The majority of this article is inspired by the frankly excellent book Peak by Anders Ericsson whose body of work is in skill learning and the achievement of expert status or mastery. A lot of you will no doubt be familiar with the 10,000-hour rule that is the idea popularised by Malcom Gladwell’s book bounce. In bounce Malcom takes from one of Anders Ericsson’s studies on German violin virtuoso that the ones who where to go on to achieve the greatest levels of master with the violin had to this point accrued an average of 10,000 hours of practice in the previous 10 years.
This idea also went on to become a major thread in another popular and excellent work Mastery by Robert Green. However, the simple statement that you need to spend 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something leaves out the most important factor, it is the type of practice that matters more than the time spent doing it.
You see not all practice is created equal you have no doubt took up a hobby or pass time where you have just spent time doing. It might be table tennis, call of duty modern warfare, poker or chess to name but a few. What you will have experienced is that after spending time just doing your hobby, you hit a glass ceiling in your skill/ability from where it becomes almost impossible to progress beyond.
What you have experienced is the limit of unguided or uncritical doing “practice” as a blanket term is what people normally think when you mention it in conversation. However what Anders Ericsson has shown through more than 2 decades of research is that the type of practice is the important variable not the quantity (however be under no delusion this also plays a massive role in the process).
Deliberate practice is what they referred to the process of actually breaking down a skill or activity into its component parts and critically appraising where blockages are and actively seeking guidance from those who have experientially achieved what you are trying to achieve either with themselves or others.
This is a topic I have covered briefly with other articles but with this article what I want to address is the difference between knowledge and knowing. The difference between knowing what you should do as a lifter to increase your ability and the inherent and explicit knowledge of knowing how it’s done and how it should be done. Thanks to the internet we are resplendent in those with encyclopedic knowledge of how you should train towards a certain goal, what the optimal ways of organisation are and so on and so forward. What we are low on in the world of lifting are those true experts who understand what it actually takes to achieve mastery, practically how it should be achieved and how it can be achieved.
I would like to nudge you down the path on how to become the latter rather than the former so you can progress on as a lifter or as a coach/trainer to allow you to affect change in the areas your trying to advance.
Create mental representations of what the ideal performance looks like
Before we can create movement or manifest into reality the ideal lifting performance we need to first understand implicitly what that looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes like. It isn’t good enough to watch some mouth piece on YouTube who has never achieved with themselves or others what you are seeking because they don’t have the correct mental representation of what actual expert performance is.
A mental representation is your mind’s eye’s version of skill execution the better you are at this aspect of skill learning or performance. The example of which is chess grand-masters who can blindly play 10s of games against multiple opponents at the same time and still win. They can do this not because they have memorised every single scenario in the game and can execute upon these scenarios. They can do this because they have expert mental representations they understand the scenarios, plays and possibilities from almost every connotation of the game. This allows them to access a better mental shorthand than their opponent which allows swift, correct decision and action.
When it comes to lifting the more expert the coach the better they are at looking at movement understanding the key reference points that good or perfect execution entails and are able t use that understanding or mental representation to alter the execution of their lifter to move them closer to this perfect execution. If you want to reach this expert level of understanding then you need to build up your mental representation of the skill or lift.
- Watch as much lifting video of expert performers as you can in your spare time if you can do this in the flesh than it is much more beneficial. By doing this you can get a sense of the control, timing, key movements, demeanour, execution, set up and so on and so forward exhibited by expert performers this will better help you to develop your own appreciation for what expert performance looks like.
- Seek the help of expert teachers. The single most important factor when it comes to achieving expert performance is to seek the help of those who are experts at teaching experts. It’s no use hiring someone who is an expert in lifting as your coach if they have no experience of coaching as they don’t understand for the most part what the key elements to helping other achieve what they themselves have achieved. An expert coach will understand the road blocks when it comes to becoming the best lifter possible and the best ways to surmount them. When you hit a plateau they will help to individualise and target the feedback at your bottle neck and help you to fit through it. There will come times when you outgrow your teacher or you need to seek the help of another expert in a specific problem this is natural in the process and should be seen as such.
- Watch yourself lifting back as much as you can use video feedback and seek the feedback of others as much as you can. The feedback you receive from others should always be critical and based on where you need to improve and if you can it should be sourced from those who are more skilled than you or ideally from someone who is skilled at teaching.
- Immerse yourself in the skill you want to become an expert at. The more you read, speak, watch and listen on the subject the more ideas and models you can put to the test in reality. No man is an island and the best don’t become the best in isolation as such you should try and spend time with like-minded individuals and take advantage of the internet and spend time in taking ideas and knowledge of lifting to help you to develop, test and hone your own mental representation.
