PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

How to make your kid good at anything, according to a world expert on peak performance

K. Anders Ericsson has spent 30 years studying people who are exceptional at what they do, and trying to figure out how they got to be so good. His conclusion: in most cases, talent doesn’t matter—practice does.

The practice he advocates is not hitting 100,000 golf balls or spending 10,000 hours doing scales on the cello, even though it was his work that Malcolm Gladwell used to popularize the 10,000-hour benchmark in Outliers (incorrectly, Ericsson argues). Instead, Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, believes that anyone can get good at anything if they engage in “deliberate practice,” a very specific kind of training that, among other things, is really unpleasant.

Deliberate practice involves the pursuit of personal improvement via well-defined, specific goals and targeted areas of expertise. It requires a teacher or coach who has demonstrated an ability to help others improve the desired area of expertise—say chess, ballet, or music—and who can give continuous feedback. It also requires constantly practicing outside of one’s comfort zone.

In other words, it’s not how much you practice, but how you do it.

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs during the Dan David Prize award ceremony in University of Tel Aviv May 21, 2006. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen - RTR1DM0K
Can my kid do that? (Reuters/Gil Cohen)

Ericsson’s formula (pdf) is appealing: “practice makes perfect” is inherently preferable to genetic determinism. It’s also a Tiger Parent’s fantasy (paywall): by discarding innate ability for systematic effort, any kid with enough deliberate practice—and parents with a lot of time and money—can become a concert-level pianist or an Olympic figure skater.

The professor has found that “serious practice” at a young age is associated with elite adult performance later, with this early engagement shown to “change neuronal myelinization of particular regions of the brain in children and adolescents.” Translation: start early, and all that practice rewires the brain.

Ericsson, who has two kids, argues this is not necessarily the message parents should take away from Peak, nor his 30 years of research. What parents should glean from the science of expertise is not the effect of logging thousands of hours, but how to get kids to embrace the importance and challenge of effective practice.

“The goal should not be, ‘if you are not a world champion you are a failure,’” he says. “It’s learning the process of engaging in practice and engaging with teachers,” he notes. Being able to accept feedback and self-assess is key.

Not so fast

Imagine if you could help your child study 1% better. Over his or her lifetime, that improvement would make a big difference. This is why Ericsson says helping kids to improve their practice is more important than blindly racking up 10,000 hours on a certain task.

 Cognitive scientists bristle at the notion that innate ability does not matter. Parents can model good practice habits, but they must eventually “delegate the responsibility of the training,” he says. This will make a difference when the child grows up and (probably) does not become a professional athlete or musician. “The self-confidence of mastery and attributing it to their own doing—that will put them in a good position when they start a professional career,” he adds.

(Scroll to the bottom for an example of how deliberate practice differs from normal practice.)

Cognitive scientists bristle at the notion that innate ability does not matter: there is no way that every kid who loves cello can become Yo Yo Ma, or every kid who loves soccer will become Mia Hamm.

Douglas Detterman, a psychology professor at Case Western University, cites a number of factors that researchers have linked to expert performance, including intelligence, motivation, and personality. “Ericsson denies ability differences and claims that all differences are due to instructional differences,” he says. “I find that to be blatantly ridiculous.”

Serena Williams of the U.S. chases down a forehand to Roberta Vinci of Italy during their women's singles semi-final match at the U.S. Open Championships Tennis tournament in New York, September 11, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - RTSOE1
Can my kid can do that? (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Indeed, criticisms of Ericsson’s work come from all directions, perhaps because of his magical one-solution approach. After years of raging debate over nature versus nurture, most scientists agree that both play a role. “A major reason for the shortcomings of the deliberate practice theory is its extreme environmentalist perspective,” wrote Frederik Ullén in a paper that argues expertise stems from many factors, including genes. A 2016 meta-analysis of sports research suggests that deliberate practice accounts for only 18% of variance in performance among all athletes, and only 1% among elite-level performers.

Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, and a fan of Ericsson’s work, explained it this way in Scientific American:

“The development of high achievement involves a complex interaction of many personal and environmental variables that feed off each other in non-linear, mutually reinforcing, and nuanced ways, and that the most complete understanding of the development of elite performance can only be arrived through an integration of perspectives.”

