Deliberate practice, motivation, and “The Dan Plan”

I’ve been paying a lot of attention recently to “The Dan Plan“. Anyone interested in getting better at anything should too.

Here’s how Dan describes his plan: “Through 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice,’ Dan, who currently has minimal golf experience, plans on becoming a professional golfer.” Becoming a professional golfer after getting to your 30’s without having taken up the game is ridiculously ambitious. However, deliberately practicing for 10,000 hours is just as ambitious, and Dan seems to be taking that in stride. Because of that, it’s worth thinking more deeply about the design of The Dan Plan.

As ambitious as the overall plan sounds, there is some science behind it. That 10,000 hours number is not arbitrary. It refers to the amount of deliberate practice it reportedly takes to attain expertise in a given field. It got a lot of attention after Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers came out, but “The Dan Plan” (and the quote I’ve put up above) links to the original study, which was led by Anders Ericsson and published in the Psychological Review in 1993. While the number sounds quite large (and it is), many, like Gladwell, use the findings of the study as a way to attack the talent myth, the idea that innate talent plays the biggest role in determining who performs at an expert level in any given discipline. Given that the mission of “Good Writer, Bad Writer” is to convince anyone that they can become a much better writer than they are, it’s obvious why I’m interested in the concept.

Interest in the concept is not the same as total faith, which is what Dan seems to have. At 30 years old, he quit his day job so that he could practice golf for 30 hours a week. He hired a team of coaches to guide him through this process. He doesn’t say how he’s paying for it, but he’s got a donations link on his website, so I don’t think he’s independently wealthy.

I must say that the idea, execution, and marketing of it is particularly brilliant, and I wish I’d thought of it for myself. Given the public’s appetite for transformation stories and the press the website is getting, I imagine that the project has or will eventually find corporate sponsors. The tendency is there to think, “I could have done that.” But then I sit down and ask myself whether I could give up my job and lay out the capital to pursue such a dream and the answer is a resounding no. In fact, even given the capital and the coaching, I’d have to work hard to stay positive throughout the process.

I have great confidence that “The Dan Plan” will be a success. My confidence comes from how deeply Dan seems to understand the meaning of deliberate practice and all that entails. I’m not sure that he’ll end up on the PGA tour, but I have no doubts he’ll become a very good golfer and probably a highly-paid public speaker and/or author. (If he’s not gotten a book deal already, I imagine one is forthcoming. If I had a publishing house, I’d have already contacted him with an offer.)

To understand what will make Dan a success, you must first understand that “The Dan Plan” is not simply about playing golf. Deliberate practice is as far from playing golf as it could possibly be. I’m sure that there are already many golfers out there who play golf everyday. An average round of golf can take up to four hours to complete, so even if they’re not playing on the weekends, they’re still putting in 20 hours a week. That puts them at the 10,000 hours mark in just under 10 years. I imagine some of them get very good, but you rarely hear of any of these types of golfer’s going professional. In fact, having golfed with some of these golfers, I can say that some of them don’t improve much at all. Why? Because playing a round of golf every day is not deliberate practice.

In the his study, Ericsson distinguishes between play and deliberate practice citing an example from baseball great Ted William’s autobiography:

During a 3-hr baseball game, a batter may get only 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored  (T. Williams, 1988).

The same is true of a round of golf. Most average golfers hit between 80 and 100 shots per round. While golfers are always trying to diagnose problems in their swing based on the outcome, they have few opportunities to spend significant time fixing that weakness during a round of golf. In golf, if you’re hitting the same exact shot two times in a row, it’s either because the first went horrifically wrong and is now out of bounds or wet or because you’re cheating and hitting a mulligan. Playing everyday will bring you consistency, but not as much as deliberate practice with a coach to provide feedback and target your weaknesses will.

Dan’s plan is not to simply play as many rounds of golf as he can until he hits his target number of hours. Instead, he’s learning golf by mastering various shots, starting with the shortest and working backwards. As he describes it in a recent post:

I began April 15, 2010 putting from one foot away from the hole.  After a certain success level at this distance, I moved to three feet.  Repeated this for five months and then stepped off the putting green for the first time and began hitting small chips from the fringe.  While moving back, I still worked hard on all of the distances that I had covered up to that point.  Months past, summer turned fall, winter hit and now the spring is back upon us and I am currently working on anything and everything from within about 100 yards from the hole.

Many professional golfers practice this way, starting with shorter distance clubs and then focusing on longer clubs. However, they do this for only a few swings at a time. At this point in the process, Dan only hits only his putter, wedge, nine iron, and eight iron (and the eight iron has been a recent edition.)  He’s spent 1500 hours over the course of a year hitting just three clubs. That process sounds like the definition of deliberate practice from Ericsson’s study: “[i]n contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses.”

