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Posted 04/11/2022 in Category 1

Practice: Just how shall I practice and how much do I need to become world class?

Practice: Just how shall I practice and how much do I need to become world class?

If there is one thing that all athletes and coaches can agree on, it is that we need to practise sport skills to learn, improve and perform at the highest level within our chosen sport. With that point secured, the next question is how much practice and which type of practice works best to become an expert? This question is more challenging to answer; however, there are several points researchers agree upon. 

Athletes need extensive sport-specific deliberate practice for world class performance. Deliberate practice means a practice that is purposeful and systematic. Deliberate practice means paying attention to the task at hand to learn and improve. Spending time in a sport is no guarantee of improvement because any amount of mindless practice does not appear to move athletes forward in learning and developing their skills. Just think about a golfer who has spent 40 years playing and practising the game and has not improved his handicap much in those years. Yes, he is practising; however, this practice is often not purposeful and not systematic. Many people will have heard about Ericsson’s work on the 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach the expert level; however, the story of this research did not translate well into the popular media. What Ericsson intended was that there is considerable variability within and across sports at elite and super-elite level. Some evidence at the super-elite level suggested that as few as 4400 hours could lead to Olympic Gold in field hockey and 4500 hours to represent the German national soccer team.

One point to raise about organised practice is that it’s not all about a deliberate focus. There are ‘play’ elements in there also, woven around deliberate practice. The bottom line in deliberate practice is that the more deliberate practice we accumulate, the higher the performance attained. The evidence is clear when we compare non-elite athletes with junior elite athletes, elite athletes and super-elite athletes across various sports (e.g., cricket, soccer, swimming, triathlon). The volume of deliberate practice for most sports increases in the teenage years (mid-to-late adolescence and beyond). The late adolescence into adulthood witnesses an investment into sport and mostly one sport only. Competition for most athletes is a minute percentage of all their time spent in sport, so we need to acknowledge that no consistent difference emerges here between levels of success. 

When we go back to Ericsson’s work, we can see that he based the 10 years or 10,000 hours on musicians, not athletes. Coaches and athletes fill sport with lots of fun and excitement that no doubt contribute to learning and development in sport. In sport, we learn implicitly (without knowing that we are learning) and we learn incidentally (learning with no intention to learn). We need deliberate practice to learn and develop but we also need fun, excitement and challenge that means we can take learning seriously but not too seriously. We want to pay attention and we want to accept that what we have done is good enough. We need to learn and trust our learning.

Focused practice and play is the combination we need to maintain and maximise our motivation and enjoyment to return the next day to practise and play again. Like the best things in life, we need to get the balance right for us and others. We need to keep the fun and enjoyment at the heart of what we do, even when we are working deliberately to improve. We need to realise what is best for children, adolescents, and those moving into adulthood and beyond. The research to date has been immensely helpful. so we ought to keep it firmly in mind.


Rees, T. (2016). The Great British Medalists Project: A review of current knowledge on the development of the world’s best sporting talent. Sports Medicine (Auckland), 46(8), 1041–1058. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0476-2

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