What Separates Amateurs from Professionals? Deliberate Practice

How to achieve peak performance in golf and other endeavors

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Have you ever wondered why some athletes demonstrate talent, but never reach the professional level? According to Dr. Restak, it’s not just the hours of practice—it’s also the type of practice.

Football player training in the field
Athletes use deliberate practice to strengthen areas of weakness in their skills, leading to a professional level of performance. Photo By WoodysPhotos / Shutterstock

What Is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is a new technique for enhancing brain function which is also paradoxically very old. If you lived in ancient Sparta, you would have heard references to this technique, although under a different name. 

If you were in Japan during the time of the Samurai, you would have heard about will and determination, which is essentially the same thing. The new part is that neuroscience and psychological research confirm the effectiveness of this ancient method.

Deliberate practice is the key to improving brain performance and creativity. It takes advantage of the brain’s ability to respond when pushed to the limits. 

One component of deliberate practice is especially important. Concentrate on those aspects of your performance that you find most difficult. 

Professional Versus Amateur Golfers

To understand what is meant by deliberate practice, let’s compare and contrast the practice methods of professional versus amateur golfers. They share a love for the game, reasonably good health, and a desire to excel. 

The difference is in how the professional and amateur define and work toward achieving excellence in the game. For the amateur golfer, the goal is relaxation and enjoyment—a day out, a day off, a weekend. “Now, career advancement can result from the ability to play well—but don’t play too well,” Dr. Restak said. “Don’t outperform the boss too often.”

Golf essentially serves as a social outlet for the amateur player—new people to meet, group identification, travel to distant golf courses. However, the professional golfer has a different orientation. 

That’s because he or she is doing it for a living, so the stakes are higher. He or she works on improving weaknesses. 

First of all, to improve a weakness, you have to recognize it. Then you’re faced with what is called ego issues—nobody likes to think that they can’t do everything perfectly. 

The amateur tends to do the same thing over and over because he’s not comfortable doing things he’s not very good at. All of us like to do things that we’ve done before; it’s sometimes laughingly called the repetition compulsion.

The professional, on the other hand, resists the compulsion to repeat the familiar. He knows that he’s not going to do well in certain things, so he’s going to work on them. 

The goal is to achieve higher levels of control over every aspect of performance. To that extent, practice is never boring; each day is different. 

The professional breaks up what looks like a continual performance into little pieces. While putting, there’s a little difference in the placement of the feet, and a little bit of holding the club a certain way. 

Nothing is taken for granted, weaknesses are acknowledged rather than denied, and they’re addressed through intense practice. Deliberate practice is never easy; additional improvements require continuously updating and increasing challenges to raise performance beyond the current level. 

Deliberate Practice for You

Set challenges for yourself. Make sure you can do better each time you take a particular club and work with it. 

Mistakes and failures will inevitably occur; that’s just part of the game. This fact must be accepted, and it must be specifically addressed. 

Failing despite full concentration is painful; it requires renewed commitment—those ego issues again. Are you willing to come back and look at the dark night of what you didn’t do very well? The key is that when you practice things you’re bad at, the chances of overall improvement in the whole game are vastly improved.

Full concentration is limited to about four or five hours. When you go over that, your focus diminishes along with the quality of your performance. 

For example, many novelists instinctively recognize this and work a few hours in the morning, spending the rest of the day in relaxed preparation for the next day’s writing session. They might take a little time for writing a story or travel article.

They’re not going to stick with the novel, though, because they realize they’ve reached the point where they can no longer be productive. Therefore, incorporating deliberate practice into your routine requires a balance of focused periods in which you challenge yourself followed by breaks for relaxation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.