A Realistic Look at Deliberate Practice and 5 Tips for Ivy League Success


I really have some mixed feelings about discussing Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in the context of education and the Ivy Leagues, but I think this one time it’s worth it. This past weekend we had as big a shocker in the MMA world as we’ve ever had: Holly Holm knocked out Rhonda Rousey. Holm dominated Rousey with a perfect game plan, executed flawlessly, backed by a brilliant skill set. If you can look past the violent nature of the sport for a moment, I’d like to share with you what I thought was the most inspiring part of the whole event: her post-fight speech.

I can’t embed the video here, but it is up on the IvyZen PAGE and here’s the link: https://youtu.be/O4Fvvc9RUOg. Here is what was most impressive to me:

Press: … were there any moments of self-doubt? (in the lead up to the fight)
Holm: Absolutely. I don’t think you can prepare yourself if you’re not aware of what can happen, you know, she’s been the most dominant athlete. So, yeah, there were days I got to the gym and didn’t perform well, sat in my car, upset and I cried and I thought, you know what if I perform like that, that’s not gonna get me a win. So I’m gonna come back tonight and I’m gonna perfect those things, I need to get better. 

Folks, this is a perfect, real-life description of deliberate practice in the flesh, raw and uncensored. It’s what many of you parents have gone through, go through to become the winners and successes you are and what your students have to go through to reach their dreams.

Here are key takeaways and tips for helping your son/daughter on his/her road to the Ivies:
1) “… if you’re not aware of what can happen…”
You have to face reality and address the key concerns, weaknesses, risks and problems. Too many parents, in an attempt to encourage, motivate or instill a false sense of confidence in their children, gloss over problems. I understand the feelings behind those actions, but the end result is always bad. Students know they’re being deceived even as they go along with it, which actually leads to lower confidence, and, of course, they’re not prepared for the challenges; that naturally leads to failure.

Tip #1: Confront challenges head on. At IvyZen, one of the first things we do with a new student is show the college application: the activities section, that section where they ask to attach an art portfolio or research paper, the Stanford essay question that asks “What matters to you and why?” Be encouraging, laugh, put an arm around them as you go through it together and try to make it fun. But look squarely and clearly at the tasks that lay ahead of you.

2) “… didn’t perform well, sat in my car, upset and I cried…”
Frustration, pain, anxiety, disappointment and failure are all part of the process of getting better. Disappointment and frustration comes from the disconnect between desired performance and actual performance, right? So these negative emotions are natural and good. It’s actually helpful to vent at times and get it out of your system. It helps to accept the new reality you’re in.

Tip #2: Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Learning a new skill by definition means doing something you’re not sure of, don’t know very well and are very bad at. You’re in the uncomfort zone and it’s not going to be pleasant. The worst thing you can do is to pull them out of there. Instead, tell them it’s ok. Let them know that they are safe, nothing bad will happen. It’s simply because you’re trying to get better.

3) “… you know what if I perform like that, that’s not gonna get me a win.”
Holm knew exactly when she was not performing well. Her camp, Jackson’s MMA, is renowned for smart, leading-edge training and coaching. Greg Jackson is considered a guru and deliberate practice is one of his mainstays. In everything they do, they get very specific about what is a good outcome and what is a bad one.

Tip #3: Make crystal clear performance measures
Students shouldn’t have to be confused on top of all the other things they must deal with. You can eliminate this by doing some work ahead of time getting the help of teachers, coaches and mentors. Every skill should be clearly defined and performance measures should be simple so student’s know exactly if they are getting better or not.

4) “So I’m gonna come back tonight and I’m gonna perfect those things, I need to get better. ”
Tip #4: Be positive.
Negative feedback is a necessary part of getting better. You have to know what to improve by seeing that you’re doing it wrong. However, the entire goal is to improve, to master a skill. And through deliberate practice, you will improve. Reinforce this message constantly. Your child may be scowling, upset and even direct some negative energy towards you. Ignore it. Be strong for your student and continue to project confidence that they’re on the right track, are progressing and will come out on top.

