Revisiting Deliberate Practice
If you have been following along with what I have been sharing the past couple of weeks on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, you’ll see what I’ve spent quite a deal of time discussing deliberate practice. I first discussed the topic a few years ago. I’ve written about it in the past and shared some insight, but I didn’t really speak about the research behind the topic.
In his book Peak, Dr. Anders Ericsson introduced us to the term deliberate practice and the research behind the topic. Over the course of his research career, Dr. Ericsson focused his time on studying experts in the fields of music, medicine, athletics, education, and business. What he discovered was that contrary to the 10,000 hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, was that the quality of the time spent practicing a specific skill was more important than the total amount of hours spent practicing that specific skill.
Essentially Dr. Ericsson’s research suggests that quality, and not necessarily quantity, is what will give individuals the best opportunity to become experts in their chosen fields.
I find Dr. Ericsson’s research is rather interesting. It may go against some societal norms that suggest how much time we spend on something is going to produce higher quality results compared to the time spent on trying to accomplish something.
Dan Chambliss found similarities in his research that examined national caliber swimmers training for the 1984 Olympic Games. Dr. Chambliss found that when a group of like minded individuals (swimmers) are completing the same tasks (mundane) in a highly competitive environment (Mission Viejo) over a long period of time (Olympic Quad) with consistent feedback and refinement from their coach, they give themselves a better opportunity to achieve their goal (qualify for an Olympic team) compared to their peers that may be missing an ingredient from the recipe shared.
Fast forward 20 years and similar ingredients were brought together to help a different recipe take shape, qualifying for the Olympic Games in track and field. A group of elite level throwers were brought together in 2001/2002 with the aspirations of representing Canada and the United States in the shot-put, hammer, and discus events in international competition. This group was called Ashland Elite. Their coach was 4x Olympian Jud Logan. This group of like minded individuals (throwers) were following similar training plans (mundane) in a highly competitive environment (Ashland Elite; Ashland, OH) over a long period of time (Olympic quads) with consistent feedback and refinement from Jud. This training group produced Olympic Games qualifiers in Kibwe Johnson (2012, 2016) and A.G. Kruger (2004, 2008, 2012) in the hammer throw. Derek and Joe Woodske represented Canada in international competition in the hammer throw. Crystal (Smith) Johnson also represented Canada in international competition in the hammer throw. Adriane (Blewitt) Wilson competed at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Trials in the shot-put and has gone on to win 5 world championships in the Highland Games. The right combination of ingredients were mixed together that ended up producing quite a potent recipe for athlete success.
When replicated under different training conditions (track and field-throwing and swimming) similar athlete outcomes are achieved. It is certainly a conversation for a different day, but under the right circumstances with a determined end result high level athletes tend to achieve their goals. In these two examples, the end results were representing their respective countries in international competition. On the surface it seems like an easy recipe to put together. A difficult ingredient to measure out is sacrifice, the willingness to put other aspirations (life) on hold long enough for one to achieve their unique and specific goal.
Anders, Dan, and Jud all shared similar outlooks when it came to what it took to reach a certain level of elite status as an athlete. They understood that under the right conditions and quality amounts of time that elite athletes would be better able to achieve their goals. Now it isn’t to say that elite level athletes training alone won’t achieve their goals, but training with a group under the watchful eye of a coach gives the athletes a better chance. It makes sense considering that there are Olympic training centers around the United States (Chula Vista, CA, Colorado Springs, CO, Geneva, OH, and Lake Placid, NY) in place to give elite athletes the opportunity to qualify for the Olympic Games. When referring back to our figure on deliberate practice, the Olympic training centers are all following the same pattern, bringing together elite athletes so that they can 100% focus on their goals under the watchful eyes of coaches that give the athletes the best possible opportunities to qualify for an Olympic Games.
From the conclusion of our CSAC championships in 2021 to the start of the same championship in 2022 there were exactly 365 days. Depending on your perspective, that is either a long time or not enough time. As a coach, I error on the latter. For an athlete, I would guess the former.
When attempting to discuss goals and long-term aspirations with athletes, I try to take a year by year approach to the conversation. We look at what went well, what didn’t go well, and what we think we can do differently for the upcoming season. In most cases, the typical concepts about training harder over the summer, coming back to campus in shape, and being more diligent (not sure how you track this without tracking what diligent is) during the course of the season.
