When I was a little kid, my mom used to put on a recording of a piece I was about to perform, and have me close my eyes and listen to the recording, pretending that it was me playing perfectly in tune, with beautiful sound, and not whichever famous artist was actually playing on the tape.

It felt like a silly thing to do at the time, but it did seem to help, and was something I ended up doing quite a bit of over the years.

Could it really be possible to enhance learning or performance by simply imagining that we can perform better than we can?

Self-modeling and learning

A Canadian study looked at 33 young swimmers (ages 6-10) at a summer swimming camp.

To establish a baseline of their swimming ability, each child was videotaped completing a 10-meter swim test using a stroke that they had some familiarity with, but were by no means proficient at.

Then, over the next six days, they all received 3 hours of swimming lessons, split into six 30-minute sessions, followed by another 10-meter swim test. So each child received the same amount and type of instruction – but watched a different 60-second video clip before beginning their lesson for the day.

One group of swimmers watched a 60-second clip from the movie Shrek (the control group).

Another group of swimmers watched an unedited 60-second clip of their 10-meter swim test from the previous day (the self-observation group). And no, it didn’t take the poor kids 60 seconds to swim 10 meters. They just took the clip and repeated it 3 times.

The third group of swimmers watched an edited 60-second clip of their 10-meter swim test from the previous day (the self-modeling group). The video that these kids watched was essentially a highlight reel of their previous day’s performance, where all of the mechanical flaws and errors in their swim test were edited out, and replaced with only the bits where they executed their stroke correctly. So let’s say that a child executed two strokes correctly, but the rest of the distance was swum with bad technique. The video team would take footage of just those two correct strokes, and splice them together to make it look like the child swam the entire 10 meters using just good technique.

This is a technique that some have called “feedforward,” where we see ourselves performing at a higher level than we are currently capable of – as opposed to feedback, which is where we observe our actual level of performance (i.e. the kind of video the second group of swimmers viewed).

After 6 days of training, they returned to the pool for one last test.

Self-modeling wins

The kids’ first and last swim tests were scored by two expert swimming instructors using a 14-item swimming proficiency test, which included items like ”keeps elbows high during recovery and pull” and “rolls body on long axis with no hip sway.”

As predicted, the self-modeling (edited video) group improved the most from Day 1 to the final test on Day 8 – a 13.2-point improvement to be exact. This was more than twice the improvement of the self-observation group (unedited video) which had a 6.3-point improvement, and the control group (Shrek video) which had a 4.9-point improvement.

Takeaways

So at least with beginners, these results suggest that watching video of ourselves getting it right can be a helpful tool in enhancing the learning of new skills.

Indeed, when my daughter was taking violin lessons, her teacher would often stop to take a quick video on her phone, capturing that rare moment when my daughter curved her thumb just right, or held the violin at the correct angle. She encouraged my daughter to watch this in the week between lessons, so she could remember exactly what she was striving for.

But what about elite musicians who are preparing for high-stakes auditions, competitions, or performances? Can self-modeling be useful for folks like this?

Self-modeling and performance

Another Canadian research team conducted a study of 20 competitive female gymnasts aged 9-16.

With the assistance of the coach, the researchers created a self-modeling video for each athlete, in which they wore their competition uniform, and performed the balance beam routine they planned to use in competition. To make sure there was enough footage to create a video in which it would appear that they executed the entire routine flawlessly, the coach had the athlete repeat skills and combinations until they got each one just right1.

How the video was used

Each gymnast competed in four competitions over the course of the study. To see if watching the video before competition would have an impact on their performance, the gymnasts used the video before just two of these competitions – half used the video before their 1st and 3rd competitions, and the other half before their 2nd and 4th competitions.

How exactly was the video used?

Each gymnast watched their routine 3 times in a row (for a total of 60-90 seconds of viewing time). Then they did their physical warmup. And before doing their routine for the judges, they watched the video one last time.

Did the videos help?

Using actual judges’ scores from the competitions, the researchers found that the videos did make a statistically significant difference in their scores. In the competitions where the gymnasts used the videos, their average score was 11.4. In the competitions without video, their average score was 11.1.

Wait. All that for a whopping difference of .3? Yeah, I know. At first glance, .3 is a pretty underwhelming number.

However, the researchers note that in the world of gymnastics, .3 can be the difference between winning gold and silver. Or getting a medal vs. going home empty-handed.

In the Beijing Olympics for instance, the medalists on the balance beam were all within .3 (16.225, 16.025, 15.950), and if the 4th place finisher (15.9) had scored .3 higher, she would have been the silver medalist – and just .025 away from the gold medalist. So .3 is no little thing.

What did the gymnasts say?

Also interesting were the comments the gymnasts provided when asked by the researchers. One said that watching the video at the competition “calmed her down.” Another said it made her feel “more confident about [her] performance”. And others said that it took their “mind off of everything else” or that it “really helps you focus.”

Takeaways

To be sure, creating an edited “best-of” video or audio is time-consuming. Not the sort of thing that you would take the time to create for just any performance. But what if you’re preparing for a big audition, or an international competition?

For times when you don’t want to leave any stone unturned, it sounds like a spliced-together playlist of all of the highlights from the best takes of your excerpt list could be a big confidence-booster and a helpful way of staying focused before you go on stage. And besides, you’re going to be doing a lot of performance practice and recording anyway, right? Might as well put all that audio to good use.

Because sure, it’s probably helpful to listen to favorite recordings of other performers you respect and enjoy. But when it comes to truly believing that you can nail the audition, it’s another thing entirely to hear yourself playing exactly the way you want, with your sound, and all of your decisions about rhythm, dynamics, articulation, baked into the recording, from the very first note to the very last.

Footnotes

  1. Remember that the difference between self-observation and self-modeling is that self-observation involves watching an unedited video of one’s performance, while self-modeling involves watching a video that is edited to show yourself performing an entire routine/piece “perfectly” (or as close to perfect as you can get).