Deliberate Practice versus Immersion

by Gregory Rader on May 14, 2013

Greg is a 2013 blogging resident, visiting us from his home blog over at On the Spiral. His residency will explore the theme “Individuality and Decision-Making” over several posts.

I think I have finally sorted out my uneasiness with the so-called deliberate practice hypothesis.  Most Tempo readers will be familiar with deliberate practice (hereherehere & here) so I will just offer a quick refresher.  The idea is that abilities that what we commonly perceive as talent are actually the result of painstakingly focused training.  Anders Ericsson, whose research has provided much of the grist for the mill, summarizes deliberate practice as:

activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.

I am not the only person to express mixed feelings about the concept.  Others have noted that deliberate practice addresses the known better than the unknown, i.e. it applies to domains requiring mastery better than those requiring creativity.

But what is the alternative?  Without an alternative, criticism carries the scent of sour grapes.

The advocates of deliberate practice generally juxtapose it with either a) belief in the value of innate talent or b) more mundane varieties of accrued experience.  Their claim is that practice counts for more than natural talent, and in order to reach the highest levels of mastery that practice must take a specific form.

My objection to this framing, I realize now, is that deliberate practice is presented as the methodology that is active and therefore earned, while innate talent and non-deliberate(?) practice are portrayed as passive and unearned.  Though never explicitly stated, the normative implications are only thinly veiled in much of the non-academic cheerleading on the subject.   

I think it is a mistake to believe that learning must be deliberate in order to be active or earned.  There is an another alternative that is equally active and equally intentional but not deliberate.  That alternative is immersion.  I mean immersion in the same way it is applied to learning a foreign language…the practice of actively placing yourself in an unfamiliar environment and exposing yourself to novel stimuli.


The distinction occurred to me while mulling over a cultural divide that I observe frequently in the crossfit community.  For those who don’t know, crossfit is an exercise regimen that is described as: constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.

The high intensity part refers to the fact that most workouts involve a component that is timed, in which the athlete either a) attempts complete a prescribed sequence of exercises as quickly as possible, or b) attempts to complete as many repetition as possible in a prescribed time.

Constantly varied means that workouts are not programmed according to a formula.  Exercises appear unpredictably from day to day, in many different formats and in many different combinations.

The emphasis on functional movement means that these timed workouts frequently include movements like the olympic lifts (the snatch and the clean & jerk), complex gymnastics movements and various other exercises requiring total body coordination.   For example my workout today involves the following:

  • Perform 3 rounds of the following sequence as quickly as possible:
    • 3 rope climbs
    • 10 power snatch at 135#
    • 15 ring dips
  • Score equals total time to completion

The olympic lifts in particular are immensely technical.  The athletes you see in the olympics dedicate their lives to perfecting the nuances of just these two movements.  Here are a couple quick videos of what I believe are the current world record lifts:

Athletes and coaches who focus exclusively on olympic lifting often criticize crossfit.  They assert that performing such complex movements under stress (at high repetitions and under time pressure) promotes bad form, cultivates flawed movement patterns, and invites injury.  They tend to be particularly critical of the practice of exposing beginners to these risks, and often argue that once bad habits are established they are nearly impossible to eliminate.

On first impression the division looks a lot like a case of insiders vs outsider.  At one point in time, when crossfit was first arriving on the scene, that was probably the best way to describe it.  However, today that is much less the case as there is significant cross-pollination between the two camps.

The tensions that persist could be better characterized as being between the immersion camp and the deliberate-practice camp.  To avoid confusion – because they don’t use that terminology – I’ll refer to them as the new school and the old school.

The new school types throw people into the fire.  They will always scale back the workout to the capabilities of the individual, but they won’t scale back the intensity.  Even if you are lifting an empty bar and doing push-ups from your knees, the expectation is always that you push yourself as hard as you can.  The implied belief is that people are capable of listening to their own bodies, and that movement patterns are accessible and can be reformed on the fly.

The old school types believe in getting it right the first time.  They believe in learning through carefully controlled repetition, starting with simple building blocks and working up to more complex movements.  They believe that bad movement patterns are difficult to deconstruct and limit long run potential.  And they believe that premature immersion is dangerous, even sometimes negligent.

