Coaching Education: deliberate brain practice

One of the more well-known and possibly controversial topics we covered in the first session at NCI was the 10,000 hour rule. This rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, and there are a variety of other books written on the topic as well, the best of which is probably “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.

The basic idea, if you haven’t heard it before, is that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. Of course, that’s the short, simplified version. The scientific reality is a bit more precise. First of all, in sports (as opposed to music, where a lot of this research was done), the number is more like 4000 hours. Second of all, the hours are not spent merely thrashing about at the particular job. What we need to become experts is something called “deliberate practice.”

Another book, “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin, gets to the heart of the matter, as the title suggests. In sports, we often speak of athletes as “gifted,” “talented” or “naturals.” Certainly, a particular genetic heritage can be an advantage, but in order to rise to the level of an expert, it is only one small, helpful, piece to a larger puzzle. Even someone who is less “talented” can become great through this idea of “deliberate practice.”

What is it? The theory of deliberate practice says that expertise can be acquired, but that the acquisition is not pleasant. That is to say, if distance running were easy…everyone would do it. So how do you acquire expertise in an unpleasant way?

There is the physical aspect: you have to run the miles. As mentioned in my last post, running as many quality miles as you can is the key to success. (Side note: Oh, if ever a phrase were ripe to be misunderstood! Instead of focusing only on the “as many miles” part, focus on the “as you can part” and the “quality” part, too.)

There is also a technical aspect. This has to do with learning the skill. Runners don’t have too much trouble with this, as running is something most people can do, but the technical side is there. It is just buried in the physical, usually. So pulling it out and noticing it can be helpful. Being aware of your form, of why it is what it is, of what your weaknesses are, and having a plan to strengthen them are all part of “practice.”

There are two more criteria that the science refers to as “cognitive-tactical” and “cognitive-perceptive.” The key here is the “cognitive” part. Deliberate practice has to be training your brain to make the best decisions, as quickly as possible. In running, we’d want to practice race tactics as much as possible in a race-like setting. This way, our brain is used to making decisions in that environment. As distance runners, we know that it is a lot tougher to make that decision to accelerate to pass someone when we are tired. Other than being fitter, one way we can become an “expert” at this is to have practiced it beforehand.

Each decision we make can be broken down into three parts: first, we take in and interpret the information we see, then we make a decision based on that information, and finally, we execute that decision. Of course, these are pretty finely sliced moments in time. Usually it takes less than 3 seconds for it to happen. We can practice each part, and improve our performance at each, so that when it does come time to make a decision, the athletes will be described as “effortless” and “natural.”

It’s a little easier to see this application to reaction sports like hockey or soccer, but there are running applications, too. After all, every step we take in a race is a decision. A wise and experienced runner put it this way: “you have to decide whether you are going to be a hero or a wimp.” So if you practice like a hero, you’ll be a hero on race day.

How does this work for running? I will leave it to coaches and athletes to figure out their own workouts. I have devised a few, but I wouldn’t want to impose my experimental thoughts on anyone! The key to remember is that practice must be deliberate. It’s not mindless. You have to think about every move, every decision. Don’t let anything become a habit unless it is the best possible habit to have.