The Road to Excellence

The road to excellence.

The concept of deliberate training has been in the news quite a bit over the last decade. Even more recently with the publication of Anders Ericcson’s new book Peak.

I am reading Peak now and will write more about it over the next week.

All the way back in 1996 Ericcson edited a book entitled The Road to Excellence that explored how to achieve excellent performance in a myriad of domains.

I first read this book after seeing an article about deliberate training in the mid-2000s.

There are two chapters in particular that are helpful to coaches.  The first chapter “The Acquisition of Expert Performance” is by Ericcson himself, the other is Chapter 3 “Deliberate Practice in Sports: What is it?” is by multiple authors.

 Some notes:

To look at expertise as a researcher, and not as a coach or practitioner, you need to find evidence that can be replicated. The author cannot just rely on anecdotes. In sports  excellence requires that we continuously get to a smaller and smaller pool. Only so many can keep winning.

Therefore, the key is “to search for patterns of development across exceptional individuals.”

A few patterns from the research of Bloom (1985)

Future elite athletes start sports as play. Their interest grows and they show promise. Parents find an instructor. Parents provide “enthusiastic support and encouragement” at this stage. With improvement better instructor sought and more training time.  (Stage 1)

During early or midteens the elite performers committed to their sport–included “a master teacher and optimal training conditions.” (Stage 2)

“Across many different domains, Bloom found that nearly all international-level performers had worked with coaches or teachers that had either themselves reached international level of performance or had instructed other students who had attained that level.” (p20) (Stage 3)

An innovative contribution to the domain is the final stage on the road to excellence for elite performers. They mastered what teachers taught and started to look for”their own innovative contribution to domain.”

My thoughts:

Also, in the first 3 stages the chapter indicated that the future elite performer taxes the family financially and time-wise. As a result, often only one elite performer emerges per family.  I had not considered the limiting factor of this.

Also, looking at the first stage notice that the role of the parent is supportive, enthusiastic and that the teacher does not need to be a master. Participation is described as play and the athlete does not yet specialize.

Even when people have similar amounts of training there are large differences in achievement on the road to excellence.  Ericcson takes this a step further stating that “experience is a weak predictor of performance.”


Because training methods matter.

Here we get to the components of deliberate training:

  1.   Well defined task
  2.   Appropriate level of difficulty (think Flow–don’t want to be bored or frustrated/anxious)
  3.   Informative feedback
  4.   Repetition
  5.   Correction of errors
  6.   Not necessarily fun
  7.   Requires tremendous focus and concentration

If you think about it most youth athletes rarely do deliberate training–play or practice often miss these components.

The training can be on your own, but you must return to the teacher for evaluation of where you are and correction. In fact, it would be impossible to excel without additional training beyond practice time and doing this consistently.  

An interesting point he makes is that you must continue to train diligently and consistently to maintain your skills when you are already accomplished.


Another key finding–master teachers and researchers attribute successful deliberate training to the ability to concentrate. Focus in training determines the quality of your performance. When quality suffers quit training.

“Master teachers argue that full concentration is essential and that when it wains the musician should rest, because practice without full concentration may actually impair rather than improve performance.” (p24)

He continues with good detailed information about the importance and quality of rest in creating concentration.

Coaches and expert performers consider “desire to succeed” the most important factor for eventual success in a domain. (Think Grit by Duckworth. The capacity to hold that goal and train for something over an extended period of time. Best part of each of these theories is that they all start to intersect making it impossible to say that any one is the singular answer. Instead as you read them all you start to see how it fits together with how you teach and who you teach)

The best are willing to sacrifice time and enjoyment to train deliberately in order to reach excellence. They enjoy leisure and social more, but are willing to do what is required.

Training trumps talent, but much research remains left to be done at the time of this book.

Another aside, I want to also note that there has been a renewed discussion about the 10,000 hour rule (associated with Ericcson’s research) and its legitimacy.  This Business Insider article is a good example of the criticism aimed at the research. It’s important to note that the idea of the 10,000 hours was really amplified by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and was not central to the original research.  Ericcson addresses the issue himself in the Finding Mastery Podcast which you can find here.

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