Intentions always begin well and good. The athletes go home for the summer, they have a training program, and things go pretty well for a couple of weeks (maybe even 3 sometimes). Then the reality of training hits, disengagement occurs, and the athletes maybe don’t train as hard as they should. They might miss a session or two, which then snowballs into a week or two. Before they know it, they are back on campus at the end of August with two months of potential lost training time. And then the season begins…
I share this for a couple of reasons. First, last year at our CSAC conference championships, Dylan had a pretty good overall performance. He scored in the shot-put, discus, and hammer competitions.
Overall, he was well within 90% of his then personal best distances. He ended the season with a personal best of 46.16m in the discus and 49m in the hammer. The former set the school record. The week after the competition, at Regionals, we had a conversation about expectations for the upcoming 2021-22 season. We discussed goals, expectations (of course), and aspirations to reach and accomplish his upcoming senior season. Together, we developed a plan that would help him get 365 days later, to our 2022 CSAC conference championships.
So far this season, Dylan has thrown the discus 52.25m (+6m), the hammer 52.84m (+3m), and the shot-put 14.27m (+2m) compared to last season. It is often said that it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. In Dylan’s case, let’s say his collegiate experience (4 years). I’ve known Dylan for two years. He completes all of his weight room sessions, is attentive in practice, and is determined to accomplish his throwing goals. All while balancing a course load as a future engineer and a GPA over 3.8. And then mix in the social aspects of college.
For the younger or new throwers out there that see what I share via social media, if you close enough you’ll see some of the lowlights as well. I try to keep things honest with throwing and my perspective as a coach. We’ve grown from the lows of last year. The highlights are a manifestation of the work and diligence Dylan has put in over the course of the last 365 days. Hitting personal best throws in competition when it matters is great, but also take into consideration the misses and foul outs from prior years.
What I’d like to share is this. It takes hard work, persistence, an open mind, and a willingness to learn in order to develop into an elite level thrower. It does take time. There will be days when you will think to yourself why am I still doing this, or I’m not getting better, or it’s too hard. I can assure you that all of us at one time had thoughts like that. The perceived losses of today help build and illuminate a brighter path for the successes of tomorrow. It’s having a plan, sticking to the plan, and giving your best effort on that plan. It isn’t trying one path for a couple of weeks, then taking a detour for a week, then missing a week, then trying to come back where you left off. It is engaging in conversation with your coach(es) over the summer and figuring out what might not be working and tweaking the path a bit. It is about staying accountable to your process goals. It is about managing expectations. Your expectations. It is as simple as staying true to the course and winning the daily moments. It isn’t easy, but it is that simple.
CSAC Conference Championships
This past weekend Alfred State hosted the 2022 Outdoor CSAC championships. The hammer and discus competitions were held on Saturday, May 7th. The shot-put and javelin competitions were held on Sunday, May 8th (Mother’s Day). As our group of throwers competed over the two days, we couldn’t have scripted a better outcome for their performances.
Nicole, Emma, Kelly, and Kenzie got things going with the first event of the day, the women’s discus. The conditions were good for throwing; about 55 degrees, some sun, and very little wind. Our throwers came ready to compete! Nicole won with a throw of 33.56m, just 1cm off of her personal best. Emma finished 3rd and Kenzie finished 7th. It is the second consecutive year a female thrower from Alfred State won the discus competition. Last year Emma won with a throw just over 30m. (16pts.)
The atmosphere created by our female discus throwers continued into the men’s discus competition. From my recollection, besides attending an outdoor national championship meet, Dylan and Dan had a great duel with monster throws. Dylan won the competition with his 2nd round throw of 52.25m. That is a conference and meet record throw. At the time of this writing (Monday, May 9th, 2022) it currently places him in 3rd overall at the DIII level. Dan finished second with a throw of 49.20m, which currently places him 20th at the DIII level. Dylan had 5 fair throws all over 49.63m. So far, this is his best series of the season. James finished 3rd with a throw of 36.21m, and Wilfredo had a personal best throw of 27.58m. (16pts.)
Continuing with where our female throwers left off in the discus, Nicole hit a big throw of 39.05m to win. Kenzie finished 6th with a throw of 22.41m. (11pts.)
