Growing up, there was a period of quite a number of years where I enjoyed lessons much more than I enjoyed practicing. After all, practicing was always frustrating and unpredictable. I never knew if it was going to be a good practice day where I improved and sounded better – or one of those bad practice days where nothing seemed to work.
Whereas in lessons, my teacher always seemed 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 mysterious qualities that made teachers teachers, and students students. Even though my teacher made it clear to 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 supposed to do this?
Well, it turns out there’s a whole area of research devoted to learning how to learn. And there’s one particular basketball study that I thought would be fun to explore today, as I think there’s a lot there that we can apply to music.
A group of basketball novices
A group of researchers (Cleary et al., 2006) 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. And none of them had any real previous basketball experience, so it was not pretty. ????
Then they were randomly divided into 5 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.
Group 1: 3-phase process
The 3-phase group was asked to 1) set process goals before each shot attempt. Where they were encouraged to focus on the essential technical components of a successful shot (i.e. stance, grip, keeping elbow in, etc.), rather than focusing on their shooting performance.
They were also asked to 2) 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. Like, were they bending their knees, following through with their shooting hand, etc.?
Lastly, they were instructed to 3) engage in strategic reflection immediately following each free throw. To consider:
- What happened (e.g. Was my shot too far to the right or left? Short or long?)
- Why (e.g. Oops! I forgot to keep my elbow pointed at the basket.)
- Make adjustments to technique for the next shot (e.g. Gotta keep my elbow in this time.)
Group 2: 2-phase process
The 2-phase group only received instructions on how to set process goals before each free throw, and engage in self-monitoring during the free throw. They didn’t learn how to do the strategic reflection after each free throw.
Group 3: 1-phase process
The 1-phase group only learned how to set process goals before free throws.
Groups 4 & 5: two control groups
And then there were two control groups.
A practice-only group just practiced shooting free throws with no guidance on how to practice. And then a no-practice group, didn’t practice free throws at all.
12 minutes of practice…and another test
After 12 minutes of practice, the students shot 10 free throws to see if there were any improvements in their shooting performance1
Any guesses as to which group did best?
Did learning how to practice make a difference?
When it came to 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 after poor shots.
The 3-phase and 2-phase groups demonstrated a far greater ability to rebound (ha!) from bad shots than the other groups. Specifically, they were much better at correcting and improving their performance on the shot attempt immediately after a miss. While the 3 and 2-phase participants got a higher score on the next shot attempt 65% and 66% of the time, the 1-phase and practice-only groups got a higher score on their next shot attempt only 43% and 40% of the time.
Quality over quantity
Because of the extra time it took to go through the self-coaching process (technically, this process is known as “self-regulation” FWIW), the 3-phase and 2-phase groups actually took much fewer shots than the 1-phase and regular practice groups. The 3-phasers only took 21 shots in 12 minutes, while the 2-phasers only got in 30. Whereas the 1-phasers took 51 shots, and the regular practicers took a whopping 56 shots in 12 minutes.
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.”
So this week, try thinking less about maximizing the number of repetitions you put into working on a tricky passage, but experiment with being more reflective with the 3-phase self-coaching model.
1) Before playing a passage: Plan!
What do I want it to sound like? What technical strategies will I utilize? e.g. Lift up more with left hand, release with thumb, etc.
2) During your next attempt: Self-monitor!
Am I lifting up with my left hand, and releasing thumb?
3) After playing: Reflect and strategize!
How’d that work out? 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?
Want to explore this concept even further?
As you can probably guess, I was totally in that non-self-reflecting-56-repetitions-in-12-minutes group for most of my life. So I didn’t have a ton of confidence or trust in how things would go on stage, and I felt a lot of negativity around practicing too. Because no matter how many repetitions I put in, things were frustratingly hit or miss in performance. But I just didn’t know what else to do!
So when I began using more effective practice strategies, and started to work more on the mental side of performing, it was pretty empowering to see how the work I was doing actually began to stick from one day to the next. And kind of awesome to see the gains I heard in the practice room ultimately transferring to the stage as well.
Which made practicing more fun (what?!). And performing as well.
If you can relate to some of this sort of practice/performance frustration, and would love to explore this self-coaching strategy and other related concepts even further, with a bit of guidance and accountability, alongside a cohort of fellow learners to feel a little more supported in your daily practice, you might be interested in the live, online 4-week class I’ll be teaching starting Saturday, March 19th. We’ll meet via Zoom and try out various research-based strategies for being more effective in the practice room, and also experiment with techniques for managing nerves, getting into the zone, and playing with more confidence on stage.
Registration ends tonight (Sunday, March 13, 2022), so if you’re interested, you can get all the details and sign up right here: Performance Psychology Essentials for Learners
A version of this article was originally posted on 04.02.2017; reposted on 03.13.2022.
