Deliberate Practice and the Development of Elite Performance by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson (2009)


[Introduction to Counsilman Lecture Series]
My name is Bob Groseth, formerly a coach at Northwestern University and currently the Executive Director of the College Swim Coaches Association. In partnership with ASCA, and in large part through the efforts of John Leonard, we formed the Counsilman Memorial Lecture Series. Through the generosity of ASCA, John Leonard, and the special generosity of swimming coaches, we now have an endowment of about $21,000. I can tell you that the majority of that money comes from people who come to these lecture series talks, are inspired by them, and want to see programs like this at the ASCA Conventions year after year.

Obviously, the name Doc Counsilman is well known. I had the privilege of being the manager at Indiana University for four years and I worked for Doc. It was like a seminar all the time. One of the things that Doc did was to look outside of the swimming world for inspiration, and for new ideas on training, on technique, on psychology, and all sorts of things. So marching through the campus at Bloomington at all times were these people from other fields that were the masters of their field, and Doc would spend time with them. So the inspiration for this series is to bring people from outside our discipline to talk to us about what they know in their area of excellence. I am very excited this year because of the speaker we have. I hope you coaches are inspired by the talk today And if you are, you know: contribute a small amount to make sure that this series continues.

[Introduction to talk: Tim Welsh]: Good morning. Good morning. It is a thrill to introduce to you Professor K. Anders Ericsson. He has been dubbed by Fast Company Magazine an expert on expertise. It is from outside our discipline that we sometimes get the most creative ideas. If you have read Freakonomics; if you have read Outliers; if you read John Leonard’s review of Talent is Overrated, then you know something about where we are going. Our speaker, K. Anders Ericsson, is known in academic circles for his publication of The Cambridge Handbook on Expertise and Expert Performance. He studies law. He studies music. He studies sports. He studies nursing. He studies chess. In everything he studies, he seeks to discover the process through which people become experts. He told me a few minute ago that he likes to argue about things. So… when he gets done, if you have a question, please ask. This professor will be delighted to engage you in conversation. Please welcome Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.

Editor’s note: As you read, you may want to refer to Dr. Ericsson’s PowerPoint slides which are printed begininning on page 20.]

[Dr. Ericsson]: It is a real pleasure to be here. I am really honored here to be asked to give this Counsilman Memorial Lecture. In the process of preparing for this lecture, I have had a chance to read Doc’s two books, and I am just impressed by the convergence between some of the things that Doc Counsilman discovered and some of the things that we have found in very different domains. I am not sure I am going to be able to tell you much about swimming, but I am going to try and give you a perspective that is based on 30 years of research where we have kind of looked at expert musicians, chess masters, medical experts, ballet dancers, and virtually anybody who can do things systematically better than other people.

The issues – some of the issues I will be coming back to – seem to be the same issues that Doc Counsilman was concerned with. So, what factors separate gifted swimmers from less gifted? We also share the realization that we can help poor swimmers become adequate ones, average swimmers to become good ones, and good swimmers to become highly skilled. BUT– we have been unable to make champion swimmers out of poor swimmers. So what is it about poor swimmers that doesn’t allow them to reach the highest levels? These are some of the issues that I will be coming back to repeatedly.

The prevailing view of skill acquisition is that you go through phases. So, for example, when you start learning how to type, you will be in a cognitive phase where you are actually learning the location of keys. Eventually, you will be smoother in your typing and you can actually string together sequences of letters. Eventually, you enter an autonomous mode where you can actually type effortlessly and automatically. We see the same pattern in many recreational sports like golf. Now, why do people stop improving?

In golf, we can actually go back to the 19th century for speculation on the limits of modified ability and learning. I will read this quote: “so long as he is a novice, he perhaps flatters himself that there is hardly an assignable limit to the education of muscles, but the daily gain is soon discovered to diminish and at last it vanishes altogether. There is a definite limit to the muscular powers of every man which he cannot by any education or exertion overpass.” This [statement] is precisely an analogous to the experience that every student has had working his mental powers. The argument is that there are some things that you cannot change.

In today’s theories in psychology, people draw analogies to computers that basically amount to a hardware/software distinction. So, there are some parts of humans that are basic and cannot be changed by their capacity. Then, there are modifiable aspects, skills, knowledge and so on that can actually be readily changed. But it is really the hardware that sets the limits, according to this view. There is also the view that the more you do, the more you engage in an activity, the better you get. There is some virtually inevitable [relationship] between the effects of extended experience and the level [of achievement], so that some people actually have equated being an expert with somebody who has a lot of experience of doing something.

The kind of research that people have done is to identify experts with extended experience and then compare them to people who are beginners on a variety of tasks like memory, knowledge and so on. People hope that this kind of comparison between experts and novices will give us insight into expertise. Here is a famous theorizer, Hubert Dreyfus. He argues that expertise is based on the making of “immediate, unreflective situational responses: intuitive judgement is the hallmark of expertise.” According to this model, you learn rules as a novice. You eventually get more and more autonomous until you reach as an expert – the intuitive phase, where you spontaneously react to the situation.

[However, in some areas, there is] research showing that experts do not necessarily do better than other people. In fact the most respected experts or the expensive stock brokers are not markedly better in picking stocks on the New York Stock Exchange than a random process such as monkey throwing darts. The Wall Street Journal actually had a column where they invited people to pick stocks and then compared their results to a random process.

Here is another example that I think is very interesting. In 1976, basically all the wine tasters who were experts were French, and they claimed that American wines were so far inferior to the best French wines that anybody could taste it. Now how do you argue with that? If an expert says it is bad, if you disagree, then maybe there is something wrong with you. So what an American Merchant actually did was to invite 8 of the top French wine tasters to a blind wine tasting. Now, they actually have to evaluate the wines without knowing what the wines were. From this test, they found that the best American wines were actually ranked higher or at least comparable to the best French wines. Here was an objective test on expertise. And when you apply that test, you find that expert wine drinkers were barely better than inexperienced wine drinkers in describing and recognizing unknown wines.

There are now numerous studies showing that some computer experts are outperformed by college students. They also show that some physics professors cannot solve all the problems in the test for introductory physics. There are numerous finding such as these. In one, highly experienced psychotherapists with PhD’s don’t have a better treatment record than students who have three months of training.