5) Holly Holm is not considered a super talented fighter, certainly not as talented as Rhonda Rousey. She has a lot of flaws in her game that people discussed openly before the match. Did it matter? No. Because as Geoff Colvin says, “Talent is overrated.”

Tip #5: Don’t worry about talent. Focus on deliberate practice.
Many believe that talent is necessary for success. What Colvin does so great in his book, Talent is Overrated (New York: Penguin, 2010), is to show that what we thought was due to talent was actually due to deliberate practice. Many believe you’re destined for Harvard from birth… horse shit.

What is Deliberate Practice?
We talk a lot about Geoff Colvin here at IvyZen. The full title of the book is Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. In it, Colvin breaks down our misunderstandings about how people like Mozart and Olympic athletes achieve fantastic success. He argues quite convincingly that it is based on deliberate practice and that talent has a lot less to do with it than we think.

The idea of deliberate practice comes from the research of John Hayes, a cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon. He studied greats we consider as having extraordinary talent, e.g. Mozart. What he found in his research on great composers was that not one, not even Mozart, produced great work until at least ten years of practice. This pattern was found in famous painters and poets as well. Similar research was found by others and then popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

But these researchers discovered that there was another ingredient and it was theway the time practicing was spent. The time was spent practicing in a veryspecific way. Deliberate practice is defined by four characteristics:

1) There must be motivated effort. It takes concentration, effort and a bit of inspiration.
2) The practice tasks must be based on pre-existing knowledge or experience, i.e. it cannot be something so new that your student is spending most of the time trying to understand it.
3) Clear feedback. Did he/she do it well or not? If not, what exactly did he/she do wrong? If well, how was it done well?
4) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

One note about this last one: often when a skill is mastered, it’s not fun anymore. That’s part of the difficulty of mastering skills. Remind your student that this is not play, it’s work. But it’s good work because it’s meaningful and purposeful.

Here are two articles that I highly recommend; they have great examples:



What does this have to do with College Admissions?
Colleges want to see students who are dedicated and passionate. That’s no secret. But for some reason, many don’t seem to understand how to actually demonstrate that. One of the biggest mistakes students make in their essays is to talk about the future (only). They talk about how much they love biology because they want to become great doctors later down the road in the distant future and at that future time they will work on cures to help society. These types of descriptions are the very essence of “weak” essays. They don’t really show that you care about biology. What would really show that you cared would be accomplishments you spent years working on. Skills expressed through lab work, research papers, club activities and  academic competitions really show that you care.

At IvyZen, we mentor students and help them create a theme and work on the specific activities to build out that theme; when we work on these activities, deliberate practice is our modus operandi.

For example, a student with a number theory theme is going to have to do well on the AMC (American Mathematics Competition). One of the skills he must master is exercising judgment on which questions to skip. The point system awards 6 points for a correct answer, 1.5 points for a blank answer (skipped) and 0 points for a wrong answer. Also, it’s a timed test and the questions increase in level of difficulty from start to finish. So a student must work on this skill alone, taking test after test and measuring his performance.

We’ve worked with students for years on this and almost all students have a frustrating time in the beginning. But our mentors are skilled at encouraging students to continue on while pointing out specifically what they need to improve on. They go over the test results one question at a time and show what students did wrong. A one hour tutoring session is exhausting, but six months of it and scores go up, consistently with almost every one of our students.

​Final Tips
​We suggest parents to spend some time going over activities and identify 2-3 specific skills that students show some aptitude for. Also spend some time researching to confirm that the top schools your student is aiming for actually want those skills. You can tell by looking at the majors available at the school, research centers on campus and other programs.

​Then come up with a simple, but systematic plan of action to get better at those skills. Learning how to do deliberate practice is a skill in itself so give yourself and your student time to learn. Focusing here will pay huge dividends within six months and can help a great deal in gaining admissions to the top schools.