Deliberate Play

Link post

Deliberate practice is an important concept in sports and other high-performance endeavors. It is “practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them.” If you haven’t seen this idea before, stop and go read this article (where I got the definition from) or here for a shorter guide. No, really—go read about it. It’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve come across.

To recap, deliberate practice focuses on improving a specific skill with an awareness of how it translates to a game situation. This is commonly done by executing a drill while visualizing a game-like situation (e.g. imagining defenders you are avoiding) and otherwise replicating game conditions (e.g. practicing free throws after you just ran sprints, to simulate fatigue).

Beyond drills, you can also bring deliberate practice to games by setting a specific intention of what to work on (“practice playing good defense in situation X”), and focusing on that throughout the game. I play pick-up games with other club players a couple times a week, and most of us set some intention going into the game.

However, this post is not about deliberate practice but about two adjacent mental stances, the first of which I’ll call max performance. To describe it, consider two contrasting mental stances one could have during a game:

  • Deliberate practice. Try to improve specific skills. It’s okay to make suboptimal plays or otherwise mess up in the process of practicing those skills, but otherwise you want to play well and at high intensity to simulate realistic competition.

  • Max performance. Play as well as possible. You will likely be very focused (but ideally in a flow-like state) and somewhat pushing your physical boundaries. On the other hand, you are specifically not pushing the boundaries of your skill set and instead relying on what you can do consistently.

Max performance is what you do if you are trying to win that particular game. Many people’s image of “trying really hard” is actually not max performance, because they are “playing outside themselves” and trying to do things that they didn’t practice enough.

If your goal is long-term growth, you should primarily be doing deliberate practice and not max performance. But max performance is also important, to make sure that skills are translating and because there’s no substitute for a fully competitive situation. My rough guess is that of games played, you want a 9:1 ratio of deliberate practice to max performance.

However, there’s another important stance that is often overlooked, which I’ll call deliberate play. Deliberate play is like deliberate practice in that it has a specific intention, but it has a softer, wider focus than deliberate practice.

As with max performance, deliberate play is adjacent to deliberate practice—but on the opposite side. Deliberate practice allows more freedom to explore new skills than max performance, but it focuses locally on a specific change you want to make. Deliberate play takes this further, by helping you to inhabit a new or unfamiliar framework (e.g. playing aggressively when you usually play conservatively).

I play ultimate frisbee, and my club team (Oakland Firemen) just finished our season. Here’s advice I sent to my teammates that exhibits the stance of deliberate play:

The off-season is a great time to practice different play styles. Try more cutting if you usually handle, or handle if you usually cut. If you don’t usually talk much, practice quarterbacking a bit more from the handler position. If you’re often a role player, put yourself in situations where you can practice being the star (i.e. go to slightly lower-level pick-up and dominate; but make it still high-level enough that it simulates a real game of ultimate). Think about what throw you rely on most, and play a pick-up game where you’re not allowed to throw that throw. On defense, experiment with a more poachy style (unless that’s already your style).

To explain exactly why deliberate play is important, I’ll zoom in on the last example about poachy defense. In many sports, there’s two defensive styles, which I’ll call honest and poachy. In the honest style, you stay very close to the specific person you’re assigned to guard. Your goal is to get in their way, make their life difficult, ideally stop them from ever touching the disc (or ball, if that’s the sort of sport you play).

In the poachy defensive style, you’re looking for opportunities to disrupt the offense. You might temporarily move away from your assigned player to stop a larger threat, or you might occupy a passing lane to try to get an interception. You might even step away from your player to “bait” a throw to them, if you’re confident you can run back and block it.

In essence, the honest and poachy philosophies are diametrically opposed. An honest defender will always be close to their player, while a poachy defender usually will not be.

I myself gravitate towards honest defense, and I’ve struggled to play the poachy style well. For a while, I tried to fix this through deliberate practice without much success. Recently, however, I switched to deliberate play and can already see progress.

Let me explain why. If you’re used to playing honest defense, it doesn’t work to set an intention to “occupy more passing lanes” or “bait more throws” or other specific aspects of poachy defense, as required by deliberate practice. All of these would require you to make decisions that are bad according to your normal playing philosophy; but beyond that, your way of evaluating the outcome would also be skewed. Successful honest defense stops the player from ever touching the disc. Successful poachy defense gets scored on 10% of the time, but also generates a free turnover 10% of the time. Whenever I tried poaching, I would feel unhappy about the 10% of getting scored on, and revert back to my honest ways.

For an honest player like me to learn the poachy style, I instead needed to adopt an intentionally curious stance. I played the game trying out more poachy actions, not with a specific goal or evaluation in mind, but just observing what happened. If some action seemed interesting I would try it more. Over time, I’ve started to see which actions tend to produce good outcomes and built up a new evaluation function that is more okay taking calculated risks.

Deliberate play is not just goofing off. Throughout the game I am focused, but it’s a soft focus—totally attuned to the game, but taking in all aspects of the game, even ones that might previously have seemed unimportant. (This doesn’t mean paying attention to everything at once, but instead letting my attention settle on what’s interesting in the moment.)

In my opinion, deliberate play tends to be underutilized (it was by me until recently). I think the overall ratio of play:practice:performance should be roughly 2:9:1, but many people are closer to 0:9:1.

An Analogy for High-Impact Careers

The effective altruism movement encourages people to seek high-impact careers that help the world. They provide extensive analysis of what careers tend to be high-impact and mentorship on how to get there. While generally good, this can lead to two counterproductive tendencies:

  1. Individuals might focus too narrowly on a single career path they think is best, and be too hesitant to do things outside their core strengths.

  2. Organizations might ruthlessly prioritize projects too much, eschewing projects that could have created new organizational competencies or significantly changed ways of thinking.

(In general, I think almost all organizations err in the opposite direction—not being focused enough on a clear mission. So the points above are aimed at individuals and orgs that are already highly focused.)

I consider myself supportive of the EA movement, and generally aim to do the most good possible with both my career and my donations. But around one-third of the work I do is just stuff I find interesting, and I’m totally okay with that. I think in the long run this helps me accumulate insights that I wouldn’t get if I were just focused on impact all the time.

I’m also pretty happy to inhabit mental frameworks for a long time even if on balance they’re likely to be “wrong”, as long as they’re interesting. In research this is particularly important for decorrelating your beliefs from the rest of the field (which is usually needed to generate new knowledge). This has gotten harder as I’ve gotten older and more set in my ways, so I’ve had to intentionally remind myself that it’s okay and necessary to venture onto shaky ground.

I worry that many smart young people who are highly impact-focused accidentally turn down the ratio of play to near zero, and that this will hurt their long-run growth. In research, this can be combatted by pursuing some fraction of projects out of pure intellectual interest. In other areas, it can perhaps be combatted through side projects or by taking on organizational roles that aren’t fully your comparative advantage.

Remember, though, that deliberate play is not the same as goofing off. This isn’t an exhortation to just do whatever you feel like. Good deliberate play will push your comfort zone while also inducing curiosity. Holden Karnofsky has great examples of deliberate play on his blog, such as his Summary of History, where he puts way more effort than any reasonable person into cataloging all of history from an empowerment and well-being lens. As the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy I’m pretty sure Holden had lots of higher-direct-value uses of his time than that, but I’m still really glad he wrote it.

So, perhaps one form of deliberate play is “putting way more effort and production quality into a project than you can directly justify, just because you feel passionate about it”. If you come across such a project in your career, consider trying it out.