Here is another chart[#8] that looks at something actually easy to measure: identifying heart sound issues, cardiac auscultation. Most people would think here that you get better and better and the more experience you have, you actually perform this diagnosis better. However, general physicians (look at the empirical curve) actually get worse and worse over time when compared to medical students. Their skill actually decays as a function of the last time that they got training.

So, here is what I am going to be doing in my talk. I am going to give or identify some problems with the traditional model that argues that just experience generates experts; then I will talk about some research that we did (almost 30 years ago now) looking at how you can produce exceptional performance under very controlled circumstances, really showing that it is due to training than anything else; and then I will talk about deliberate practice and its mechanisms – both when it comes to psychological aspects and physiological adaptations; and then I will talk a little bit about how we also need to think of performance as being integrated and having more structure; and then just some concluding remarks.

So — what is wrong with the traditional model that mere experience inevitably produces the highest performance?

Well, one thing is the historical changes in performance. If you actually try to compare people, you know, 100 – 150 years apart, you find that the World Champions 150 years ago were much less skilled than today’s champions. We also see that performance tends to extend over decades. It is not a matter of reaching your peak after a couple of weeks or months of training. One thing people have done is to use computers to actually analyze games to identify the number of mistakes that people make in historical games. We can see [in this chart] that over time, from 1886 to today, there is a complete reduction in the number [of mistakes] that people [make] during World Championship Games. Just to talk about swimming and diving. I thought this was interesting. In 1904, they discussed outlawing the double summersaults because they found that people got injured, so they judged them impossible to master. But–as you of course know, now you have synchronized dives of incredible complexity, indicating a vast difference over time. Again, drawing on an example here from swimming, people get better–not just within a year, but actually over extended periods of several years, almost a decade of time.

Now, you could argue here that a lot of things are happening. I mean: your body gets bigger. This is actually what Agalton argued because he found this was true with some intelligence related things. Basically, you increase your capacities until adulthood; and at adulthood you are pretty much stable, until there starts to be some decline due to aging.

Now, if we look across all sorts of demands when we relate performance to the age of the performer, we find that there is a gradual improvement when we use adult performance standards. This idea of prodigies who suddenly can do things: there is no evidence that I know of (and I would be very interested to hear if you know of some evidence from swimming) that this is true. The other more important thing is (and this may not be as true in swimming, but it is in most other sports) that an individual doesn’t reach his/her peak performance at 20, but often quite delayed. Endurance runners, especially, tend to peak in their early 30’s. We see the same thing for chess players, although then it may be even later: 35-40. Also, basically we have this finding when we look at people it is incredibly unusual to find cases of anybody who has reached an international level where they will actually be winning at the international level within less than 10 years of concentrated preparation.

Now, this is kind of interesting. I actually found some recent claims that are verified by a particular country’s official sources verifying that this individual is able to perform at an extremely high level without any practice on the first time that they actually did this sport. I don’t know if you recognize this person, but it is Kim Yung I1. The first time he played golf he actually got 11 holes in-one on 18 holes. He also rolled a perfect 300 the first time he bowled. He is ill now, so it would probably be unfair to require him to redo his performance here today. There are a lot of cases of “naturals,” but once you start looking carefully at them, you find that they actually spend incredible amounts of practice — at least in those cases that I am familiar with. I am hoping that if you know of some exceptions, you might tell me about them.

On the other hand, it is very clear that experience of doing something doesn’t really produce outstanding performance. We all know amateurs who have been playing golf for decades without any signs of improvement. I think there are a lot of joggers and tennis players too. What seems to set apart those people who are actually getting to the really top levels is that they do something fundamentally different. They engage in training – typically supervised by a coach — and actually do things that the amateurs considered not very enjoyable.

Another finding that we have found in several domains is that cognitive abilities like IQ tests or intelligence do not seem to be predictive of how well you will perform once you have reached a certain skill level. There is some evidence that when you start, IQ can predict individual differences, but once you reach a more skilled level, then these correlations disappear. This suggests that the skill is actually made. It is no longer drawing on whatever IQ or intelligence was measuring. One of the things that we have been doing is to compare elite and amateurs and different kinds of levels of skill. We look for differences in the adult performer. Obviously, height differences may play a role. I will be talking a little bit about differences in the heart size and other kinds of things like flexibility and so on that we know are differences. One of the problems is that given that this develops, it is very hard to actually know how practice can be separated from maturational processes until you reach 18 at least.
So, if you really want to demonstrate practice effects, you should maybe show them with somebody who is already an adult. If you can now show and identify what really makes them special with experiments then you should be able to do what Doc Counsilman did by observing good swimmers and trying to identify the techniques that they relied on that made them better, so he could actually train other individuals to adopt those techniques and improve their performance.

I do not know if you are familiar with this. This is a famous test in psychology which is called the Digit Span. You read digits; typically people can do about 7 or phone numbers – so 4 – 7 – 3 – 9 – 2 – 8 – 6. Well, basically you can repeat that. Some people can do as many as as 9, and it turns out that it is a pretty normal distributed function. So the question is, if we draw analogies here with height, which is also normally distributed: what would it mean if somebody could do 15 digits? How tall would that person be if these distributions were similar? Well, he would be the world’s tallest person – 7’ 9”. So, what we did was to actually bring a college student into our lab and gave him practice on this digit-span task. When he got it right, we gave him a longer sequence – one digit longer. If he missed, we gave him a digit shorter. Over about 200 hours of training (he started out at 7), his digit span improved. So, would it improve to 15 or would it go beyond that? Well, what we found was that he actually was able to reproduce sequences over 80 digits long. We published this in Science. Bill Chase, my collaborator, appeared on the Today Show.

There is a recognition here that people thought this was interesting, but what does it mean to be able to do 80 digits in terms of height? How tall would you need to be to do 80 digits? I do not have time to tell you about the experiments that we did to figure out what happened to somebody who starts out at 7 digits and can do 80? But we have been able to pin point changes, and one of the things is that they are not just doing more of the same: There is a structural change in how they perform the task. They group the numbers into groups, and then encode them in long-term memory, and then build up retrieval structures that allow them to store things, and finally, at the end of the sequence, they go back and retrieve it from long-term memory. All this has been confirmed by many training studies. We did actually train another subject who was able to get his span up to over a hundred digits with training.

