Deep, Deep Practice


underwater_soccer-3855I was talking with my friend Allison the other day, and she had a cool idea I thought I’d pass along. Allison, who’s in her thirties, is an amateur dancer with a group here in Homer. Whenever she can’t catch on to a complicated move — some spin or leap — she heads for the swimming pool and practices it over and over by herself. “It slows me down just enough,” she said. “When I can feel myself doing it, then I can learn it.” 

I’m coaching girls’ softball (ages 10,11)  this summer — and she’s given me an idea for our first hitting practice: we’ll get a bunch of bats and teach the kids to swing in the pool — standing at shoulder-depth, so they slow down and feel the right motion, the leverage and rotation that’s behind a good swing. At the very least, it’ll be a really fun afternoon.

And it makes me wonder: where else would aqua-training be useful?

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14 Responses to “Deep, Deep Practice”

  1. Jon Anderson says:


    In addition to reading “The Talent Code” for its mind bending insights, I love each of these blogs.

    However, while reading the underwater practice example (which is great), as well as reviewing a few other entries I started to become frustrated. I caught my feeling and had to take a moment to search for the cause.

    Today’s workforce elite (all of us college grads) may quietly limit the breaking of the talent code to non-threatening realms. Put more succinctly, we may ignore the message to protect our turf.

    I’m sure there are artists who would take offense to Coyle’s downplaying of God given talent as the primary explanation the for the greatness of Michelangelo. If what Coyle proposes is true, is the creating of a great artist significantly different than developing the skills of a master carpenter?

    Why take offense? I suppose for some of the same psychological reasons that evolution, and the thought of humans being evolved from apes, was and continues to create huge dissonance. Being an artist, especially of high accomplishment, is a clear sign of talent. More importantly, it represents membership in an elite group endowed with something special, something that sets them apart. Pretty heady stuff! Humans do not let go of status without a fight.

    While most college grads would not consider themselves elitists, I would suggest in the dark recesses of our minds we see the attainment of a college degree as a clear intelligence indicator (God given talent). If the “Coyleians” attempt to show that becoming an attorney (big brain talent required) is somehow similar to becoming a crab fisherman (low brain job for guys that drag their knuckles on the ground). Mr. Coyle and company you better pack a lunch! I got news for you SMART PEOPLE DON’T NEED PRACTICE.

    Don’t think the educated elite will fight the myelin revolution? You’re probably right. However, fighting an idea is not nearly as powerful as simply ignoring it. And ignoring the importance of deep practice to learning non-motor skills is exactly what we may do.

    In my experience most people intuitively and experientially fully understand the concepts of deep practice (deliberate practice). I would go so far as to say that when it comes to teaching our own children we seem to be hard-wired to use deep practice methods. Watch any parent teach a pre-school child to hit a ball—using a slow wiffle ball, a big bat and slow pitch. But when it comes to the importance of practice in learning skills reserved for college grads, we simply want to ignore a message that threatens our talent status.

    Over the past few years I have been selling one or another deliberate practice tools that focus on habituation (building circuits) for the delivery of sales messages (selling). I have attempted to persuade (during 1-2 hour meetings) teams from approximately 50 Fortune 500 sales training teams, of the amazing power of highly focused practice to achieve a goal (getting their brand messages delivered to their target customers) .

    Admittedly my message was not the best in the first dozen meetings. But, soon I focused on some core concepts and comparisons that everyone seemed to agree to without question.

    1) Lecture based teaching of knowledge and/or concepts account for 80-90% of corporate sales training time.
    2) Instruction that focuses on decision making (strategy) normally accounts for only 5-10% of corporate sales training time.
    3) Practice activities where a student practices the knowledge, concepts and decision making they have “learned” by role-playing probable sales situations account for 1-5%.

    In sports and music, fields where practice is considered essential (even for the really smart students that go to Julliard) the numbers are generally reversed.

    1) Lecture based teaching of knowledge and concepts 5-15% of learning time.
    2) Decision training (play calling in sports, improvisation in music) 10-15% of learning time.
    3) Practice time approximately 80% of learning time.

    When this comparison is presented to corporate sales trainers, without exception they agree that their sales people do not get enough time practicing. I further explain that even the little time they spend role-playing is not as powerful as they believe (not all practice is equal and traditional role-play may in fact simply polish the wrong behaviors).

    Finally, I show them study after study I have done, with video recordings to drive home the point, that prove that with a deep practice role-play activity reps can master complex messages in as little as an hour (a task that only a small percent of their sales force can correctly perform after years of experience).

    With very few exceptions they are highly impressed. In most every case, deep practice would result in millions in additional revenue in the near term. One organization I worked with had a 119% improvement in sales reps that used a deep practice tool. Most of the decision makers are excited by the proof.

    Here’s the kicker. As these organizations consider adopting a simple cost effective deep practice role-play tool a strange thing happens. Meeting after meeting are conducted. All the decision makers are involved. In the end, due to one reason or another the decision is tabled to a later date (often corporate initiatives must be approved by dozens of parties without a single veto). Simply put the information is ignored.