Similar to how the women fared, Dylan won the competition with a throw of 52.53m. This throw is a conference championship meet record. James finished 3rd with a personal best throw of 39.01m. (16pts.)
My overall thoughts about how Day 1 went are nothing short of pleased. Not just pleased with the distances our throwers hit in competition, but with the energy and excitement they competed with. This was fueled by their teammates that were there to watch and cheer everyone on. Yes, the distances are nice, but having support from your teammates and bringing a fire and enthusiasm to competition is exciting to watch as a coach. It wasn’t a pep talk or magical words of encouragement that brought the fire, but a culmination of 26 weeks of work. Having home field advantage is nice, but the competitors from the other teams competing also brought a fire and intensity that I hadn’t yet witnessed in an outdoor competition this season. Everyone was engaged in what was going on and focused on the task at hand. It was a good way to end Day 1, with the hopes of the same energy and excitement spilling over into Day 2.
Emma and Nicole had a great shot-put competition. Emma finished 2nd with a personal best throw of 10.79m. Nicole also had a personal best throw of 10.30m to finish 3rd. Overall, Nicole scored 26 throwing points over the two day competition. Emma scored 14 throwing points over the two day competition. (14pts.)
It was a day of personal best throws! The women got things going, and the men’s squad didn’t disappoint either. Dylan finished 1st with a personal best throw of 14.27m. Wilfredo also hit a personal best throw of 10.07m to finish 7th. Dylan scored 30 points for the men’s squad. He set two conference meet records, as well as overall conference records in the discus and hammer. (10pts.)
This past weekend was a great way to begin the conference championship and postseason part of our competition schedule. All of our throwers showed up to compete, were engaged in what was happening around them, and cheered on their teammates throughout the two day competition.
It was a good day to have a good day. We had plenty of sunshine throughout the whole day’s worth of competition and our throwers left with some nice performances in the men’s and women’s hammer throw, respectively.
We ended on a high note with a personal best performance by Nicole in the hammer. She threw 10’ over her previous best, finishing the day in 10th place with a throw of 42.47m. She hit that mark in the first flight, round 3. The suspense of waiting until the second flight finished was difficult. Unfortunately another thrower in flight 2 hit a mark 12cm (4”) farther than Nicole. She was bumped out of the finals by the slimmest of margins. Nicole also continued to build a solid technical foundation in the discus. She had another meet over 30m, lining herself up for a great throwing weekend as we host the conference championships this weekend.
James and Nicole got our days started with the women’s shot put and men’s discus competitions. James didn’t quite hit the mark we were looking for. He still had 3 fair throws. We worked on some technical cues to get ready for our conference championships this upcoming weekend. We knew there was going to be a chance that he might hit a bigger mark, but that was the risk of the week. Nicole had another great shot day, finishing just under 10m. Nicole built upon her series and ended with a mark of 9.72m, putting herself in great position for our conference championships.
Dylan had another great discus performance. He finished with a throw of 48.40m and won the competition. He had two big fouls in round 5 and 6. We know those throws will be there in the next coming weeks. While looking at the nationals landscape, it’s better to hold one of those throws for Spire on May 26th.
James and Dylan both had personal best performances in the men’s hammer. James threw 35.77m and Dylan threw 52.84m. James improved his personal best by .4m, while Dylan improved by over 3’.
When preparing for meets of this nature a week before the conference, our focus was on 1-2 cues per event for each athlete. The marks were good in the hammer and discus. We tried some new things we have been working on in practice over the past couple of weeks. We knew this meet would be the appropriate time to incorporate some of those new physical and mental strategies before moving forward in practice this week.
Our athletes’ last day of classes are Friday, May 6th. They then begin finals the following Monday. We have managed to stay focused on the task at hand and we have been emphasizing strong technical models in practice. The weight room gains are beginning to show, as well as all the hard work everyone has been putting in this semester. Now it’s time to reward yourself by putting all the throwing puzzle pieces together and having a day at our conference championships. #nextoxup
Dr. Charles Infurna
Charles Infurna, Ed.D., is the owner and lead coach of Forza Athletics Track Club. Dr. Infurna has coached National Record Holders, National Champions, All-Americans, and Conference Champions at the Post-Collegiate, Collegiate, and High School level.