Now, here is a kind of paradigm that we have applied on many occasions. We are interested in people who can actually do things that other people cannot under standardized conditions. If we take teachers, we are interested in teachers who can actually take students at a given level and, after years of working with them, produce a higher performance than other teachers. So we actually measure the ability of the teachers in terms of their ability to help students develop their performance. This is something that you can do objectively. So basically, this expert performance approach measures and tries to find superior performance, captures it in a standardized laboratory setting, and then applies cognitive and other experimental methods to identify those mechanisms with process tracing.

Often what I have been doing is to ask people to think out loud when they are doing the test, [so that I can] identify what is going on in their mind and then to try to describe and account for their development. Then you can actually [place] that into experimental interventions that would be able to allow [other] people to improve their performance. We have applied this. When it comes to memory cases, we found a waiter who could memorize 16 dinner orders without actually writing anything down. We brought him in and analyzed his performance, and then actually had a control subject reach that performance through training in the lab.

I do not know if you heard of Pi, but it is you know 3.14159. It is interesting because nobody can predict those sequences. There is actually competition in the Guinness Book of World Records to see who can actually recall most digits of Pi. We started Rajan Mahadevan, who memorized 31,000 digits of Pi. Here you see basically 5,000 digits so just think of this as you know – 6 or 7 pages more. We recently looked at another individual [Chao Lu] who had memorized 61,000 digits of Pi. It took him 25 hours to recite all those digits. Now, wouldn’t you expect these people to be exceptional, have exceptional memories? Well, the interesting thing is that we basically found that they were very similar to ordinary people; we couldn’t find any differences when we exposed them to controlled conditions where they couldn’t draw on their skills. There are other studies that actually have identified the 10 World Class Memories and compared them to 10 matched controls and then done MRI’s and fMRI’S — and the finding is that they don’t find any differences in the brains of the people with good memories. There are no structural differences; however, there are activation differences, but all of those activation differences are consistent based on reports that these individuals give about how they actually tried to memorize things. So again, we do not really need to assume that people are different by any genetic means.

So, let me now talk a little bit more here about how we got to this idea of “deliberate practice.” When you are actually trying to do more jumps, you can’t just basically practice a single jump over and over in order to be able to do a double or a triple. There has to be something changing in your performance — which means that this idea of accumulating experience of doing more of the same is just not going to be enough to reach a high level. In music, it is a very clear progression about what is difficult. It is even related to the number of years of training that normal people put it. It actually turns out the same progression is true for prodigies. They just go through this sequence a little bit faster than normal people.

So basically what is the driving force that allows somebody to become an elite pianist? Well, we studied individuals at the music academy in Berlin, which is basically very similar to a lot of domains that have high performers. You have a teacher who monitors individual students’ current status and then assigns them specific kinds of training tasks and goals. Then, the individual can go off and actually work on those training tasks until they reach those goals. Then, they come back for more advice and more direction on what to do. Now– if this is a driving force for how you get good a musician, well then, we should be able to demonstrate that. We have collected diaries and have had people estimate how much time they had spent. Only the time that they spent by themselves working on these assigned tasks was counted. We found that the very best ones had actually spent over 10,000 hours by the age of 20 — which was 5,000 hours more [than other students]. Just to think about what is 5,000 hours of training? Well, if you practiced 4 hours a day – which seems to be about the maximum that anybody can properly do – you can accumulate around 1300 hours per year. So 5,000 hours really means about 4 years difference.

The argument is that certain tasks are diagnostic. This really shows the progression. At least in music, the beginner can do certain things, and then goes through a very predictable sequence of mastery until they reach the level of the expert many years later.
Now, how would one apply these ideas to chess? What do you need to do in order to be a good chess player? Well, most people thought: you just need to play a lot of chess. But, if you really think about it hard, how could a chess player who is able to beat everyone in the chess club be able to be improving? If they are already doing the move that they think is best, how could they do even better? So they wouldn’t even know if they actually had picked the very best move, right? Well, how can one study this?

Dutch researchers came up with this idea: you can look at games between very good chess players, and identify challenging positions. Then, you can present those positions to all sorts of chess players and ask them to pick the best move in this situation. It is a little bit like simulating, like you are playing against a world class player. You are getting in position, and you have to pick your move. We now analyze what the novices and the experts are thinking as they are doing this task. What the experts are doing is not just relying on intuition; they are not just picking the first move that comes to mind. They are in fact doing a lot of evaluations, and looking at the position. Then they engage in systematic searches of moves with counter moves to clarify the structure of the position. Only then do they actually announce their move.

This basically means that chess players, when they have more time to analyze the position, think: “Well, I should be able to produce a better move.” It is a way of actually stretching yourself, your ability, a little bit. In this way of thinking about it, the expert, having more time, can actually produce pretty much the quality of moves of the Master — but only after about 15 minutes. So, after 15 minutes, the expert can achieve the same level that the Master can achieve within 15 seconds. The Master can also keep improving. Further evidence here that this is a complex structure that comes from one ability that Chess Masters have: namely, Chess masters can play without seeing the board, and without actually training to do that. They can do it because their planning abilities are so strong. Now here, obviously, it is a little more amazing – here is a World Champion playing against thirty chess players without seeing any of the boards. The referee is going around and then pointing to the expert and asking what his move is and then, not seeing the board, the Chess Master is announcing his counter move. Under those circumstances he was able to beat the majority of those players. Pretty amazing, right? But maybe he had a much better memory than normal people? Or is there a simple experiment that you can do? It turns out that if you present meaningful chess positions to very good chess players, they can perfectly reproduce them even after just seeing them for five seconds. However, if you just randomly re-arrange the pieces so it is the same pieces but they are in random positions, now the Chess Master is barely better than the beginner. So, the Masters are actually drawing on the structure to be able to do their task.

So, now, this seems to be the key. If you wanted to learn how to do better moves, one way that we noticed was that they were actually sitting at home studying by themselves, and actually trying to predict what move a Chess Master would do in a game. Instead of looking it up, what they did was to predict it, and then, once then had generated their move, they actually compared it to the actual move that was made. Today, with a good chess computer, you can use a chess computer to give you needed feedback on what the best move would have been for a given position. The point is that this type of immediate feedback seems to be key to how you can improve to become a[better] chess player.

