As a kid, I remember enjoying lessons much more than I enjoyed practicing. After all, practicing was always a little unpredictable. I never knew if it was going to be one of those “good” practice days where I improved and sounded better – or one of those “bad” days where I got stuck on a plateau.

But in lessons, my teacher would always seem to be able to coax a higher level of playing out of me, and I’d usually leave lessons feeling much more encouraged and optimistic about my playing.

At the time, it seemed like one of those undefinable qualities that made teachers teachers, and students students. But I knew better, as I had a teacher who told me from an early age that her goal was to help me learn how to teach myself. And that this was something she fully expected me to get better at doing from week to week, as I continued my violin studies.

But how exactly are we to do this?

A group of basketball novices

A group of researchers recruited 50 college students to participate in a study about learning how to shoot free throws.

Everyone started out with 10 shots, to establish their baseline level of shooting skill. All had little to no basketball skills, so it wasn’t pretty.

Then they were randomly divided into 5 groups.

Five groups

The participants were all given a quick 10-minute coaching session on correct free throw shooting technique and form. So everyone started out with a basic understanding of the mechanics involved – the correct stance, how to hold the ball, how to aim and align their shot, execute and follow through, etc..

Then, three of the groups received additional instructions. Not on shooting technique, but on how to practice. A process that’s called “self-regulation” in the literature, but which I like to think of as “self-coaching.”

3-phase group

The 3-phase group was told to set “process goals” before each shot attempt. To focus on the essential technical components (stance, grip, elbow in, etc.) of a successful shot, rather than their shooting performance.

They were also asked to engage in “self-recording.” To monitor their use of these shooting strategies as they were executing the free throw, and to pay attention to what their body was doing as they shot a free throw. Were they bending their knees, following through with their shooting hand, etc.?

Lastly, they were instructed to engage in strategic reflection immediately following each thought. To consider:
a) What happened (e.g. Was my shot too far to the right or left? Short or long?),
b) Why (e.g. Oops! I forgot to keep my elbow pointed at the basket.), and
c) Make adjustments to technique for the next shot (e.g. Gotta keep my elbow in this time.)

2-phase group

The 2-phase group was instructed in the process goal and self-recording phases of practice.

1-phase group

The 1-phase group was instructed only on the process goal phase.

Two control groups

And then there were two control groups – a practice-only group, which practiced shooting free throws, but received no instructions on practice technique, and then a no-practice group, which didn’t practice free throws at all.

12 minutes of practice…then a test

After 12 minutes of practice, the students were given 10 shots to see if there were any improvements in their shooting performance1

How’d they do?

Did the practice guidelines help?

Shooting performance

The 3-phase and 2-phase groups performed better on the post-practice shooting test than the 1-phase group, practice-only group, and no-practice group. Admittedly, it’s not like they were suddenly shooting the lights out, but after just 12 minutes of practice, there was already a statistically significant difference in their level of performance.

That is pretty cool in and of itself, but what I think might be even more notable (given the importance of getting it right more often than getting it wrong), is what happened during their practice sessions, following poor shots.

Shooting adaptation

The 3-phase and 2-phase group demonstrated a far greater ability to rebound (ha!) from bad shots and correct and improve their performance on the next shot attempt. After a miss, the 3 and 2-phase participants got a higher score on the next shot attempt 65% and 66% of the time, vs. 43% and 40% for the 1-phase and practice-only groups.

Quality over quantity

Because of the extra time it took to go through the self-regulation (self-coaching) process, the 3-phase and 2-phase groups took way fewer shots than the other groups (only 21 and 30 shots in their 12-minute practice session, compared to 51 and 56 shots for the 1-phase and practice-only groups).

To me, this suggests that when practicing, the most important factor is not so much the number of repetitions we put in, but the mental process we go through before, during, and after each repetition. Referred to as the “forethought” phase, “performance” phase, and “self-reflection” phase by the authors of the study.

Or as someone on the internet2 once said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Take action

So this week, try thinking less about the time or number of repetitions you put into learning a tricky passage, but experiment with being more reflective with the 3-phase self-regulation model.

Before playing a passage: Plan!
What do I want it to sound like? What technical strategies will I utilize? i.e. Lift up more with left hand, release with thumb, etc.

While playing: Self-monitor!
Am I lifting up with my left hand, releasing thumb?

After playing: Reflect and strategize!
Was I successful? i.e. Was the shift in tune? If not, why not? What adjustments do I need to make technically, to get it in tune the next time?

Additional reading

There are some other interesting insights in this paper about how this model changes the process and experience of practicing. You can download it here, if you’d like to explore a little further.

Footnotes

  1. Rather than counting makes and misses, they were scored according to the following scale: 1=airball, or hitting the backboard; 2=hitting the side of the rim (no basket); 3=hitting front or back of rim (no basket); 4=making the shot, but hitting the rim too; 5=making the shot, nothing but net
  2. Often attributed to philosopher and psychologist John Dewey, but who really knows?