Practice Makes Perfect

Michael Jordan playing baseball
Basketball star Michael Jordan tried to apply his superior athletic skill to minor-league baseball.
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It would seem obvious to most people that a great deal of practice is required to become an expert. Any basketball fan knows that Michael Jordan was always the first to arrive at the gym and the last to leave. Fans of the singer Usher know of his obsessive-compulsive attention to detail in his dancing and music. What is not quite as clear is the extent to which practice affects expertise across domains and the type of practice that yields the best results.

Hodges, N.J., Kerr, T., Starkes, J.L., Weir, P.L., and Nananidou, A. (2004) address these questions in their study of triathletes and swimmers.

Practice Across Domains

Deliberate practice theory, developed by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993) , states that much of expert performance can be attributed to superior practice and that natural ability is not as important as previously or intuitively thought. It also states that this effect can be seen across multiple and diverse domains.

If this theory is correct, it should be seen in very diverse domains, such as chess and basketball, where performance is limited by different factors (athletic ability vs. cognitive ability. The amount of variance explained by practice should be similar (Hodges et. al., 2004). The inherent differences in these domains, however, would make them hard to compare in a single study, so Hodges et. al. (2004) choose to study two different groups in the larger domain of athletics, swimmers and triathletes. While both are athletic pursuits, they require very different skills.

In the first two studies detailed in the paper, data is gathered from swimmers and triathletes regarding their practice habits as well as other limiting factors, such as gender. Practice-related data was formed into "practice composites". These factors were analyzed with respect to their ability to predict internet-verified performance in their events. It was found, as expected, that there was a significant negative correlation between practice and event times.

Table 6
Correlation Matrix Displaying the Simple Correlations Between
the Practice Composites, Gender, and Freestyle Performance
Times for the Swimmers
Table 6
Correlation Matrix Displaying the Simple Correlations Between the Practice Composites, Gender, and Freestyle Performance Times for the Swimmers

Note: Composite 1 refers to sport-specific practice amount (i.e., weekly and accumulated hours), Composite 2 refers to the linear increase in practice over the first and most recent 10 years of practice, and Composite 3 refers to physical fitness (i.e., fitness and active leisure).
* p < .05. ** p < .01. (Hodges et. al., 2004)

Looking at the numbers more closely and within specific events gives a more detailed picture. The increase in variance explained by the practice composites increased with the length of the event. For instance, in the swimming events, the correlation between sport specific practice and event time was -.38 for the 100m freestyle swim, -.52 for the 200m swim, and -.71 for the 400m swim. This trend continued with the 1.5km swim event in the triathlon. In addition, the overall correlations found in studies 1 and 2 were lower than the correlations found in the Ericsson et. al. (1993) chess-based studies, providing evidence that perhaps, practice is less important in physical pursuits than in cognitive pursuits.

What type of practice is best?

The Hodges et. al. (2004) paper found that while sport-specific practice was significantly related to performance, nonsport-specific practice—such as general physical fitness training—was not. For instance, in the 200m swim, practice composite 3—referred to as "fitness and active leisure"—had only a -.11 correlation with event time, a value determined to not be significant.

Your best course of action

How should you practice if you intend to become an expert?

As there is now evidence that the effects of practice are not consistent across all domains (Hodges et. al., 2004), you should first consider the specific area in which you would like to develop expertise. Cognitively demanding skills, such as chess or musical proficiency are more likely to be affected by heavy amounts of practice than physically demanding pursuits, such as sports.

Based on the above studies, you should develop a practice routine that focuses on skills specific to your intended area of expertise. This, of course, depends on your initial level of skill as well as your experience. For instance, while general fitness might not be as helpful as sport-specific practice for elite, world-class athletes, individuals at a lower level of achievement would likely be helped by anything that would give them an overall better physical condition. Furthermore, the activities involved in domain-specific practice would probably be enabled by at least a baseline level of cognitive or physical ability.

Success in any pursuit can be attributed to a combination of factors, some of which are inherent and some of which can be developed intentionally. It is certain, however, that more practice does contribute to success and that it would be very difficult to have expertise without it.

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