Putting Deliberate Practice into Action

In recent years the term “Growth Mindset” was the new doctrine you couldn’t escape. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. A growth mindset is a very positive attribute worthy of pursuit. However, there is a difference between being able to define a growth mindset and putting this positive mindset into action.

I only bring up the growth mindset attribute because I would place “Deliberate Practice” into the same space of a positive trait that doesn’t find its way onto the practice courts very often.

Most coaches are familiar with the late Anders Ericsson’s work and his focus on champions’ practice habits. One of the foundational components of Ericsson’s work is the relationship between deliberate practice and skill acquisition. In the video below, psychologist Angela Duckworth will briefly describe the term deliberate practice and its key components.

To summarize the video, the four pillars of deliberate practice are:

  1.  The practice process is intentional. Using as many resources as possible, the athlete will fixate on specific aspects of a skill to foster improvement. Often the area of focus will be a skill weakness, not a strength. 
  2. The athlete has 100% focus on the task. 
  3. The athlete seeks out feedback on performance. The feedback should be immediate, relevant, and correct.
  4. There are reflections and evaluations on the performance. The evaluations can be in the form of verbal feedback, statistical analysis, video analysis, performance results, etc.

I have seen a lot of practices at most age levels. Unfortunately, too many training sessions involve a little bit of passing and serving, followed by hitting lines, a little bit of Queen of the Court, then 6v6 play without a specific goal or objective.

If we focus on incorporating the pillars of deliberate practice into the training sessions, we must evaluate if the athletes or team challenged to focus 100% on the task? Is there quality feedback, and in what form does the feedback take place? Are the athletes fixated on performance improvement, or are they doing skill repetitions without a goal in mind? If these items are not being displayed, who is responsible? We want to hold players accountable for performance; however, the accountability begins with the coach, the practice plan, and the organization.

So, how might we incorporate the concept of deliberate practice into our training sessions? First of all, a growth mindset is required in order to incorporate a new approach to your everyday practice routine! So, we are working on two things at once.

If we follow the four pillars of deliberate practice, the first prerequisite is the coach needs to be an expert in what they desire for skill or system execution. The athlete cannot focus on specific skill aspects if the coach isn’t grounded in proper skill mechanics knowledge and transmitting it to the athlete.

The coach must create scenarios in practice where the athlete is paying attention to precise skill execution. Hall of Fame basketball coach Rick Pitino organized his training in the following manner to facilitate the required focus from his athletes. In the morning prior to classes, he would bring in players individually for one hour of skill work. The focus would be on various weaknesses in the skill set of the player(s). He then organized his team training for only ninety minutes in the afternoon, focusing on scrimmage and team activities. This format might not work in a club environment; however, can a club coach take this template and modify it for the time available to facilitate skill development?

Second, is the practice arranged in a manner that demands 100% focus by the player or team? How can this level of concentration be encouraged? There are many methods; I will lay out how I promote this in my training sessions, then provide an example. Generally, my practices are not arranged in time increments. The duration of a drill or activity was based on the number of successful contacts or executions. For example, a serve-receive drill where you need 50 good passes with the last five in a row. Or, in team defense, we need ten transition attack kills. Creating a drill using time increments does not encourage focus. The clock will continue regardless of the quality of execution. Being focused is hard work, and the activity must demand the level of focus required for improvement.

Toshi Yoshida

Toshi Yoshida, former USA Women’s National Team coach, ran a sideout drill that I’ll use as an example of the duration of an activity dependant upon positive execution. The starting unit had to sideout twice consecutively to rotate. The goal was to rotate six times without error. That would be 12 consecutive successful sideouts. Any error and they returned to the starting rotation. A drill with this type of scoring is challenging and forces concentration and proper execution on each contact. I don’t recommend this drill for a beginning-level team. All your practice activities must be appropriate to the skill level of your team. However, drills can be designed to be appropriately challenging for every age group.

Third, how tireless is the coach in providing accurate feedback and creating a dynamic practice atmosphere? The enthusiasm, work ethic, and team spirit are reflective of the coach. If you want players to be 100% engaged in improvement, the coach must be equally engaged.

Finally, is the post-practice evaluation meaningful? We need to go beyond “nice job” as a form of assessment. Be specific with goal attainment, statistical improvement, and general level of execution.

One of my former coaching colleagues, the late Mike Hebert, suggested a coaching evaluation tool that coaches might implement into their routine. Mike indicated that he would video his training sessions to evaluate his coaching performance. His evaluation might focus on the quality of a drill, the practice organization, the quality and type of feedback being provided, and the general practice atmosphere. Coaches often use video to evaluate a player or team performance, but not the coach’s performance. I highly recommend this tact as a resource for self-assessment.

To have a practice without focus is a waste of time. It is hard work for the coach to arrange a training session and an environment conducive to deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is not a magic pill, but if you can manage to maintain your focus and commitment, then the promise of deliberate practice is quite alluring to get the most out of the talent you’ve got.