What is it that you can do now? Well, you can try to identify what you overlooked if you picked a different move. Then you can go through the process that you went through and ask: “What should I have done differently in order to find the best move that the chess computer or the chess master had identified?” By doing this repeatedly, you should be able to improve your chess skills. Now the question is: what are the things that separate World Class Chess players from good club players? And it is exactly that solitary study. So, for the first ten years, basically club players may have spent about 1500 hours doing that analysis; whereas, World Class Players on the average have done 6,000 hours. The idea of constantly stretching and trying to do things that you can’t do (because you are learning from the times when you are making moves that disagree with the expert) is the key — because that is when you do the learning. When you do the same thing [over and over] you are just more or less doing what you were able to do before. So we argue here that with everyday skills, you actually [go on automatic] very early – AND this is the antithesis of what experts do. They push and set higher goals for themselves, and actually try to constantly challenge themselves. They remain in this cognitive phase so that they can restructure the task.

Let me give you what I think is a nice example is from observational studies of elite skaters. Researchers found out that the elite skaters were more falling on the ice more often than sub-elite skaters. Why did that happen? Well, basically, the elite skaters are trying to do things that they can’t do…and, well then, you are going to fall. They found that the sub-elite skaters were spending more time doing things they already could do, and obviously the benefits of doing that would be much less. The argument is that experts are really trying to increase their control over what they are doing. That doesn’t mean that they want to control any aspect, but those specific aspects that are critical for their performance are what they pay attention to. We found [this to be true] across domains: the experts are building up a representation [idea] that will allow them to do various things.

For example, if we have a musician who is preparing a piece for public performance, they would typically start with an idea of what sound they wanted to create and what interpretation they wanted to give to the piece. Then, they would try to use their knowledge to come up with representations that told them how to try to execute their performance in such a way that they would achieve [their goal] for the audience. Then, the third representation is being able to listen to their own performance, so that they can actually monitor themselves. That really allows you to close the loop, when you can hear whether you are actually able to produce what you were trying to achieve. Basically, that seems to be a big difference between those who are viewed as musically talented (because they can hear the music that they are producing, and they can also get enjoyment from the music) and those less skilled pianists, because the less skilled pianists are more like typists. They know what fingers to type, but they cannot really hear the music that they are producing, and therefore, can’t transform it.

What I think is interesting is from my monitoring of the research on endurance sports is that people are now coming to the point where running economy, the metabolic cost at race pace, is really the best measure to predict competitive performance. That seems to apply here. In order to develop running economy, you need to have some way of monitoring what you are doing. Research on marathon runners shows huge differences between skilled marathon runners – what they are paying attention to during training and during their performance. There are some illustrations here of the reproducibility that comes from your ability to monitor what you are doing. For example, if you look at recreational golfers when they actually are making the same putt on repeated occasions, you can see that their feet are quite varied, whereas the expert is actually able to reproduce their stance. We have also looked at bowlers and you can see in the amateur how varied they are from move to move; whereas, the expert is almost perfectly reproducing each line.

Now one question that I would love to talk to you about is: how does a swimmer discover the best swimming technique? What is going on in their mind when they are actually training? Counsilman argued here that one sign of gifted [swimmers] is being able to actually make the necessary adjustments. Less talented swimmers do not [make the adjustments]. There is also a very interesting argument here that by forcing people to engage in extended runs (trials), it is almost like forcing them to find the most economical motion — and that would be a way of putting people in the “deliberate” practice-like activities to improve their performance.

So to wrap up this part of my talk, what I want to emphasize is that what we have learned from experts is this idea that they are not automated. There are a lot of things going on in their minds – especially when they are training, and when they are trying to actually improve various aspects [of their performance]. Those representations seems to be the real thing that actually separates the best performers from less accomplished performers.

Now, obviously in swimming, we know that the physiology is a big difference between swimmers, and we also know that physiological adaptations can be made. Here is Charles Atlas – he was the one who actually discovered isometric training as a way here of improving your muscle structure. The argument here is that Deliberate Practice can actually change the body and its physiology, [so the body is not like] computers and machines. In this slide [#34] is an appropriate approximation if you are looking at what can happen within one or two hours – which is a typical psychology experiment. Now look at what can happen over a week, a month, years or even a decade. It is clear that we are actually not hardware computers. If you drop a computer and it stops working, you are not waiting for it to heal itself. However, humans, you know, do that all the time when they break bones. They actually have the processes for healing themselves, although it takes longer than most people think. Over a four year period, you are pretty much back to where you were at the beginning. The same process we can see in tennis players. So if you compare the arm that you hold the racquet in with the other arm, you find that the arm with the racquet not only has more muscles, but it also has thicker bones. People now understand the process by which the mechanical vibrations from hitting the ball will actually trigger a biochemical process that will lead to strengthening and increasing the diameter of the bones.

The problem, I guess, is that we are built for minimizing effort. We want to maintain homeostasis for all the cells in our body. There are all sorts of mechanisms that allow us to make rapid adjustments, like, you know, if you run up some stairs, you may actually have to breathe harder, and basically your heart is pumping heavier. The argument is that there is a comfort zone in which you can make these short-term adjustments, but if you push yourself beyond those limits, then you actually put the body in a state that it has not been in – and the biochemical structure of those states will lead now to changes, to activation of genes and so on.

One of the things that, at least to me, we have the strongest compelling evidence for is aerobic fitness. If you send a well-trained person up to the space station, they found that, within two or three weeks, that person would turn into a couch potato due to the lack of gravity. Basically, their aerobic challenge was reduced. Now, they actually design training stations that allow the astronauts to maintain the physical ability. We know with elite athletes that when they increase their level of training, [they get] a higher level of adaptation. I think there is really compelling evidence showing that the amount of intense physical activity is quite predictive of your aerobic fitness.

