Practice Design

Observing how experts practice

Do experts practice differently to those who are less skilled? In an attempt to answer this question, Edward Coughlan and colleagues observed the way expert Gaelic football players practiced key skills, and compared this to a group of intermediate players.

The study protocol was as follows. All players performed a skills test on two kicking skills. Thereafter players were provided with four 15 minute practice sessions over four weeks to practice the two skills before a second skills test was administered. A retention test was also conducted 6 week after the post-test. An important feature of this study was that each player dictated their own practice. This meant that players could decide which skill to practice and for how long.

Three notable differences were observed between expert and intermediate players.

1. Experts rated practice as more effortful and less enjoyable

This is consistent with the core tenants of the deliberate practice framework, which suggests that experts engage in more effortful practice that is not inherently enjoyable.

2. Experts focused more on their weaker skill

Experts spent more time practicing their weaker skill, whereas the intermediate players focused more on their stronger skill. Notably, experts displayed improvements to their weaker skill during the post and retention test. Comparatively, the intermediate players only showed improvements to their stronger skill during the post-test. Hence, the improvements that the intermediate players experienced did not retain to follow up retention test.

3. Experts practiced with greater contextual interference

Contextual interference refers to practicing multiple skills one after the other. Switching between skills represents high contextual interference whereas practicing one skill in isolation represents low contextual interference. Practice that features high contextual interference typically leads to greater learning. In this study, it was observed that experts switched between skills more than the intermediate players. The intermediate players tended to practice each skill in isolation.

Interestingly, the experts performed fewer kicks during practiced compared to the intermediate players, despite displaying greater improvements during the retention test. Thus, the experts practiced less but experienced greater outcomes. This was probably the results of the three factors listed above.


Coughlan, E. K., Williams, A. M., McRobert, A. P., & Ford, P. R. (2014). How experts practice: A novel test of deliberate practice theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(2), 449-458.

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