Can Practice Alone Create Mastery?

New studies shed light on the science of mastering a skill.

Posted May 21, 2013

What is the secret to mastering a skill? Does everyone have the ability to go from good to great? Are only some people cut out to become elite level performers?

Researchers have been deconstructing the elements that go into becoming an expert and creating greatness for eons. Recent discoveries show that the type of practice combined with factors such as: sleep, innate ability, working memory, and the age you begin practicing all play a role in mastery.

In May 2013 Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University published research showing that practice alone doesn’t explain why different people in two commonly studied mastery activities – chess and music – can have such a wide range of skill levels. Writing in the research journal Intelligence, Hambrick said natural talent and other factors likely play a role in mastering a complicated activity. "Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn't enough," said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at MSU.

The debate over how much practice it takes to become an expert or “Outlier” has existed long before Malcolm Gladwell published his bestselling book in which he proposed that it took “10,000 hours of practice” to achieve elite level status. Hambrick disagrees with the ‘practice makes perfect’ formula. Hambrick writes, "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."

Magnus Carlsen of Norway—the world’s number one chess player—is an interesting case study of where practice meets elite performance. I wrote a Psychology Today profile about Carlsen recently titled “Checkmate! Winning Life Strategies of a Chess Grandmaster.”

Hambrick and colleagues analyzed 14 studies of chess players and musicians, looking specifically at how practice was related to differences in their level of performance. They found that practice only accounted for about one-third of the differences in skill in both music and chess.

Hambrick believes that factors such as intelligence or innate ability, and the age at which people start the particular activity make a huge difference in going from good to great. A previous study by Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz suggested that working memory capacity – which is closely related to general intelligence – played a key role in 'the origins of greatness.'

I believe that in order to achieve greatness it is important to find something that you love to do and pour yourself into it. The key to mastery is always going to be creating flow and superfluidity. To create flow you need to find the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety where your skill level perfectly matches the level of challenge. By surfing this line anyone can create superfluidity, which is the second tier of flow and leads to mastery.

While Hambrick’s conclusion that practice alone may not make perfect can be discouraging he said that there is a "silver lining" to the research. "If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities," he said, "they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice."

The Cerebellum, Sleep, and Mastery

The cerebellum is the seat of implicit procedural memories required for sport, music, and anything that you master through practice. The key to freeing up more working memory of the cerebrum is to ingrain the activity into muscle memory of the cerebellum. This 2-minute video clip illustrates the link between the cerebrum and cerebellum.

study released in April 2013 found that the performance of a musical task improved among pianists whose practice of a new melody was followed by a night of sleep. Lead researcher Sarah E. Allen, Southern Methodist University explains, “The goal is to understand how the brain decides what to keep, what to discard, what to enhance, because our brains are receiving such a rich data stream and we don't have room for everything. I was fascinated to study this because as musicians we practice melodies in juxtaposition with one another all the time.”

Researchers in the field of how procedural memories are consolidated have studied this process in both rats and humans. Studies have found that after practicing a motor skill, such as running a maze or completing a handwriting task, the areas of the brain activated during practice continue to be active for about four to six hours afterward. “Activation occurs whether a subject is, for example, eating, resting, shopping or watching TV,” Allen said.

"Researchers have found that the area of the brain activated during practice of the skill is activated again during sleep," Allen added, "essentially recalling the skill and enhancing and reinforcing it. For motor skills such as finger-tapping a sequence, research found that performance tends to be 10 percent to 13 percent more efficient after sleep, with fewer errors."

In Allen’s study at SMU, musicians who learned a single melody showed performance gains on the test the next day. Those who learned a second melody immediately after learning the target melody didn't get any overnight enhancement in the first melody. Those who learned two melodies, but practiced the first one again before going home to sleep, showed overnight enhancement when tested on the first melody.

"This was the most surprising finding, and perhaps the most important," Allen reported in the Psychology of Music. "The brief test of melody A following the learning of melody B at the end of the evening training session seems to have reactivated the memory of melody A in a way that inhibited the interfering effects of learning melody B that were observed in the AB-sleep-A group."

Allen's finding with musicians that practicing a second melody interfered with retaining the first melody is consistent with a growing number of similar research studies that have found learning a second motor skill task interferes with enhancement of the first task.

The findings may in the future guide the teaching of music, Allen said. "In any task we want to maximize our time and our effort. This research can ultimately help us practice in an advantageous way and teach in an advantageous way," Allen said. "There could be pedagogical benefits for the order in which you practice things, but it's really too early to say. We want to research this further."

Conclusion: Love what you do and pour yourself into it.

I believe that we are all capable of greatness. Find something you love and work hard to master it. Don’t be discouraged by research that implies that you didn’t start young enough, that you’re not intelligent enough or that you don’t have the natural ability. Neuroplasticity confirms that we can master new skills at any age. Not everyone will become an elite level performer, but the skills you learn through the daily practice of creating flow and superfluidity are transferrable to other areas of your life throughout a lifetime.

Nobody is born a natural, and nobody can be good at everything. Keep searching until you find something you love then practice, practice, practice. Lose yourself in the joy of the process not the accolades of “success.” Becoming really good at something is incredibly important to happiness, self-esteem, and fulfillment. Mastery in one specific area gives you confidence and grace under pressure that you can transfer to other challenges you face in life. Mastering the process of mastery will help you maximize your human potential across the board.

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