Old School Cultures and New School Cultures

The differences between the two schools of thought go beyond personal preference.  Over the past 3+ years I have been a full time member at four different crossfit gyms.  During that time I have noticed consistent differences in the way that individuals understand physical movement.

The new school types experience muscle memory as accessible and malleable.  They pay more attention to proprioception and seem to intuitively know what is going on with their bodies.  They know when to push harder and when their bodies need rest.  They recognize when their body is moving properly and when something is wrong.  And they are constantly experimenting and speculating about what works (for their own unique body) and what doesn’t.

Old school types seem to have less access to proprioception.  They experience movement patterns as inaccessible.  They tend to focus less  on their own intrinsic qualities and more on their results.  They are the people who value willpower and discipline, who enjoy grinding…pushing through the pain regardless of how they feel.  And they tend to be the people who stick to a consistent program, motivated by achieving predetermined goals.

In short, old school types are more deliberate while new school types are more immersed.  I have come to believe that these attitudes reflect stable aspects of personality….that the two groups differ in their actual subjective experience of physical exercise.

Similar themes can be seen in the style of coaching offered at the old school gyms vs new school gyms.  New schools coaches tend to be much better at breaking down movements, explaining their nuances and adapting their expectations to the individual.  Old school coaches tend to take a harder line, interpreting expectations and standards more literally.  The former tend to promote a more collegial atmosphere where members are constantly coaching each other, while the latter emphasize rules and promote an atmosphere of deference to the coaches and/or the program.

You can tell a lot about the culture of a crossfit gym from the type of conversation that goes on before and after a workout…

At some gyms it is all about performance:

  • what time you expect to get
  • what time you got last time you did this workout
  • what your goals are
  • what competition you are training for

At other gyms the conversation is full of speculative expectations:

  • what parts of the workout you are dreading most/least,
  • what parts of you body are particularly sore or rested
  • what tentative strategy are you taking into the workout
    • breaking up reps
    • where you expect to push vs where you will need to rest
    • which pairings of exercises may present unusual challenges

For the former group the post workout conversation often revolves around success or failure, elation or disappoint.  They are excited when they achieve their goals.

For the latter group the post workout conversation consists of comparing expectations to actual experience.  In short, the members of the latter group build up propositional mental models before the workout, and afterwards they compare those propositional models to their experienced reality.  They are most excited when they encounter a curve-ball that suggests ways they might improve those models.

Performance vs Meta-learning

One way of understanding these two attitudes – which nicely parallels the fox and hedgehog archetypes - is that deliberate practice is a performance/learning process whereas immersion is a learning/meta-learning process.

Along the same lines we might say that deliberate practice emphasizes externalization (output) while immersion emphasizes internalization (input).

In other words, immersion exposes you to the complexity of the environment all at once.  When you immerse yourself in a foreign language the active emphasis is on internalizing and decoding as much of the language as you can, in all its subtlety and nuance.  It is largely taken for granted that if you understand the language then you will also speak intelligibly.

By contrast, mastery of a musical instrument or a competitive activity like chess is all about mastering externalized behavior.  Through practice you will eventually intuit some of the principles underlying your practice, but understanding the theory alone doesn’t do you much good if it gets in the way of the performance.

This is why domains biased towards deliberate practice tend to be so concerned with eliminating bad habits.  The emphasis on performance deprives students of the meta-learnings that would otherwise allow them to actively deconstruct bad habits.  Immersion inevitably leads to bad habits, but it also fosters accessible meta-learnings that allow those bad habits to be deconstructed.

Manipulative vs Appreciative

It should be self-evident that deliberate practice primarily shapes manipulative mental models, given that it directly addresses the mental faculties underlying specific instrumental behaviors.  Immersion primarily develops appreciative mental models.  In describing appreciative models Venkat writes:

My instinctive preference for complexity made sense from the perspective of purpose. I like purposeless models. Or equivalently, models that exist before clear purposes do. It makes sense that such models are often more complex. It isn’t that I like complexity for its own sake, but that I like purposeless models, which are often complex. They help me appreciate something on its own terms, rather than through the lens of something I want to achieve.

This non-purpose (or universal purpose or meta-purpose) is appreciation. An appreciative model is a model you use simply to make sense of a situation.