Proof that practice makes perfect

In 1763, a seven-year-old kid named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart embarked on a European tour. Crowds flocked to see the prodigy. He could play multiple musical instruments with ease. More impressively, he had “absolute” or perfect pitch, the ability to identify any note played on any instrument at any time. Such a talent is incredibly rare—it was believed that only one in every 10,000 people had it—and helped to explain the young boy’s extraordinary talent, Ericsson writes in Peak.

Today, compared with kids trained in Suzuki piano, a young Mozart would probably be considered pretty average, Ericsson argues. (The professor studied the Suzuki method for a chapter in Genius of the the Mind, which addresses what kids play now versus what Mozart played then.)

 Today, a young Mozart would probably be considered pretty average. More than 250 years after Mozart wowed the world, research shows that perfect pitch is more common than previously thought, especially among people who speak languages in which tone is important, like Mandarin and Vietnamese.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, it can be taught.

In an experiment at a music school in Tokyo, 24 children between the ages of two and six were taught to recognize chords (composed of major notes) played on a piano. The kids received four or five short training sessions per day, each just a few minutes, until they could name 14 targeted chords. Within a year and a half, all could do it.

Mozart had the making of someone engaged in deliberate practice: he started very early, played a lot, and had a teacher—his father—who was dedicated to improving his abilities. (His sister was also incredibly accomplished, but she was born a girl in 1763, which limited her opportunities.) By the time Mozart toured Europe, he had dedicated far more time to music than the year-and-a-half the Japanese children spent learning perfect pitch. According to Ericsson, Mozart and the Japanese kids had a lot in common: “They were all endowed with a brain so flexible and adaptable that it could, with the right sort of training, develop a capacity that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess it.”

COHEN FROM THE U.S. PERFORMS DURING THE GALA EXHIBITION OF THE WORLD FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS IN DORTMUND.  Sasha Cohen from the U.S. performs during the gala exhibition of the World Figure Skating Championships in Dortmund, 28 March 2004. Cohen placed second in the women's free skating competition REUTERS/Ina Fassbender REUTERS - RTRUUDA
Can my kid do that? (Reuters/Ina Fassbender)

Ericsson rattles off other examples of how deliberate practice helps rewire the brain. There’s the famous study of London taxi drivers, who developed larger hippocampi after memorizing the city’s bewildering grid. Or Steve Faloon, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon who could remember seven digits at a time before training and a staggering 82 after; the Polgar sisters and their extraordinary chess feats; and a Danish psychologist who wanted to sing like Whitney Houston but can hardly carry a tune—and ends up recording an successful album.

From all this, it seems that with focus, any child can be taught to be a tennis star or chess champion. The experience of trying to reach that level, too, could help them get into college and later, land a good job: Goldman Sachs famously recruits athletes for their discipline and single-minded focus. So why doesn’t every parent adopt this approach?

One reason is that a lot of people think Ericsson is wrong.

Enter the doubters

In 2014, an entire issue of the academic journal Intelligence was devoted to articles disputing Ericsson’s work, arguing that IQ and other factors like motivation, range of motion, and the varied timing that some creative talents develop matter just as much as practice.

In the journal, one group of researchers reanalyzed six studies involving chess and eight involving music to determine how much of the performance variance could be accounted for by deliberate practice. In both fields, less than half of the variance in performance was down to deliberate practice, the authors concluded.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles as he looks back at his competition, whilst winning the 100-meter semi-final sprint, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Bolt is regarded as the fastest human ever timed. He is the first person to hold both the 100-meter and 200-meter world records since fully automatic time became mandatory. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSYEQ5
Can my kid to that? (Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Case Western’s Detterman believes that it’s unfair to tell people they can accomplish anything. “People are limited by their abilities,” he says. “It is unfair to the less able to claim that with sufficient hard work they can accomplish what those more gifted achieve.” Others say that Ericsson’s work could lead people to waste a significant share of their lives trying to acquire expertise that will never come.

Zach Hambrick, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has found in numerous studies and meta analyses that deliberate practice plays a role in performance, but not by as much as Ericsson suggests. His research has shown that practice itself is heritable, and that deliberate practice cannot explain away all genetic differences (pdf). “What we find is that deliberate practice, however it is measured and operationalized in studies, accounts for a sizable amount of the variability across people, but it leaves even more of the difference or variance unexplained,” he says.