    After seeing this dynamic again and again I have come to believe that fear of innovation alone does not explain the consistent lack of adoption. The scary reality is that college educated professionals do not like, and therefore may not fully embrace, an activity as lowbrow as practice.

    Remember, smart people don’t need practice.

  2. Howard Goldowsky says:

    I have not yet read The Talent Code, but plan to do so soon. After reading through the blog posts, however, I notice the omission of a few important dissenting points:

    1) Deep practice is essential, but to what percent? Talent must play some important role. And, the related…

    2) What about everyone who has put in their 10,000 hours and not reached expert status?

    I don’t see mention of these two points. Hopefully they are covered in the book.

  3. Ross Kay says:

    I will guarantee that every one who does Deliberate and Deep Practice which is applicable to being successful of the final goal for over 10,000 hours will reach expert status!

  4. I remember, years ago, reading an article about Randy Milligan, a New York Mets prospect who went on to have a decent career (eight seasons, .261 lifetime BA). The article talked about how he practice his swim in a pool. Wish I could track it down. I looked on SI’s Vault, with no luck. maybe it was someone else.

    Also, an old high school classmate (Huntington High School, class of 1982) named Paul Widerman was a world-class wrestler who went on to coach the Harvard team and invent a new method of exercise called “Smart Bells.” YouTube has a clip ( showing people using Smart Bells in a pool.

  5. John Stallcup says:

    Everyone needs “deep” practice
    I am producing a documentary film “Speed City” “Speed City” was the name given to San Jose State where Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Lee Evans, Bob Poynter and Ray Norton (to name a few) sprinted during their college days at San Jose State leading up to the Mexico City Olympics.
    Their coach Lloyd “Bud” Winter was SJSU’s track & field coach from 1944 to 1974 and coached 37 world record holders, 102 NCAA All-Americans, 49 NCAA record holders and 27 Olympians. Arguably the greatest track coach in history.
    The documentary will focus on the athletic achievements of the Speed City athletes and contrast the environment for track in the late 60s with today’s world as well as highlight the contributions of coach Winter that have become a legacy around the world. Before there was bottled water, Gatorade, Powerbars, compression shorts, speed suites, videotaped analysis, plyometrics, scientifically designed running shoes or synthetic track surfaces the athletes of “Speed City” outran the world (literally).
    Bud is known by track historians as the greatest sprint coach in history. Irrefutable in light of the fact that without Bud Winter going to Jamaica to hold training seminars for track coaches in 1966, Jamaica’s Glen Mills (Usain Bolt’s coach) and Steven Francis (Asapha Powells coach) would never have understood “Relax and Win” let alone learned all the minutely detailed sprint training techniques Bud invented. Jamaica still uses the original Bud Winter training film on sprinting from 1967. Bud was the greatest track coach because of the 37 World Records Bud’s athletes held a number of them were in the Pole Vault, and the greatest sprinters in the world outside the US use the coaching programs he invented.
    Bud would start his athletes practicing his uniquely created workouts in September. Five days a week in the fall they would do a series of drills (some slow and some at 80%) to improve everything from stride length, to foot placement, to force direction and arm movement. Deep practice in deed. The 10,000 hour rule worked for all the “Speed City” athletes as well. Although many people believe you are born to run fast or not. That is not the case. Some of the athletes who came to SJS were already highly recruited many were not. Bud Winter believed Speed is a skill but Sprinting is a Science and he proved it.
    Yes there is a speed gene but without 10,000 hours of the appropriate drills you won’t become Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt. If you can find a copy of “Relax and Win” used it is worth the cost. The training film Bud created in 1965 to train sprinters is till in use by the Jamaican sprinters to this day.

  6. HerbM says:

    Personally, I think the “10,000 hour” rule is vastly overstated by researchers and by those who unquestionably accept it.

    First, 10,000 hours is just an estimate, and for any particular endeavor the typical “mastery time” of training and practice is going to vary by the complexity and other factors inherent to that activity.

    That is just obvious.

    Second, the TYPE of training is going to change the effectiveness of those hours.

    Presuming that every thing described in “The Talent Code” is exactly correct (I think it is a good approximation of the truth) then those people who “Deep Practice” and who have “Master Coaches” are going to benefit far more quickly than those do not: So 1,0000 hours for the first may be as effective as 10,000 second, or the 100,000 hours may be entirely insufficient to reach mastery.

    There is another saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” Practicing something WRONG, merely teaches us to do it wrong.

    The same is true, and more common, if we practice something that is sub-optimal: We may learn to do is as well as that method allows, but eventually we will reach a maximum effective level, past which re-training and the problems of “unlearning” will have to be faced before any new significant improvement is possible.

    Consider how many golfers have become very good with some poor mechanics in their swing which must be reprogrammed before they can reach the top levels — or baseball pitchers who perform at a high level but cannot continue in the major leagues without damage to their arm unless they rebuild the throwing mechanics.

    Now perhaps in light of “The Talent Code” and “deep practice” we should change the saying to, “Perfecting Practice Makes Perfect”.

    In any case, 1000 hours of really superb practice is quite likely to be worth far more than any ordinary practice ever could be.

