Are you familiar with the ‘10,000 hour rule’? Many of you probably are. If you’re read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Outliers’, then you definitely are. The premise goes like this; practice something a lot - 10,000 hours, or about 10 years - and you’ll develop expertise in that particular domain. It sounds simple doesn’t it. But is it truly so? Many of us, or our students, have played tennis for well over 10 years, but I wouldn’t necessarily start calling ourselves ‘experts’. Now we might be pretty good, but expertise, as defined by researchers in this field, means far more than just ‘pretty good’ or even ‘really good’.

The 10,000 hour rule was highlighted by Gladwell based on Anders Ericsson’s research in the field of ‘expertise’. If you’ve read Ericsson’s latest book - Peak - you’ll recall that Gladwell took Ericsson’s research a bit out of context. Gladwell summarized Ericsson's research on violinists - which revealed that up until the age of 20, the best performers practiced, on average, 10,000 hours - and interpreted that, anyone can achieve expertise by simply putting in the necessary practice time. Ericsson, although grateful that his research was being heard by people outside of academia, discredits the rule, claiming that it’s “wrong in several ways”. Why so?

For starters, even the best violinists in that study, although good, were nowhere near masters yet. According to Ericsson, it could take close to another decade to reach that status. On top of that, half of the best violinists hadn’t actually accumulated that many hours - it was merely an average that ranged from about 3,500 hours up to 12,000 hours. Furthermore, there was no distinction between regular practice and deliberate practice - merely the TOTAL accumulated practice time, which as we’ll soon see, isn’t likely enough to reach elite status, in any discipline. And lastly, Gladwell’s interpretation of Ericsson’s results made the assumption that anybody could reach expertise, as long as they put in the hours. Nothing in Ericsson’s work implied this.

So how does one become an ‘expert’ performer? Practice time is definitely an important factor. But it doesn’t tell us the whole story. In this post, we’ll differentiate between the various types of practice, outline the elements that ‘deliberate practice’ must satisfy and take a look at how the principles of deliberate practice fit into the world of tennis. We'll also briefly look into the argument against deliberate practice - and whether other factors contribute to expertise. 

What Is Deliberate Practice Anyway?

Just Practice vs Purposeful Practice

Regular practice can be summarized in one line - ‘going through the motions’. We’ve all heard this saying before. You may physically be on the tennis court - hitting groundstrokes, returning serves - but mentally, you’re not engaged. According to Ericsson, this type of practice does very little in helping students reach expert levels of performance. There’s simply no challenge, no objective measure and no way of knowing whether improvement is occurring. Ericsson terms this as ‘naive’ practice - in other words, believing that the repetition itself will lead to improvements in performance. This however, is likely not the case.  

Before we define deliberate practice, there’s one level of practice that precedes it, called purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is the baby brother to deliberate practice. It’s measurable and specific. Beyond that, it’s similar to deliberate practice in that it requires a high level of attention and focus. It also pushes a student beyond their comfort zone while providing periodic feedback from a teacher. The main difference between purposeful and deliberate practice however, is that deliberate practice is both "purposeful AND informed". As Ericsson puts it, it’s not enough simply to try hard and push yourself. There are deeper layers to deliberate practice, which we’ll explore.

So why not only engage in deliberate practice? Well, some tasks may only require purposeful practice - like improving your ability to perform the splits. To do the splits you have to practice with purpose, stay focused, measure your results - i.e., constantly monitoring your range of motion. But it may not require you to study outside of the time you’re spending performing the splits - or any additional movements that will help in this pursuit. Playing tennis on the other hand, likely does. And this is where many of us in may not be doing enough. Are we spending time with players in the video room? Analyzing matches, positions, patterns and so on? How about visualization? Can a young junior today sit down and visualize an entire service game, let alone a match? Unlikely. You may be someone who does factor in these details during training, but the reality is, most don't. 

Specific and measurable 'target' practice.

Specific and measurable 'target' practice.


The Principles of Deliberate Practice

Like purposeful practice, deliberate practice is extremely focused. But there’s more to it then that. According to Ericsson, deliberate practice...

  1. Is overseen by an experienced coach or teacher that can design effective practices with the appropriate drills based on the performer’s current level.

  2. Take place outside of a person’s comfort zone and is therefore not inherently ‘fun’.

  3. Involves specific, measurable goals. The performer must have a sense of constant improvement, whether that be a small improvement in a short time period or larger improvements over lengthier time frames.

  4. Requires full attention and focus from the performer. It’s not enough to simply follow the coach’s instructions. In athletic settings, this means being ‘fully engaged mentally and physically’.

  5. Is based on feedback being an essential component. In early stages, this comes primarily from the coach. In later stages of an athlete’s career, once a high level of expertise is achieved, they become self-evaluators themselves.

