Even if you really suck at something, you can get great at it. By great, I mean really great. You can become an expert. I am going to tell you how.
Train using “deliberate practice” to become great at just about any measurable skill. What does that mean?
Swedish psychologist, Anders Ericsson, published almost exactly a year ago a book titled “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” where he describes, using decades of research studying ballet dancers, gymnasts, all sorts of athletes, coaches, chess experts, surgeons, doctors, teachers, musicians, taxi drivers, golfers, and scientists, how those who have achieved expertise came to achieve it.
Through decades of research studying expertise in a wide variety of disciplines, Ericsson found that
with the right kind of training, any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent. (Freakonomics 2016)
The basic idea underlying deliberate practice is that without hard work, no one is ever an expert at anything.
Great. So what does that right kind of training and hard work look like? I have boiled it down to six main principles from my own reading of Ericsson’s work.
- Spends thousands of hours training under the watchful eye of a skilled coach.
- Have specific goals.
- Receive immediate and specific feedback about how you can improve.
- Routinely get out of your comfort zone and try things that are just beyond your current abilities.
- Keep your mind in the game. Never go on autopilot. Stay focused and engaged and constantly break down the skill into smaller elements.
- Remember, deliberate practice isn’t fun. It requires adhering to strict practice criteria over a lifetime.
What does this have to do with a strength gym? Well, I am a mediocre athlete training using a deliberate practice approach to get great at powerlifting and I am chronicling that training on this blog.
I am committing myself to strength training for the rest of my life and working to become a great powerlifter, competing in the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press over the course of my time on this planet. I don’t expect to achieve expertise this year, next year, or even in five years. My goals are achievable within a decade at the earliest and I will continue to work toward them until I am dead. My training will be uncomfortable and will require a great deal of my energy and deliberate practice by definition can only be applied to one thing ever. So powerlifting is the only thing I will have time to truly dedicate myself to improving in during my life.
Emily Socolinsky, a Starting Strength coach and owner of Fivex3, a Starting Strength gym in Baltimore, summarized her attitude, which closely matches mine, on her Instagram. She said:
strength comes slowly to me… I am gaining more strength than I ever thought possible. I am stubborn. I am patient. And I am consistent. And I will be doing this for the rest of my life
Emily gets it.
So what does that mean? How am I going to apply deliberate practice to my training and what are my goals? Let’s go through the six principles.
1. Spends thousands of hours training under the watchful eye of a skilled coach.
As this is the Chicago S&C blog, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I am training at Chicago S&C under the watchful eyes of Coach Dave and Coach Karl. I train four days a week, on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, which amounts to about nine hours a week.
How many hours of deliberate practice do I have? Now that I look at this list, arguably zero. I have been barbell training consistently since July 2014 and barbell training exclusively since November 2016 but I have violated many principles on this list. For the purposes of deliberate practice, spending thousands of hours doing something is not enough to achieve expertise. The practice has to be purposeful and has to follow the five principles articulated below.
So I guess my commitment to deliberate practice officially begins today.
2. Have specific goals.
Deliberate practice requires setting specific goals and not just working toward the vague goal of improving. If I am honest, so far, I have only trained with the vague goal of improving. The only articulable goal I ever had was squatting 200 pounds. I successfully reached that goal but did not come up with a goal after I did it.
Here are my current personal records (PRs), year-end, and 10-year goals:
|Lift||Current PR (kg)||Year End Goal (kg)||10-Year Goal (kg)|
As you can see, I have a long way to go. But I now know what my destination is so I can focus on getting there. Just writing those goals down makes me feel more purposeful in my training.
3. Receive immediate and specific feedback about how you can improve.
Giving immediate feedback is the status quo for Chicago S&C coaches but I am going to actively seek it and attempt to solicit as much as I can. I am going to be annoying in how much I am going to beg to learn more about what I am sucking at.
To give you an actual example of what feedback will look like, a major problem I face now is that my knees cave in when the squats get heavy. I am going to be vigilant about filming at least one set every training session to see for myself how my knees look and be sure to have a coach watch every set I do and tell me which reps looked best and had the least knee cave.
Ericsson talks a lot in his book about forming “mental representations,” which means that you get the ability to close your eyes and see a picture that you can manipulate and think about. World class musicians can hear the piece they need to perform in their heads and can imagine how they could make it sound better.
I need consistent feedback about when my knees cave so that I can form a mental representation for the squat. I need to be able to visualize in my head what a perfect squat looks like and know when my knees caved without a coach needing to tell me.
It is much more fun to pretend I am 100% awesome at everything rather than ask Coach Dave how I can improve or to tell me what I did wrong on a rep. But to improve, I need to know with an unpleasant level of detail what I did wrong on every single rep so I need to be active in soliciting and not being upset about feedback. I need all of the subtleties about where I am going wrong.
4. Routinely get out of your comfort zone and try things that are just beyond your current abilities.
Strength training lends itself to this principle very naturally. I need to keep putting more and more weight on the bar and not just keep lifting weights I can already lift. Period.
5. Keep your mind in the game. Never go on autopilot. Stay focused and engaged and constantly break down the skill into smaller elements.
People don’t really think of strength training as a mental game but it really is. The fact that my knees cave on a rep, Dave yells at me to keep them out, and then I keep them out on the next rep means that I got sloppy and lazy. I was physically capable of keeping my knees out but did not commit myself mentally to doing it. I need to commit myself mentally on each and every rep. This is hard.
Preventing autopilot will require me to take care of myself outside of the gym. I need to commit to nine hours of sleep a night so that I am sufficiently well rested to have the mental focus required to be totally engaged while training.
This means that just going to the gym and doing the work is not enough. Even if I successfully complete every rep in my training plan for that day, I will not necessarily have adhered to this principle. I have to focus wholeheartedly on every rep, including warm-ups with the barbell by itself.
Another of way of thinking about this is being 100% present during my training.
6. Remember, deliberate practice isn’t fun. It requires adhering to strict practice criteria over a lifetime.
No one can become an expert by doing deliberate practice for a year. Ericsson says it takes a decade. Coincidentally, getting strong takes at least a decade. I have to adhere to the five principles listed before this one for ten years. That means I need to train four times a week, actively solicit feedback and film some sets every time I go in the gym, put more weight on the bar and try to lift weights I have never lifted before, and be 100% mentally in the game the entire time I am training.
I am basically committing myself to nine hours of discomfort that require 100% of my attention per week.
So from here on out, when I refer to deliberate practice, you will know what it means. I will frame every subsequent blog post within this structure. I will tell you my training plan for the week and whether I successfully completed my sets, talk about feedback I have been given and how I am progressing in implementing it, describe whether I was able to stay in the mental game and not go on autopilot, and of course, discuss PRs, setbacks, and anything else relevant to trying to be a great lifter.
Maybe in ten years I will be an expert? Let’s find out…