Another of the things that I felt was interesting is that the body actually reacts very differently from a mechanical device. If you want to bend something, it is going to bend when you apply the force. However, with biological systems, you actually have to stress the system — and then there will be a reaction. But the adaptation will actually happen hours or days after the stress stimulus. So if you want to increase fitness, basically we know that for college students you have to do it for 30 minutes, 3 to 6 times a week, and you have to have a heart rate over 70% of MAX heart rate. If you do that, you can get a change, but if you actually do less than that, people have been unable to find that the body actually changes.
Obviously, athletes push themselves and engage in much more intense training activities to get these results. One thing that I found interesting, while reading Counsilman’s book[The Science of Swimming], was his discussion about the “agony zone,” the “pain zone,” and the “hurt zone.” That was totally dropped from the more recent edition. I thought it would be fun here to talk to you as coaches, because according to Counsiliman, one of the major challenges to individuals was to motivate them in a way that they could actually engage in the strenuous activity that would most likely lead to the best results. Obviously, you need to be careful not to overdo it, such that you actually then burn out or have injuries.

Here is a slide[#37] showing what can happen with endurance activities which I thought was interesting. The first phase is coordination of the muscles. So apparently for the two or three weeks, the only thing that happens is that you neurologically are able now to coordinate the muscles in the activity that you are doing. After that point, you can actually now grow capillaries that will increase the blood flow to the critical muscles. What is interesting is that they have now been able to demonstrate that if you can bring down the oxygen content of the blood to less than 2%, it will activate genes that will stimulate capillary growth.

You can see how that relates now to being able to coordinate the activity such that you are now extracting 14% of the oxygen as it is going through the muscles, in order to get that change. There is also a lot of research now showing exactly how that activation process happens. So, if you restrict access to oxygen, there are some 2,000 genes that are activated in response to that physical change [just in bacteria]. Research on humans shows you know other kinds of estimates, but maybe more between 500 and 1000 genes that are actually activated when you basically push the environment in such a way that the oxygen content available is dramatically reduced. There is even compelling evidence that the heart and the arteries are changing as you are even more increasing the activity level. You may have seen these differences. Counsilman talked about abnormal hearts, but they are only abnormal if you are leading a normal life. If you are an athlete, then a big heart is actually functionally appropriate to support the kind of physical activity that you are engaging in.

Some of the best evidence that I have been able to see (because these are such long processes that you can’t do a one hour experiment and see these changes) has to do with ultrasound and sonograms of the heart, where they actually measure its dimensions, then measure people when they are actually competing in the Olympics. [When they measure them again] 10 years later, they find dramatic reductions – both in the thickness of the wall and the size of the left ventricle. This is even in spite of the fact that some of these athletes are still active — but they are active at a lower level.

So, other limits of modifiability. Some of you probably know the right answer to this question: how many consecutive pushups can somebody perform without a pause after training? And remember now that the rule is that you cannot get out of this position. You have to keep doing it until you are pretty much exhausted. 45,000 – how many believe that that is possible? 5,000? Well, it turns out that the 25,000 is not possible, but Charles Linster did 6,000 and then a Japanese man [Minoru Yoshida] did 10,000. The problem here is not that you get too tired; it is because you need to go to the bathroom. So basically, they changed the event to how many pushups can you do in 24 hours? Where you can’t take a bathroom break and that is over 28,000. How many one arm pushups can you do? Over 8,000. What is the event that you could only do a little bit over 250 of them? One finger pushups. So that would be the event I would recommend here if you wanted to break the Guinness record.

Now there are amazing things that people can do. You know, they can run sprints on their hands. They can do one arm handstands. But the thing that I thought was the most amazing thing was the record that Johan Hurlinger of Austria did. He actually walked from Vienna to Paris in 55 days. Each day he walked on his hands for 10 hours at a speed of 1.58 miles per hour. The point here is that what people can do if they are actually training often exceeds their expectations.

So let me talk a little bit here about incremental changes to the development of integrated performance. Why, for example, are there not any late starters among professional musicians? They did research in Poland and looked at all the professional musicians and found that none of them had started after age 9. Are there developmental windows for physiological and anatomical changes that basically are important? Are there sequential constraints to the order of acquiring changes, so that you actually need to do certain adaptations before you do certain other ones?
One interesting line of research actually shows that the amount that you practice in given age groups will change the amount of myelin for certain regions of your brain. Those regions will actually differ as a function of the age at which you do the practice. And, that may be an important part of why you have to start early — because if you don’t start early enough, then you cannot go through the appropriate acquisition of myelinization. Myelinization can make a change up to, I guess, a hundred times faster. Faster neural processing is possible within a myelinated neuron, as compared to other ones, which do not have the myelin.

Here is another interesting thing that I think is becoming increasingly recognized: namely, that the flexibility of, say your arms, is something that actually is linked to developmental windows. So between 9 and 12, you are going through a fixating the structure of your joints in such a way that as you get older you cannot really change it. But, during that period, you can actually change it. It is an interesting thing with baseball pitchers that they can actually pull back their arm and actually get further distance so that they can actually increase the acceleration of the ball. The really interesting thing is that it is not that they have more flexibility. They just changed the resting position of the shoulder so if you ask them to basically do this [he demonstrates], they can’t. They are locked in here. So it is just a change in the resting position. That is also true for handball players – and, actually, that is one of the problems with late starters in handball. They develop all sorts of problems trying to influence now that which at that age level is actually fixed.

I do not know if you have seen ballet dancers. You know, they walk with their feet like this, and it the same thing with them: they have actually changed the resting position [of their feet]. Classically trained ballet dancers are actually less able to dance modern dance, where the resting position is actually having feet facing forward. That again is something that we know has a developmental window. You actually do need to have the training in order to set the altered state.

I do not know if you have heard about perfect pitch. Musicians, when you just play them a tone on the piano, will actually be able to name exactly what tone that is – something that most people cannot do. What is interesting about that is that people have now found that everyone seems to be able to acquire pitch, if they do it between ages 3 and 5, because that is when the brain is actually available for that type of absolute processing. If you wait beyond 5, then it becomes increasingly more difficult for you to do it. One of the best evidences for that is that in China where they have tonal languages. Being able to speak Chinese requires you to do these absolute judgments of pitch, and, in those cultures, 98% of kids who start practicing music early actually have perfect pitch.

