Deliberate Practice and the Importance of Struggle

Deliberate Practice and Myelination

This was a really old draft that I sat on for about five years or so that was meant for a video, but I got lazy and never finished it. I should’ve made it a blog post first to workshop it, so I’m doing so now — better late than never. This follows up on my ramblings about “the revolving door”, which is about my observations of people’s warped perceptions about talent and skill. Let’s take a look at the learning process and the deliberate practice necessary to become proficient at anything under the sun.

Take note that whatever research I deigned to make for this piece may have quite a few kinks and holes in it as they’re mostly secondary information, so take everything with a grain of salt. It started out as a script for a video about playing Overwatch and other multiplayer video games, but it grew to be more about what I’ve learned so far about deliberate practice, salt and resistance, and the struggles inherent in the process of learning and mastery.

NOTE: If this blog post seems disjointed, that’s because much of it was written way back in 2018. It then sat in my backlog for years, then I added new things I learned more recently. I’m just glad to be finally done with it.

What Made Me Write This

You may skip this part if you want to go directly to the interesting stuff. I put this here because even after such a long time, this little online incident from 2017/2018 still bugs me.

Over six years ago, while busting ass in Quick Play on Overwatch with friends, I decided to play Symmetra to learn how to play her (that hero kept changing). Since I seldom pick her, I sucked at first since I wasn’t familiar with her gameplay.

One of the rando teammates remarked that I sucked and implored me to switch. I replied with my intention to learn how to play her. He reported me and abruptly left the game. He was just some salty asshole in unranked, but that bothered me.

I searched his handle and found posts in Blizzard’s Overwatch forums. He was looking for players who “took Quick Play seriously,” and requested a “semi-competitive” mode — or “normal mode,” as he called it. It would be like Competitive Mode, but more casual.

That was just silly. Quick Play was already unranked, so there weren’t any real stakes. He likely meant a mode with the scoring of competitive mode, but no ranking, which wouldn’t be “competitive” then.

Overwatch always had problems with its gameplay design, which isn’t helped by its ever-changing systems. After all, Overwatch was and always will be a salvage project. Also, it can be argued that Overwatch 2 has made it much worse with the battlepass system that replaced the lootboxes, but that’s a topic for another time if I can be bothered.

Then again, plenty of people are convinced that it can affect your matchmaking rating (MMR) in ranked and elsewhere. This has always been a point of contention with matchmaking systems in online multiplayer games, especially in popular franchises like Call of Duty — another Activision Blizzard product.

But perhaps he had a point in that while it’s Quick Play, it shouldn’t mean you don’t play at your best. It should be like sparring in martial arts — it’s practice with stakes. Learning is best when there’s an element of controlled risk.

You have to play to win, and if you always do bad, you stay bad. However, that doesn’t mean you can be insensitive to people you’re playing with. While you should do your best so you can pull your weight and not get in the way of your teammates in a team-based game, you also shouldn’t be salty and toxic.

Why should your “fun” ruin theirs? This conundrum made me think, which led me to exploring the realm of learning, practice, and salt.

Deliberate Practice

When the novelty of learning something new wears off, whether it’s learning a new game, a new language, a new skill, or so on, that’s when it gets difficult. That’s when deliberate practice comes in.

What Makes Perfect

When most people say “practice makes perfect,” they don’t tend to mention deliberate practice. Skill is refined through not mindless repetition, but deliberate practice, according to psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.

“People like to think experts are better because of innate gifts. That they have talent bestowed unto them that makes them better than normal people. Expert performance is indeed qualitatively different and outside the range of normal performance. However, only a few traits are ever genetically prescribed, mostly physical attributes. But what really makes expert performers different is a lifelong period of deliberate effort in a specific domain.” — Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition by K. Anders Ericsson, August 1994 [link]

Creating Ideal Practicing Conditions

However, you can get the odds more to your favor by creating your ideal practicing conditions. It may be different for everyone, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But the book Homo Ludens, written in 1938 by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, talks about having a dedicated place and set schedule for what he calls “play.”

Play is distinct from ‘ordinary’ life both as to locality and duration. This is the third main characteristic of play: its secludedness, its limitedness. It is “played out” within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning.

Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is “over“. It plays itself to an end. While it is in progress, all is movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation.” — Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, 1938 [link]

Watch this talk by John Cleese of Monty Python fame for more on what “play” is and the importance of creating a set space and time for such activity.

Huizinga goes on and on about spatial and temporal segregation and how play is to be treated as a ritual that requires preparation and care. It may seem like a fuss for some, but it’s crucial for creating optimal conditions to achieve flow state.