I like the idea of appreciative models having a meta-purpose.  Immersive practices construe goals at a high level.  This is quite different from having no purpose at all, though in our left-brained culture it is easy to mistake meta-purpose for lack of purpose.

One of catchphrases used to describe crossfit training is general physical preparedness (GPP).  GPP is the antithesis of sport specific training methodologies, which bring instrumental faculties to the foreground.  The notion of “general preparedness” complements Venkat’s idea that the meta-purpose of an appreciative models is to “make sense of a situation”.

Manipulative models may be more efficient when you have the ability to initiate instrumental behaviors on your own terms, but they are not so useful when you need to respond to the environment.  If you need to be prepared for whatever challenges the environment might present, then you need an appreciative model.

If immersion appears passive it is only because the stimuli originate in the environment.  However, the act of immersing oneself in a novel environment is no less intentional than the act of breaking out a chess board.  Adaptation occurs just the same whether it is stimulated directly by practice itself or indirectly by opening oneself to a particular stream of stimuli.  And the depth of immersion can be modulated just as one would the volume of deliberate practice.

Contextual vs Context-Free

Deliberate practice techniques are designed in a certain sense to be inaccessible.  You learn it right the first time through simple repetition.  There is an emphasis on consistency.  Beginners learn piece by piece, mastering one aspect of a movement before moving on.  The old-school culture described above has a distinct “just do it” quality to it.

In physical training all of this serves to bypass conscious thought processes and push the movement pattern directly into muscle memory.  What is true of habits is also true of performance – you are at your best when you are in the zone, just acting…without thinking too much about exactly what you are doing.

So where does that leave the conscious mind?

Venkat recently wrote about two classes of habits:

…every habit is actually two intertwined habits. There is a habit of thought and a coupled habit of action.

  • A habit of thought is a set of coupled patterns of thought and a practiced ability to switch among them appropriately and effectively.
  • A habit of action is a learned pattern of physical behavior involving sensory processing and physical movements.

Both are context-dependent. The former is dependent on your immediate state of mind, the latter is dependent on your immediate environment.

By minimizing the amount of input material provided to the conscious mind, the old school practices produce habits of action that are pure muscle memory.

This leaves the conscious mind free to construct habits of mind intended to insulate the performer from the external context.  In the extreme, when athletes enter the zone they report that the outside world fades away and they experience a kind of tunnel vision.  In courting this state many athletes construct habit of mind that take the form of superstitions, visualization routines, affirmations, and various other ritualized preparations.  All are practices meant to promote high fidelity performance without regard to the particular context.

Immersion accomplishes the opposite.  The conscious mind actively engages in the process of distinguishing signal from the noise.  The appreciative mental models that are constructed map correspondences between the external environment and learned habits.  The primary concern is for appropriateness of behavior in context rather than reproduction of practiced behavior with perfect fidelity.

Nesting the Two Approaches

Though the deliberate practice hypothesis doesn’t get my blood stirring on its own, understanding it as  counterpoint to immersion helps me understand how it can be adopted judiciously without stripping all the joy out of learning.

For me, immersion is clearly the more productive approach, but it is possible to nest deliberate practice within a broader immersion framework.  The choice then is one of priority…of which approach leads and which follows.

I may prefer learning a foreign language through immersion, but losing my accent would likely require some focused attention.  Similarly, I enjoy crossfit style training precisely because it is open-ended, appreciative and contextualized, but that doesn’t mean I neglect more deliberate training methodologies when specific skills are in need of refinement.

Emphasizing immersion to the exclusion of deliberate practice seems to produce rapid progress followed by diminishing returns.  Incorporating some elements of deliberate practice allows these obstacles to be overcome.  And when adopted within the context of an immersion based practice, these elements of deliberate practice seem less onerous.

It would seem the inverse arrangement is equally viable.  I have noted recently that Cal Newport – one of the staunchest advocates of deliberate practice – has been hesitantly incorporating more immersive practices into his productivity advice.  I’m sure he would insist that he isn’t abandoning deliberate practice, but then that just demonstrates the point that an approach dominated by deliberate practice can safely incorporate elements of immersion without being corrupted.


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