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Sorry, but practice alone does not make perfect

We’ve all heard it before (usually accompanied by repeating hours of music scales or sports drills over and over): Practice makes perfect. But your music teachers and sports coaches were wrong - well…

If she wants to be a grandmaster one day, practice will only take her so far, according to new research. Joe Shlabotnik

We’ve all heard it before (usually accompanied by repeating hours of music scales or sports drills over and over):

Practice makes perfect.

But your music teachers and sports coaches were wrong - well, mostly. Practice only accounts for around one third of “perfection”, and the oft-quoted motto should be reworded to:

Practice makes perfect … but only if you also have natural talent and start early enough.

In his autobiography, Eric Clapton credits hours of practice for his guitar-playing prowess. Azimo

I’ll explain why this is - but first, we need to explore the motto’s origins.

The deliberate practice framework proposed by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues in 1993 has favoured the view that accumulated hours of “deliberate practice” – a type of practice aiming at correcting mistakes and rich on feedback – is the only factor that explains differences in performance in sports, arts, sciences and intellectual games.

Ericsson exposed the idea that it takes around 10 years of intense dedication to achieve high levels of performance. This idea was recently popularised by British-Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers, but with a twist: it takes 10,000 hours to achieve such level of expertise.

Along with American psychologist Zach Hambrick and colleagues, I have been involved in a study that re-analysed previous research in the fields of chess and music, including data from Ericsson’s original deliberate practice framework study. Our findings were published earlier this month in the journal Intelligence.

This study includes my previous research in chess expertise, which showed that there is a huge variability in the numbers of hours of individual practice required to become a national master: a player achieved that level after 800 hours (or 2 years) whereas another did it after 24,000 hours (or 26 years). Moreover, a number of players dedicated more than 10,000 hours of individual practice and never achieved that level!

The re-analysis showed that, on average, practice only accounts for 30% of the skill differences in music and 34% of skill differences in chess. We concluded that deliberate practice is important, but other factors should be taken into account as well.

Recently retired David Beckham’s famously accurate free kick was the result of almost obsessive practice - combined with natural talent, of course. Joscarfos

The other two thirds of ‘expertise’

In 2011, Hambrick suggested working memory capacity (the cognitive system that holds and allows manipulation of multiple pieces of information at a time) is sometimes the deciding factor between good and great.

He found people with high levels of working memory, which is closely related to general intelligence, outperformed those with lower working memory capacity in tasks such as piano sight reading, even when the latter group had extensive experience and knowledge of the task.

Another such factor is called critical period. Players who start engaging in serious practice earlier achieve higher levels of performance than those of players who start late. And this is the case even when the number of hours of practice remains constant. In our study almost all the masters started playing chess seriously at the age of 12 or earlier.

Magnus Carlsen playing simultaneous games in 2004, then aged 13 and already a grandmaster. Wikimedia Commons

One possible explanation of this effect is that children have higher neural plasticity that allows them to learn domain-specific patterns more quickly than adults. If serious dedication to chess does not start at that stage there is no time to catch up and develop the large database of domain-specific patterns necessary to succeed at chess.

Our analyses confirm an exciting phenomenon that is currently going on in the world of chess. In January 1, 2013, the 22-year-old Norwegian player Magnus Carlsen (also known as the “Mozart of Chess”) reached the highest international rating in the history of chess, above the likes of Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and the late Bobby Fischer. He had become number 1 in the world ranking at the age of 19, and has dominated chess competitions ever since.

There has been a recent exception - he finished second in supertournament played in Norway two weeks ago. The winner was another prodigy, the Ukraine-born Russian Sergey Karjakin, who holds the record for being the youngest player in obtaining both the international master title at the age of 11 years and 11 months (in 2001), and the grandmaster title (12 years and 7 months, in 2002).

These feats and other recent achievements by young chess players cannot be accounted by the deliberate practice framework.

Grandmaster Karjakin in action (playing the white pieces).

Don’t worry, there are positives

We wish the motto “practice makes perfect” be true because it encompasses a view that is both egalitarian (almost everyone can practice) and fair (those who work hard are rewarded).

Unfortunately, our analyses do not support this view and, as yet, there is no reliable way to increase your working memory capacity.

But on the positive side, our research provides relevant information for those who aim high for themselves or their children. The take home message is if we detect our children have a strong interest in a discipline, we should expose them to it as soon as possible.