    Personally, I reject the 10,000 hour maxim and believe that there are shortcuts to mastery if we find and train them. (But to be clear the ‘shortcut’ is sometimes through harder work or more intense practice, so this doesn’t always represent the ‘easy way’.)

  7. Chris Lane says:

    Here is what I would offer as points to be taken, abstracted from the Daniel Coyle material on Deep Practice.

    First, perfect practice is clearly a superior way to learn.
    But I would substitute the word excellent for perfect.
    The example groups have found ways to amplify the practice of specific skills that allow them to succeed. In the case of piano playing, it is about the method of practice. In the case of Soccer, however, it was the peculiar miniature practice area. In tennis, slow, correct swings, without the racquet at first. Baseball swings underwater may be a great deep practice idea.

    To address the 10,000 hour “rule” I would offer the following. After a certain number of hours of practicing, the science of practicing becomes part of the conscious mind. In the minds of young athletes, practice is a complete waste of time. They would prefer to play all the time. At a certain point, a person will wish to fix one part of their game, and will start to understand practice as valuable.
    Only when deep practice is valued will the athlete or performer receive maximum benefit from it.

    In my 20 years of experience coaching young athletes, the real development takes place when the motivation to improve coincides with the effective deep practice mechanics.

    Not one of the world-class sprinters, long distance runners at Oregon, basketball players playing for John Wooden, or other star performers, got to be best in class without a tremendous inner drive to succeed. This is a critical point for the brains vs practice discussion. It is actually drive, along with aptitude that allow deep practice to be most successful.

    So on the average minor sports team an well designed deep practice environment will propel the entire team forward at an accelerated rate, but the individual players aptitudes and drive will explain why even that team will have stronger and weaker players.

    It is impossible for two people to follow the same practice program. Because each individual brings a different skillset, self-awareness, and drive to the first session.

    So deep practice has tremendous value. Now we need to figure out aptitude and motivation.

  8. Troy says:

    Hey Daniel,
    love your work and found the concept of aqua training really interesting. In striking sports, swinging a bat (or leg) in a pool, would ensure that the motion is streamlined. As such, maximising linear motion and subsequently maximising force upon impact.

    I guess that’s one of the many principles, but wanted to let you know that it struck a chord with me.

    Keep up the good work.


  9. S Osborne says:

    Hello Dan,

    I will attempt to be the first person to actually answer your question. I think that golf is an excellent prospect for underwater practice. I have experimented with it in the past but it was somewhat playfully and not with real practice in mind. I think I will spend some real time doing this now. It slows down the motion obviously but also simulates and emphasizes the internal and external pressures involved during the swing motion. If you’re interested I’ll let you know of my findings.

    Many thanks, your book and this blog are excellent.


  10. Good response in return of this difficulty
    with genuine arguments and describing the whole thing concerning that.

  11. sarah says:

    i have read the book & loved it. personally i would like a little more definition about practice – the idiot’s guide, perhaps, with very clear, concrete & basic ’10 things to do for perfect practice’.
    also i would like to apply the principles from the book to learning purely cognitive material, topics that don’t involve physical movement. for example learning all the muscles in the body, which involves long difficult latin names for each, plus their beginning and ending spots and their influence on the structures around them.
    so, Mr Coyle, what say you?

  12. Dustin says:

    ‘also i would like to apply the principles from the book to learning purely cognitive material, topics that don’t involve physical movement.’

    That’s exactly the question for which I am scouring the Internet for an answer right now. I’ve recently decided that I want to become an expert in theoretical physics, and I’m trying to decide how deliberate practice fits into that quest. The math part of that fits in easily enough with the idea of deliberate practice, but how about when it comes to trying to accumulate, via reading books and articles, working knowledge of the different intellectual concepts involved in, say, quantum mechanics, general relativity, cosmology, etc, etc?

  13. kevin says:

    I love the book i read it a few years ago and have been teaching senior citizens but following the deep practice method and also slow practice which they have never expereinced before. completly successful. I have found though once you have the deep practice method down you have to implement speed practice which mean fast pace method of accomplishing a certian task to see if what you learned under the deep practice method has a good hold. again success. I loved the book been an inspiration for the past couple of years

  14. 10,000 hours of practice is not enough. Not in a pool. Not on Mars. There has to be the right kind of feedback involved or continued practice simply reinforces inefficient technique. With the right amount of passion and feedback, 10,000 hours may not be required.

    As to the idea of talent and artists. Much of tha “talent” is the ability to notice things. The ability to notice relationships between things that are and things that might be is a skill. Some people may be born with better visual acuity or the ability to see a slightly broader spectrum. This may account for their interest at an early age. Communicating about the relationships we notice is called creative expression. I believe it is a skill. Learning to wield a brush like da Vinci is a mechanical technique. Learning to notice an enigmatic smile was the real important skill.

    A college degree is not an indicator of talent or skill. There are a shocking number of semi-illiterate people with post-secondary education partly because without practice skills atrophy. Smart people better practice or some yesterday knuckle-dragger will eat their lunch.

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