Deliberate Practice – How to Achieve Mastery Through Repetition

Regardless of how you measure success and accomplishment in the world of combat sports, Muhammad Ali is one of the greatest boxers of all time.

As the heavyweight champion of the world, Ali danced circles around the most dangerous men on the planet. Moving like a man several weight classes lighter, he flummoxed and pulled off some of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport.

He was strong, fast and could go all day.

His secret – deliberate practice. 

Ali was a brilliant student of the game, and he constantly looked to what his peers were doing to sharpen his own skillset. Every combination, every jab, every hook was practiced several thousand times.

The countless repetitions Ali put in made his body into a finely-honed instrument. An instrument that made him one of the greatest of all time and cemented a legacy that will live forever.

What is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate Practice is just like regular practice, with one crucial difference.

Every rep you put in requires complete focus and must be undertaken with a specific purpose. 

When Ali worked his jab, he wasn’t just hitting the bag. He was understanding the finer details of the motion, until every synapse in his body was wired to throw the perfect punch in the heat of battle.

Deliberate practice is exclusively undertaken for improving performance. When you’re learning something new, there’s always a period where you are clunky and none of the motions required in executing the skill come through smoothly. This is where persistence is key.

Once you’re getting the hang of things however, it may be tempting to just show up and go through the motions during practice. Your brain habituates to the activity you are performing, making it less essential for you to maintain constant focus. As a result, some bad habits that you might have picked up while you were learning might persist, and you’re training the bad habits during your regular practice.

How to Practice Deliberately

Now that we’ve established that conscious focus and attention is a key concept of deliberate practice, let us discuss how you can adopt this habit for yourself.

Step 1 – Dissect your broad, overall goal into smaller sections.

Let’s say you want to have your own game on the App Store. At the outset, this is an impossible task to pursue in its entirety because you are yet to develop any essential skills. So, we can proceed by breaking down this goal into smaller tasks.

  • Learn the basics of Android app development.
  • Learn how physics works inside a game.
  • Learn about building levels and artwork.

Etc.

Within these tasks, you can drill down and create smaller, sub-tasks such as 

  • Creating a “Hello World” program for Android.
  • Making a basic collision detection program in Java.

After you’ve created this list of tasks and sub-tasks, you can move on to

Step 2 – Identifying your weaknesses.

Within each task, lies the opportunity to discover what your strengths and weaknesses are. For example, you might learn that you’re naturally gifted at character design and world-building during your game project.

At the same time, you might learn that you’re not very skilled at developing AI which reacts to what the player is doing within your game. You can use this insight to set a new goal for yourself

  • Build a better AI for my game.

Once you have identified your weaknesses, you will be able to isolate the areas of your work wherein you need to put in more effort or attention. Which brings us to…

Step 3 – Testing new strategies.

Let’s circle back to our Muhammad Ali example for a second. Say you’re a young boxer learning the craft, and after going through the two steps above, you have identified that you have a lot of power in your punches, but you aren’t fast enough to execute them in real-time.

So, your goal would now be to create a new game plan that takes into account your speed disadvantage, and gives you a better chance of landing a powerful shot. 

In the gaming example, you might realize that there’s not enough money to develop detailed artwork for all the levels in your game. As a result, you may decide to focus more on the gameplay experience, and sacrifice on the overall quality of the graphics.

Every path to mastery follows this basic process.

Want to learn the guitar? Learn tabs, notations and start by learning simple songs before you can work your way up.

Learning to play chess? Learn individual aspects of the game, how they interact and improve based on real-time player feedback.

There’s only one way to get better at anything you do – focused, deliberate practice. Before you start a repetition, know why you’re there, what you’re doing, and where you want to go. Be present in your practice, and you will be amazed by how much better you become.

To your success,

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