Have you ever wondered what it takes to becomes an expert?
It could be innate talent, hard work, or genetics; or it could even be genetics that predispose you to hard work. Regardless of your existing or desired area of expertise you would need to put in a lot of work to perfect technique, movement or to build the required attributes to claim expert status.
So why isn’t just putting more time into practice – while essential to improvement – not enough to reach a status of expert? Here I will take you through some psychological theories and even look at some Eastern Philosophy to explain why. By the end of this post you should be aware of the level of concentration and the state of mind you require to truly become an expert.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
In 1990 Dr Anders Ericsson claimed that for a person to achieve an extraordinary performance in their area of expertise they would need to have put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Which roughly equates to 20 hours a week for 50 weeks a year for 10 years! This is often misconstrued to be seen as just practice and not deliberate practice. If all it takes to become an expert at something is hours of work and practice, then anyone with a driving licence would have the skill level of Lewis Hamilton.
Deliberate practice, the correct mind-set and a good understanding of what and why you’re practicing, are imperative to achieve expert status.
Deliberate practice, as opposed to just going through the motions, is an important distinction here.
For example: Powerlifter A, who spends 20 minutes of their 2-hour workout squatting, will have focused for only 20 minutes on their squat technique. Then we have Powerlifter B, who spends an hour on squat volume and mobility work. The second individual could have also experienced a 2-hour workout but will have clocked up 3 times the length of time focusing on squats as the first Powerlifter. Obviously not every individual will need to focus as much upon mobility and technique as the next, but the extra practice, with a deliberate intent, inevitably leads to reaching expert status sooner.
The ‘Ok Plateau’
During one of my nerdy reading forays I discovered a book entitled ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ by Josh Foer. A science writer from the United States, he was covering an American memory championship for a science magazine, and decided to test and improve his own memory by entering a competition himself. Throughout his journey he hits a few memory improvement stumbling blocks. His competitive experience was guided by a British memory champion as well as Dr Anders Ericsson himself. At one point, Josh found himself struggling to improve his speed at memorising a deck of cards. Dr Ericsson pointed him towards literature on speed typing and its association with skill acquisition. What became apparent to Josh Foer, is that we, as humans, get to a certain point in learning a new skill and switch over to autopilot. Or as Josh himself puts it –
“In the 1960s, psychologists [Paul Fitts and Michael Posner] identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention”.
This is what Foer coined as the ‘Ok Plateau,’ where our brains switch over from actively trying to improve at a skill to thinking “I’m okay at this now, I don’t need to be any better.” So we essentially switch to autopilot and stop accumulating improvements from the practice. This is also the point that psychologists used to identify as the upper limits of our skill level.
The autonomous stage is largely a positive thing as it allows us to do various things at once, such as driving and talking. However, if we want to get better at driving then we’re in a conundrum. The way we overcome this is to constantly practice in a specific, goal oriented way with feedback. When it comes to powerlifting, this could be through regular videoing to check form and consistency, and with feedback from a coach. Knowing that we are getting feedback means that we will focus upon the skill at hand and get ourselves back into the cognitive stage. Which is where our deliberate practice comes in.
Mushin – Time for Eastern Philosophy
Mushin is a concept from Zen philosophy. Martial artists propose it is the state of mind they should assume during practice. “Mushin,” translates as either “no mind,” or “mindless,” and to a Westerner this might sound as though it’s promoting a lack of thought or care. However, it is promoting a state of mind free from distractions, ego, preoccupations or worries. This state of mind enables the brain to be in a state of optimal reaction during training.
If you’re a powerlifter, you know how to squat so when you get yourself under the bar you shouldn’t overthink it.
You should just be able to get under the bar, switch off and be ready to go. Thinking of all the things you need to do is overwhelming. Imagine getting under a bar and thinking “right, get this foot here, that one there. Stand up tall, get my breath, unlock my hips, and bend my knees. I should also make sure I point those knees out. I’d best keep my chest up at the same time. I also need to push back as well as up. Now I need to step forward carefully and put this bar back without giving up my posture and risk hurting my back.” As opposed to just getting under the bar and thinking “squat.”
To master this concept, you must be able to not only clear your mind of distractions but also be alert and in a heightened state of readiness.
If you’re getting ready to bench at a competition you want to be alert to the judge calling “start,” but you don’t want to be considering what you’re going to be having for tea that night. This highlights the main point of Mushin, you want to be free from distractions but receptive to what is going on around you, and it is a difficult skill to master.
The idea of Mushin complements the practice of conscious control previously discussed. This is about switching off your mind to all that is not what you are practicing. If you are practicing a squat, then you are concentrating on the skill of the squat. Not all of the arbitrary points I mentioned before, but the focused skill of squatting in order to drill that movement pattern into your neural network, to the point where it becomes second nature. Autopilot is good for lessening our cognitive load, and we want to use that to practice the movement efficiently without over thinking it at every point.
This state of mind can be hard to achieve. It will take practice, and it will take time. However, you should be aiming to put in 10,000 hours.
Putting it all together
The aim was to show that the theories can all work together for the aspiring experts. For us to break past our ‘Ok plateau’ we need to put in the work. This work needs to be deliberate and focused purely upon that skill. If we can go into this practice with Mushin in mind, we will be completely focused upon the task at hand without any distractions.
For a complete beginner who is seeking to master a new skill or movement, they will undoubtedly be working harder than an intermediate or an expert. They would need to repeat and hone the movement a vast number of times to iron out any mistakes, get it right, then spend a lot of time practicing that pattern to the point where it is accepted by their neural network as second nature. Once at this point then they will be able to switch off and practice the movement without an overwhelming amount of thoughts or distractions.
The idea of deliberately practicing in a focused state of mind will take our skill acquisition from the autonomous stage back to the cognitive.
We have to think about it, without distractions, to the point that we can pick up on any mistakes we may make and use that instant feedback to improve upon our skill.
In practice we will make mistakes, without mistakes we might not figure out how to get better or what is holding us back. In the words of Daniel Dennett
“the trick is to take advantage of the…mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.”
If you take 10,000 hours to practice something to improve at it, then you need to take risks to do so. Do so safely but learn from them.
Focus and Mind-set
Becoming an expert means you need to put in the focused hours as well as observing the correct mind-set. Without focus you will merely be wasting away the hours that you do put in, with all three you will definitely improve at your chosen skill.
Danny Lee is a strength coach and owner of Danny Lee Fitness based in Taylor’s Strength Training in Liverpool. He has been coaching since 2013 and has competed in Powerlifting since 2014.
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