Is there a certain skill you’ve tried to improve upon and struggle to advance it to the next level? Like my buddy Sean who talks about how he can’t consistently shoot 3-pointers in city league. One week he nails them all, the next he doesn’t. He says his performance is unexpected from week to week.
Or maybe you’ve taken some classes and practiced a new skill but still can’t seem to improve, let alone master it. Like my colleague Diana who hates public speaking. She’s taken a couple classes but still sweats and stumbles through her words.
Some might ask Sean and Diana, do you practice? They would both say “yes!”
A better question is, how do you practice?
Sean says he shoots around. Diana says she sits at her desk and rehearses her words. This is practice, yes. But it’s poor practice and it’s the reason why they are stalling out.
Think about your own circumstances. Where do you want to take your performance to the next level? Maybe you have been trying to lose weight, learn a new instrument, make a great presentation, or speak up when you disagree in team meetings. You’ve tried, even felt like you’ve really practiced, but you still aren’t where you want to be.
How do you break through the barriers and improve in a sustainable way? The answer likely lies in Deliberate Practice.
What is Deliberate Practice?
Anders Ericsson is the ground-breaking researcher behind the science of expertise. Through decades of research, Ericsson has shown that nearly anyone can become an expert through specific and intentional practice over time coupled with immediate feedback from a skilled coach, and a focus on staying out of the comfort zone.
Through this approach to practice, his research has found that nearly anyone can become an expert. To learn more, read Peak: The New Science of Expertise.
When it comes to day-to-day work and life, very few of us need to perform at an expert level. The intensity and focus that Ericsson has identified are more than what most of us need. However, learning something new or improving ourselves is not only satisfying, but also important to how we flourish which is core to our well-being.
Deliberate Practice is strategic and intentional. This approach will help anyone improve their performance in just about anything, including Sean and Diana.
The Elements of Deliberate Practice
Stop trying harder, try differently. This is the foundation of Deliberate Practice, and it makes me reflect on my own performance. How many times have I just kept trying harder, doing the same thing, and feeling the frustration of minimal results? Too many to count. Deliberate Practice puts a stop to this and provides a framework.
Focus on a Small and Specific Goal
It is natural to identify one lofty goal for performance such as “I want make every shot I take.” Or “I want to deliver this presentation flawlessly.” or “I want to lose 25lbs.” But often, broad goals drown out the small steps that need to be taken to get to the desired outcome. Often, what is really holding us back is a deficit in one of those small steps.
Instead of a broad goal, break performance into small parts, evaluate which parts need improvement, and set a goal that focuses attention on one part. Once mastery is achieved in that one part, move on to the next. This approach achieves better, longer lasting results.
Often, the trickiest part is breaking performance down into small parts. Which is why the next element is so helpful.
Partner with a Coach
This might be one of the most important aspects of improving performance. This is to partner with someone who can observe and give feedback. Ericsson recommends a highly skilled expert as a coach. This isn’t always necessary. It can be a friend or a trusted colleague. The point is to not go at it alone.
My friend Diana hired a coach and he recommended she divide her presentation into five parts and rehearse each part until she achieved mastery. This is how he helped her focus on a specific goal. He also noticed how she struggled to maintain her breath while she was speaking. He told her “You sound winded.” Diana explained it was her nerves.
He disagreed; he thought her posture was the problem. He suggested she stand and helped her redesign her desk space so that she could stand during her virtual presentations. This made a remarkable improvement on her delivery and in turn, also made her feel more confident and less nervous.
Get Out of the Comfort Zone
When we practice, we often gravitate to the easiest aspects of our performance. This is what Sean did by just “shooting around”. It was comfortable and is also the most likely reason why he hadn’t improved much.
In Diana’s case, seeing people staring back at her on her laptop screen is what made her most nervous. When she did her run-throughs, she did them by herself (to avoid the discomfort). To overcome her nerves, her coach advised her to practice in front of others in a virtual setting, like her co-workers.
Diana dreaded this and thought practicing this way would be painful, but the opposite happened. It amped up her confidence by providing her with more feedback (positive feedback) from trusted colleagues.
Our performance largely boils down to how we practice. We can just “shoot around” or practice alone in our office or we can examine what we do and focus on small parts, work with a coach, and get out of our comfort zone.
The next time you hear yourself say “I’m never going to get this.” or “I just don’t have the talent to do that.”, examine how you practice. Likely, you’ve hit a plateau of sorts that simply needs a break-through. That break-through may very likely be found in Deliberate Practice.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.