There’s practice, then there’s deliberate practice. Both will lead to improvement but only one will lead to mastery. Let’s use an example.
Say you want to learn to play the guitar. If you’re like most people, you’ll start by learning some chords and perhaps some scales. When first starting, most people will typically focus on specific things like memorizing where to place their fingers and various strumming patterns.
As they get the basics down, they will start playing various songs over and over. Here is where many people start to fall back on this type of practice.
Up until this point, most of their practice sessions have been deliberate, meaning, they are spending their time improving on something specific, something they haven’t yet mastered. Once they get the hang of a few chords and strumming patterns, many will start spending a lot more time playing what they already know.
So let’s say you’ve gotten the basic chords down. Your practice sessions may now involve you playing mainly songs you already know the chords to. Although you’re somewhat practicing, it’s not deliberate because you’re not focused on improving on anything specific. It’s only when you’re spending your time learning something new or mastering something you haven’t quite mastered yet will you actually see good improvement in your skills.
Not into music? Here’s a sports related example.
Practicing would be playing a game of tennis or playing some pickup basketball games. Deliberate practice would be doing 100 tennis serves or 100 free throws. Both will make you a better player but one will help you master a skill which will elevate your game much faster.
Playing an actual game will help you improve but you’ll be doing too many things at once. If you make a bad shot, you won’t have time to practice that shot during a game. You’ll likely be more focused on the score and winning rather than on actually improving.
This is why all professional athletes spend a ton of time practicing various skills over and over again. Obviously, it’s important to put yourself in game situations to improve in that aspect as well but mastering the fundamentals is what will give you the greatest improvement and you can only do that through deliberate, focused practice.
The Key to Mastery
If you play just to have fun and don’t care about getting better, then deliberate practice isn’t necessary. If, however, you want to get better at a certain skill, you need to focus on getting better at that skill.
This could mean drawing the same picture 100 times or cooking the same meal 20 times or writing the same program over and over until it’s second nature to you.
Bruce Lee once said,
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
In other words, repetition equals mastery.
Is it possible to do something over and over and still not improve much? Yes!
Deliberate practice doesn’t mean going through the motions, you need to also focus on what you’re doing, otherwise, it’s mindless practice. It’s like reading a book where your mind wanders off and then realizing that you’ve read the same sentence a dozen times. It’s only when your mind is fully engaged will you get the most out of every repetition you do.
You could practice a kick 1,000 times but if the entire time you were thinking about something else, you won’t improve as much compared to doing 1,000 kicks where you focus on perfecting every aspect of it such as your foot placement, hip rotation, speed, power, and accuracy.
Contrary to popular belief, practice does NOT make perfect, only perfect practice will do that and you can only have perfect practice when you focus practicing perfectly.
Wrapping It Up
If you want to get good at something, you need to practice. However, practicing doesn’t just mean doing something over and over; it also means focusing on what you’re doing with the intention of mastering that skill.
Performing a skill once with 100% focus is better than performing it 10 times mindlessly. Now, performing a skill 100 times with 100% focus and you’ll see much, much greater improvement.
It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery but that isn’t quite true. As stated earlier, one can do something 1,000 times mindlessly and still not improve much or practice what they already know and never get beyond decent. You can play the same 10 songs on the piano for 10 years and although you’ll master those 10 songs, you won’t exactly master the piano.
This all might seem overwhelming but only if you look at the big picture. On a daily basis, all you really need to do is to improve a little bit. Put in your focused practice each day and those small improvements will add up and overtime will turn into mastery.
Improvement takes time and mental effort. It’s a sacrifice you have to make but if mastery is what you’re after, then this is the price you’ll have to pay. Not everyone is willing to put in the time which is why very few people are masters at anything.