develop bad habits in the player as they take short cuts as they struggle to focus. 
  • The player learns to self assess and come up with his/her own mental representations of peak performance so that he/she can take ownership of the performance
  • The player is involved in developing his/her training sessions to increase their engagement and to get a true reading on their maximum effort and physical and mental limits.

Here’s a video with Anders Ericsson explaining how deliberate practice can be applied:

Habits & Deliberate Practice

I really liked James Clear’s article on ‘deliberate practice’ which you can find here 

As deliberate practice is something that you’ll need to do habitually, read our summary of Atomic Habits by James Clear.