How Expert Performers Separate Themselves From The Pack

Expert Performers

I recently got back from a great quick trip to Chicago. I was there for an informal education session with a consulting firm I work with a few times a year.  A few of us shared notes, ideas and presentations we had heard or read over the past few months. My topic: expert performers.

I shared my notes from a recent Anders Ericsson lecture I attended. Creating presentations always helps to deepen my understanding of a topic.

Much of what I shared overlaps with what is in the outstanding book Peak.  The book discusses how someone becomes a peak performer or an expert performer. This is covered pretty well in most, but not all, discussions of deliberate training. I have written about that before here. (I’ll list the notes from his lecture below.)

There was one section of the book that was not covered with depth in the lecture,  but seemed particularly interesting and important to me.

This was his section on “mental representations.”

Ericsson introduces the actual idea of mental representations, which he credits as one one of the key differences between peak performers and the rest of us.  The ability to develop “mental representations,” allows athletes to process copious amounts of information quickly and well, interpret that information, and make and execute decisions.

It’s how the elite see and understand what’s happening around them while playing chess, music or sport.  In sport, we often call an athlete smart who in reality may not be conscious of all that she is processing. Instead, she is skipping ahead and developing increasingly complex ways of processing the game while playing.

Here’s how he describes mental representations:

“This explains a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill….The thing all mental representations have in common is that they make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short-term memory. Indeed, one could define a mental representation as a conceptual structure designed to sidestep the usual restrictions that short-term memory places on mental processing.” 

and now to the impact on sport:

We concluded that the advantage better players had in predicting future events was related to their ability to envision more possible outcomes and quickly sift through them and come up with the most promising action. In short, the better players had a more highly developed ability to interpret the pattern of action on the field. This ability allowed them to perceive which players’ movements and interactions mattered most, which allowed them to make better decisions about where to go on the field, when to pass the ball and to whom, and so on.

This helps to drive home the importance of training skills in combination with decision making, pressure and competition all the time.

Don’t separate the skill from the context and the competition.

It also explains why you need to put in the time in order to be great. You need to see situations often in order to process quickly.

The primary reason we train is to develop our mental representations, and in turn the better our mental representations become the more complex and difficult training can be.

The second point that fascinates me, Ericsson deepened his understanding of mental representations through the writing process.

We rarely take time to reflect, organize and explain our thoughts, but there is tremendous power in doing so.

Consider how my coauthor and I put this book together. First we had to figure out what we wanted the book to do….In particular, they didn’t get what separates deliberate practice from other forms of practice, other that that it was more effective. This was not their fault, but an indication that we hadn’t made our explanation as readily intelligible as we’d thought.

Initially we had seen mental representations as being just one aspect of deliberate practice among many that we would present to the reader, but now we began to see them as a central feature–perhaps the central feature –of the book. The main purpose of deliberate training is to develop effective mental representations, and, as we will discuss shortly, mental representations in turn play a key role in deliberate practice. The key change that occurs in our adaptable brains in response to deliberate practice is the development of better mental representations, which in turn open up new possibilities for improved performance. In short, we came to see our explanation of mental representations as the keystone of the book, without which the rest of the book could not stand.”

I enjoyed this book and recommend it.

Here are my notes from the lecture:
  • Experts think about things in a different way (know this from having them talk out loud while doing a task).
  • How do differences emerge– long gradual process, experience is necessary.
    • Need support, instruction, training resources, coaches
    • From peak of career another active 10 years in domain
  • Can memory capacity improve? Yes, through grouping not memorizing and rehearsal
  • Skill acquisition important, then learn retrieval
  • Need to train at edge of ability –close to edge, challenging
  • Training path–immediate feedback, reflect, next effort
  • No transfer to other skills–specific skill to training
  • Acquire skills–there is no shortcut to the highest level
  • Consistent between experts and others–When engaged in activity their representation of situation is different from others. They see what others can’t. Building skills must match the demands of the domain
  • Training has amazing impact.
  • Musicians–progression of acquiring complex skills– desired perfect goal, need monitoring of performance, representation of how to execute perfectly.
  • Most critical behavior– 1 on 1, student to teacher design for individual student.
  • Go train on your own, then return to the teacher.
  • Purposeful practice –designed and monitored by a teacher.
  • “Individualized training activities especially designed by a coach or a teacher to improve specific aspects of an individual performance through repetition and refinement.”
  • Hours alone–10,000 on average by age of 20.
  • Best performers spent more time practicing not less.
  • At the start in domain correlation between performance and ability, but as you progress in skill the correlation disappears. Growth is from training.
  • How do you select individuals? What are practice habits? How have thy internalized the things that will make them better?
  • Breakdowns lead to reflection–game goes on, but how can you improve next time?
  • How to keep improving beyond their best–think out loud, see that process–feedback compared to process of masters.
  • Set goals beyond what you can do–constantly challenge yourself (need support, instruction)
  • As athletes get skill get reward for skill–take more risks–must fail
  • If you can’t maintain full concentration –stop training. Will otherwise create issues to correct. As close to 100% as possible. Full concentration. Full competitiveness.
  • Commitment level matters– everybody must be committed.


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