How to Become an Expert

How exactly does someone become an “expert”? Some people assume there is a genetic predisposition towards expertise, such as intelligence in chess or height in basketball. Others claim that while genetic factors matter, we actually have enough control over our own development that “expert level” is in reach for everyone.

So which is it?

I recently stumbled on an article that brought the debate of expertise back to the forefront. You can read the full article here.

The piece focuses on Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University. Specializing in the science of peak performance, Ericsson is the true “expert’s expert”.

After decades of studying skill development, Ericsson’s position has become quite clear: “deliberate practice” is the only real significant contributor to expertise.

The most popular reference to the deliberate practice approach is the “10,000-Hour Rule” featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers“. If you haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a fascinating read.  The rule posits that if someone repeats the same exercise over and over, eventually they will reach expert level.

But this may be an oversimplification – according to Ericsson, repeating one exercise is not enough. Instead there must be a more comprehensive approach.

A number of factors are required for practice to be considered deliberate. First, it involves stepping outside of your comfort zone, trying exercises that are either new or beyond your (current) ability. Second, it assumes that the exercises are assigned by a teacher or coach, who may also provide feedback. Third, the exercises must have a specific development goal in mind, giving a clear purpose and desired outcome.

Deliberate practice also appears to be most effective when performed alone – at least some of the time. A paper on German violinists (published by Ericsson) found that the best performers spent significantly more time practicing alone. And while 10,000 hours was the average practice commitment of elite violinists, the range among the sample varied widely.

Another key takeaway is that the practice should focus on aspects you are less comfortable with. In other words, be prepared to fail – a lot. Elite figure skaters, for example, spend more time practicing (and failing) new and more difficult jumps and spins. In contrast, average skaters spent more time practicing routines they had already mastered.

Still, some psychologists claim that genetic differences (both cognitive or physical) also limit an individuals ability to reach expertise. Ericsson feels differently, saying that most traits that impact expertise in different fields can be altered through practice – except height and body size.

“I’ve been spending now 30 years trying to look for kind of limits that would actually constrain some individuals from being successful in some domain,” said Ericsson. “And I’m surprised that I’ve yet really to find such limits.”

So whether you want to debate the specifics or not, one thing is undeniable: deliberate practice is the only way to expertise.

How do you practice deliberately? How do you encourage your athletes or children to do the same? Share your strategies in the comments below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANick Boon is the Coordinator of Youth Development for Canada Basketball. Nick holds degrees in Physical Education & Health and Sport Business Management, and is a long-time and overly-obsessed basketball coach, player, and fan.

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