Join the conversation

38 Comments sorted by

  1. Anna Bowden

    logged in via email @iinet.net.au

    I think that there are now some sound ways to improve working memory - Cogmed has sound pretty sound evidence that it works

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  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    As a piano player (it was my only job at one stage), I know that practice does make a huge difference.

    My advice to young musicians is practice as much as you can. For pianists the more nimble your fingers the better your playing becomes. It is only after continuous scales and exercises do you get the ability to have the music flow more easily.

    It shouldn't be tedious - I'd advise alternating a melody/song with exercises. And rather than use written exercises, make them up yourself....then you get greater skills at improvising. Unless you practice til the fingers get sore (within reason of course), you're not getting anywhere

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    1. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I agree, practice makes a huge difference. Indeed, explaining one third of the variance is very important.
      However, there are other factors that limit the level of performance one can achieve.

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    2. Adrian Tosello

      Student

      In reply to Guillermo Campitelli

      One of the complications with this line of reasoning in music is that technical proficiency does not necessarily mean that an individual is particularly creative. There are a plethora of examples of extremely innovative or popular musicians (especially in contemporary art and popular music) who are not necessarily the most technically proficient. This may or may not be important to an individual, but it is still worth noting that technical proficiency is only part of the picture and not what solely defines a "good" musician. I imagine that this may also apply to other disciplines as well?

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Adrian Tosello

      technique and dexterity alone do not make a great musician.

      The extra ingredients needed are passion and empathy.

      Technical brilliance by itself only allows for a soul-less performance.

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  3. Andrew Pike

    Filmmaker

    I think a more fundamental question is why practice at all, and why does perfection matter, unless we're looking only at world-class competitive events. Surely it is much more important to have a society where everyone feels empowered to engage in playing chess or making music for pleasure or for social engagement. The constant pre-occupation with perfection and practice helps to feed a music eduction industry but does not necessarily do much to encourage people to simply start playing.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Andrew Pike

      For those who just "start" playing there is the danger of getting frustrated because you can't get near the musicians you cherish.

      That is why practice is the only way to improve - unless you have exceptional natural talent.
      Persistence can often be the best way forward. The piano/keyboard is often the hardest to master because you need to master the technique of playing well with both hands.

      In these days of instant everything, there are still some things that need practice and perserverance.

      As a filmmaker surely there are techniques and subtleties that take ages to learn and can't be just had by picking up a camera and filming away.

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    2. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Andrew Pike

      This is a very good point, and it opens up a completely different discussion.
      My article is about those who after starting a discipline for fun they have the goal to become good at it.
      That is when the misconception that "practice makes perfect" comes to play. Don't get me wrong, practice is very important, even if you have talent you still have to practice. However, not everyone who practices hard achieves high performance levels.

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    3. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      That's exactly right. One should not deceive oneself by trying to achieve high levels of expertise by playing an instrument or playing chess for fun.
      But frustration can happen when you practice a lot as well. This is even worse, because you are working hard and you see that others who do not practice as hard achieve higher levels. So, if one is not talented but still wants to achieve high levels, one should be prepared for bad outcomes without getting frustrated. This is actually not a bad thing, it is a very useful skill for many areas of everyday life.

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Guillermo Campitelli

      From my own perspective it is a sort of paradox that the better (or more talented) you become mainly through practice and perseverance, the more it allows to play more simply and effectively.

      And again as advice for beginners - don't be afraid to let yourself go in the music. Record yourself and listen to both your strengths and weaknesses.

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    5. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I agree, the more you practice the easier things become, but with the following qualification: "on average". That is, on average, the more you practice the more effective you become. This implies that some people become better faster than others, and that some people stop improving even though the keep practicing.

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    6. Stephen Pritchard

      Researcher, cognitive science

      In reply to Guillermo Campitelli

      Guillermo, I wonder if perhaps you are taking "practice makes perfect" too literally? Obviously if you were to take it extremely literally, then perfection is unattainable, and the adage is clearly wrong.

      More loosely, the saying just communicates the importance of practice, which is obviously true.

      You say:

      "However, not everyone who practices hard achieves high performance levels."

      "High performance" is fairly vague, isn't it? I think most people would accept that, even if they practiced…

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    7. Stephen Pritchard

      Researcher, cognitive science

      In reply to Stephen Pritchard

      I still think it is reasonable to say "almost everyone can practice" and "those who work hard are rewarded". You are conflating "reward" with "perfection". "Improve" is closer.

      So I think there is little problem with "those who work hard improve", while "those who work hard are guaranteed to become the best" is not very true.