Cleary, T. J., Zimmerman, B. J., & Keating, T. (2006). Training Physical Education Students to Self-Regulate During Basketball Free Throw Practice. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 77(2), 251–262. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2006.10599358
- 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
- Often attributed to philosopher and psychologist John Dewey, but who really knows?
Consistent use of the three phase method of practice also automates those skills in addition to the performance skill being learned. This leads to better metcognition and better and more precise automatic correction of errors. Another benefit is the ability to use these metacognitive skills when performance anxiety hits or if a very difficult problem has to be overcome and you have to revert back to rules based functioning.
The three phase practice technique should be used on a consistent basis. It will improve working memory and help parse out domain knowledge. The result should be a more rapid ascent to the expert level and a greater likelihood of mastery.
Hi Noa, Love your blog. It seems like you’ve misrepresented the research here however. The key finding was the difference between the 3-phase/2-phase groups vs. the the 1-phase/no instruction groups (p. 256 on the right): paying attention to what they were doing was the most important thing; self-evaluation afterwards (the 3rd phase) as not as important, at least for novices. “Focusing on processes rather than outcomes is important, because it helps athletes be more mindful of how they do something rather than simply their attained success” (p. 260).
That the study was of novices (perhaps that is why there were 40 women and only 10 men) is interesting. The study suggests that for more proficient athletes, the 3rd phase might be more important, but this particular study did not find that last phase to be significant in terms of improvement for new learners.
PS I would love to hear your thoughts on process (being in the moment) vs. self-evaluation. Thanks!
Yes, that’s a really important question indeed. Short answer is that we need both – but not at the same time. It seems like optimal learning requires self-monitoring/evaluation, but optimal performance requires being in the moment without evaluation. So we have to practice being able to do both, and switch back and forth as needed. I think this is one of the biggest takeaways I ever gained from the research in performance psychology. Seems obvious in hindsight, but totally blew my mind when I came across it.
Hi Tamara, thanks for the additional clarification! Indeed, it’s tricky to generalize from studies of total newbies. I found the authors’ explanation for the lack of difference between the 3-phase and 2-phase groups helpful and interesting (analysis of multiphase self-regulation training, p.260) too, as it seemed like there could indeed be a good bit of blurring between self-recording and strategic attributions.
In fact, the self-recording phase makes me worry a little bit because while it’s helpful and important to self-monitor performance in the practice room in the early stages of learning a skill, as the skill becomes more automatic, we have to be able to focus more on the goal (sound, phrasing, etc), and less on the mechanics involved. So it’s a tricky balance that we have to be aware of as we approach a performance!
Thank you for the thoughtful replies. Will ponder (and keep practicing!).
Hi Noa, been reading your blog for about a year, and i can say that this site helped me as much (if not more) as all my teachers.
I want to ask you about the practice days(not talking about the level of improvement). At some days just after 10 minutes of warming up my hands are relaxed, warm and i feel like i can play anything i want, like achieving a super power. But at some days after warming up even for 30 minutes my hands feel stiff, not so hot and my execution of playing skills sucks.
My question is, how can we go to that “superpower” mode more often (or all the time if possible) and how can we fight against those bad days.
I wish it were otherwise, but I think this is just one of those mysteries that may not have an easy solution. There are so many factors that go into how we feel on any give day, from sleep, nutrition, stress, our mental state, etc., that I think a good bit of variation from day to day is to be expected. Rather than trying to figure out how to have more awesome days (though that’s certainly of great value), it may be equally valuable to take advantage of these not so hot days, and see if we can practice staying focused and performing as well as we can despite not feeling like our body is totally cooperating. After all, we’re likely to have a lot of these kinds of moments in performance too, so we might as well get better at dealing with it and not letting it distract us.
i agree with what Noa says, but if you’ll please forgive me for adding my two cents here, it i think it may be possible that Nick may be relying on too much “muscle memory.” i would think that unless there’s a physical or medical reason for the “hand stiffness”, a little bit of simple hand stretching and flexing, before paying, should be enough to get the hands warmed up. the problem of “not being able to get into the groove” might be a mental issue, rather than a physical one.
these performance issues can be sneaky little things, and sometimes an issue likes to masquerade as something else. just one of the many ways the universe conspires to make playing music the bodacious challenge it often is.
I love the fact that you’re using sports research for music. It kind of blows my mind that it’s applicable, but it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the article!
If I’m having a horrible practice session… or two or three or… , should I quit for a while, or should I keep pushing (and frustrating) myself?
I know this sounds vague, but it probably depends on WHY the practice session is “horrible.” As in, what exactly is so bad about it, and what might be causing that (lack of focus, ineffective practice strategies, unclear goals/process, etc.). Because you’re right that you don’t want to just increase your frustration level, which isn’t going to help much.
Wow! I wasn’t expecting such a quick response! Thank you!
I’m practicing billiards. Lately, I can’t hit the broad side of a barn (or even the floor with my hat. lol). The problem is that I can’t focus. My mind always has other thoughts that I just won’t shut up & go away.
Edit: “Thoughts that [ ] just won’t…”