There are all sorts of interesting findings that we are getting that seem to indicate here that there are more constraints that may be necessary in the study of the developmental history of successful athletes. Here is another thing that I am sure you are very aware of. In music, it is particularly clear that when kids start playing musical instruments, they tend to do it the easiest way as opposed to doing it with fundamentally correct technique. When they start, there is really no reason to have fundamentally good technique. Good technique becomes critical when you raise your standards and get to the more complex techniques. There are several examples of famous musicians like Minneran who spent a year retraining his fundamentals to be able to do things that he felt he couldn’t do without that [retraining]. Basically, the idea here is that the coach can help people do the right techniques, so that they don’t have to redo them [later] as they are encountering new challenges. Obviously, that [relearning] will set them back and make them less likely to compete with their friends.

So, let me wrap up here and, hopefully, we can have some questions and discussions — because I really feel that that is the most exciting part. Well, actually, sharing information and then critically analyzing whether there is an alternative interpretation to that information [is the most exciting part].

So just to summarize here: I think there are a lot of advantages of focusing a master on a single domain. I think that is where the coach can actually help: by setting up the long-term plans. Obviously kids, especially young kids, do not really know where they are going. They need to have concrete goals that they can attain. They don’t really see the kinds of challenges that they will encounter later on. Based on our work with the musicians, we found that in optimizing training and experts, they seem to be very, very aware of the limits of how much training they can do and still remain effective.

I just wanted to point here to the importance here of sleep and rest. There are many ways to fail to become an expert performer, but not being able to discipline yourself in terms of training, I think is one of the key things. So the point is that the teacher can provide this broader context and help the student acquire the fundamental skills that later on will become essential.

Here is a quote that I thought was kind of interesting. I don’t know if you have seen this. This is Counsilman’s ‘68 book: “We are what we are because of stresses placed upon us and the adaptations we have made to these stresses – both physical and otherwise. The state of our bodies, our minds, our personalities is a result of these adaptations (p. 349).” I think this is a very interesting idea that is very consistent with our work.

Now one thing that people think about is: if you are going to start with deliberate practice, why don’t you just start four hours a day? We look at expert performers, obviously with musicians, when they start at 6 or 8, they actually only do it for about 15 to 30 minutes per day. So it is not just their skills that develop, but their ability to meaningfully practice with full concentration [develops too]. These changes not just a function of early starting ages, because in wrestling, where start around 12, there is the same kind of slope of findings on how you can increase your deliberate practice. You can obviously spend more time, but if you are really asking yourself to stretch yourself, and are really trying to reach that higher goal and maximally concentrate, then you actually are dealing with something that is quite limited.

With the adult musicians that we looked at, we tracked when they were training, and we found that the best students, those with promise here for international careers, actually (almost all of them) practiced the first thing they did in the morning. I think that is true with swimmers too. They also [practice early]; then you see this dip, and then more practice in the afternoon. With the music teachers (which were the ones who only had practiced 5,000 hours by 20), they actually were more…you know…were just practicing anytime when they had time available; whereas, these [more elite] individuals had organized their life such that there was an expectation that they would practice in the morning. And only if there were external constraints would they not do it.

One thing that at least people in academia like is that the best [musicians] actually took a nap after they had stopped practicing and had lunch. It turns out that the best ones actually slept totally more, but if you controlled enough of their napping, it was about the same, about 8 ½ hours a day that they slept. Again, this was something that Counsilman emphasized.

So, deliberate practice. Obviously, if you are doing things you already know how to do, there is no gain. Maybe even worse, if you try to do things that nobody would be able to do within 10 hours, you are setting yourself up for failure and wasting time. I think the teacher’s role here is one of actually finding those kinds of tasks that are within the grasp of the athlete; then helping them focus in on those tasks; and then successfully adapt and acquire those standards. Again, if you know anybody who has engaged in more than 4 or 5 hours every day of deliberate practice, I would be interested because I haven’t found a single exception to that. There are some musicians who tried to do it for 10 hours but they typically developed all sorts of burn-out and stress related problems. The evidence, as far as I know it, seems to imply that there is a limit – which also raises the question here of what do you do when you basically can’t engage in deliberate practice.

I talked to several Olympic athletes who feel that that is a problem. You basically train all you can, and now you have 6-8 hours to kill before you are able to be recovered such that you can actually start in with that kind of practice tomorrow. So, I am arguing here that while the nurture factors are very important, the genetic effects seem to be more of the nature. They are activating genes that everyone has, as opposed to the idea that some people are born with some genes that other people do not have. Obviously, we need to concede here that height is under genetic control. Basically, I do not know any way that you can train to increase your height, if you are living in an industrialized country and get good nutrition.

So let me just finish here because I think this is kind of an interesting development that you may or may not have heard of. The question is: does perceived talent matter? With the exception of height, I do not know if there really is any solid evidence that there are actual talent differences. But, it could still be the case that perceived talent may be a little bit like the placebo effect, you know, where actually it doesn’t have any physical change because you are just getting a sugar pill, but if you believe that it is active, it will actually influence you.

Here is an interesting kind of chart I think. These are the 16 best soccer players in England, and the question is: when are they born? Basically, we have the first to the last month of the season, and we would expect roughly the same number across the year. But, 90% of them are born in the first half of the year. You see the same phenomenon in hockey. What is interesting is that the month of year that the players are born is actually different — so it is actually a function of the hockey season. I think people now all agree that when you are putting kids together when they are 6 or 7, one of them is actually almost a year older than the other. That kid is going to be viewed by the coaches as more talented. You do not really have the birth date, you know, on your forehead. Coaches are looking for those kids who do well, and they are making a mistake. They are picking out those kids who are older to a very high degree and here you can see. The ratio is 1:4. You are 4 times more likely to succeed if you are born in the first quarter of the year.

Now people will say it could be other things, but there are now some interesting experiments that have actually been done, and they have to do with the international organization requiring that every country has the same definition of your groups for basically underage competition. That actually meant that some countries actually had to change from the year grouping that they had, which often started in September, to actually now starting in January. Now, do you think that the birth date effect will move with the change, with the definition of the competitive year? Well for older players, you can see hardly a difference, since they have been in the system so long that they may be always selected. You can see that they both show preference here for [an early] starting age. For the younger players, however, the new start date is starting to take over and have an important effect.