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    8. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Stephen Pritchard

      There are a lot of good points in your comments. I take this opportunity to make some things more explicit and clarify others.

      Of course, I am not taking "practice makes perfect" literally. Nor do the proponents of the deliberate practice framework. It would be difficult to define what perfection is. Moreover, Carlsen is outplayed by a chess playing software everybody can bay and run in a desktop. Thus, achieving the highest rating in the history of chess is far from perfection.

      I agree with…

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    9. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Stephen Pritchard

      I tend to agree with you. But some people stop improving at some point, and others keep improving with the same amount of practice.
      The problem is that the deliberate practice framework aims to explain not only average improvement, but also performance at the top level.

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    10. Adrian Tosello

      Student

      In reply to Guillermo Campitelli

      I can only speak from experience in music, but it is very plausible for a musician to "deliberately" practice in a way that isn't conducive to improving efficiently. There are hundreds of different philosophies on what is the best way to practice, and they all probably have their merit in certain circumstances or to particular individuals at a given time. Maybe that would be another interesting line of research - how effective different styles of "deliberate practice" are. Probably highly specific to each different discipline though.

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  4. Jon Ford

    Researcher

    Sounds like very interesting research. Could have significant negative impact on our young people though. I'm involved at a number of sporting clubs and as I see it this research could push coaches (and parents) even further towards high level training/competition at a very young ages. I'm not sure its healthy for pre-teens to be training in sport (and arguably chess) at very frequent and intense levels. Swimming seems to be a sport where this culture is deeply embedded.

    On the other hand, these results may discourage kids without the necessary genes to participate on the grounds of not having potential. This could be exacerbated by coaches biasing their attention to certain athletes over others.

    It would be interesting to hear from researchers in the area to comment on how definitive this reanalysis of earlier data is.

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    1. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jon Ford

      This is an interesting paradox. On the one hand you are suggesting that some teenagers may engage in too much high level training, on the other hand others may engage in too little training.
      My view is that teenagers should engage in as much (or little) practice as they like. Early exposure to a variety of disciplines helps children decide which discipline they like the most, and whether they would like to do it just for fun or be serious about it.

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    2. Jon Ford

      Researcher

      In reply to Guillermo Campitelli

      I agree re kids can determine how much they want to train. But where it gets tricky is parents and coaches trying to use the evidence to get the desired outcome (elite athletes) at the expense of participation (for some kids) and allowing self motivated drive to improve (in the other group of kids). I myself coach semi elite athletes and try to facilitate them achieving at national competition. But I also try and be as inclusive as possible for those that don't have as much ability. The general message is work hard to improve yourself and learn valuable life skills (like determination). However there are parents and coaches who might use the concepts in your research in a manner that may not be helpful to adolescent development.

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    3. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jon Ford

      I think your approach is the right one. Indeed, is the one I used when I was chess coach for more than 10 years. I coached with the same enthusiasm children that eventually became grandmasters and children that just liked to play for fun and improve a little bit.
      However, I refused to keep coaching children who were not enjoying chess but whose parents obliged them to take classes because they believed that "practice makes perfect".
      This is an example of how the "practice makes perfect" view could lead to harmful adolescent development.
      In any case, scientist cannot accommodate the evidence to favor one view or another. Our article published in the journal Intelligence shows that practice is an important factor, but it does not account for the whole variability in performance. We are not saying that people without talent should not practice.

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    4. Jon Ford

      Researcher

      In reply to Guillermo Campitelli

      I agree that scientists cannot change the interpretation of their evidence. But I think they can acknowledge the potential positive and adverse impacts of their findings, and frame the evidence within that context.

      No doubt there are positive and negative impacts of the practice makes perfect assumption. However equally there are positive and negative impacts of data suggesting that natural ability/early childhood practice is 70% of the performance equation. Discussing the potential positive/negative impacts is helpful for those in the field

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    5. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jon Ford

      I agree with you. That is why I wrote this article and I am answering the questions as quick as I can.
      I was probably answering to a typical criticism I receive that my results have implications that are harmful for kids. What I am trying to say is that I cannot change the results and that if the results are in the opposite direction they could also be used to support unethical practices.

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  5. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    Fascinating stuff. I look forward to reading the full paper.

