Does Practice Really Make Perfect?

Karthik Nemmani winning the 2018 National Spelling Bee. Photo: Scripps

Serena Williams is known to practice four hours at a stretch. After every formal practice ends, Steph Curry lofts 100 three-pointers, part of a lifetime of intense practice that allows him to make it look so easy during a game. Eighth-grader Karthik Nemmani won last year’s National Spelling Bee by studying specifically for the competition during “months of highly specialized training.”

Despite some 17 years of schooling and decades of professional writing, I still today could not win an 8th-grade spelling bee. Nor would 10,000 hours of drills have gotten me to Wimbledon or the NBA.

Yes, there’s a lot more to perfection than practice. For one thing, studies suggest practice is responsible for somewhere between 1 and 33 percent of a person’s success, depending on the particular pursuit. Meanwhile, how you practice can matter greatly. And for some skills and professions, you can actually practice too much, a new study finds.

Talent vs. Practice vs. Hard Work

The idea that practice makes perfect was thought to be well supported by a 1993 study of musicians, in which researchers led by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson determined that practice accounted for about 80 percent of the difference between elite performers and committed amateurs. “Many
characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years,” the researchers wrote.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize the idea with what came to be known as the 10,000-hour rule. Practice that much, and you’ll be an expert performer.

I disagree. So does Zach Hambrick.

In 2013, Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, along with his colleagues, reviewed 14 studies of musicians and chess players, showing in a paper published in the journal Intelligence that practice accounted for only one-third of the skill differences.

“The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice,” Hambrick says, utterly dashing my NBA dreams but supporting a notion I knew was true all along.

But as anyone well into their craft or career knows, there’s a big difference between practicing something and simply performing or doing the work. A manager gets better not by practicing at managing but by making decisions in the office every day.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt,” the author Stephen King once said. “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

That’s where this next set of findings from Hambrick and colleagues comes in: They reviewed 88 studies on a broad range of activities, to see the extent to which deliberate practice — “structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a specific field” — predicts variations in performance. The percent explained by practice in…

  • Games: 26 percent
  • Music: 21 percent
  • Sports: 18 percent
  • Education: 4 percent
  • Professions: <1 percent

Practice won’t make everyone perfect, but “it will make almost everyone better,” the researchers concluded in the journal Psychological Science.

“Other factors matter as well, but even so, no one says that practice will ever hurt you,” said study team member Fred Oswald, a professor of psychology at Rice University who collaborated with Hambrick on both studies. “But be careful if you are walking tightropes.”

Still other research has shown that hard work is hugely important to success (which, of course, is not the same as perfection) in sports. And if you want to do better on a test, or learn to identify notes if you weren’t born with perfect pitch, then practice, practice, practice.

Older research by Hambrick and colleagues showed that innate intelligence does indeed confer advantages in cognitive tasks—a spelling bee might be a good example—but a reasonably smart person can outperform a high-IQ individual if the former works hard and the latter doesn’t.

The upshot: If you aren’t born with music in your bones, you might never play Carnegie Hall. But with lots of practice and hard work, you could be in a band.

Caption: Musicians should be careful not to practice too much. Photo: Pixabay/Free-Photos

Just Don’t Practice Too Much

Guitarist Joe Satriani years ago advised keeping practice fun and not spending more than an hour on one thing. Research since then suggests he was onto something.

An interesting new study shows you can indeed practice too much, actually setting back your progress to perfection. The finding applies specifically to anyone learning something that requires fine motor skills in the fingers — aspiring guitarists, painters or surgeons, for example. Such aspirants really need to know when to quit, and the threshold appears to be just shy of the point of finger exhaustion.

Researchers had a group of 120 people learn a repetitive task that involved pinching a device between the thumb and index fingers of their dominant hand, with different levels of force controlling a cursor on a computer screen.

One group was made to continue until they experienced muscle fatigue. In subsequent days they all resumed practicing, without being fatigued.

The previously fatigued group took two additional days to catch up to the skill level that the non-fatigued group achieved. And in a second test, with everyone using their non-dominant hand for the first time, the previously fatigued group didn’t do as well.

Further tests, involving magnetic stimulation of the volunteers’ brains to disrupt the learning process, indicated that “fatigue may affect the formation of memories that help people to retain new skills they have learned,” the scientists reported March 5 in the open-access journal eLife.

“Learning in a fatigued state results in detrimental effects on a person’s ability to acquire a new skill,” said the study’s senior author, Pablo Celnik, director of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

I asked Celnik if the results apply to exercises like interval training or weightlifting, for which the common advice (if you want to be perfect, or whatever) is to push until you just can’t do one more. He pointed out that with strengthening or aerobic exercises, if you go to the point of exhaustion you pretty much have no choice but to stop. “You can’t cross that line,” he said.

And anyway, heavy workouts are not the same as skill training. For one thing, he said, you’re not typically learning anything new.

“In our work, what we noted is that if you are fatigued, you can continue to perform or learn, but the way you acquire the knowledge is not optimal,” Celnik said.

How You Practice Matters

Other research published in Psychological Science hints at the possibility that small chunks of practice time might be better than one long slog.

Participants were asked to learn a new game, and they all had the same amount of practice time. Those who learned more quickly — as measured by their higher scores — had either broken their practice time into separate blocks or had more variable performance results early on. This suggests they were exploring how the game works, before just outright practicing, the researchers figured.

“The study suggests that learning can be improved — you can learn more efficiently or use the same practice time to learn to a higher level,” said study leader Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield.

I asked Stafford if his findings would apply to other pursuits, such as sports or music.

“My research does suggest that breaking practice into smaller chunks (vs. one long effort) and/or exploring generally before moving to specifics could be beneficial to someone learning a variety of tasks,” he said.

Meanwhile, once you think you’ve got something down, you may want to do it a few more times. Over-learning has been shown to allow newly learned tasks to truly sink in to the brain, protecting those learned memories from being scrambled by the “noise” of learning the next task.

The famed football coach Vince Lombardi is said to have summed it up this way: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Or, I’d ad, at least as perfect as one can be.