My first year teaching at the junior high level was memorable for a lot of reasons. One of them being that I took a side job as the high jump coach for the school’s Track and Field team.
I didn’t know a single thing about the high jump. I had never participated in (or even watched) Track and Field events. I was basically a warm body to ensure that no one used the bars as jousting poles or did anything unseemly in the mat pit.
This vaguely useless job description left me with a lot of time on my hands. So I did what any coach would do: I watched the athletes.
Track and Field at the junior high level is a non-cut sport. It draws in a lot of participants, the majority of whom aren’t there to truly compete, but simply need a place to hang with their friends after school. Or a babysitter until their parents got off work.
But some of them were serious.
Some of the athletes that laced up their shoes and headed out each day were there to compete. Over the course of the season, it became blindingly obvious who was whom. And it wasn’t because of how they competed. It was because of the deliberate way they practiced.
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The words “deliberate practice” came sharply into focus after Anders Ericsson did his now famous study of violinists and their practice habits. His work with this group of violinists is often considered the seminal research on the value of hard work versus the value of intrinsic talent.
This study indicated that violinists that were more likely to be highly successful in their careers (future soloists) practiced in a much different way than those that were simply going to play in an orchestra or teach music to others.
Experts in a field view their field and the challenges ahead of them in a fundamentally different way than non-experts. This mental representation that they’ve crafted acts as a bridge that opens up access to new possibilities that non-experts just can’t see. Deliberate practice helps build these bridges.
Deliberate practice is a better indicator of future success than talent. And Ericsson found that this was true across the board from violinists to star athletes, chess champions to CEOs.
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Once I saw this connection in my own athletes and saw how the practice of deliberate practice improved performance, the question became a simple one: How do coaches facilitate deliberate practice?
1) PROVIDE THE BLUEPRINT.
Beginner and intermediate athletes often can’t visualize the task clearly. They lack a clear idea of what it is they’re working for and what, exactly, it’s supposed to look like. This missing piece keeps athletes from being able to provide feedback for themselves about their own performance.
As coaches, we need to help our athletes build better mental representations of the skills, drills, and strategies required of them. When breaking out to practice a drill or diving deep into a scrimmage session, provide the blueprint for your athletes.
- Create a hierarchy of focus for them so that each athlete knows exactly what they should be doing and why.
- Demonstrate what it looks AND how it impacts game play at large.
- Provide specific cues, in sequence, to help athletes bridge the gap between the way they can currently execute the skill/strategy and higher level execution.
IN PRACTICE that can be something as simple as saying, “If you struggle with stopping quickly enough to execute this skill then your focus is to get lower as you come to a halt. If you can stop quickly, but can’t keep your head up, focus on keeping your eyes up and across the field.” This works three-fold: 1) focal points allow for deliberate practice of a specific skill set, 2) it allows athletes practice at self-assessing their skill set, and 3) it provides a scaffolded approach to building a specific skill set.
2) PUSH PAST THEIR COMFORT ZONE.
Growth doesn’t happen in places that we are already comfortable, but humans like to remain in their safe bubble. A coach trying to grow skills and build successful athletes also needs to be a coach that is willing to push and prod them past where they feel confident.
True moments of growth and “flow” don’t occur when tasks are too easy. They also don’t occur when tasks are ridiculously hard. The best way to keep athletes within a deliberate practice mindset is to prod them gently when they’re not challenging themselves enough. But also to pull them back when they’re trying something way beyond them.
This is another aspect of scaffolding skills. Push them to move to the next skill a little early, but don’t allow them to jump to the 4th skill if they just mastered the 1st.
3) UNDERSTAND DELIBERATE PRACTICE IS TIRING.
Practicing the right way, to increase growth in athletic skill, is as much a mental endeavor as a physical one. Deliberate practice will quickly drain the energy reserves of athletes. So plan for it.
Spend time considering how you’ll break up times of deliberate practice with times of automated execution. Putting the newly practiced skill to use in a way that mimics game play and all of the distractions that come with it. This is the true test of whether or not skills have improved through deliberate practice.
Give your athletes mental breaks in the same way that you would provide them with physical ones.
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My year coaching junior high school level high jumpers wasn’t the most illustrious time of my coaching career. But it illustrated the difference between a serious athlete and a deliberate athlete. Serious athletes can see growth in their skill set. They seem focused in practice. They’re committed to their sport. But they aren’t practicing the right way to see the biggest improvement.
The good news is that it’s a short trip from serious to deliberate. And coaches can help act as the bridge.