10 Things Elite Athletes, Musicians, and Intellectuals Do Differently
Expert performance guru Anders Ericsson has made a career studying star athletes, memory mavens, violin virtuosos, and chess champions.
His work involves identifying people who can do something better than their peers and then figuring out why they are able to do that. In his decades of research, Ericsson has identified a core set of principles that enable elite performers to rise above the rest. In this article, we’ll explore ten of them.
Once you know the core elements that lead to expertise, you can use many of them in your own life to upgrade your performance. Using the principles outlined here, you can get better at anything you want, whether it’s leadership, charisma, social skills, chess, ping-pong, writing, reading, or math.
Here are ten things elite athletes, musicians, and intellectuals do differently.
1. They Practice More and Better Than Everyone Else
Practice is the cornerstone of expert performance. It’s the one element that all elite performers across various fields have in common – and it’s the one thing that makes them stand out from the rest.
In field after field, Ericsson found that differences in performance were perfectly correlated to the amount of (high-quality) practice individuals had accumulated. More hours of practice equaled higher skill levels, and vice-versa.
In his study of expert violinists, for example, he found that the best group acquired a total of 7,410 hours by age eighteen. The second group accumulated 5,301 hours, and the last group 3,420 hours.
These findings are consistent across multiple fields. On a study looking at ballet dancers, Ericsson concludes in his book Peak, “…the only significant factor determining an individual ballet dancer’s ultimate skill levels was the total number of hours devoted to practice.”
He adds, “By now it is safe to conclude from many studies on a wide variety of disciplines that nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice. I do not know of any serious scientist who doubts that conclusion.”
It’s not just about practicing more, though. The quality of practice is just as important. Elite performers engage in what Ericsson calls deliberate practice, which he defines as “engagement with full concentration in a training activity designed to improve a particular aspect of performance with immediate feedback, and opportunities for gradual refinement by repetition and problem solving.”
Deliberate practice is hard, effortful, and unpleasant. It requires high levels of concentration, constant feedback, attending to and fixing of errors, and more.
It’s a highly advanced type of practice that most of us rarely if ever engage in. It’s so demanding that, as normal people, we couldn’t do it for longer than twenty to thirty minutes at a time. Even expert performers can only slowly increase the duration and frequency of deliberate practice, until they reach a peak of around four to five hours daily.
2. They Practice Daily
In the violin study, the two top groups spent approximately four hours a day – every day including weekends – on deliberate practice. They didn’t take the weekend off. They didn’t take Sundays off. They practiced daily.
Michael Phelps is the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time. His stats speak for themselves: 22 Olympic gold medals. 39 career world record. 7x World Swimmer of the Year.
In his book, No Limits, he gives a taste of the kind of dedication it took him to get there: “For five years, from 1998 to 2003, we did not believe in days off. I had one because of a snowstorm, two more due to the removal of wisdom teeth. Christmas? See you at the pool. Thanksgiving? Pool. Birthdays? Pool. Sponsor obligations? Work them out around practice time.”
7 days a week. 365 days a year. For 5 years. That’s 1,825 days of daily practice in a row.
3. They Take Recovery Very Seriously
In their pursuit of maximizing performance and accelerating learning, expert performers optimize recovery just as much as practice.
Ericsson makes the following point: “It appears that top-level adult experts practice at the highest possible level that can be sustained for extended periods without burnout or injury. Hence, it may be extremely difficult to consistently practice harder and improve faster than these individuals do.”
In the study of expert violinists, the top two groups averaged five hours more of sleep per week than the lowest performing group, mostly by taking more time for afternoon naps.
4. They Start Early
Great performers start very early in their respective fields. Tiger Woods practiced his swing at age two in front of a live television audience. When he was five, Golf Digest featured him on their cover. Mozart began playing music when he was three and composing when he was five. At six, he started playing in public with his father and siblings.
Ericsson emphasizes the importance of starting early in one of his papers, “…it is impossible for an individual with less accumulated practice at some age to catch up with the best individuals, who have started earlier and maintain maximal levels of deliberate practice not leading to exhaustion.”
“…we find that the higher the level of attained elite performance, the earlier the age of first exposure as well as the age of starting deliberate practice. In some domains such as music and ballet, it is generally found that elite performers have started well before the age when most children first gain access to training.”
In most domains international performers start practice at age four to six. Rare exceptions include the fields of math and science.
The reasons for the importance of starting early are manifold. For one thing, it allows individuals to accumulate more deliberate practice and therefore acquire higher levels of performance. As stated earlier, the amount of this type of practice can only slowly be increased and reaches a limit at four to five hours per day. Hence, once someone is in the lead as far as deliberate practice hours go, it’ll be impossible to catch up.
In addition, the earlier individuals start, the more likely they are to be seen as “talented” and thus receive resources and support by the environment.
5. They Seek Out and Work Individually With Top Coaches
Find an expert performer and you’ll inevitably find a coach – or two, or three.
Ericsson explains in a research paper that “…future experts need different kinds of teachers at different stages of their development. In the beginning, most are coached by local teachers, people who can give generously of their time and praise. Later on, however, it is essential that performers seek out more advanced teachers to keep improving their skills. Eventually, all top performers work closely with teachers who have themselves reached international levels of achievement.”
Expert coaches make a difference in a variety of ways. For one thing, they provide an external source of motivation, accountability, and willpower. They provide adequate training methods. They give adequate and immediate feedback. The importance of coaching can’t be overstated.
Ivan Galamian, perhaps the most famous violin teacher of all time, puts it this way: “If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher.”
