MY FAVORITE study of deliberate practice for athletes - improving performance AND practice behaviors
You may not be an avid golfer - but if you are an athlete (or any professional in sales, coaching, etc) you definitely want to read this post! We are going to dive into the powerful effects of incorporating deliberate practice into your daily routine. The impressive thing about this study is that it connects the concept (of deliberate practice) with the practical. Many concepts sound great but often times we struggle to apply them in real life. Check out the title of the study below and pay attention to the highlighted words.
My favorite part of this study is that it focuses on two key components: performance AND practice behaviors. Many times athletes implement a practice plan to improve a specific skill. But when they don't see the intended results within the first week or two, they give up on their practice plan. Commitment and motivation fade. The belief..."I tried and failed to see results" is adopted. This debilitating belief pushes the athlete into a fixed mindset without them even noticing. Worse yet, their fixed mindset negatively affects future practice behaviors. This is the detrimental result of focusing only on short-term results and neglecting practice behaviors.
focusing only on short-term results distracts us from molding optimal practice behaviors - which are the key to long-term results
Mindset affects behaviors. Behaviors determine results. Therefore, let's help athletes focus on the behaviors (growth mindset and deliberate practice) that produce long-term results.
With this in mind - let's check out this real life example of a deliberate practice intervention with young golfers!
Deliberate Practice Design
This study examined the impact that a deliberate practice intervention had upon the putting performance and practice behaviors of 5 young golfers. Like many athletes, these 5 golfers held the belief that they would improve performance by simply playing more golf - as demonstrated in the quote below from a participant...
"My golf routine was just practicing on the course really, nine holes in the morning and nine in the afternoon during the holidays and summer and hardly anything in the winter except for the games for my club."
I’m sure you and your teammates can relate to the approach above (i.e. the more I play the better I’ll get). This is a perfect approach if you want to be average. But if your intention is to get better, then you must learn how to deliberately practice.
deliberate practice is an essential life skill that equips people with an effective approach to develop their skills - way more important than any individual sport or technical skill
Here’s how they designed the deliberate practice sessions for these aspiring golfers to improve putting performance:
- Each Friday the golfers would measure their putting performance by taking 10 putts (at different locations) from a distance of eight feet. Performance is measured by awarding 1 point for each made putt and 0 points for a missed putt.
- Golfers would deliberately practice 4 times a week (Mon-Thur). Each session was designed to take about 20-30 minutes to complete. Participants would precisely place 10 tees into the ground at varying distances: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27 and 30 feet respectively. They would putt once at each distance and were awarded 2 points for a make, and minus a point for a miss. They would go through this drill twice for a total of 20 putts.
How simple is that?!?! My favorite part of the deliberate practice sessions is that they focused on quality over quantity (only 20 total putts each day!). Second, they developed a simple scoring system to measure their performance.
Impact on Putting Performance
So these golfers were taking only 20 putts each deliberate practice session. Most importantly, each putt was a purposeful rep.
So what type of impact would you expect 20 putts a day to have on performance? Look at the pictures below for results of each participant. The graphs represent the putting performance of each participant measured on a weekly basis. The yellow line indicates the start of the deliberate practice intervention. The last picture highlights the performance improvement for all 5 participants: 61%, 34%, 30%, 19%, and 15% respectively.
As you look at the results of this simple intervention, I ask you to share one important message with your team...
Skill development does NOT follow a consistent path towards improvement (as seen in the graphs below). You don't practice one day (or one week) and wake up tomorrow magically better. It's ugly at times. It's difficult to stick with it. But if you commit to deliberate practice, you will enjoy improved results over time - as demonstrated in this study. You must have the grit to persist through adversity even when you don't see the short-term results...yet!!
Impact on Practice Behaviors
While results are great, my mission with Flow Training is ultimately to help teams and individuals create more effective practice behaviors - because the quality of your mindset and practice behaviors will determine your results. This study is so important because it demonstrated the impact that deliberate practice had upon results AND future practice behaviors.
After 5 months the researchers followed up with participants to assess the qualitative impact of the intervention. Check out the responses:
- "This was something really different but useful for me to get better and it was so much harder doing that than playing nine holes with my mates. This is the best block of training I have ever done and I actually really liked doing it and it has sort of made me realize I can be really good at this game if I work hard enough."
- "The drill was hard and really needed focusing on, which I liked as I don't really do this at all normally in practice or in my matches."
- "This is so different to what I normally do but I'm sticking with it because it will get me to where I want to be in a few more years time once I have finished college."
- "I have spent much more time recently on the greens instead of traveling around and playing on the college tours and if you would have asked me that at the start of the year I would have laughed as I was just playing all the time thinking this was the only way to improve."
- "I now use lots of putting practices instead of just moping around the putting green and hitting random shots."
If you takeaway anything from this study, let it be this...
Stop wasting your time with naive practice. And stop focusing on short-term results. Learn the core components of deliberate practice (learn more here), then apply those behaviors into your daily practice routine. Remember, your journey to skill improvement begins with the belief (i.e. growth mindset) that you can improve. Don't let poor practice behaviors and a fixed mindset derail your development goals.
If you are digging this post share it with your team, leave a comment below, or tweet it to the world! I'd love to hear how you and your team are implementing deliberate practice to improve your skills. You can find more information on related posts below...
Hayman, Rick; Polman, Remco; Borkoles, Erika; Taylor, Jamie. The Influence of a Deliberate Practice Intervention on the Putting Performance and Subsequent Practice Behaviors of Aspiring Elite Adolescent Golfers. Talent Development & Excellence: Vol 5, No. 2, 2013.