  6. Is based on effective mental representations. In other words, the more deliberate practice one does, the more they form mental maps that augment performance. The more detailed these maps, the better. Think of Federer or Serena before they execute a serve - they can vividly and clearly see the ball landing in their chosen target with the right spin, speed and so on.

  7. Involves building on and/or acquiring new skills. It is therefore important to build a solid foundation of skills that make the learning process more effective in the long-run (i.e. not having to completely re-build a player’s forehand, for example, when they’ve already trained for more than 10 years).

How do Expert Performers Practice?

We now have an idea as to what deliberate practice is all about. But how do experts apply these principles in training? Accumulating many hours, as we’ve seen, is critical. But the type of hours spent in training is likely the key determinant to improved performance and learning. In Ericsson’s landmark violin study, he noticed that the best students were those who dedicated a significant time to practice on their own time. This type of practice, however, was directed by a teacher. If we relate this to tennis, it’s simply not enough for a player to practice on their own. They need specific, individualized drills that they can work on. This is especially important in developing players as they likely don’t have the luxury of a coach’s eye at every minute of the training process.

Other research supports this notion. For instance, Baker et al (2003) compared experts (national team Australian athletes from a variety of sports) with non-experts (state athletes who had more than 10 years of experience) to determine differences in practice habits. As you can see from the table below, a greater number of expert athletes spent more time in activities like practicing individually with a coach, practicing alone and video training. When asked how helpful these activities were to the success of their movement execution, the results lined up with Ericsson’s theories. Individual instruction from a coach and practicing alone beat out every other activity, across the board, from all athlete responses. What’s revealing is that all 15 experts practiced individually with a coach, versus only 2 in the non-expert group and 12 of the 15 experts practiced alone while only half of the non-experts spent time in solo practice. Did the experts get extra attention because they were at the national level? Perhaps. But that’s not the point here. The point is that coaching instruction is necessary - athletes trying to do it on their own, will have a hard time reaching elite levels of performance. And coach's 'homework', matters. 

I Need More Matchplay! Deliberate Practice in Tennis

Why is it that many players stop improving at a certain level? Of course big gains in improvement occur early on in the development cycle with diminishing returns as players get better. But we even see the world’s best getting better over the years. Just look at Nadal and Federer this year - both improving after the age of 30. In my opinion, many players stop engaging in deliberate practice. That’s the easy and short answer. But why?

Let’s look at players who compete at the Futures level (the lowest tier of professional events) to provide some context. Many compete for years without a change in ranking. While the competition is fierce and the structure of the pro tour is debatably swayed in the favour of higher ranked players, I believe there’s a reason many have trouble breaking through. They simply stop challenging themselves. The following is often echoed amongst this group of athletes, “I just need to play more matches”. Just playing more matches? Is that all it takes? Sure if you play against better opponents consistently, there will be initial gains in performance (seeing a faster ball, improved timing and so on) but to win against these players week in and week out, is a completely different story.

Matches are valuable but concrete direction from a coach is necessary. What type of opponent are you playing? What are their tendencies? What are their strengths/weaknesses? Many players play the exact same way whether they play a lefty or a righty. How do you figure that? Or they’re down a set and a break but don’t change their tactics. This extends to training as well. Are you just hitting balls? Is your fitness regime the same as it always was? If this is the case, these players won't achieve the results their after. 

Implementing Deliberate Practice into the Training Setting

Just because a practice session is physically intense, doesn’t mean that improvement is inevitable. Let's use the pros to illustrate this point. We often watch top players at big events practicing on the side courts. Sometimes they’re working through specific drills but other times it looks like they’re just hitting the ball (and perhaps they are). But I’d like to think otherwise. I’d like to believe that these players have a clear focus, whether we see it or not. Even simply hitting the ball up the middle of the court can have a focus. We saw that in last week’s guest post by Styrling Strother - maybe they're switching their attention from the ball to the opponent. As a spectator, we wouldn’t know. Or they're counting the number of balls that are rising as they cross the baseline (a measure of ball rally quality). Taking it one step further, in line with deliberate practice guidelines, perhaps they’re attempting to hit 5 rising balls in a row - counting and tracking the errors along the way, so that next time, they can aim for better results. 

The same can be done with the serve. Below are video examples of a player that I’m coaching. The task was straightforward - hit the serve into the appropriate target area AND make sure it crosses the basket on the correct side (towards the left from the server’s perspective).  But simply hitting into this target isn’t’s not measurable. The next criteria was to hit at least 7 out of 10 first serves with the previous mentioned constraints. The first video is full of misses. The serves were all over the map. The result was 2 out of 10. It’s not an easy serve to hit when the second constraint is in place (the basket). It requires the server to hit the ball either extremely close to the line OR with enough slice to get the ball moving from left to right - an easier ask on hard courts than on clay courts but a serve elite players should definitely have in their arsenal.