Enjoyment of Deliberate Practice Through the Flow State

The easiest way to get into deliberate practice is to simply enjoy doing it. However, crossing that gap between tedium and enjoyment doesn’t happen by chance. There are people who find them fun, even if they’re doing mostly monotonous and/or punishing tasks. There are many ways this can happen, but the common theme is that those people enter the flow state.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mi-hai Chik-sent-mi-hai) published his most famous work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1975, where he coined the term flow when one achieves that state of balance between enjoyment and challenge.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the flow state happens when the task at hand is:

  • Easy enough to stimulate and engage you, but not too easy to induce boredom
  • Difficult enough to challenge you, but not too difficult to trigger anxiety and frustration

The flow state hits that sweet spot between stimulation and difficulty.

A good example I can cite is when black belts in Brazilian jiu jitsu spar with lower-ranked students to work on their techniques without having to go full bore as they would with other black (and brown) belts, which can result in greater wear and tear when done too often.

The black belts can work on their transitions and submissions with slightly less resistance while the lower-ranked training partners are able to experience grappling with someone more skilled than they are. It’s actually common practice in BJJ and other grappling arts since there’s less risk of brain damage and other injuries, unlike in striking arts like boxing.

I personally experienced the flow state in two activities — sparring in martial arts and playing StarCraft II. I’ve even had an out-of-body experience with the latter, which seemed like I was just watching myself play the game. My hands were just doing what they needed to do while I sat back and watched things happen on the screen. It’s an experience everyone should have at least once in their lives.

Growing the Growth Mindset Through Experimentation

When I say here that deliberate practice is supposed to be not fun, that serves as an explanation to those who have been frustrated at their stunted progress. Of course, if you find it boring and tedious, it’s definitely going to be boring and tedious.

But if you’re able to find a silver lining amid the tedium, or even actually find the activity fun, then you’ll be able to better incorporate practice as a habit.

Physiological Mechanism of Practice

The Talent Code, written by journalist Daniel Coyle, digs into what makes exceptional people great at what they do. He found that the environment and the proper way of practicing are more crucial to mastery than being born gifted as the physiological mechanism for building skill is something everyone inherently has.

But it’s not without challenges. I previously talked about The Talent Code in the aforementioned Revolving Door rant. I made special note of people who quit things they thought they could easily excel in, only to be met with disappointment as their delusions are shattered by the reality of their actual lack of adequate ability due to being beginners who are not uniquely blessed by God.

They’ve been fed the message of in-born talent throughout their lives and weren’t instilled the work ethic necessary to be truly talented.

I’ve repeatedly observed that phenomenon in both the martial arts and pro wrestling scenes, and I had gone through that disappointment myself. However, I can also say that I learned the hard way the value of persistence in breaking through that barrier to attain proficiency.

The truth is we are all gifted with the ability to get good at virtually anything we pursue, but it takes great effort to make it work and attain proficiency. Perhaps some people are able to learn at a faster rate, but the ability to learn is certainly there. We are all capable of myelination.

The Magic of Myelination

Myelin is the sheath that goes around the oligodendrocytes in our brain, which surround the axons in the central nervous system. Think of it like fiber optic cables, but the insulation itself can grow thicker to increase your bandwidth. The myelin is that insulation that can grow to enhance connections in our brain, thus allowing us to learn and master skills.

The process of myelination, the thickening of that myelin sheath, is triggered by deliberate practice. While most would think that it’s better if you are able to get things right away and perform actions almost flawlessly on the first try, myelination occurs when you instead struggle with doing something with conscious thought and action.

When you stumble over your two left feet while trying to learn a martial arts technique or a dance, repeatedly play off-key as you try to learn a song on a musical instrument, constantly make mistakes when you try to learn how to touch-type faster on a keyboard, or keep losing in a game you’re trying to win, that’s when myelination is taking place.

That arduous process of figuring things out and getting familiar with how everything works, gradually convincing the body and brain to cooperate, is what myelination is all about. As you practice more, you make the myelin grow thicker, which then makes it easier and more efficient for your brain to transmit signals to process and retain information.

Myelination happens when you struggle. The tedium of not being able to get it at first and having to try again and again until you finally get it right is exactly what’s needed for myelination to take place. Being able to acquire the habit of initiating this process by getting off your ass, telling your ego to shut the fuck up, and getting to work can make you more conducive to myelination.

What is more important than inborn talent is the mental fortitude to not give up and keep going. As corny as that may sound, there’s no other way around it. That’s just how the human brain works. If you want to get good at something, you have to prepare yourself, silence your ego, and do the hard work. That’s the only way you can trigger myelination in your brain.

As Daniel Coyle wrote in his book, “Struggle is not optional; it is a biological necessity.”

