Coach’s Corner – Allan D. Miles – Purposeful Practice


Purposeful Practice


How often do we as coaches get stuck going through the same mindless routines over and over again at our training sessions? We wonder why we are not seeing an improvement. Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers speaks about the 10 000 hour rule. I have recently come across the work of Anders Ericsson who Gladwell based a lot of his research on. After reading Ericsson’s book PeakI have finally come to the realization that I have been getting some of my coaching wrong. I have so often just been repeating the usual training sessions with my players ‘going through the motions’ without creating what was so important. My sessions need to become purposeful.

“Plenty of practice activities are completely ineffective and won't lead to improvement” Anders Ericsson

Purposeful practice

Ericsson focuses much less on the volume of practice necessary to gain expertise and much more on the particular characteristics of that practice according to Kane (2017). You see, just repeating a skill or task, even over a period of many years, don’t build expertise. That’s because once you reach a reasonable level of competence and are able to do what you need to do, the skill becomes automatic according to Kliever (2017). He states further that at best, you’re maintaining your abilities, but not improving them.

“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”Anders Ericsson

Ericsson describes what he calls “purposeful practice” and its four essential components:

  1. Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals
  2. Purposeful practice is focused
  3. Purposeful practice involves feedback
  4. Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone (Pg. 15-17)

Well-Defined, Specific Goals.

If your players don’t have a clear vision of what is required, the practice is unlikely to be effective. How often do we as coaches forget to clearly define what it is that we are trying to achieve at the session? Aimless exploration is not the same as practice according to Kane (2017).


Practice should be hard. Most players don’t want to put this level of effort into their session, and no human is excited about putting serious focus into an activity they’re not passionate about for an extended period of time. There is no denying the fact that for someone really to make it in their field it comes with plenty of hard work. “They were people who worked hard, who learned how to keep their focus under pressure, and who stretched beyond their ordinary abilities when they had to.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 97)

Getting your players to focus takes relationship building and a variety of engagement strategies according to Kane (2017). Ericsson refers to the importance of self-talk to maintain individual focus. Your practice should never be easy. Challenges are opportunities for learning. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 21) Your job as a coach should be to create these challenges and to convince your players that they worth meeting.


Feedback is the rocket fuel that propels the acquisition of knowledge, and without it no amount of practice is going to get you there according to Syed (2011). There are a lot of different methods of feedback a coach can use to provide meaningful information back to their players. “You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.”(Ericsson, 2016, p.16) I personally feel that the most effective form of corrective feedback is verbal. This feedback must be given during training. I have seen how some experienced coaches allow their players to make mistakes intentionally before correcting them. This helps them illustrate how it should not be done, which will then in turn aid the corrective process. This can be effective. The feedback must be simple, direct and after each attempt according to Ericsson (2016). Ericsson also refers to the importance of personal feedback and the process of working out where one’s own weaknesses are and how to rectify them. Whatever feedback is being used it needs to be regular and the players need to know where they stand at all times.

Comfort Zone

Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone according to Ericsson (2016). Ericsson’s research suggests that elite sportsman practice more on their difficult areas which they have not yet mastered. In contrast, the average sportsman tends to just focus on the areas they find easy. This is enough encouragement to get our players to work harder and to get out of their comfort zones. “This is perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice.” (Ericsson, 2016, p.17) We have established already how important it is that you keep your players challenged. To do this you need to be training at a level that is pushing your players’ skills to the outer limits of what they are capable of. If your training is not getting them out of their comfort zone, all you are doing is maintaining their current level and you won’t see an improvement. “Getting out of your comfort zone means trying to do something that you couldn’t do before.” (Ericsson, 2016, p.19)

When you stretch your players to their outer limits of ability there will be failure and setbacks. It is important that your players adopt a growth mindset in contrast to a fixed mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset doesn’t want to be pushed beyond their perceived limitations because of their fear of failure. They are not comfortable to be in this area of potential growth. A growth mindset, on the other hand, doesn’t see entering into this territory as a possible failure but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow. “The naturals, carried away with their superiority, don’t learn how to work hard or how to cope with setbacks.” (Dweck, 2012, p. 91) Your players must not give up or stop trying to improve. You will need to keep them motivated during these periods. “Maintaining the focus and the effort required by purposeful practice is hard work, and is generally not fun.” (Ericsson, 2016, p.21)


Purposeful practice involves failing a lot. If we can teach our players to adopt a growth mindset as mentioned in a previous post our players will learn that there is no concept of failure and only opportunity for growth. The principles shared in this post may not be groundbreaking or new. If you have just been going through the motions at your training sessions you will now know why you have not been seeing an improvement. We need to be motivated to adopt the essential components of “purposeful practice” to achieve more out of our training sessions.  Putting these ideas into practice will make a lot of sense if you are looking for an improvement.

Article by: Allan D. Miles (Head of Rugby and 1st XV Coach at Grey High School)



Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. London: Little, Brown Book Group.

Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things. London: Penguin.

Syed, M. (2011). Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice. HarperCollins: UK. Dylan Kane  Janie Kliever May 30, 2017