6. They Focus on Skills, Rather than Knowledge
In Peak, Ericsson mentions a study on the effectiveness of professional education for physicians. This research examined a wide-ranging group of educational interventions, including courses, conferences, lectures, symposia, and so on.
The most effective interventions were those with an interactive component: case solving, hands-on training, role-play, discussion groups, and the like. The least effective interventions were “didactic” in nature: passively listening to lectures.
While gathering information has its place (we talk about the importance of reading all the time!) the emphasis should lie on application of that knowledge. Merely reading tennis magazines or YouTube videos won’t improve anyone’s tennis games.
Remember: the major difference between people’s performance always comes down to the amount of deliberate practice they have accumulated. Reading or passively watching YouTube videos or listening to lectures isn’t deliberate practice.
7. They Focus Completely on a Single Domain
This goes almost without saying, but elite performers commit to their field of expertise and stick to it.
Ericsson concludes: “Consistent with the data on athletes and musicians, eminent scientists are completely absorbed in their vocation so ‘as to seriously limit all other activity.’”
8. They Devote Their Lives to the Craft and Organize Their Lives Around it
For many elite performers, their respective field of expertise takes precedence over nearly everything else. What they try to do, essentially, is organize their lives in a way that maximizes their skill development and performance by optimizing the effectiveness of their deliberate activities.
Authors, for example, will often retreat when they are ready to write a book. They make writing their sole purpose, and, almost without exception, dedicate 3-4 hours to writing every morning and spend the rest of the day on napping, walking, and other less demanding activities. They do this in an effort to create the best book they possibly can.
Ericsson adds the following point: “During adolescence, the daily lives of future elite performers are quite constrained by school activities. In spite of this Kaminski et al. (1984) found that young elite performers in music and various types of sports, such as gymnastics, swimming, and ice-skating, spent more than 15hr on weekly practice… When expert performers make a full-time commitment to the domain, our studies showed that they spend between 50 and 60hr per week on domain-related activities. Less than half of that time (about 25hr per week) is spent on deliberate practice, and this time is distributed across the entire week in practice sessions of limited duration.”
Consider Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. He pitched for twenty years and racked up some incredible stats, including 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, 61 shutouts, and a 2.86 lifetime ERA.
Here are his thoughts on pitching as described in Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: “Pitching . . . determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I’m awake. It determines how I spend my life when I’m not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can’t get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun. . . . If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too. If it means in the winter I eat cottage cheese instead of chocolate chip cookies in order to keep my weight down, then I eat cottage cheese.”
“Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it. . . . I’ve made up my mind what I want to do. I’m happy when I pitch well so I only do things that help me be happy.”
9. They Make Sacrifices
Expert performers sacrifice a lot for making it to the top of their field. For starters, the deliberate practice that makes up four to five hours of every day of their lives isn’t exactly fun. It’s high on effort and low on enjoyment. It demands high levels of energy and focus, and requires constantly leaving one’s comfort zone.
In all of Ericsson’s studies, the best performers agreed that practice wasn’t fun.
Consider also that most elite performers devote their entire lives to their craft well before they actually succeed. They don’t have a guarantee for success, but they are willing to take the risk and make the necessary sacrifices.
Even once they’ve reached the top of their field, they can’t just stop practicing, cheat on their diet, party their socks of, go on a month-long sabbatical, travel through South America for half a year, or switch careers.
10. They Are Methodical and Deliberate in Everything They Do
Elite performers try to optimize various areas of life in order to maximize skill development and performance, and they are very methodical and deliberate about it.
In the study on expert violinists, the best group of students was much better at estimating how much time they spent on leisure, an indication that they made more efforts to plan their time. In addition, both top groups were more methodical in planning their training sessions. Whereas the lowest performing group practiced all throughout the day, the top students tended to practice at the same times every day.
Expert performance is no secret. It’s not magical, mystical, inexplicable. It’s not based on innate talent or “giftedness.” Rather, it’s the consequence of hard work over long periods of time in a chosen field of expertise.
Anders Ericsson writes in Peak: “Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process. There are no shortcuts.”
The story of elite performance is not the story of talent. It’s the story of hard work, sacrifice, singularity of focus, methodical planning, and sustained motivation.
This was the seventh and last article in a series on expert performance and deliberate practice. Here’s a full overview of all articles in the series.
- Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule & What Really Separates the Best From the Rest – A deep-dive into Anders Ericsson science of expertise, which shows that practice, not talent is the difference between elite performers and everyone else.
- The Road to Greatness: 3 Steps from Child to Best in the World – Explores what the road to greatness really looks like. Turns out it’s more about luck, interest, motivation, and passion, rather than talent.
- The Myth of Natural Talent: Prodigies, Savants, and the Real Role Inborn Qualities Play in Elite Performance – Goes into the details behind why “natural talent” has very little to do with expert performance and explains the role inborn qualities play in the acquisition of elite-level skills.
- The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice – A complete guide on the science of deliberate practice, which is the #1 predictor of elite performance and the most effective practice method for developing skills rapidly.
- 14 Real World Examples of Deliberate Practice in Action – Gives fourteen examples of how people are using deliberate practice right now to improve their skills and get an unfair advantage over their peers.
- How to Use the Principles of Deliberate Practice to Succeed at Anything You Want – A complete roadmap to using the principles of deliberate practice in your life, so you can improve any skill you want.
- 10 Things Elite Athletes, Musicians, and Intellectuals Do Differently – A compilation of ten things research has found elite performers do differently than the rest of us. (Hint: deliberate practice is one of the things.)