- PUT IT INTO ACTION! Knowledge does not become performance without action the only way we can advance in a skill is through execution so you should be looking to execute as much as is feasible and using the tools outlines above to better help you develop a deliberate practice routine and mental representation that will lead to progression towards your target of mastery.
Understand the realities of mastery and skill development.
Before we continue on and describe the practicalities and requirements of achieving mastery as a lifter, we need to understand some realities and required attributes to achieve mastery we require
- Commitment – there is no way about it, this will be a time consuming and at time all-consuming endeavor.
- Time – you need to spend the allotted practice time to realise your improvement this typically takes upwards of a decade of sustained and targeted deliberate practice.
- Motivation – you need to be internally motivated to pursue this task as it is going to be frustrating, degrading, boring and relentless so to see yourself through you will need the steel or motivation to see it through. This motivation is also external which we will cover in environment.
- Humility – feedback can sometimes be galling and you will spend a lot of time second guessing your ego and needing to realise that you are not as good as you think you are this means you need to be humble enough to accept this reality and do the work that is needed to improve.
- Mentorship – you will not achieve mastery in a field where expert performers already exist without mentorship. It can be possible to be the best at something no one has done before on your own steam but if you are trying to become the best you can in a field where people have been trying to improve for some length of time (10 years or more) then you are going to require a coach or mentor to achieve the highest levels of performance.
Seeking or creating the right environment to achieve mastery.
When you know how to develop the right mental representation and the methods or key principles you need to adhere too to allow this development. The next part of the puzzle is to create or to find the environment or place where this can become reality.
The correct environment for practice is probably the most important factor when it comes to getting better as a lifter. Those who want to get better at a sport or task will initially seek help from those who are local or financially feasible but for those who really want to go on to achieve what they are capable of they will be willing to travel and pay for the people and location that has what they need to succeed as a lifter or athlete.
What follows is a list of the key ingredients
- Seek out the best coach you can afford and whom it is feasible to train with – there is no doubt that this is the most important part of creating the correct environment it is incredibly difficult to know exactly what sort of practice you should be engaging in never to worry about what you need to concentrate on and also to individualise that to your own situation. The coach is there to structure you practice, individualise that practice and to provide the correct feedback which is the life blood of improvement. Ideally, this coach should be present in the living breathing flesh as real-time feedback can expiate the process. Sometimes the quality of the coach or the lack of options can make remote coaching an attractive and best option.
- Seek out somewhere where people are better than you – At some stage in your lifting career you’re going to need to seek out others who are better than you or who are working towards the same goal. Preferably the ideal environment should contain both of these aspects whilst it is possible to progress well with only an excellent coach or teacher the added incentive of competition amongst peers is something that should not be underestimated.
- Find a supportive or adversarial environment that motivates you – you can’t keep yourself motivated to perform or practice at your best via internal drive alone it is not feasible to do so. You need to find a group of lifters or a gym that provides the best kind of mixture of support you can find. It is important to have friends and rivals in any sport as these play together to push you on and motivate you. Sometimes these people are the same person, when you’re down or when you’re wondering why you are spending so much time doing something it is important to have someone to pull you along. When you do something good it is important to have someone recognise the accomplishment and to provide praise and stroke the ego. When your being soft or stupid it is important to have someone to provide a good kick up the arse or reality check when it is needed. This is why even in an individual sport such as lifting it is incredibly important to have a group that provide this for you.
- Don’t spend all your time with people you like – with the above being said having the positive reinforcement and support in your life is incredible important. What can be even more important is to have the negative relationship or the acidic support of people who will hold you accountable and accept nothing but your best foot forward. This can come from your coach, your lifting buddy or that lifter who you hate at the gym but is better than you. You should spend time in environments that scare you and that ask more of you.
- Don’t spend any time in your comfort zone – the place where you are going to achieve the best performance or the best results. The place that leads to the best gains in performance is the place you don’t like being. It is one of the key tenants of deliberate practice as concept that you should be spending as much time as possible at the limit of you comfort zone as it is the only way to improve. If you find yourself not dreading workouts or getting anxious about spending time with your coach in a session than chances are your stagnating and need to shake things up.
- Find somewhere that produces results – it matters not a jot what accolades, degrees or nice things to say a coach or trainer has, the only thing that matters are the results that he/she or their environment produces. If you like a coach because they are nice and make you feel good, then you’re probably not spending time with someone who is going to make you better. Competition and the real world are harsh places and you should seek those who understand this and as a result produce those who thrive in these environments. If you are looking for a gym that is local, cheap, has nice changing facilities, has music you like… you’re not looking for a performance facility your looking for a leisure facility. The only thing you should be looking for when seeking your environment are the champions who have been there before you.