Deliberate Practice Theory tells us everything we need to know about how a novice athlete becomes an expert athlete

In past years many researchers have focused on the processes that make it possible for an individual to become an “expert” in certain domains such as science, medicine, music, sport, and art (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). For example, Galton (1896) first attempted to focus on the notion that individuals had an “innate natural ability” and believed that many “experts” were biologically similar. However, the chosen topic has since been the cornerstone of a great and lengthy debate with numerous researchers dismissing Galton’s theory (Bridge & Toms, 2013). Furthermore, Watson (1930), a major contributor within the field of behavioural psychology, also dismissed Galton’s claim by famously stating:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents” .

Who and What is an Expert?

Throughout sporting literature there have been many definitions for the term “expert” which, in order to gain a true understanding, is beneficial. On the other hand, it also results in inconsistencies throughout literature in terms of producing a solid definition. Numerous papers have considered international athletes to be expert performers (Hodges & Starkes, 1996). Although, others have only considered World Champions and Olympians as experts in their chosen sports (Law et al., 2007). In order to know who is an expert performer, it is important to know what an expert performance is.

Again, there are a number of researchers that claim to have defined ‘expert performance’; however, Ericsson’s et al. (2007) definition is sufficient. Ericsson et al. indicated that true expert performance can involve three significant aspects: (1) Expertise should lead to consistently superior performance over that of other experts. (2) True expertise should generate “concrete results”. (3) Expertise can be simulated and measured in a laboratory.

Deliberate Practice Framework

The framework for deliberate practice was a developmental model which was based upon learning effectiveness and as a result, Ericsson et al. (1993) introduced deliberate practice as a major influence on an expert’s development. Ericsson et al. pioneered a study that focused upon the area of expertise. Within the study, the practice record of expert and non-expert violinists and pianists were compared. It was hypothesised that the level of performance generated by the musicians would have direct correlation to the hours spent partaking in deliberate practice. To note, at this point deliberate practice was acknowledged to be an activity that performers are involved in for the sole reason of improving specific skills and abilities that contribute towards performance. The results of Ericsson’s et al. study significantly supported their hypothesis. In line with Simon and Chase (1973), expert musicians were found to have engaged in considerably more practice time (10,000 hours by the age of 20) than non-expert musicians (5,000 hours by the age of 20). However, Ericsson et al. established a difference to Simon and Chase’s findings, in that not only did the expert musicians practice for more hours; but they also participated in a specific and purposeful type of practice, so named deliberate practice. Ericsson et al., also indicated that the activity the expert performer participated in required sizeable effort and concentration (Baker et al., 2005), and were said not to be naturally enjoyable. On a significantly positive note, research within the sporting domain argued this point by stating that many of the aspects of deliberate practice were, in fact, enjoyable (Hodges & Starkes, 1996). The literature provided directly shows support for the deliberate practice framework by providing evidence of a relationship between deliberate practice and performance. Ericsson et al. confirmed the theoretical framework was established.

Since establishing the original deliberate practice framework, many researchers have supported the relationship between deliberate practice and expert performance and has been done so in numerous specialist areas including: wrestling (Hodges & Starkes, 1996), ultra-endurance triathlon (Baker et al., 2005), chess (Charness et al., 2005), long-distance running (Wallingford, 1975), and even in areas such as teaching (Dunn & Shriner, 1999) and medicine (Ericsson, 2004). The deliberate practice framework was first introduced into sport by Hodges and Starkes (1996) with their interest in wrestling expertise. The study followed the methodology of Ericsson’s et al. (1993) in terms of comparing the practice history of international level and club level wrestlers. They concluded that the expert group engaged in lengthier quantities of deliberate practice compared to the non-expert group. These findings further support and validate the deliberate practice framework in its entirety. Although, another significant factor emerged that had previously been dismissed, which was that the expert wrestlers dramatically increased their practice hours earlier within their career as opposed to the non-expert wrestlers who did not (Hodges & Starkes, 1996).