Resistance and the Difficulty in Habituating Practice

If it were so easy to make deliberate practice a habit, everything else would be easy. However, that’s not the case as most people instead look for shortcuts and put talent and skill up to genetic gifts, being born in more fortunate circumstances, and so on. While being “more fortunate” can play a factor in one’s chances of success in any endeavor, the world is full of intelligent and talented derelicts. I can verify that from personal experience.

As American businessman Ray Kroc would famously say, “Nothing in this world can take the place of good old persistence.”

Practice Takes Practice

Engaging in practice is far from easy — if it were, everyone would be good at everything. Practice is a habit cultivated through self-discipline, like meditation, physical exercise, diet and lifestyle, and even cleaning one’s own home.

Habits require work to form; practice takes practice.

No mantra, mnemonic device, self-help system, TED Talk, or boot camp can truly instill such discipline without proper guidance and mindset. And in the end, it’s all up to you.

Frustration and Salt

Dr. Ericsson points out one major thing about deliberate practice and working on weaknesses.

Engagement in deliberate practice is not inherently motivating. Performers consider it instrumental in achieving further improvements in performance. The lack of inherent reward or enjoyment in practice is distinct from the enjoyment of the result. That is consistent with the fact that individuals in a domain rarely initiate practice spontaneously.” — The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, 1993 [link]

In short, the thing with “deliberate practice” is it tends to be not rewarding at first. You’re forcing yourself to improve in things you’re not good at, and that means repetitive failure. Most would quit midway before a breakthrough is reached.

Like in Overwatch, losing match after match builds up what is colloquially known as “salt”—growing contempt for the game, for other players, and for oneself from losing often. The same thing tends to happen in most other endeavors. Whether it’s sports, martial arts, academics, or so on, frustration and self-doubt are ever-present.

This is another reason why having a set place and time for practice is important.

Aversion to Stakes

Going back to that incident in Overwatch, the reason why people like “that guy” call for a semi-competitive mode is this aversion to salt and resistance. They recognized that they needed a place where they could improve, with everyone playing seriously. However, they also didn’t want to get frustrated and eventually lose the desire to play the game brought on by bad team play, which can lead to the accumulation of salt.

Toxicity can dampen enthusiasm, which is why I never play MOBAs, always got frustrated playing basketball in high school, stumbled horribly in my martial arts practice, and kept being bad in games like Overwatch. Clearly, overcoming that obstacle of being perturbed by the pitfalls of the game and the foibles of other people who are trying to do the same is key to better and more conducive practice.

Stakes Are Necessary, Struggle is Mandatory

The main problem with this is how the lack of what makes losing painful actually takes more away from it. The last S in Tim Ferriss’ DiSSS—Stakes. You don’t want to live with it, but you can’t move forward without it.

Many people think it’s not entirely necessary, thinking that you can still practice and compete without getting salty. But as the Buddha taught us, life is full of suffering. It’s unavoidable.

Steven Pressfield, the historical author known for titles like The Legend of Bagger Vance, wrote a book called The War of Art. In it, he talks about the concept of resistance and the need to constantly fight it through self-discipline and a sense of professionalism.

Not only is resistance—what makes something hard to do—an obstacle, but also an indicator, like a compass. Things that are truly worth doing are never easy. It’s like what John F. Kennedy once said—”Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Your endeavors may not exactly be like going to the Moon, but success is never without struggle. The Sword of Damocles that hangs above all of us is the fear of failure. Getting out of that hole is the destination; figuring it out is the journey.

Perhaps you can practice without stakes and be able to attain a certain level of proficiency. But then, once your skills have to be tested under pressure, if you have delusions about your actual skill level, then you may be disappointed once you have to actually prove yourself.

Once again, struggle is a biological necessity.

Importance of Resistance and Stakes in Deliberate Practice

Stakes Being Integral to Success

Most would rather be rid of it, but evidence suggests the contrary — salt is exactly what you need. Everyone who has ever been successful at anything — sports, business, anything with a competitive element. They all have one thing in common — they practiced with stakes. There would always be something on the line, and they always played to win.

Maintaining good standing, having to pay bills, not wanting to be humiliated, even getting punched in the face. If they make a mistake and take a loss, it hurts deeply. It’s a painful lesson they won’t simply forget. If they do succeed, there’s much to gain. There is no good reward without risk.

In Overwatch, that’s SR — Skill Rating. The higher it is, the shinier the badge you get. But losing is more than just the decrease of a virtual number and the dulling of that shiny badge. Salt from being let down by teammates, or even being berated by them; most would rather avoid that toxicity.