So, how many of you believe that these effects are similar in swimming? How many believe that they are not? Okay. It is almost equal numbers. Here is some data that I got from England from the Amateur Swimming Association and their Championship. You can see here that [the birthday effect] is just as pronounced as actually all these other sports. I think this is interesting because in swimming, there are some very objective measurements on performance.

Let me just kind of wrap up here and give you a final image. Stonehenge. A lot of people believed Stonehenge couldn’t possibly have been constructed by a primitive culture, because it involved moving these stones for about 200 miles. When people started analyzing it, they figured out ways in which a primitive culture actually could have done this. They have even simulated it on many occasions. Now, one of the realizations which I think draws on the correlation with extra-performance was that they found that Stonehedge didn’t appear in a year. In fact, it took more like 1500 years to build the final version of Stonehenge. There was a refinement of techniques for a very long period of time. Thinking about Stonehenge, the thing that I find the most intriguing now is what were the motivational forces that would allow a primitive culture to coordinate all of the efforts necessary to build this monument? if we could [know that], then maybe by looking at swimming and other kinds of developments, we could learn something about how we can actually focus people’s energies towards building something that is constructive and useful — thereby actually allowing swimming to help other disciplines improve, and help our society become the better place to be. Thank you very much.

Q/A: Yes? Well, one of the issues is that I have yet to find a good kind of partner here to start. I think swimming might be a perfect place where we could get this sort of detailed analysis of what people are doing in preparation. I have really never seen such data. If somebody could direct me to it, I would be very, very interested. The belief is that we would see many parallels, or at least that is my thesis, given, primarily, the work that we have been doing with chess, scrabble, ballet and so on. If somebody knows of some data or studies where they actually tried to relate, in objective times, the training load and how the performance development comes about, I would be very interested.

Q&A: ……………….. I did some. Somebody helped me look, and what I found was that there wasn’t all that big a difference between females and males until puberty. But, basically, I am talking about things where I was relying on a second source that the differences are primarily happening after puberty. Maybe, somebody else here would know of some published research on that. Again – I am very interested in that topic. I think that is an interesting question because genetic differences would imply that we would have differences between the sexes. A lot of people, for a long time, believed that females couldn’t play chess at a level competitive with males. I think now they are several studies, such as the Polgar sisters (Susan and Judit), where one of the daughters actually was ranked #6 in the whole World, including males. The research shows that, if you analyze the support structure and how much coaches and other teachers helped females, they seem to be learning at exactly the same rate as men. In other sports, and in other activities, people are now finding that the gender differences are not so much the function of genetic differences between males and females, as they are functions of the kind of training pattern that they exhibited.

Q/A: One of the more interesting discussions in physiology is genetic versus training affects and muscle fiber …

Well, I think this is an issue where there is not as much research as one would like. Partly, I think the problem is that it is so invasive. Most additional techniques for measuring muscle fiber is invasive. Especially with children, we really do not have very much [research]. I think there is now compelling research, and I was actually reading about this on the way down here, on Transitions, where you can get fibers to go from one to the other within a human being. Combining that with the research on animals, I think it is very clear that the muscle fibers have that modify-ability. How long it takes, and what kind of training stimulates the need for getting those changes, I think is still unknown. That basically is where the research frontier is.

Q/A: I noticed that in one of your slides they were talking about [deliberate practice] for certain ages. It sort of seems like 8 – 10 in the morning was one of the frame boards that were in the most learned or best time to practice. This is a sort of constraining due to the educational system, because our older kids start school around 7 to 7:30 in the morning which means they have to get up at 5:30 to 6 o’clock to get on the bus to get to school . And then …. so they decide everything is turned around, the elementary kids go to school later and high school kids go earlier than the high school kids who need to be sleeping and the elementary kids ……………..I think that is fascinating and I would just be interested to hear … I know that in some countries they have designated schools for kids who are doing swimming. We would have maybe more flexibility. I know from other domains like for example – authors. Authors like to wake up and work for about three or four hours and then basically they are just relaxing the rest of the day. Plus Kafka. He was working, so he actually couldn’t do that because he had a job. He had to take his job; then he took an hour and a half; and then he started his writing. That may not be ideal, but if you have constraints that you cannot change, then you can just do the best you can. I do think it would be very interesting to assess how much of a difference does that make on the motivation the ability here to exert yourself in a way that maximizes your improvement.

Q/A: The controlled early starts could explain girl–distance swimmers, but not young boy-distance swimmers. Could you elaborate a little on that?

Yeah – in certain parts of our country, Southern California for example, we have 6 or 8 or 10 young girl distance swimmers and they started at an early age and developed to the International Level and it was sort of a freak thing and now in the same area – nothing is happening. Now, I do not know if that is protein or because they didn’t start in the controlled early stages…. Mozart we all know about because he started in very early. By 3 or 4 he was a musician, and there were very few people of that level that started at such an early age and were known for starting at an early age.

Well, what we are finding in our review is that in a vast majority of domains, like skating, skiing and so on, it is very hard to find any international level individual who didn’t start [early]. Now, whether they started with deliberate practice …may be kind of harder to assess based on the available information. I think that is a fascinating, something that actually would lead me as a scientist to ask “why.” Why do you have this difference? I mean – there are all sorts of things that we do not know. For example, in Sweden, we have a small little village up near one of the ski resorts in the Northern part of Sweden. I think they have maybe like 150 people. So in the whole cohort individuals, I guess there wert like three youngsters who actually ended up being international downhill skiers. Now, why is that? What was it that actually, somehow … maybe something fed into another and they were actually engaging in some kind of competitive challenge … that basically led to that to happen? Again, it is something that is not happening again and again. [What allowed it] to happen at that time? Maybe, you know, it was easier once you look at the objective performance that they had and that maybe couldn’t even be reproduced if they just exhibited the same performance that they did because this is like 15 years ago.


I think it is amazing the way some of the more recent talented people, like for example, our elite musicians, they really designed their lives about protecting their practice. So they told me, for example, that they would never date somebody who wasn’t a serious musician, or a serious person doing something else because they would never understand why he would want to go to bed at 9 o’clock rather than going to the party. Once you have established that priority, you are able to channel your resources.

