Deliberate practice and mental images


In my last article I discussed Ericsson’s book and his scientific research about the secrets of expert performance, with the conclusion that nobody was born with a special gift or talent, it all comes down to the amount and type of practice you put in. So, exactly what kind of practice is necessary to develop expertise in any given field? And how long does it take? Is the 10.000 hour rule really a rule or is it just another myth? What are mental representations and what is deliberate practice? These are a few of the other topics Ericsson explains in his book. So let’s see.


Developing effective mental representations is the key to deliberate practice, so let’s look at those first. A mental representation is basically a mental image that corresponds to an object, idea or anything else that the brain is thinking about. It is based on a preexisting pool of information (facts, images, rules, relationships etc.) held in long-term memory. These images help us understand and interpret the information we receive, hold it in memory, organise it, analyse it or make quick decisions with it. It’s been shown that expert performers have developed highly effective mental representations in their respective fields, which enables them to see patterns in situations that would seem random or confusing to other people. In other words, experts see the forest, where everyone else sees only trees.

However, these mental representations are very domain specific – they apply only to the skill for which they were developed. This means that there is no such thins as a general skill. People who are experts in a number of different fields, did not get there by developing one general skill that applies to everything, rather by training their skills in all the different areas. And much of this training involves developing more efficient mental images. How does this apply to sports and other physical skills? By developing a clear mental picture of what a movement should look like in every moment and, more importantly, what it should feel like. Naturally, practice will also lead to physical changes in the body, necessary for performing the skill correctly, but without the mental representations that produce and control the movements correctly, the physical changes would be of no use.

And so the main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations, which in turn play a key role in deliberate practice.


According to Ericsson, there are three different types of practice.

Naive practice is the usual approach to learning a skill – this is how most people go about learning something new. They start with an idea of what they want to learn, get some instructions from a teacher or a coach or a book or a website, practice until they reach an acceptable level and then let it become automatic. And there is nothing wrong with that if this is what you’re looking for. Not everybody needs to be an expert in every field. But it’s important to understand that this kind of practice does not lead to further improvements. Once you have reached a satisfactory skill level and the performance becomes automatic, you stop improving. At this point, more practice will not equal better performance. Simply doing something repeatedly will only lead to stagnation and, over time, deterioration of performance. So if you’re looking to take your game a step further, then you gotta move on to purposeful practice.

Purposeful practice is more purposeful, thoughtful and focused than naive practice, with well-defined, specific goals. These goals should represent a breakdown of your overall long-term goal – baby steps put together to reach the desired outcome. Getting better in boxing, for example, is not a well-defined specific goal. What exactly do you need to work on to get better? Is it your footwork? Your defence? Your jab? Break it down, and make a plan. That’s the kind of practice that leads to continuous improvements. It is focused and it requires feedback (either from yourself or someone else) – you need to know whether you’re doing something right and, if not, where you’re going wrong. It also requires getting out of your comfort zone, which is why most people don’t do it. It may not be easy, but if you never push yourself out of your comfort zone, you will never improve. So what exactly does it mean to get out of your comfort zone? It means trying to do something that you couldn’t do before. Sometimes it can be relatively easy, while sometimes it seems you’ll never be able to accomplish it. Finding ways around these barriers is what deliberate practice is all about. It is not always about trying harder, but rather, trying differently. So let’s look into the famous deliberate practice.

While purposeful practice is an excellent way to improve performance, it has its limitations. Expert performance requires something more. And that’s where deliberate practice comes into play. In a nutshell, deliberate practice is purposeful practice on steroids. It knows where it’s going and how to get there. It is both purposeful and informed. It is guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these experts do to excel.

Deliberate practice is a very specific type of practice:

  1. It requires an already well-developed field and individuals who have attained an expert level of performance.

  2. It requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help you improve very specific skills.

  3. It takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires near maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.

  4. It is deliberate (duh!) - it requires one’s full attention and concentration on a specific goal, so that adjustments can be made.

  5. It involves feedback and modifications based on that feedback. At the beginning, much of the feedback will come from a coach, but with time and experience, students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes and adjust their practice. This requires effective mental representations.

  6. It both produces and depends on effective mental representations – as the performance improves, these images become more detailed, in turn making it possible to improve even more.


So, here’s all this in a nutshell: if you simply want to learn a skill and you’re happy with an acceptable level – use the usual approach (the so called naive practice*). If you want to keep improving your performance after you’ve reached the acceptable level, you gotta get out of your comfort zone and do some purposeful practice. And if you want to become an expert in the field, then you need to point that purposeful practice in the right direction, by mirroring the most accomplished experts in the field and what they do differently. If something works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, find a new approach. Whenever possible, work with a good coach or teacher, who understands what constitutes a successful training regimen and can provide valuable feedback.

The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do – that takes you out of your comfort zone – and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short and where you can get better. It does no good to do the same thing over and over again mindlessly; the purpose of the repetition is to figure out where your weaknesses are and focus on getting better in those areas, trying different methods to improve until you find something that works.

*Personally, I am not a big fan of the term naive practice, because it sort of implies that there is something wrong with this approach. While it is not the right way to achieve excellence, it’s perfectly fine for acquiring a basic level of skills. For example, being able to drive your car from your home to the office, does not require Schumacher-like driving skills, if you know what I mean.. (and if you’re old enough to remember who Schumacher is).


Anders Ericsson (that’s the guy who wrote the book we’ve been discussing in the last few articles, in case you missed it) is actually the guy to whom they attribute the 10.000 hour rule. According to this rule, it takes 10.000 hours of practice to become a master in most fields. In his book, he explains how this number was taken out of context and used to create a rule, that’s wrong in several ways.

Here’s what happened. Ericsson has been researching Berlin violin students and the average number of hours the best violinists had spent on solitary practice, by the time they were twenty (in average 10.000). Some of these findings appeared in a book by Malcolm Gladwell, who came up with the idea of the 10.000 hour rule. However, these findings were taken out of context.

First of all, there is nothing special or magical about 10.000 hours. This was the average number most students spent on solitary practice by the time they were twenty (at which point these students were nowhere near masters of the violin). Second, the number varies from field to field – some skills are easier to master than the violin, some might be harder. And third, Gladwell didn’t distinguish between deliberate practice and any other sort of practice. And, as we have already learned, this distinction is crucial, because not every type of practice leads to improved abilities. Yet, many people have interpreted it as a promise that almost anyone can become an expert in a given field by simply putting in 10.000 hours of practice. Nothing in Ericsson’s study implied this.

Saying that it takes 10.000 hours to become really good at something, puts the focus on the daunting nature of the task. While some may take this as a challenge, many will see it as a stop sign. According to Ericsson, the core message is something else altogether: “In pretty much any area of human endeavour, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours you will almost certainly see great improvement. You can keep going and going, getting better and better. How much you improve is up to you. There is no point at which performance maxes out and additional practice does not lead to further improvement. So yes, if you wish to become one of the best in the world in of the highly competitive fields, you will need to put in thousands and thousands of hours of hard, focused work, just to have a chance of equaling all of those others who have chosen to put in the same sort of work. To date, we have found no limitations to the improvements that can be made with particular types of practice. As training techniques are improved, and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavour are constantly finding ways to get better, to raise the bar on what was thought to be possible, and there is no sign that this will stop. The horizons of human potential are expanding with each new generation”.

"Deliberate practice is for everyone who dreams. It’s for all those people who want to take control of their lives and create their own potential and not buy into the idea that this, right here, right now, is as good as it gets" - Anders Ericsson

Recent Posts

See All