Does Practice Make Perfect?

Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament! I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this probably isn’t the first time you have heard about this. Whether you like golf or hate it, my guess is that you are not only aware of that outcome but also at least some of the details that contribute to its significance. Why? Because Tiger is a persona that transcends his realm. One could offer that he has achieved that status despite well-publicized struggles due to special gifts or unique talent. On the other hand, perhaps innate aptitude for hitting a golf ball has far less to do with Tiger’s accomplishments than most of us would like to believe.

There was a telling moment after the third round of this year’s Masters that provided a glimmer of insight into the secrets of his success. At the time, he was two strokes off the lead and in the middle of an interview with Amanda Balionis from CBS:

Balionis: Tiger, we’ve just learned that because of the weather system due to pass through Augusta tomorrow that tee times have been adjusted, and you will be going off the front and back in threesomes early.

Tiger: Well, I guess they need to do whatever they need to do to get the tournament in.

Balionis: So, as opposed to teeing off at 2:25 p.m., you’ll be headed out at 9:25 a.m., how does that affect your routine tomorrow?

Tiger: Well, that means I will need to get up at 4:00 a.m. — actually more like 3:45 — and do what I do to get ready to play.

As I heard that, I found myself wondering: What in the world you would do for five-and-a-half hours to get yourself ready to play a round of golf? It reminded me of a different story I heard about Tiger years ago. He was an 11- or 12-year-old phenom recognized by everyone at every golf course he frequented. On this day, he was competing in a junior tournament in Southern California. The father of a competitive golfer noticed Tiger and his dad getting out of their car in the course parking lot about 15 minutes before the tournament started. He had the following exchange with one of the tournament organizers:

Father: Wow! Fifteen minutes before his tee time! Looks like Tiger is taking a few things for granted today!

Organizer (laughing): I was here at 6:00 a.m. this morning. Tiger and his dad were waiting for the shop to open. They got a cart and drove the entire course to see where the pins were being placed. He then went to the range for about an hour-and-a-half and hit five or six buckets of balls. When he was done there, he chipped and putted for another hour. He took off about 45 minutes ago to head down the street to grab something to eat. As far as I can tell, Tiger takes nothing for granted!

Father: (dead silence)

Not surprisingly, Tiger won that tournament as well (by a landslide). And, somehow, with all of this “Tiger Talk,” I can’t help but think about Dr. Anders Ericsson, which I believe will require at least a little explanation. Comparatively few have ever heard of Dr. Ericsson. This, by the way, doesn’t bother him a bit. He is currently a professor at Florida State University who has dedicated his career to the research and study of peak performance in a wide variety of endeavors (e.g., athletics, music, memorization, typing, leadership, sales, etc.). He is probably most well-known for his contributions to Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway best-seller “Outliers” (the chapter entitled 10,000 Hours is based entirely on Ericsson’s research).

The fundamental premise of that research? We tend to attribute accomplishments of significance to unique talent. We shouldn’t! Those achievements are almost invariably the product of disciplined, intentional and thoughtful practice. In his book, “Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise,” Ericsson provides insight into the distinctions between what most of us would consider “practice” and what Ericsson has designated as “deliberate practice.” It’s sort of like the difference between what a 15-handicap golfer does on the range (when they can find the time to get there) and what Tiger does —pretty much every day of his life. Here is a brief review of the principles associated with deliberate practice:

  • A coach is required – This coach must be familiar with the abilities of expert performers in the field and how those abilities can be developed. (Side note: I wonder how many coaches are on Tiger’s payroll.)
  • Outside the comfort zone – The person being coached is required to try things that are just beyond their current level of demonstrated ability. This demands near maximum effort on a consistent basis
  • Well-defined goals – The ultimate performance goal (e.g., Win the Masters) is broken into subsets and increments that drive daily and weekly performance improvement. Achievement is an iterative process
  • Feedback and modification – Early on the feedback flows from the coach to the person being coached regarding the results being achieved and the process being employed. Over time the person being coached learns how to self-monitor and self-correct

So very easy to understand, so very hard to do! Net-net?

  • Practice does not make perfect!
  • Perfect practice makes perfect!


  1. Identify a skill you seek to improve
  2. Purchase a copy of Dr. Ericsson’s book: click here
  3. Figure out what deliberate practice would look like for you