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What Can Therapists Learn From Concert Pianists?

The need for deliberate practice in the field of psychotherapy

by Theravue on August 8, 2020

Picture for a moment a young musician who wishes to become a concert pianist. She attends the Royal Conservatory of Music for four years and then goes on to earn a Masters degree in music. With her multiple years of training, she believes she can wow audiences around the world, but there’s only one problem: she stops practicing. After defending her Master’s thesis, she no longer trains outside of her performances and, as a result, her song selection stagnates, her skills languish, and invitations to play venues cease.

Deliberate practice is a standard for experts to remain experts

A concert pianist who doesn’t practice is a hard concept for us to imagine. In fact, any elite musician, athlete, or professional who doesn’t continually hone their skills after the game, concert, or day at the office will not remain on top for long. This was proven by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson who was widely regarded as the expert on experts. The Swedish-born cognitive psychologist passed away in 2020 at the age of 73, but he left behind a library of exhaustive research about how expertise is the result of “deliberate practice,” as he put it. His evidence shows that experts are made, not born, and that experience does not create expertise. “Just because you’ve been walking for 50 years doesn’t mean you’re getting better at it,” he once wrote.

Why isn’t the field of psychotherapy improving?

This is a poignant observation and one that can be applied to the industry of psychotherapy. In the excellent report “The Secrets of Supershrinks: Pathways to Clinical Excellence,” Dr. Scott Miller writes that studies conducted over the last three decades prove that psychotherapy works but also “no measurable improvement in the effectiveness of psychotherapy has occurred in the last 30 years….Instead of advancing as a field, we’ve stagnated, mistaking our feverish peddling on a stationary bicycle for progress in the Tour de Therapy.”

In other words, there are therapists out there who are improving, but there are also those who are stagnating and, even more concerning, there are some who have declined in terms of effectiveness. Renowned therapist and Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Wisconsin Dr. Bruce E. Wampold writes that as an industry, we need to improve our rate of success and the best way to go about doing that is to practice, practice, practice.

Psychotherapy expertise requires deliberate practice

To continue with Dr. Miller’s cycling metaphor, the fastest time for the 4,000-metre men’s individual pursuit at the 1988 Olympics was 4:32. The fastest time at the 2016 Olympics was 4:14. For a sport that’s measured in milliseconds, that’s a remarkable change in 28 years and one that is indicative of improvement through deliberate practice: every trial and race by the winning athletes was monitored and analyzed.

In the realm of psychotherapy, Dr. Wampold writes that “the evidence about therapists suggests that if we could assist therapists to improve, the quality of mental health services would increase dramatically.” The way to do that is to practice and receive feedback, and that’s where Theravue comes in. Theravue is an online practice system for effective therapy education that helps improve client outcomes by training therapists in specific psychological and interpersonal skills. It gives the user the opportunity to provide their own feedback to practice situations as well as receive feedback from others. The effectiveness of this strategy can best be shown with a free demo, which you can book by visiting: www.theravue.com/demo.

To summarize, it’s expected that a concert pianist would practice outside of her performances. If she wants to play the notoriously difficult “Three Movements from Petrushka” by Stavinsky, for example, she’d have to apply herself for hours a day outside of the concert hall. Similarly, if a therapist wants to improve and provide better quality mental health services, it’s important to practice outside of actual sessions, honing communication skills, emotional expression, and persuasiveness.

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