What writers and athletes have in common


Confession: I'm an Olympics fanatic.

I've been watching the Games since I was a kid, and I'm only slightly less mesmerized now than my 11-year old self was at the height of my obsession: the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

I was a competitive swimmer back then. I remember being completely awestruck by Mark Tewksbury winning a gold medal for Canada in the 100-metre backstroke.

(Fun fact: My big event as a competitive swimmer was the 200-metre butterfly, the same event that inspired Michael Phelps to #PhelpsFace in the 2016 semi-finals at the Rio Olympics.)

I was never going to make it to the Olympics, but my competitive swimming career—which lasted until I was about fifteen—still taught me a lot about discipline, grit, and focus.

That's what gets a lot of airtime during the Olympic Games: there's a lot of talk about dedication, sacrifice, and hard work. And no Olympian would be successful without those elements. But what nobody talks about is what all that dedication, sacrifice, and hard work is actually for.


Here's what Olympians do that makes all the difference:

Deliberate practice.


Think about it: Michael Phelps doesn't just go to the pool every day to swim laps until he pukes. He focuses on a particular skill he wants to build (like, say, his arm recovery in butterfly) and he does drills to laser in on that particular element. It's specific. And deliberate.

And he'll do that on hundreds of different elements over the course of his Olympic training so that his starts, turns, strokes, breathing—all of it—is perfect.


Deliberate practice is focused effort to gain mastery of a skill.


That's what makes Olympians great: their dedication to deliberate practice, day after day, year after year. Michael Phelps started with the fundamentals when he was a kid, and over the years as he mastered those fundamentals, the deliberate practice became more and more precise.


Deliberate practice improves with feedback.


This is where coaches are invaluable. Expertise is a process rather than an outcome, and coaches play a critical role in that process by observing the practice and providing feedback during training.


Deliberate practice can be used to improve the performance of any skill, including writing.


Want to learn to keep writing separate from editing? Practice taking a dump every time you write.

Want to improve your writing efficiency? Practice making a road map.

Want to improve your editing skills? Practice being ruthless.

Want to learn to write for your audience? Practice making it easy for your readers.

The key to gaining expertise is to focus on a small, specific aspect you'd like to improve, and then work on it consistently. Over time those small elements build on one another. And eventually, you become an expert. It's not rocket science. It's deliberate practice.


Is there an area of your writing that needs some deliberate practice? Tell me in the comments!