More recently, the theory has since achieved a extensive level of support with Kaufman (2007) stating; “The expert performance approach championed by Ericsson et al. provides a scientific way forward for research on giftedness, and offers exciting new ways to further our understanding of the determinants of high ability within a particular domain of expertise”. Equally, the research has been criticised with Winner (2000) explaining that “Ericsson’s research demonstrated the importance of hard work but did not rule out the role of innate ability”. However, due to the framework being loosely developed from Galton’s (1896) “natural ability” theory it would be un-ideal to dismiss this claim entirely. In order to explore natural ability, this would lead into a different approach entirely and possibly even a different area of profession. In contrast, it was explained that when including individual differences within performance, deliberate practice is a necessary factor (Campitelli & Gobet, 2011).

Although Ericsson et al. (1993) suggested that individuals who specialise earlier in their life gain a considerable improvement compared to those who do not, they did not find it a necessary aspect of the framework. Since then, however, the aspect of early specialisation has been deemed a contributor within the framework and suggests that individuals who specialise at a later point in their life are unlikely to surpass the performance levels of those who specialise at an earlier stage (Williams & Ford, 2008).

Due to the research in early specialisation, this has created a belief that in order to become an expert in any domain it is vital to specialise in the deliberate practice needed to become expert in that domain as early as possible. The concept of early specialisation has been subjected to harsh disapproval by numerous researchers in the sporting domain, explaining that early specialisation can lead to many negative consequences. Negative consequences such as significantly increased injury risk (Law et al., 2007), eating disorders (Anshel, 2004), burnout, and dropout (Gould et al., 1996) in young athletes. However, further research has contradicted these claims by stating that the population of athletes who experienced these negative consequences was insufficient compared to athletes who benefitted from early specialisation without any consequences, and thus was suggested that it cannot be significant in predicting future actions (Ericsson, 2013).

The Developmental Model of Sports Participation (DMSP)

With these criticisms in mind, another model was developed from and concurrent with the deliberate practice framework. Cote and colleagues (Cote, 1999) highlighted the importance of early specialisation and produced The Developmental Model of Sports Participation (DMSP). The DMSP is a theoretical framework that combines the athlete alongside their environment. It has also produced additional developmental pathways which include a path for athletes who do not become expert but continue to participate therefore resulting in recreational athletes. With further addition, an early specialisation path was also included, which acknowledges the deliberate practice theory. Recent investigation studies (Bruner et al., 2009) highlighted that the DMSP is the foremost conceptualisation of athlete development in the sporting literature.

To start, Cote conducted a qualitative assessment of four elite athletes, including their families. Derived from the results, he then introduced three chronological stages (years) of talent development with some major alterations. The stages introduced by Cote included the aspects of deliberate play and deliberate practice, are specific to sporting domains, and set a time span from early childhood to late adolescence, in turn drastically increasing the importance of youth development. The stages introduced by Cote were the sampling, specialisation, and investment years. Firstly, the sampling years were suggested to have occurred between the ages of six and thirteen, following the Critical Stages of Talent Development, the first stage was playful activities by nature. However, he discovered that these playful activities integrated into multiple sports. In addition, the presence of deliberate play; which is an aspect defined by Cote et al. (2009) as participating in sport for their own sake, is enjoyable and does not require adult involvement. Secondly, the specialisation years occur between the ages of thirteen and fifteen (Cote et al., 2012). Athletes at this stage were suggested to be focused on only one or two sports and they are involved in frequent and structured deliberate practice. Finally, the investment years are suggested to occur from the age of fifteen and onwards. At this stage the athletes are involved in substantial amounts of deliberate practice, along with offering a considerable amount of time and effort to this stage.


The Deliberate Practice Framework and the DMSP combined can be offered as an explanation for the development of expert performers in multiple sporting domains. Future research using the relevant developmental pathways as a channel may be able to inform and applied to practices and policies within sporting programmes and National Governing Bodies. Further investigation into the developmental history of athletes will highlight vital information about the ideal conditions for learning and practice. Therefore, coaching staff, trainers and parents may be able to utilise this information in order to direct the athlete/performer to take full advantage of their development potential.

How as coaches do we care for our athletes? Caring Agenda

How as coaches do we care for our athletes?  Caring Agenda


How do coaches care for the their athletes?