If you’ve not played golf before, you can’t imagine how antithetical this approach is to the way most amateur golfers practice. Lots of those folks will go to the driving range and immediately pull out their driver, the club that makes the ball go the farthest and gives the most satisfying ping. Dan has never even picked up a driver in this entire time.

That’s more than deliberate practice. That’s careful and disciplined practice. It must take a great deal of determination.

The blog on “The Dan Plan” website is a remarkable specimen for studying how that determination is kept up. Because Dan’s practice is so repetitive, there is very little detail/analysis of exactly what he did each day. Instead, he chronicles his mental and physical states, pressing through tough times with near untiring optimism.

Some of Dan’s optimism can sound like platitudes from motivational posters, but something more sophisticated is going on here. I believe that these blog posts are part of the way that Dan is building meaning into a process that is itself lacking of meaning in the ways we traditionally find meaning. Ericsson makes a point to note that deliberate practice often feels like drudgery. It requires careful effort for which there are no immediate external rewards. It claims that “[i]ndividuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.” However, Dan has chosen a process for which there is no traditional way of measuring his own performance. Rarely do the blog entries ever list any kind of score or overall progress. (Dan plays rounds of golf, but only with the three/four clubs he’s practicing with. He’s a year into the process and he’s not played the kind of round that an amateur golfer like myself can look at and see how well/poorly he’s doing.) He might be motivated by the end goal of becoming a professional golfer, but such a lofty goal has got to feel far off and improbable to even the most determined individual.

Facing a plan that requires near absolute faith in the process and little opportunity to reap the immediate rewards for that faith, Dan has found ways to build meaning into the process by redefining the success he is looking for. He rewards and praises himself for the effort rather than the results. (If it’s not becoming a broken record on this blog yet, it will be: praise effort over results whenever possible.) The only time Dan’s language seems to be negative at all is when he deviates from the process.

In this case, winning is achieved by sticking to the process, confronting negative thoughts, and looking for the smaller victories that can come in learning something new or figuring out a small problem. Dan notes that he “love[s] the grind of trying to push [him]self a little further, of learning something new every day about the game and about myself.” Whenever he does that, he must get the positive boost of emotions that come with winning and those enable him to stick to the process.

Which is not to say that Dan is always positive. He’s often quite upfront about his fears, including admitting that he occasionally fears that he’s not following the right path. This openness is also very smart.

There will always be negative results in any process, especially in golf. As the old joke goes, they named it “golf” because all the other four letter words were taken. There are bound to be failures and setbacks. When these setbacks occur, it’s always easier to try something new or different than it is to stick to the process. That’s why there is so much money to be made in golf swing aids that promise to cure a slice. Those devices often work a little, but those small gains are often paid for out of flexibility in other areas of the game. Plus, they don’t change the underlying swing flaws that caused the negative results. Often, they weaken the overall swing.

Worse than that, negative results can destroy a round or a career. In professional tournaments, you’ll often see one mistake or bad break followed by a complete collapse as the golfer loses confidence and composure. Phil Mickelson has lost several major tournaments because of this type of loss of composure. I’ve friends who gave up on the game after the became so frustrated by their lack of improvement.

Dan seems more than prepared for these moments, and he’s more likely to be successful because of it. Negative thoughts, when not vocalized and rationalized can become caustic to mind and body and affect one’s will to push on. However, when these thoughts are vocalized, and they become easier to control. In fact, by putting the negative thoughts out there and making it a part of his plan to overcome them, Dan gives himself an opportunity to reap another victory while sticking to the process.

Dan seems to use the social aspect of his project to build energy and stay motivated. By building a website and promoting his plan, Dan has found a way to build a community who wants him to succeed. They can also be there to hold him accountable when his motivation is lagging. He’s capitalized on the power of the internet to find a group that will support him and help keep him on task.

What we have here is a case study in how to stay motivated in the face of drudgery. The entire process looks very similar to Jane McGonigal’s game SuperBetter, which she designed as a way to recover from post-concussion syndrome using all of her knowledge of positive psychology and her experience designing games. Both games are about using the smaller tasks as a way to keep the mind off of the more overwhelming larger tasks.

The Dan Plan’s blog is in my Google Reader feed as a permanent addition. I can’t wait to see how it all works out, but even as an unfinished experiment, this is one particular project that has the potential to show how to get better at any task and stay motivated while doing so.


5 Responses to “Deliberate practice, motivation, and “The Dan Plan””

  1. 1 how to improve putting
    September 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Excellent information on Deliberate practice, motivation, and The Dan Plan Good writer, bad writer. It is surely amongst the best that I’ve checked out in a long
    time. We have been searching for this update.

  2. January 17, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    It’s the best time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or advice. Perhaps you can write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it!

  3. August 7, 2013 at 3:39 am

    Interesting stuff. I used to play a lot more golf than I do of late. Wish I had as much spare time as I did when I was younger. – Alex

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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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