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What makes elite athletes: Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice: What separates elite athletes from the rest

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Have you ever wondered what makes your favourite elite athletes so good? How Kylian Mbappe can dribble at such speed? How Trayvon Bromwell can get out of the blocks so quickly? How Steph Curry can jump so high during his lay ups?

These are all valid questions that may lead us to believe elite athletes are just super humans, that these qualities are engraved in their genes. However, if we thought this, we would be wrong. There is no doubt that elite athletes have pure talent, but it isn’t the only thing that got them to the top.

We always talk about practice being key to success, but today we want to be specific about the type of practice that helps the most: Deliberate Practice. The sports psychology team at Inner Drive have been researching Deliberate Practice and how it aids athletic performance – here’s what we’ve found.

What is Deliberate Practice?

Let’s start with the term itself: Deliberate Practice consists in performing tasks repetitively with the explicit goal of improving performance. Doing this allows for immediate and accurate feedback, whether from coaches or the athletes themselves, helping athletes to better their skills in specific areas.

So, does this make innate talent a truth or a myth? It’s easy to think that the top performing elite athletes are superhuman or have been blessed with a rare gift, that no one can touch their abilities and that their talent cannot be learnt.

While genetic ability does play a small role, you and your sporting heroes actually have very similar general capabilities for both body movement and brain function. So, what earned them their spot at the top? Simply put, these athletes tend to go to extreme lengths to perform well consistently while gaining skill and knowledge.

How? Through Deliberate Practice.

What does research say about Deliberate Practice?

One of the key ingredients that separates a novice from an expert and allows for extraordinary performance is Deliberate Practice. It helps athletes to be more in tune with their bodies, ultimately improving performance.

According to research, there are four features of Deliberate Practice:

  1. Structure
  2. Goals
  3. Feedback
  4. Repetition

1. Deliberate Practice: Structure

This refers to an activity explicitly defined for training purposes and often created by a coach. These techniques are meant to be used out of competition and between sessions with coaches. Structure sessions may look different depending on what you are working on. For example, a gymnast who is practicing their beam could verbalise the word “spot” whilst training to help them spot the beam whilst turning and stop them from falling off.

On the other hand, you could use a more physical approach during Deliberate Practice. For example, a sprinter could place a cone in front of their lead leg during a block start with the aim to knock it over for low heel recovery practice.

2. Deliberate Practice: Goals

The ultimate goal of Deliberate Practice is to improve performance. However, this often involves setting clear sub-goals or process goals, which are usually paired with a structured activity that help athletes perform skills more successfully.

Looking at one of the earlier examples, in the case of a gymnast who set the goal of landing their beam turning, verbalising “spot” to help them spot the beam will facilitate this. Or maybe you’re a footballer with the goal of improving agility: dribbling around cones at full speed could facilitate this.

3. Deliberate Practice: Feedback

Feedback is a very important aspect of Deliberate Practice in terms of skill development. Whether it comes from a coach or from an athlete’s success with the task itself, successful Deliberate Practice requires clear feedback, which should help athletes to be mindful of their actions.

For example, a tennis player aiming to hit the ball in the back corner of the court will receive immediate feedback from the task itself as they can clearly see whether the ball went in the back corner or not.

However, feedback isn’t limited to a clear yes or no achievement or winning or losing. This is where coaches come in, because they can give specific cues to help correct errors and improve skills.

4. Deliberate Practice: Repetition

A defining characteristic of Deliberate Practice is repetition. This means you need to dedicate time to improve on a specific skill. When you perform actions over and over again, it slowly makes the movements automatic.

Key to this is dedicating as much time to it as possible, which doesn’t need to be confined to competitions or training sessions. For example, if you have a goal to improve hip mobility, you don’t need to have your coach present or limit stretching sessions to training – you can stretch and do mobility exercises from the comfort of your own home.

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3 tips to help you with Deliberate Practice

Using Deliberate Practice will boost not only your training but also your performance. Here are three tips to get you going:

  1. Set small goals during training
  2. Remember repetition is key
  3. Engage with your feedback

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this blog has helped you to understand that although talent plays a huge role in success, the way you practise plays an even bigger role.

Deliberate Practice has proven to be the key to athletic achievement. Using our tips to help you engage with this type of practice properly can put you ahead of your opponents and allow you to thrive in your sport.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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