We are continuing from Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 in this discussion of the features of Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice concept. We will look at the importance of focusing training upon small, specific pieces of skill.

I am referring to Chapter 4 “The Gold Standard” in Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise, in the sub-section called “The Principles Of Deliberate Practice.”

Delieberate Practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. (page 99)


Some Aspect Of Performance

The over-all quantity goal, the performance desired, might be something like:

  • I want to swim 5 km continuously for the first time
  • I want to beat my 100 m time of 1:34

The large picture of performance starts the planning process, but it does not inform the process or the details of what should be practiced. Saying, I am going to swim farther, or I am going to swim faster is a goal, but not a training plan, because the abilities to swim faster and swim farther are made up of skills for using limited energy better. Speed is a skill.


Well-defined, Specific Goals

The next questions to ask are:

  • What specific skills and fitness need to be in place to accomplish that?
  • Where am I at right now in terms of those skills and fitness markers? Where are my weakest spots?
  • What skills should be worked on first, and which should be built later upon those fundamental ones?

When you want to swim farther than ever before you need to know where you are wasting energy in your stroke when things are feeling fresh and fine, and you need to see what skills break down first when fatigue starts to set in. You need to see what sequence of things happen preceding your failure in endurance, then design training to correct or strengthen those specific things.

When you want to swim faster than ever before, over a given distance, you need to know what the variable in the Speed Equation – in terms of motor control over stroke length or motor control over tempo or both – is the primary limiting factor.


You might need more power, but power to do more of what, precisely?

  • Do you need to get more distance per stroke?
  • Do you need to be able to sustain stroke length for longer period of time?
  • Do you need to hold your adequate SL but increase your tempo?
  • Do you need to keep tempo consistent?

Data from test swims and races will help you identify which areas to work on.


Train Your Weaknesses

Performance happens from the components of a whole, complicated system working together, each doing its part. Your goal recognizes that this system has to be working harmoniously at some level that can be defined in terms of skills and measurable fitness. Through testing and assessment your specific, individual weaknesses can be identified. Your training process can be designed to addresses each of these individual weaknesses.

Keep the distinction clear in your mind: You train according to your weaknesses. You pleasure swim according to your strengths.

Training according to your weaknesses is inherently uncomfortable (see previous article in this series). Swimming on auto-pilot by your strengths is staying within your comfort zone.

Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. Improving some aspect of the target performance allows a performer to see that his or her performances have been improved by the training. (page 99)


Small Things Matter

The impatience to get to those ‘magic moments‘ will actually hinder you from getting there. You definitely need to be motivated by the desire to experience that magic, but you do better to break that magic into smaller trainable micro-skills, which each alone bring you some satisfaction to improve. Then, motivation is boosted in each small improvement project, rather than waiting for the magic to come at some unknown point down the road.

Appreciation for small pieces requires an understanding of the role of each inside that Big Picture of performance. It requires patience to practice and program those small pieces. It requires respect for the rate at which your body and brain can build and reinforce new circuits. It requires a deliberate practice process.

FP Example ring finger

Does it matter to you how to shape the hand on extension? Your attitude about this reflects your understanding of small advantages.

These small pieces eventually converge – they add up into a sum greater than their parts and this is when the ‘magic’ appears. Sometimes you will be surprised by those magic moments. But you are not training to create surprises – you are training to make magic your normal experience. Eventually this kind of deliberate practice process should enable you to trigger the magic on demand, under the conditions you train for.

Be pleased to practice small pieces. Be patient to practice them over days, weeks, and months until they have time to be wired deeply into the system, then the body will be ready to pump more power through them.

For some encouragement on the power of ‘marginal gains’ from improving small details in every aspect of your performance you should read about the success of the British Olympic Cycling Team in the 2012 London Olympics.

And, I have written about this before – the principle of the Accumulation Of Small Advantages is central in my personal practice and coaching method.


Fundamentals First

But what small pieces should you aim for? There are so many possibilities and so little time each week.

Because of extreme competition and the enormous effort required to make microsecond increases in speed, we might mistakenly assume that the elite performers have mastered the fundamentals and now must make the difference from their competitors using extraordinary talent and tricks. In reality, the best of the best are often found to be obsessive about perfecting the fundamental skills beyond what the next-to-the-best think is necessary. I keep thinking of the example of Michael Jordan, and his reputation for obsession with fundamentals though he was already the top of his game. There is a brief survey of Jordan’s values on this blog – see #2 and #4 in particular.

In highly complex activities, such as swimming, for the less-than-elite (and many of the so-called elite as well) we can easily see that most have potential for improvement in the fundamentals of the stroke. This is the zone in which it is wise (safe and practical) to invest during your precious practice time. Too many swimmers are trying to hack it, to take supposed short-cuts, to insert peripheral tricks (e.g. a more aggressive early vertical forearm catch, or a more powerful kick, or ‘galloping’), before they have come even close to building the central skills in the torso which make those tricks actually produce some sustainable advantage. First things must be first, and must be made quite solid (habitual) before certain peripheral tricks are added.

As a rule of thumb for identifying those fundamentals: work from the spine outward. Train your spine. Then train your torso. Then train your arms and legs to work only in alignment with the spine. Then train the most peripheral parts of the arms and legs to add a bit extra without disrupting the center.


It Takes Time

When you improve smaller pieces of the fundamental skills, you will notice its effect on the overall performance, in terms of internal qualities and externally measurable metrics. This comes from being patient and paying attention to subtle sensations and details. That awareness will provide feedback and encouragement that good stuff is happening below the visible surface.

When you take the time (and I mean weeks, not minutes) to isolate a specific weak spot, to correct or improve, to deeply imprint and habituate fundamental micro-skills, your performance will increase without having to be pushing yourself toward this vague goal.

To reinforce this point I direct you again to that article on Accumulation Of Advantages linked above.


You may read the others parts of this series on how we apply Deliberate Practice in Total Immersion:


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