I think basically there are a lot of things that the rest of the world needs to know about what it takes to produce that kind of level of performance — and also some of the joys that are coming with it. But, it is a very different life than what most people are leading. I don’t think that people understand. So it is easier to just say: “these guys are making a difference.” We don’t care about what they are doing; we are just going to go on leading our life; as opposed to saying: “We could do the same thing or something similar if we actually tried.”

Q/A: When you talked about the kind of condition or practice, I thought you said that there was greater gain when they were sent off to work on their own for personal reason rather than have intervention. Is that right?

Well, I guess, in music there is a resource limitation. Teachers only have an hour or possibly two hours a week for you. If you had an in-house coach that basically 100% of the time was monitoring you…. I think there is interesting evidence suggesting that some of the more famous musicians had environments where people were monitoring them pretty much all the time as they were practicing, so they were actually doing very little by themselves. So, whether helping them to avoid mistakes or to get things right… I think the key here is that it is the individual that is doing the learning. Just pointing out mistakes may not help. The individual needs to know, attempt to, and try to overcome those mistakes. That is when the learning is happening. The question is: how do you set up the circumstances for that to happen? And it could be an individual unable to self-monitor — especially when they get more skilled. I think in the beginning you almost need the adult to serve as a monitor to make sure that they are attending to, and are actually trying to alter what they are doing to become closer to the target that you have.

Q/A: That is a very general question. I think one problem is that we have relatively little detailed knowledge about Mozart’s development. We know a lot of things that lead us to believe that his father spent a lot of time and was actually very much involved in the compositions that Mozart did, because they have done handwriting analysis, so they can actually see who did the writing of the notes and the corrections. But you know, we don’t know. It is not like we had a video tape where we actually would see what Mozart and his father did, so that we could analyze it. I think if people get interested maybe there are some parents who actually enjoy this development of their children, so they actually have a diary that would actually give us at least a first insight into the day to day changes that are associated with individuals that we all would agree are really outstanding.

Q/A: You mentioned that there have been studies that over 2,000 chains are activated by restricted access to oxygen, so would you hypothesize that swim coaches that hypoxic blocks of training or athletes who force themselves to breathe less over distance will have a faster adaptation ?

I think this is a very hard question. Given that I don’t know enough about swimming, it may also depend on what level that swimmer would be as to whether that would be the appropriate thing. I think, you know, by relating things to aspects you want to change is more important. Then you allow the swimmer to figure out what are the training elements that would actually allow me now to make these changes and improvements. So the idea here that you do something like, you know, holding your breath for 4 minutes or something… That may be a skill that actually could be trained. I know it can be trained because there are actually some interesting papers showing how you can actually increase the amount of time that you can hold your breath. But whether that actually would have any benefits for swimmers or not, I do not know. Until we know more about what are the limiting factors that you would really want to try to change for that particular swimmer, I am not sure what kind of training would be appropriate.

Q: Yes sir – do you have a website or a book or something you could suggest where we could get more information on all this?

A: Well, I think actually the best is that Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. It is about a thousand pages with 42 chapters looking at basically history and methodology. Then there are about 20 chapters talking about research on expert performance and different domains.

Q/A: Also, there is some discussion that has been focusing on development… and start getting comments on development of the experts. Also, our job is very labor intensive netting 12-14 hour days that you described you know – worked a time-frame that looked more like 4-5 hours…

I think that is a great question and to me, as I indicated here, when it comes to teaching, a lot of people have looked here at expert teachers. What you find is that sometimes there is a disagreement here between teachers that college students liked because they enjoyed attending their classes, versus those teachers who actually can improve the performance of the students taking the course. I guess if I were to apply that argument I would say that the focus should be on your ability to actually increase the performance of your swimmers or your athletes. Once you actually are focused on that, that would seem to me to be the best indicator. Then, you can compare yourself – not only to other coaches. Who knows, maybe in music, there is some evidence suggesting that some coaches are great working with very high level musicians, but really do not have the patience here to work with younger kids. So maybe one could imagine that there are three or four different levels of coaches: one that gets the kids going and working towards the right fundamentals; and then other coaches are specializing. I think that idea here of being able to measure in a way that takes into account maturational and other kinds of things that we now have a relatively good idea of change during adolescence that that would provide more direct feedback to the coach to know: did I do a good job?

Then the question is how do you actually get the individual? That is the question that most teachers ask: how can I get the student excited enough to put in the time to really master the material that basically I am in charge of getting them to master?

Q/A: We were lucky enough to have three swimmers – three girl swimmers — who started young to break the World Record in four years – three successive girls. I asked myself continuously how did that happen? It wasn’t because I was a great coach. I had a lot of assistance – a lot of people and a lot of assistants. Thank you very much for your wonderful talk.

So thank you and I think if we can just get this discussion going – it just seems to me that so many of you have so much to offer. I am basically systematizing it and I would love to play a role – if I may – in that process. I think maybe we need to break here in a little bit for I guess –

Q/A: One more question – The question is – we use interns in the psychological …………………………

I think this is a very good question and a very hard question. Now – in general – when it comes to motivation I do not believe that that is a trait. And again here – I would love to get the comments because swimmers are interesting because swimmers actually have a second career. Musicians – they basically are musicians till they die. Academics — until they die. But swimmers and many athletes have to have a second career. The question then is: what is it that we can learn from their success at their swimming career that translates now into a career on their second career? When it comes to being competitive, I think with young kids we do not know of any really good instruments. There may not be something that is sort of a staple of the trade. They may find something that actually is quite situationally dependent — and if it is, that would give more chances for the coach to elicit in people the appropriate responses.

I just have to say that there is a lot of discussion here about the importance of deliberate practice versus deliberate play or play. I think what we find is that playing – especially – (now remember that the deliberate time is something that you probably can only engage in for a really short time, and if you try to do it for longer you are probably wasting your time, so that means that they have got a lot of time and you might use that for play), but that means then that it is a little harder. BUT, we do not see that the amount of play that you do seems to predict how good you are going to be, On a time base, [time spent on deliberate] practice does seem to be predictive of your ability to succeed later on. When it comes to the personalities of those individuals and whether one coach would be able to make even the playful guy to put in, you know, a half an hour of deliberate practice, I don’t know. I think those are great questions and I do not know of any research that will answer your question at this point. My pleasure – thank you.

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