This went on for a while. In the next series of 10 serves, he was able to achieve 3, 5 and 4. Very little feedback was provided throughout as the aim was for him to solve the problem on his own. Side note - although regular and very specific feedback is one of the primary tenant’s of deliberate practice, I believe it’s more important with younger, developing players. Elite players, from my experiences, don’t need a lot of feedback and frankly, don’t always want it. It just disrupts their concentration

Then, all of a sudden, he got 6. Going from 2, 3, 5 and 4 to 6, in my books, is a progression. Without me saying a word, all of a sudden he got really excited, turned to me and said “I’m getting 8 this time”. And he did (video below). Now just because he achieved this doesn’t mean he can hit this spot 80% of the time in a match scenario. But challenging players to reach higher percentages than they would normally hit in competition is important as pressure, fatigue and a host of other variables may get in the way - so you can expect that number to drop. Not only does this type of practice help a player improve but it gives them confidence. How else would they know if they can hit this serve in a match? You think just showing up for the tournament is enough? It’s like asking a math student to solve a complex problem on an exam but never breaking that problem down into it’s component parts beforehand.


The same can be applied in the weight room. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his autobiography, recalls how he would to train for bodybuilding. He’d write down the weight (usually higher than what he’d done before), sets and reps in chalk on the floor. Each time he’d complete a set, he would cross it out. No matter how he felt or what the circumstances were, he would finish what he had set out for himself. Although this may not be the best modern day training practice, it’s a look into the mind of an elite performer. Set lofty objectives in practice, don’t stop until they’re achieved and make practices increasingly harder in some way.

What About Unsupervised Play?

Although deliberate practice seems to be the road to expertise, unsupervised/unstructured play still has it’s place in the development of an elite performer. According to Baker and Young (2014), there are 2 main reasons for this. First, unstructured play is more often perceived as fun, which in turn motivates young athletes to continue playing their chosen sport. Motivation is a key component of deliberate practice. Second, there are less pauses and stops during unstructured play. This can be seen as either positive or negative. Negative because there’s no feedback from a coach or trainer but positive in the sense that performers play for longer periods of time uninterrupted. We'll dive into this topic, along with early specialization, in a future post. 

The Counter-Argument to Deliberate Practice

A recent meta-analysis by Macnamara et al (2016) suggests that, although deliberate practice is an integral part in the development of expertise, it’s not the only predictor. In fact, these researchers claim that only about 18% of the variance in expertise in sports can be explained by deliberate practice. If that’s the case, what else can help us predict expertise? These researchers provide evidence that genetic factors play a big role (although Ericsson, doesn’t refute this). For instance, taller individuals generally have a better chance at playing professional basketball (although this is by no means fact). There’s also evidence to suggest that some individuals are so called ‘high-responders’ to different forms of training while others are ‘low-responders’. Meaning that certain individuals are predisposed to gain muscle mass to a greater extent than others. Similar findings are seen in elite runners and the ability to improve their VO2 max.

Other factors include participation in a variety of sports throughout childhood - which could help improve motor skills and coordination (although this may be a sub-form of deliberate practice in and of itself). Finally, Macnamara and his colleagues highlight that psychological factors may also contribute. How does a performer handle competition anxiety? Are they confident in their abilities? Are they inherently intelligent? What are their memory skills like. Again, if you were to talk to Ericsson, he’d probably tell you that most of these factors can be improved through specific, focused training anyway. Before you make up your mind on which side of the fence you stand, I’d like to share Ericsson’s commentary (2016) to Mcnamara’s meta-analysis:

Macnamara’s main meta-analysis examines the use of the term deliberate practice to refer to a much broader and less defined concept including virtually any type of sport-specific activity, such as group activities, watching games on television, and even play and competitions. Summing up every hour of any type of practice during an individual’s career implies that the impact of all types of practice activity on performance is equal—an assumption that I show is inconsistent with the evidence.

Final Thoughts

Although we can’t dismiss the work by Mcnamara, it’s important that researchers come to an agreement as to what the real definition of deliberate practice truly is - as defined by Ericsson. That being said, I’d like to believe that attaining a high level of performance - whether that’s in tennis or some other domain - is achievable by virtually anyone. There are just too many examples in the real world to think otherwise. I’m not saying other factors aren’t important, but I truly believe that with the correct approach to training and competition - which includes proper direction from coaches, parents and other supporters - reaching the highest levels of our sport aren’t restricted to the chosen few. Although not always fun, not always easy, and definitely not without years of dedication & practice - deliberate practice - expertise is within reach.


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