Skill Development Phase 2: Skilled Practice

“If you don’t practice, you can fall down, but you surely can’t ski.” — Murray Johannsen

Legacee’s Skill Development Model

You can practice wrong. To shorten the time needed and the amount of practice required by keeping in mind two core elements of skillful practice: feedback and motivation. 

By Murray Johannsen, May 8, 2016.  Comments? Feel free to connect with the author via this website, Linkedin profile,  or by  email.

1. Elements of Smart Practice

2. The Importances of Strong Motivation

3. The Role of  Feedback in Skill Building

4. The Role of Timing


• The Essence of Skill-Based Theory

• Full Class: Skill-Based Expertise: What You Must Know to Build Skills Faster 

• Skilled Practice: What you must Know to Do Things Well

• Full Class: Skilled Practice: How To Boost Performance

• A Teaching Story: What Most People Do Wrong

Elements of Smart Practice According To Anderson

According to Anderson (1985) skill building goes through the cognitive, associative and autonomous stages.

Staying in the cognitive stage requires too much thinking continuing in the associative stage is inefficient, and getting to the autonomous stage requires lots of practice (Anderson, 1985). Since these three stages apply to all skill learning including playing chess, typing, memorizing, or problem solving, exceptional people strive to discover how to learn a skill quicker than their peers. Shortening the practice cycle occurs when using smart practice techniques.

Smart practice refers to how one goes about shorting the skill development process. All methods of practice are not equally effective in boosting efficiency. Since a skill must be practiced, a great amount of time, effort and sweat can be saved by following a few general principles.

Skilled Practice: The Importance of Strong Motivation

“Skill is nil without will.”— Judah ibn Tibbon, c. 1120-c.1190 Spanish physician and translator, A Father’s Admonition to His Son


Pierre Maximilien Delafontaine (1777−1860): The Skater
Pierre Maximilien Delafontaine (1777−1860): The Skater

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.” —Vince Lombardi.

Have you ever known really intelligent people who are just plain lazy? The first one I ever ran across was a college roommate who simply couldn’t motivate himself to study. He would turn the television on as soon as he got back to the room and keep it on until he went to sleep. In his case, television addiction crowded out study time. Today, Facebook addicts and extreme gamers do pretty much the same thing. Sloth everywhere.

When it comes to skill building, the first principle of success is: practice, practice, practice. I see it all the time in college students motivated to get a grade, but unwilling to practice.

A person serious about skill development must find the motivation to perfect their skills. It is unrealistic to expect any teacher or coach to motivate you if you are apathetic or lazy. What to do? You can change consequences, shift your self-talk and try tapping into willpower.

Feedback and Consequences  

For example, you can tie a psychological, tangible or symbolic reward to progress. But if something was not learned or you did not practice, you deny yourself that reward. 

Let’s say you set on objective to get on it for five hours of practice next week. If you make it, you will reward yourself with your favorite desert. Yup, so delicious you start to salivate as you see it in your minds eye. Yummy. But let’s say you only practice 4.5 hours. Be self-disciplined enough to deny yourself that desert. Can you do it?

Self-Talk and Motivation

Great athletes talk about “psyching themselves up” by using self-talk and guided imagery to attain peak performance. Actually, our ability to use self-talk to give us a few “attaboys” or “attagirls” is even more important than the deserts of life. 


Some skills just require an immense amount of motivation.

Willpower is another key component to the motivational puzzle. Some have an extreme amount of it. Others don’t. Where it comes from is a bit of a mystery, but it seems like its energy the Ego puts out. We are all familiar with lifting weights, an activity that surely requires this type of energy. So does learning any skill.

Skilled Practice: Utilizing Feedback

 “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” — Unknown

Anthonie Braakman (1811–1870): Neustadtufer an der kleinen Weser in Bremen
Anthonie Braakman (1811–1870): Neustadtufer an der kleinen Weser in Bremen


It is a fundamental truth that we are all flawed — flaws that sooner or later can put the brakes on promising careers. In the worst case, these flaws prevent the entrepreneur from getting a business off the ground or derail fast tracking managers. Like in a Greek tragedy, we remain blissfully unaware of the problem until too late. 

“Everyone tells you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear.” M. Johannsen

In fact, most of us don’t have true friends. A true friend is defined as someone who will take the time and effort to tell us what we are doing wrong, not just feeding our Ego with fluff about what we are doing right.

Portrait by Charles Poerson (1667-1609) Louis XIV had himself deified in this painting as the Roman God Jupiter. This king not only imagined himself a God; but the God who runs the show.
Portrait by Charles Poerson (1667-1609)
Louis XIV had himself deified in this painting as the Roman God Jupiter. This king not only imagined himself a God; but the God who runs the show.


Paradoxically, the more successful you are, the more difficult it becomes to get honest feedback. Typically information is distorted to favor the positive while the negative is not shared at all. They say, “You’re great,” to your face but bring out the verbal knives behind your back. 

Getting feedback is like getting vaccinated. It prevents you from something worse happening. In effect, it lowers the probability of failure. So it’s important that you:

Receive Feedback From Others

Your spouse is giving you feedback all the time. Most of it we ignore and the rest we don’t appreciate. Unfortunately, people often don’t say anything if we do something wrong. Many of us have an unofficial policy called “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I won’t ask what I can do better and you won’t tell me. 

Get Feedback From Coaches

Coaching is the best way of getting feedback from others. In our Legacee programs, we can provide skilled coaches who know how to provide positive and negative feedback. 

Ask For Feedback

I find it impressive when someone actually asks for feedback. It’s a signal that you have someone with a high need to achieve. These people are golden if you can find them. 

I hate to say it, but just a small percentage of people are motivated enough to learn skills without the feedback and support of others. We all need someone who believes in us and who can tell us in a tactful way how to do better.

The Role of Timing In Skilled Practice

Learning by massed practice is very inefficient. By this I mean practicing for a long-time instead more numerous shorter practices. For example, Bray (1948) studied individuals in the military who were learning Morse code. He found that individuals with 7 hours of practice learned it equally well as those with 4 hours of practice. In other words, people were putting in three extra hours a day of useless practice. Gay (1973) reported similar effects for cognitive skills such as learning the rules of algebra. 

Practicing one-hour every day over eight days will produce a higher level of skill than eight-hours of practice in a single day. This means that skill building sessions to improve a certain skill would best be taught in short bursts over weeks rather than as two-day intensives.

Skill_ Practice_The_Fair_Toxophilites_William_Powell_Frith_RAMM

Skill-based learning requires a different process from that used in corporate training or university classes. Essentially, one must learn practical theory that one then applies in the real world. It’s this combination of skill development through practice and feedback that allows one to achieve mastery.

But you must practice in a correct manner or you see few gains for the effort. One must not only practice physically, but mentally to get the most from your effort. But unless you happen to be an athlete, you never learned the secrets associated with efficient practice.

References and Resources

McCelland, David (N.D.) Achievement Motivation. Accel. 

Anderson, J. R. (1985). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. New York: Freeman, page 240-241.

Bray, C. W. (1948). Psychology and Military Proficiency. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Gay, I. R. (1973). Temporal Position of Reviews and its Effect on the Retention of Mathematical Rules. Journal of Educational Psychology, 64:171-182.

Johannsen, Murray (2014).  Operant Conditioning — A Practical Overview, Legacee.

Wikipedia, Sloth, N.D. 

Leadership Skill Development