He believes that a better understanding of what limits peoples abilities will help them decide how to spend their time and resources more carefully. If working memory is crucial for sight-reading music, someone with a bad working memory can either deliberately target ways to improve it—or maybe just switch to soccer. “This will allow more people to become experts,” he argues.

Some researchers also point out methodological problems with Ericsson’s work, such as the fact that when he studies experts, he starts by selecting a group of experts. In other words, they are not random.

There are other issues, Detterman writes: “In most cases, the study of experts concentrates on areas of expertise where there is no uniform, universal instruction. These areas include music, chess, art, gambling, memory, and other domains in which not everyone is instructed in a rigorous and systematic way.”

 It’s not that innate talent is unnecessary, only that there is no evidence that it exists for most fields. Ericsson’s rebuttal stems on his very specific definition of expertise: “consistently superior performance on a specified set of representative tasks for a domain.” There aren’t any age conditions, so if a kid can read exceptionally well at six, but most kids can read at that level at eight, it doesn’t count as expertise. Ericsson also excludes height and body size, acknowledging that you need to be tall to be successful in basketball and small to succeed in gymnastics at the highest level.

He says it’s not that innate talent is unnecessary, only that there is no evidence that it exists for most fields. He concedes that IQ may play a role early on, but says it isn’t the factor that determines whether someone reaches the highest echelons of performance. His definition of deliberate practice is also very narrow, and his criticism of the research debunking his work is often that the practice they reflect is not deliberate practice in its pure form.

Nature versus nurture, over and over

For most parents, the nature-versus-nurture debate is academic. What matters most is how to help kids become their best selves. Parents spend a lot of time thinking about how to help with math or science, reading or soccer, but perhaps they should also devote attention to thinking about the science of practice.

Russia's Garry Kasparov (R) sits opposite his countryfellow Anatoly Karpov at the beginning of their action chess game at the Giant Chess Classics in Frankfurt, June 29. It's the first time since 1995 that the World Champions Kasparov and Karpov are playing against each other.

KP/AA - RTR11JNP
Can my kid do that? (Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach)

As kids pick their passions, and hone their own practice routines, parents can borrow from Ericsson’s work to help their children learn to set and track goals, be aware of the quality of their coaching, and consider specific improvements to practice instead of just adding more hours on the court, in the pool, or with the flashcards. Less is more if practice is intentionally designed, which is not often the case.

Success at something often begets success at something else. Accomplished surgeons often cite some other passion they found as a child that they built upon: a love of karate as a kid, say, led to practicing it endlessly, which in turn led to success and boosted confidence that manifested itself in the motivation to conquer other fields.

Somewhere in this process, kids learn that passion and hard work create a virtuous cycle that is particularly fulfilling when it is self-directed. It is up to children to pick their passions and put in the work, but parents can set them up for success by making them experts in the art of practice.


An example of normal practice versus deliberate practice

Practice

  • Start with a general idea of what the kid wants to do (play tennis)
  • Find a tennis group or lessons, play with parents, siblings, friends
  • Practice until kid reaches an acceptable level
  • Get a coach
  • Play more
  • Continue improving

Deliberate practice

  • Start with a general idea of what the kid wants to do (play tennis)
  • Find a tennis group or lessons, play with parents, siblings, friends
  • Practice until kid reaches an acceptable level
  • Get a coach who can set specific targets and tailor practice to improve those areas (improve forehand, vary rallies)
  • Develop a way to 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
  • Create positive channels for feedback so that modifications are continuous (like learning how not to reveal intentions to opponent)
  • Develop a mental representation of excellent performance: what to do in various game situations; how to respond to certain shots; when to take risks and try new things
  • Coach designs developmentally appropriate training sessions to achieve maximum effort and concentration. “It’s counter-productive for a parent or teacher to push them longer than they can,” Ericsson says. “That creates motivational problems and forces the child to do the best they can when they don’t have 100% concentration. That’s linked to developing bad habits”
  • Kid learns to self-assess and come up with own mental representations, so they feel in charge and able to exploit opportunities on the court
  • Kid develops own training sessions to elicit maximum effort and concentration, acknowledging physical and mental limits, and learns to use self-assessment to address weaknesses

 


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