Scrimmages are more fun than drills, and playing is more fun that practicing. Unfortunately, it turns out to be true: practice really does make perfect, if you do it right. Malcolm Gladwell popularized decades of research on “deliberate practice,” which was pioneered by K. Anders Ericsson. If you want to consistently outperform others, you have to constantly challenge yourself, note your errors, and fix them.

It’s easy to play without getting better. When you are getting better, often, you’re not having fun (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). Fun doesn’t predict success—in fields as diverse as spelling, chess, music, and business—practice does (Duckworth, Kirby, Tsukayama, Bernstein, & Ericsson, 2011; Charness, Tuffiash, Krampe, Reingold, & Vasyukova, 2005; Lehman & Ericsson 1997; Unger, Keith, Hilling, Gielnik & Fresne, 2009).

Does play make you better?

The research says all work and no play might make Jack a dull boy, but if he’s working on getting good at something, all work can also make him really, really good. And there isn't much downside to the no play part. We don't improve by playing, we improve by working.

There’s a guy named Dan who is trying to get better at golf by practicing without ever playing. He started from zero and he wants to see if he can become an expert using the "Dan plan." He’s trying to apply the research to his practicing.

But there’s a crucial caveat: Most research is on what differentiates the good from the great. But what if, like the aforementioned Dan, you aren’t even good yet?

When you try something completely new, you’re constantly being challenged. It seems like there is ample opportunity for learning. It can be fun, but does that mean you’re not learning? In other words, maybe play is better than deliberate practice when you’re a beginner.

The Experiment

We decided to put this intuition to the test (in an admittedly unscientific way). This summer, four Williams College students, Alex Manter, Sandy LaTourrette, Sarah Rosemann, and Olivia Uhlman, tried to get good at chess and pool (Alex and Sandy wrote this blog post). We all started as relative novices, and worked on each skill for 100 minutes every week for 8 weeks.

We split into two conditions: an only-play condition and an only-practice condition. It broke down like this:

  • Sarah and Olivia: played pool, practiced chess (and never vice versa)
  • Alex and Sandy: practiced pool, played chess (and never vice versa)

Playing was fun. Practicing was harder. We used Pool for Dummies and Chess for Dummies to give our practice sessions some structure. In pool, we practiced different types of shots, learning how to hold the cue properly, aim the cue ball using a variety of different strategies, and put English, draw, and follow on the ball. In chess, Olivia and Sarah learned about the values of certain pieces, strategic openings, situational techniques, and general strategy. Olivia and Sarah did play some chess online but with the goal of trying out strategies instead of winning.

The Results

At the end of the summer, we held a tournament. In chess, the only-play condition carried the day with Alex and Sandy going a combined 7-0 against Olivia and Sarah. The games were generally lengthy and none of the players were out of their league or particularly out-classed.

In pool, the all-play condition also won out, 4-3, though in general, the games were very close and often came down to lucky rolls and bounces. Nevertheless, the final result seems accurate: Sarah and Olivia seemed to have a slight edge over Sandy and Alex.

Although the all-play condition won out overall, best strategy is probably a hybrid. Some of the deficiencies in one method might be redressed through the other. For Alex and Sandy, it was often difficult to build attacks in chess because they lack the knowledge of grand strategy that Olivia and Sarah had. And for Olivia and Sarah, their strokes would certainly become a lot cleaner, better-directed, and less likely to result in scratches with some instruction on how to hold the cue, where to position their hit on the cue ball, and how to follow through with their stroke. In fact, playing a game may even give us a better of idea of how to practice: only by putting our skills to the test do we learn what we need to get better at.

The Bottom Line

When you’re new to a sport or skill, sometimes play is the best practice. Practicing and playing both worked, though, and all four participants improved a great deal. But in our data, playing worked as well or better and it was more fun—and more likely to keep us motivated to continue getting better.

This post was co-written by two Williams College students, Alex Manter and Sandy LaTourrette

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Charness, N., Tuffiash, M., Krampe, R., Reingold, E., & Vasyukova, E. (2005). The Role of Deliberate Practice in Chess Expertise. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(2), 151-165.

Duckworth, A., Kirby, T. A., Tsukayama, E., Berstein, H., & Ericsson, K. (2011). Deliberate practice spells success: Why grittier competitors triumph at the National Spelling Bee. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 2(2), 174-181.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Lehmann, A. & Ericsson, K. (1997). Research on expert performance and deliberate practice: Implications for the education of amateur musicians and music students. Psychomusicology: A Journal of Research in Music Cognition, 16(1-2), 40-58.

Unger, J. M., Keith, N., Hilling, C., Gielnik, M. M., & Frese, M. (2009). Deliberate practice among South African small business owners: Relationships with education, cognitive ability, knowledge, and success. Journal Of Occupational And Organizational Psychology, 82(1), 21-44.

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