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  6. James Jardine

    logged in via Twitter

    While I agree that your article highlights some valid points, it also concerns me that this message is all to often drummed into the minds of children. It's true that we all have different starting points but it's also true that we develop at different rates and that rates of progression are not necessarily linear.
    Your article sits in contrast to article written by Catherine Scott: 'Our obsession with ‘natural’ talent is harming students' (The Conversation, Jan 11, 2013 - http://theconversation.com/our-obsession-with-natural-talent-is-harming-students-11549) and the work of Carol Dwek (Fixed Mindsets vs Growth Mindsets) and while it's fair to say that there are two probably equal sides to this debate, I think it is much more helpful to look at it from their point of view.

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    1. Kerry Hempenstall

      Casual lecturer in Psychology at RMIT University

      In reply to James Jardine

      Interesting article that has also the ring of commonsense.

      However, leaving aside the issues related to propensity to excel, practice alone doesn't make perfect - it only makes permanent. What is needed for an individual of whatever ability level is perfect practice. This is a condition usually requiring corrective feedback (from, say, a teacher) to regularly monitor that what is being practised is apt for the skill at hand.

      The brain responds to multiple similar experiences. These stimulate…

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    2. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Kerry Hempenstall

      I was going to say the same thing. "Practising in" the mistakes can be extremely damaging in the long term for sportspeople and musicians, who are using their skills in a repetitive fashion. Singers are probably the best example in this regard of how things can go wrong very quickly.

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Kerry Hempenstall

      "So, sometimes practice may simply entrench unhelpful behaviours that present a greater hurdle to success than no practice at all.

      That's a fairly negative attitude, and really applies life in general.
      Entrenched unhelpful behaviours probably account for most of the world's problems.

      Practice (in terms of music) as I keep saying is the only way to achieve success - with success being a subjective term.

      You don't get to be a great musician, sports star, artist etc etc by dabbling at it every now and again.

      No pain = no gain. Otherwise watch or listen on the couch.

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    4. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to James Jardine

      My article is actually in line with your assertion that we develop at different rates. Moreover, I completely agree that progression is not linear, but so would the proponents of the deliberate practice framework. In fact, they propose a monotonic benefit function (that is, the more you practice the better you become, but the increase is not linear).
      I am not sure my article is entirely in contrast with that of Catherine Scott. Their article refers to a study that covers a 6-month period in children at school. My article is about data that covers the entire career of chess players. So, it is difficult to make comparisons.
      Moreover, my article is not in contrast to the work of Carol Dwek, which is about how beliefs affect behavior.
      I totally agree with the view that kids that are not performing well as school should receive support. So I don't know why you are saying that Catherine Scott's point of view is more helpful. Which is my point of view that you believe is not helpful?

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    5. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Kerry Hempenstall

      This is a very good explanation of the processes that take in place when one practices. I would only say that practice consolidates, rather than practice makes permanent. This is because, even though the chances of forgetting are reduced by strengthening connections in the brain, forgetting is still possible.
      And, again, there are individual differences in this process. Some people require fewer sessions of practice than others to consolidate, and some people forget more quickly than others.

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    6. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Perry

      I agree. So, in this respect I give credit to Ericsson's deliberate practice framework, which differentiates deliberate practice (what Kerry Hempenstall called "perfect practice") from other types of practice in which mistakes are not corrected.

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  7. Michael Gurr

    Student

    This is pretty interesting but my first impression is that most of the individual differences would be moderators of deliberate practice and only small mediators (depending on the domain).

    I guess the point of the article is to refute the claim that there is a linear relationship between deliberate practice and expert performance so getting into the relationship between individual differences, deliberate practice and performance is outside its scope. So has there been any research that has looked at this because I'd love to improve my practice?

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    1. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Gurr

      That is the proposal of the deliberate practice framework. Ericsson acknowledges that there are innate individual differences. But only in motivation. So, more motivated people practice more, therefore they become better.
      Just a clarification. We do not try to refute that there is a linear relationship between deliberate practice and expert performance. This is because the deliberate practice framework does not propose a linear relationship, rather it proposes a monotonic function (i.e., the more you practice, the better you become or you maintain your level, but not necessarily a linear relationship). We try to refute the statement that deliberate practice is a necessary and sufficient condition to achieve high levels of performance. We think that there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that deliberate practice is necessary, but the evidence suggest that it is not sufficient.

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    2. Guillermo Campitelli

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Gurr

      Sorry, I forgot to reply the second part of the comment. Yes, there is research that investigates which types of practice are better. However, this becomes very specific for each domain. I only know about chess.
      There is a lot of literature in chess, music and sports. Let me know in which one you are interested and I can refer you to relevant studies.

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