Deliberate Practice

Don’t laugh, I’m secretly a shark…

Billiards seemed fitting for this article.

I have a special bonus today, I recorded a my first and only audio version of this post (back when it was called Art of Weight Loss)!

Deliberate Practice Podcast

I love the work of professor K.Anders Ericsson at the University of Florida, and you’ve seen his work quoted on SBF before.

You may have even read about him in best-selling books like Malcolm Gladwell‘s ‘Outliers.’

He’s is the man who came up with the term ‘deliberate practice,‘ and it completely puts to bed the whole notion, that ‘talent is born and not created.’ 

True Talent

True talent is created, even if there are a multitude of factors that influence it.

Sure, you might need some natural/genetic help and an inclination along the way.

Basketball or volleyball players being taller than average people for example. Yet there are plenty of tall people who can’t play basketball too.

Having a ‘natural aptitude‘ isn’t enough and won’t make you a world-class-anything on it’s own. Without a hell of a lot of solid, deliberate practice as part of the process.

Even to get a little proficient with nutrition, fitness or mindset skills you’ll need at least a little deliberate practice too.

How often have you told yourself, ‘I’m just not naturally skinny?’ 

Turns out, all is not lost for you — especially if you learn to adopt a growth mindset — if you can learn to practice skills and get better.

One of Ericsson’s core research findings was that becoming competent (or an expert) at any skill or ability has much more to do with how one practices than innate skill or ability.

Practice alone isn’t enough. Natural ability isn’t enough. There is a little more to it than just merely performing a skill a large number of times.

So ya, you can show up to a fitness class and practice your squats all you want, but it might not actually make you better at squatting.

Likewise, you can practice any of the skills I’ve listed in the past on SBF and still come up short.

What friggin’ gives, right?

The idea of us getting better at things simply by going through the motions is inherently flawed. It’s how you practice that matters. That means deliberately thinking about how you’re executing them.

Plan. Track. Tweak. For every skill.

You have to start thinking a bit like an expert. Even if you don’t need to be one to achieve your fitness goals.

How to Think Like an Expert

Experts adopt deliberate practice mindsets.

You know that guy or gal in school, who always got top grades?

Ya you might credit that success to a rather typical assumption; That they were just naturally gifted. The more probable thing happening?

They were going home every day and deliberately practicing their homework for two-three hours every night, while we played video games or watched TV.

People having a ton of success are often doing things you don’t see or expect.

Experts break down skills into the sums of their requisite parts. Then they focus on improving each skill in ‘chunks‘ or ‘pieces‘ during their practice.

If you want to get better at eating lean protein regularly, you need to first figure out what lean proteins are.

  • Where do you find them?
  • What meals get what?
  • What meals do you have the most control over?
  • What is a serving?
  • What ones do you like?
  • What are the best ways to cook them?
  • How can you find/cook them in a pinch?
  • What is a good variety for consumption? i.e. eating chicken breast all the time is boring and likely not great for you long-term
  • How do you improve the quality of your choices?
  • How do you work towards more and more lean options?
  • How do you order them if you’re eating out at a restaurant?
  • What about at a party?
  • What are your backup options?
  • What plan do you have in place for flexibility? i.e. when they’re aren’t good options, or what I’d call ‘damage control’

I could go on. This is how you make a pretty abstract skill (eat more lean protein) into something concrete. Something that works for you.

Break It Down, Focus on Areas of Improvement

Almost all of those additional questions can be applied to any nutrition skill.

If you’re taking any specific nutrition/fitness advice from me or this website, I encourage you break them down further. Apply them to you.

Then develop a specific plan of attack and build upon that, brick-by-brick.

Find the bright spots in your approach to maintain some positive momentum, but also challenge yourself to improve upon your weaknesses.

My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.

~ Michael Jordan

The best practice weak areas, but for you it’s important to work on weak areas that you’re confident you can improve.

Don’t tackle your biggest, toughest weaknesses, just for the sake of it. Build momentum with small improvements.

Yin and yang balance continuing to do what you’re already good at, and slowly improving upon other weak areas.

Or as I tell all my athletic clients; deliberate practice is for working on your weaknesses, game time is for playing to your strengths.

Challenge Yourself Periodically

Another important concept within deliberate practice. You must continually practice a skill at more and more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.

Once you’ve turned something into a strength, it’s important to continue increasing the difficulty, to incur subsequent growth. Just don’t major in the minor details.

So it is important to understand the nature of progression here and sometimes lateralization.

Progression means making things a little more difficult, once they become easy to execute. Lateralization basically means sidestepping things if they aren’t appropriate right now.

For example, I sometimes I have a client that just isn’t getting a movement.

Rather than continue to beat that movement into their heads, we’ll just switch gears a bit and find something similar that works. A swing maybe instead of a deadlift.

Or maybe you struggle with the idea of eating a little more fat via fish intake, after all it seems a little counterintuitive.

So maybe we just stipulate the type of fat to focus on with some fish oil or algae oil in the meantime, until eating a little more fish is feasible.

There is no sense in beating a dead horse.

Maybe it’s never feasible?? That’s OK too, that’s all part of the process.

“Moving on or moving around an issue, doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re smart.”

Get Feedback

Anders research also notes that this deliberate practice is often paired with immediate coaching feedback.

That same guy or gal getting top grades? Teachers Pet, right?

Again, turns out they were probably just better at getting the right amount of feedback and coaching from teachers, rather than trying to learn everything in class, like the rest of us.

Anyone wonder why I love coaching so much anymore?

Coaching is a critical component to getting better at losing weight and keeping it off, just like any other skill or ability.

We all need an objective viewpoint to help us come back to addressing the stuff we don’t necessarily want to do, but must improve, if we’re attempting to grow our skill-set.

If you don’t have that, then you need to develop your measuring and tracking skills. You have to get good at collecting data on your own process, so that you get your own feedback.

Tweaking is really important for deliberate practice. If you don’t have a mentor or a coach providing that for you, you need to find another way to get it.

Tracking and measuring your progress is really the only way. If you’re doing this on your own and you’re not tracking progress at least every two weeks, you’ll make it harder on yourself.

Ideally you track if you practiced your skill every day or every other day. All it takes is a checkmark on a calendar.

You Don’t Have To Be Superhuman

People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults. We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

~K. Anders Ericsson

Regular people are making this work all the time. They have no intention of becoming an expert. There is absolutely no need for you to possess the level of knowledge your coach does.

Ericsson’s same research shows that you can develop competency (that is above average skills) with as little as 250 hours of deliberate practice.

Don’t get spooked by that 10,000 hour rule, you won’t need it.

If you want to learn how to lose weight and keep it off, then you should start educating yourself on the successful skills that skinnier people possess.

Then practice those skills for a few hours deliberately over a period of time. I like a minimum of two week intervals but you will likely need longer to fully develop a skill.

You can switch gears though. Take on another skill, then come back to make an existing skill more complex in your next burst of practice.

Notice I said skills and not ‘program’ or ‘meal plans.’ Those are too fixed.

Let me know what you think about the podcast version of this too…

Further Reading

For further reading on the concept of deliberate practice check out the following books:

Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin

The Talent Code‘ by Daniel Boyle

Bounce” by Matthew Syed

Or straight from the horses mouth: “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance” by K. Anders Ericsson, et al


Also published on Medium.