What is the real cause of high performance?

It is human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work, and a hell of a lot more fun” Sam Snead- golf champion.


In order for our students to achieve that which they are truly capable, we must instil grit. One method for fostering grit is to unpack the myth of talent by instead offering a more reliable and evidence-based alternative. For most students, becoming an “expert” is not necessarily the goal. Many would argue that our school system should not be attempting to create world champion sports people, musicians or mathematicians. I would have to agree with that.


More important than being a world-champion is that students commit to learning and continuous improvement in order to discover and achieve their personal best- whatever that might be. However, we can all learn from the best in order to equip every young person with the opportunity to thrive. We are to equip all students so that they can unleash their personal potential. If we are going to teach them something, we might as well not teach them about the myth of talent. Instead, we should focus on what the research is overwhelmingly telling us about performance and achievement. To this end, we will focus on mastery through deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice is practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. It requires “considerable, specific and sustained effort to do something you can’t do well- or even at all” (Ericsson, Prietula, & Cokely, The making of an expert, 2007). It is highly concentrated, mindful practice. There is a saying that says “practice makes perfect”. However, I strongly disagree. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. If our practice is lazy and unfocussed, we will learn poor habits and our performance could actually decrease as a result.


There is another saying that says “perfect practice makes perfect”. Once again I disagree. We can’t be perfect when we are really stretching ourselves to new levels. We will make mistakes- many of them. We will need to receive feedback and correct our mistakes- constantly refining our performance. We will need the support of teachers, mentors and coaches to teach us, as we often “don’t know what we don’t know”.


Deliberate practice requires a great deal of grit because it requires full attention and full focus. The highest performers on the national spelling bee were the gritty kids who were prepared to tackle the hardest and least pleasurable problems (Duckworth A. P., 2007). They were prepared to stretch themselves out of their comfort zones. They were prepared to undergo deliberate practice. That is the only way we can truly get better. 


Rather than “practice makes perfect” or “perfect practice makes perfect”, I believe the saying “deliberate practice makes improvement” has much more merit.

Mastery, or expert performance is the product of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate skill or talent. Multiple studies have investigated the performance of people who have achieved “elite” levels of performance in their fields (Bloom, 1985; Ericsson, Prietula, & Cokely, The making of an expert, 2007). Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that expertise is always grown or developed, not given at birth.


The real cause of high performance is the quality and quantity of practice- deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires grit in order to regularly tackle those challenging problems and skills that stretch our abilities as far as they can go.


For more resources from UPP, visit our resources page.