A 5-Step Strategy for Enhanced Motor Skill Learning (Especially if You’re an Older Learner!)

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Sometimes, when our dog (DJ) just sits there and doesn’t seem to understand what we’re asking him to do, we worry that he’s not quite the genius that we thought he was. And the cliche that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” definitely comes to mind…

Because on one hand, yes, there are studies out there which suggest that our ability to pick up new motor skills can indeed diminish a bit as we get older.

But on the other hand, there’s also plenty of evidence that he – and we – can totally still learn new things and continue to improve throughout our lifespan. Even if it’s not quite like it was in our puppy years.

And because the old dog cliche is a bit of a bummer, I perked up when I stumbled across some studies about a learning strategy called the “Five-Step Strategy.”

It was originally developed to “enhance the learning of motor skills in self-paced tasks and sport skills.” Essentially, by making sure your brain is maximally engaged in the learning process so you learn new skills more efficiently.

The initial studies on younger adults suggested that this could indeed boost learning, but the unanswered question was – could this help older learners learn some new tricks too?

A golf study!

Two researchers (Steinberg & Glass, 2001) recruited 30 participants (15 men, 15 women), with an average age of 65 and no previous golf experience, to participate in a golf putting study.

Participants attended one practice session per week, for three straight weeks.

Week 1

In the first practice session, a golf instructor gave them a 20-min lesson on the fundamentals of putting, walking them through the grip, stroke, etc.

Then, they took a quick 9-hole putting test to see what their baseline level of putting skill might be.1

Week 2

In the second practice session, half of the participants sat through a 10-min lecture on golf equipment (the control group), while the other participants learned how to use a strategy known as the Five-Step Strategy (the strategy group). We’ll take a closer look at what exactly this strategy looks like in a moment, but for now, just know that they were told to use this strategy during that day’s putting practice session.

And what did their practice look like?

Well, they spent the first 10 minutes of practice doing a bit of metronome practice, believe it or not, to help them develop a smooth, rhythmic putting motion. And then they spent 10 minutes putting along a straight line, to get better at putting in a specific direction.

And then they shifted into more of a performance practice mode, where they competed against another participant to see who could get to 10 points first (where whomever sunk a putt in the fewest strokes earned 1 point). And then they did the same thing in teams – with one team of two participants competing against another team of two participants.

After all that, they took a couple minutes to complete a short anxiety assessment, and then repeated the same 9-hole putting test that they took at the very beginning of the study.

Week 3

The third and final practice session was almost exactly like their Week 2 practice session, where they spent 20 minutes practicing in a more relaxed sort of way, and then competed against each other for points.

But this time, after finishing their practice, the participants were given a 60-min break to “ice” them a bit and allow some forgetting to set in…

And then they did the 9-hole putting test again to see if their putting skills improved at all over the previous two weeks.

And did it?

Results

Yes, indeed!

On their very first putting test, both groups performed about the same – 18.14 putts per 9 holes for the control group, and 17.55 putts per 9 holes for the Five-Step Strategy group.

But at the final test in Week 3, even after a couple practice sessions, the control group didn’t really improve their scores at all – with an average score of 19.00 putts per 9 holes at the final test. Meanwhile, the group that used the Five-Step Strategy during practice shaved an average of about one stroke off of their score, and did three strokes better than the control group – with an average score of 16.33 per 9 holes on the final test.

So what exactly does this Five-Step Strategy entail, that the better-performing participants used?

The Five-Step Strategy

Here are the exact instructions used in the study (emphasis mine):

I am going to present you with a strategy which should improve your performance in these golf tasks. This strategy contains five sequential steps. They are readying, imaging, focusing, executing, and evaluating.

In the first step, I will teach you how to obtain the optimal emotional state for this task. To obtain this state I want you to take a couple of deep slow breaths. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Now shake the tension from your body with a slight waggling of your arms. Do this technique prior to every putt. Also, think about a successful putt you had in the past.

The second step of the strategy is imaging. In this step, you are to mentally picture the ball go into the cup. Also, imagine yourself making the desired stroke.

The third step of the strategy involves focusing on a relevant feature in the learning situation. Here, I want you to concentrate on watching the putter head hit the dimples of the golf ball. Do not think of any other thought.

After you are completely focused, you are ready to perform the act. Do not think of anything about the act itself or possible outcome. Just do it.

After you have completed the movement, the fifth step involves evaluating the quality of the outcome. Think about where the ball finished and adjust your stroke accordingly. Use the feedback of the event as a way to improve your putting.

More intentional practice

There’s nothing super radical here, right? Like, it all makes sense, and seems to be a way to be more intentional about each practice repetition, and slow things down a tad. To make sure you’re focused and present and attentive to what the goals of each practice attempt are, rather than just going through the motions. And also to reflect on what just happened and be more intentional about the next putt.