It can be argued that by coaches spending numerous hours before and after training practices or matches, planning and organizing the team that this demonstrates care for their athletes? But is this enough?


Jones, Armour and Potrac (2004) found that the elite level coaches invest high amounts of time and energy into their work, whilst carrying out their duties in a committed, caring and conscientious manor, this can be related to all coaches at all levels, but isn’t this what is expected of coaches, and if so does this mean by doing this they are caring for athletes at all times.


Jones (2009) also suggests caring occurs through connections and relationships and within these relationships caring can consist of dialogue and confirmation; dialogue can be seen as talking, listening and responding whereas confirmation entails encouraging the athletes. However, these elements of caring that Jones (2009) suggest seem to be commonplace in the coaching environment, and again are something that would be anticipated from a coach.


So what is this caring? Noddings (1992) suggest caring is about building a relationship between the carer and the cared for (coach and the athlete) taking time outside of the session to build upon a relationship. However is this as simple as this may see, Noddings (2003) wrote “to create a climate where it is likely that attempts at caring will be well received, the cared-for must feel that the one-caring has regard for him or her” this would imply that the athlete being cared for must actually feel like the coach is genuinely interested in them the athlete.



Agne (1988) provides an insight into the types of characteristics that a caring coach might exhibit,  ‘Caring is the orientation of those who tend to express a high sense of self-efficacy and who internal in their locus of control. These people who care depend on their own initiatives to solve problems in these efforts, rather than to mainly rely upon others. Caring coaches are less inclined to blame other for failure in these initiatives or to blame factors outside of themselves or their control.


Furthermore Tarlow (1996) developed a number of characteristics associated with caring. These were time, sensitivity, empowerment and dialogue, Tarlow points out that it does not matter if the dialogue given to the athletes is confrontational or empathetic, but what is important is the relationship in which this confrontation is in i.e a good coach athlete relationship. This can be related to coaches at the elite end of sport.


When thinking about caring the trouble most of us as coaches have is that we already think we care, which can be linked back to Jones, Armour and Potrac (2004) which suggested caring is investing high levels of time and energy into their work which is what every coach automatically does. However the issue we have as coaches, is what we actually care about, and the consequence this may possibly have on the athletes we coach.


Jones’s previous work drawed upon the distinction between caring about and for athletes, Certainly in many instances coaches seem to care about their athletes but to care for them implies a deeper level of involvement, it implies an engagement in the athletes welfare and development.

Caring can be given a social stigma as something that is soft or fluffy, it can be seen as something that is very one-dimensional and can lack real meaning, however it can be seen as something that is essential in building upon a coach-athelte relationship which can encourage the self confidence of an athlete.

Noddings (1992) proposed three key areas that can influence caring within the coaching practice, caring for and caring about, the relationship between carer and cared for and lastly cares and burdens.


Caring for and about an athlete are commonly what most coaches can relate to, as coaches do care ‘about’ the athlete and example of this would be the coach caring for the success of the team or that the athletes have an enjoyable experience, but this is not directly caring for the athletes, caring for the athletes can be characterized by action based attention to detail which focuses on the individual needs of the cared for (athlete)


However there are cultural barriers that face caring. Within specific sporting environments it is not always acceptable to care, this could be in a hyper-macho situation i.e international standard of coaching, but this raises the questions of caring covertly, caring doesn’t have to be as mentioned early a fluffy soft act, But a clear action.


Gilbourne and Richardson, 2006 describe how caring can be demonstrating within a football environment. “These people (coaches) possessed empathic, compassionate and altruistic qualities. These attributes appear to work effectively in soccer settings when they are contained within behavioural norms that constitute a culturally acceptable ‘way of being’. These thoughts should be expanded on a little. Soccer is often an abrasive setting, consequently the caring qualities, outlined above, often manifest covertly through ‘action’ rather than overtly via a demonstrably tender disposition.”


When looking at caring in your coaching environment, think about each individual athlete and how you could better demonstrate care, and do you as a coach act differently to those who you do not favor as much as other athletes.