It’s not that different from endeavors outside gaming, but most are less cut and dry as having a number attached to your progress. There are some with their own numbers or rankings — Elo ratings, medal placings, honors, pay grades, positions, and so on.

Attitude or Feedback

With that in mind, it may then be a question of attitude or merely a response to this feedback loop. What makes you want to play? What makes you want to keep playing? What makes it actually fun?

This is the Habit Loop. It’s a simple diagram, detailing three steps — cue/trigger, routine/habit, result/reward. It was discussed at length by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in his bestseller, The Power of Habit.

“If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real… This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.” — The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, 2012

What makes each person tick is bound to be different, including what makes them form habits and routines. In the case of Overwatch, for instance, players either just want to shoot things, play their favorite heroes, or just win. If they lose, especially if it’s due to bad teammates, many get apoplectic. Seeing their SR dip triggers that salt.

Salt is Resistance

I once wrote about salt (tilting; frustration and anger due to negative short-term outcomes) and how it can affect skill progression, as well as hypotheses on how salty a player can get in proportion to gaming duration. I still stand with most things I said there, especially with persistent tilting and resulting toxicity.

Competition is a form of pressure testing that challenges the individual to either step up and push against the struggle or let themselves go and let it overwhelm them. Those who are able to withstand the pressure and find a way to implement an effective strategy that best fits their current skill level, then they should be able to better engage with competition.

Salt happens when their own positive assessment of their skill level doesn’t match the results they’ve been getting and their behavioral response to it is to lash out and verbalize their displeasure. Salt happens when the Dunning-Kruger effect meets the reality of challenge and competition. I’ve seen this happen in real time not only in gaming, but also in martial arts.

It’s quite tragic to see someone who has practiced a martial art for years without pressure testing and they get humiliated in a fight or sparring match.

The worst of salt can be seen in gaming, which is where the term originated. An activity you can partake in at the comfort of your own home without the need to physically engage with whoever embarasses you is a recipe for prolonged exposure to salt. It also extends to online anonymity in general, which grants immunity to the immediate consequences of engaging in toxic behavior.

Being Against Competition

Many people avoid competition like the plague, seeing it as nothing more than a pissing contest. It’s a valid point of view as it shouldn’t be the only way to engage with an activity. Participation shouldn’t be limited to serious competition as most people would want to engage for fun and challenge. They can find reward from other aspects or just enjoy by watching, which is how spectator sports work.

The cue/trigger part of that Habit Loop — what makes you want to do something — has a lot of factors involved. Why do you do it? Where do you like to do it? At what time? In what emotional state? With who? What makes you want to do it?

Being able to isolate that trigger can help you better understand what makes you want to partake in that activity. You can then determine what makes you pursue practice and improvement. Reverse engineer it well enough and you may find a way to make deliberate practice engaging.


I ended up writing all of this just because some guy online gave me grief for “not playing seriously” in Overwatch. In the end, I did get something out of it. Perhaps that guy indeed had a point, but he could’ve done better at expressing that opinion. Of course, that could be remedied with more practice, but that’s only if he’d be open to criticism of his own criticism.

I put all of this here in the conclusion part because if I didn’t end this now as I write this, this draft will sit in my Google Docs for a couple of years more.

Perhaps it was a good thing that I held off on posting this for as long as I did. I’ve since read and watched more material on the topic, which has given me even more insight into not only the mechanism of deliberate practice, but also how to instill such a habit through intrinsic reinforcement.

Most things worth doing tend to be propped up with extrinsic reinforcement, with the reward of doing the thing being the source of motivation for its practice. While that extrinsic reward can give the subject a tangible reason to do the thing, that’s only as strong as that person’s need for the reward.

For instance, if it’s a job they hate and they need the money to subsist, they’ll keep doing it, despite the suffering and existential torture. But if it’s something much simpler like drawing a picture or playing a game and there’s no significant enough incentive to reward performance of that action, then they’ll just stop doing that thing, either gradually or immediately.

There’s also the matter of the question, “What if you’re really good at a thing you hate doing?” I have experience in this — it’s the reason why I ended up not pursuing computer engineering in college as I ended up hating being “the computer guy”. As this clip from the Steve Bartlett Show suggests, it’s actually a weakness.

Even if your aptitude for something is above average to start with, it’s still no good as it’ll always be limited by your lack of desire to engage with that thing. That means practicing it won’t be an immediate priority for you, thus your potential in it is limited. You can be forced to practice, but that only increases stress and causes psychological trauma in the long run.

This concept of being good at something you hate as a weakness is something I would like to dig into further in another blog post. That’s all for now with the topic of deliberate practice. Maybe I should also explore what causes procrastination because I certainly did that with this piece, and I’m glad to finally publish it.

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