All of this might seem pretty obvious, and even familiar, but I think it can be easy to forget, and default to repeating a passage a bunch of times without much mental/physical preparation and reflection before and after each repetition. And sure, the mindless repetition does improve performance in the moment, and so it feels like progress is being made – but the real question is, do these momentary improvements actually stick? 

To me, this study suggests that slowing things down in practice, and being a little more attentive and reflective though this process, could actually lead to more retention and transfer to performance – in the same amount of practice time.

Why does this help?

So why does this simple Five-Step Strategy help? And for older learners in particular?

Well, the researchers cited a number of studies which speak to some tendencies that older learners might experience, that are addressed by each of the five steps in this strategy.

For instance, older learners have been found to experience higher levels of activation than younger folks in some settings. And if you’re stressed in practice, the optimal emotional state step could help to calm you down a bit and ensure your learning doesn’t take a hit.

There are also studies which suggest that older learners use imagery less often than younger learners, so it could be that the imaging step helps to offset this a bit.

There’s also evidence that older learners have more difficulty paying attention to task-relevant stimuli and blocking out distractions, so perhaps the focus step helps with this.

Older learners have also been found to focus more on the mechanics of a task, than the goal of the movement (i.e. thinking about what the arm/wrist/hands/fingers have to do, as opposed to the kind of sound one wants), so the “just do it” step could be good practice at shushing one’s overactive inner critic/micro-manager.

Some studies have found that older learners also are less effective at using external feedback, so the evaluate and adjust step makes a lot of sense too.

Take action

This particular study was focused on older learners, but don’t forget that this strategy was initially found to provide a helpful boost in learning for young-adult-aged learners. And each of the five steps seem like pretty relevant and useful ingredients for more engaged and focused practice, so I think it’s worth a try whether you’re 8, 18, or 80!

A love/hate relationship with practicing?

I always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with practicing (to put it mildly). Which of course made for a lot of less-than-positive experiences on stage too.

It wasn’t until I got into my 20’s that I began to understand that learning a skill and being able to perform that skill in front of an audience are unique challenges, requiring different types of preparation.

It turned out, for instance, that the optimal headspace for practicing effectively (not just playing, but critical listening, analysis, evaluation, problem-solving, etc.) is almost 180 degrees opposite of the optimal headspace for performing effectively (playing and being intensely aware, but only of what’s relevant in the present moment and none of the evaluative/analytical stuff).

That’s part of the reason why when we find ourselves in “the zone” in performance, and suddenly notice that we’re in that awesome headspace, almost immediately, we’re no longer there and can’t figure out how to get back. 🤬

It can all be pretty frustrating, but know that there are specific reasons why these things happen to us in the practice room and on stage. So it’s not random, there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re by no means the only one who experiences this, and being able to play more consistently like yourself under pressure is as much a learnable skill as any other challenge you’ve encountered (and overcome) on your instrument.

If exploring the mental side of practicing and performing, and experimenting with some new practice and performance preparation strategies sounds like fun, I’ll be teaching a live, online, 4-week class for students and life-long learners starting next weekend.

Today’s the last day to register – with enrollment ending at 11:59pm tonight (Sunday, September 26th). You can find out more about the cool things you’ll learn and sign up here: Performance Psych Essentials for Learners

Or for a quick overview, check out the trailer:


References

Steinberg, G. M., & Glass, B. (2001). Can the Five-Step Strategy Enhance the Learning of Motor Skills in Older Adults? Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 9(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1123/japa.9.1.1

Footnotes

  1. For what it’s worth, it took them about 18 strokes on average to sink the 9 putts.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

4 Responses

  1. Very interesting thanks. The part I would struggle with most when playing music is “Just do it”. A golf putt is over pretty quickly but sustaining that mindset for minutes would be hard for me. Something to work on though.

    1. I’ve been working a lot on 4-note phrases, which is probably about the equivalent of one putt ;^)
      And I’ve had some success putting (not putt-ing) two of those phrases together without thinking. Who knows, maybe some day three or four. I can’t say that’s consistent yet, but it seems worth keeping at it.

  2. I find that my aging learning capacity differs depending on the task.

    I’m surprised that I can still learn new tricks in music–like learning to sing while playing bass guitar, which I find more difficult than playing counterpoint on piano and seems to take some palpable plasticity. On the other hand, after studying Japanese for a decade, I’m still at the ‘Flowers for Algernon’ speaking level. I wasn’t slow at learning a second language when I studied Spanish in high school, reaching conversational level after four years. I think the difference is that I’ve never stopped learning new musical tricks, whereas I didn’t continue to speak and learn more Spanish after my school years.

  3. I’d read about brain plasticity in older learners a few years ago – and it was uplifting, to be sure. Just found another article about where in the brain (white matter) of the older learner that might take place – as opposed to where it takes place in younger learners (cortex, gray matter). This is the ‘nitty gritty’ of how and why ‘the old dog can learn new tricks!’ All fascinating – and hopeful for us older learners (73.75 yrs. in my case!!! lol!!!

    Here’s a link to the article:

    https://news.brown.edu/articles/2014/11/age

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