What is Deliberate Practice? (DP)



Deliberate practice is now recognized as possibly the most relevant variable for the development of "expertise" or superior performance in any area of work. Its importance has already been demonstrated in areas as diverse as sport, medicine, music, chess and, more recently, psychotherapeutic practice. Its central assumption is that superior performance, or "expertise," is acquired gradually by investing in training tasks that the individual can master sequentially. Generally, planning and evaluating these tasks is done with the support of a teacher or coach. [1]


Figure 1. Four pilars of deliberate practice 

(Rousmaniere et al., 2017) [14]

Traditionally, several teaching systems have focused almost exclusively on accumulating knowledge, for example through reading, often leaving students with the task of applying that knowledge for themselves. However, Norcross et al. stress that knowing about psychotherapy is very different from knowing how to do psychotherapy. According to these authors, it is possible to be an "expert" on psychotherapy without this meaning that one is an effective therapist, since theoretical knowledge and practical application are two very distinct, although complementary, activities. [2] Unlike more traditional teaching, deliberate practice focuses on the performance of the practitioner and ways to reliably improve it. For this purpose, tasks are created which are meant to gradually refine their performance through repetition, feedback and continuous monitoring. These tasks are highly individualized, created specifically for the professional and focused on their competencies yet to be developed. [31]


Perhaps controversially, research in psychotherapy has repeatedly shown that there is no significant correlation between years of therapeutic experience and obtained outcomes. [456] Although a large proportion of therapists believe to be improving their performance over time, this self-assessment is often skewed or even incorrect. [789] Indeed, simply working longer hours is not enough to explain better professional performances.


On the other hand, it is necessary to distinguish the concept of "expertise" or superior performance from that of competence, since the expertise to administer specific factors in psychotherapy - as techniques associated with specific models - seems not to be related to outcomes. Thus, "expertise" in psychotherapy is defined not by mastery of these specific ingredients but by consistently superior measurable clinical outcomes. [10, 11, 12]


Figure 2. The cycle of deliberate practice (Rousmaniere et al., 2017) [14]


Here is a list of key features of deliberate practice (PD). [3, 15]

  1. DP aims to develop skills that other professionals have already perfected in the past and for which effective training techniques already exist.
  2. The DP regime must be co-constructed and supervised by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the skills to be trained and in effective ways to develop them.
  3. The DP occurs outside the comfort zone of the professional / student, repeatedly involving them in tasks that are slightly beyond their current abilities. Thus, DP requires an effort and focus that is generally not easy or enjoyable to sustain over time.
  4. DP involves the establishment of specific and well-defined goals, not for a vague general improvement but rather for the measurable progress of a concrete capacity. Once a goal is defined, the teacher or coach develops with the individual a plan focused on achieving a series of small changes that, over time and training, will lead to the desired major changes.
  5. DP is deliberate, that is, it requires the person’s full attention and conscious actions. It is not enough to simply follow the instructions of a teacher or coach. The student must focus on the specific goal of his / her practical activity, being available for a process of self-evaluation and external evaluation.
  6. DP involves feedback and modification efforts in response to that feedback. At the beginning of the training process, much of the feedback will come from the teacher / coach, who will track progress, pinpoint problems, and offer ways to address those issues. With time and experience, students should learn to self-monitor themselves, detect errors and adjust their training appropriately.
  7. DP often involves building or modifying previously acquired skills, focusing on specific aspects of those skills and working to improve them. Over time, this step-by-step improvement will ultimately lead to superior performance.
  8. Finally, DP is a potentially endless activity, and it has been repeatedly proven by research that the best practitioners in each area tend to maintain a training routine even after achieving superior performance. Thus, "expertise" is created but also maintained through continuous personal management over decades.


Learn more about deliberate practice research and how to start establishing a routine:






[1] Ericsson, K. A. (2006). The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. In K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, & R. R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (p. 683–703). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Norcross, J. C., & Karpiak, C. P. (2017). Our best selves: Defining and actualizing expertise in psychotherapy. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(1), 66-75.

[3] Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

[4] Goldberg, S. B., Rousmaniere, T., Miller, S. D., Whipple, J., Nielsen, S. L., Hoyt, W. T., & Wampold, B. E. (2016). Do psychotherapists improve with time and experience? A longitudinal analysis of outcomes in a clinical setting. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(1), 1.

[5] Wampold, B. E., & Brown, G. S. J. (2005). Estimating variability in outcomes attributable to therapists: a naturalistic study of outcomes in managed care. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 73(5), 914.

[6] Stein, D. M., & Lambert, M. J. (1984). On the relationship between therapist experience and psychotherapy outcome. Clinical Psychology Review, 4(2), 127-142.

[7] Walfish, S., McAlister, B., O'donnell, P., & Lambert, M. J. (2012). An investigation of self-assessment bias in mental health providers. Psychological Reports, 110(2), 639-644.

[8] Hatfield, D., McCullough, L., Frantz, S. H., & Krieger, K. (2010). Do we know when our clients get worse? An investigation of therapists' ability to detect negative client change. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 17(1), 25-32.

[9] Hartmann, A., Joos, A., Orlinsky, D. E., & Zeeck, A. (2015). Accuracy of therapist perceptions of patients' alliance: Exploring the divergence. Psychotherapy Research, 25(4), 408-419.

[10] Ahn, H., & Wampold, B. E. (2001). Where oh where are the specific ingredients? A meta-analysis of component studies in counseling and psycotherapy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48(3), 251–257.

[11] Messer, S. B., & Wampold, B. E. (2002). Let's face facts: Common factors are more potent than specific therapy ingredients. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 21-25.

[12] Goodyear, R. K., Wampold, B. E., Tracey, T. J., & Lichtenberg, J. W. (2017). Psychotherapy expertise should mean superior outcomes and demonstrable improvement over time. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(1), 54-65.

[13] Tracey, T. J., Wampold, B. E., Lichtenberg, J. W., & Goodyear, R. K. (2014). Expertise in psychotherapy: An elusive goal?. American Psychologist, 69(3), 218.

[14] Rousmaniere, T., Goodyear, R. K., Miller, S. D., & Wampold, B. E. (Eds.). (2017). The cycle of excellence: Using deliberate practice to improve supervision and training. John Wiley & Sons.

[15] Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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