One of my advisors in grad school regularly reminded us that whether it was our dissertation or our work with clients, taking the time to fully understand and accurately define the nature of the problems we were presented with, was critically important. He would say that “If you misdiagnose the problem, you’re probably going to misdiagnose the solution too.”
I think the same could be said of practicing. Like, if you think the notes in a left-hand pizzicato passage aren’t speaking because of a finger strength problem, you’ll come up with a different set of solutions than if you think the problem is related to leverage or timing.
Of course, becoming a House M.D.-level diagnostician is not so easy! And this is of course why a teacher or colleague’s eyes, ears, and objective, impartial perspective can be so helpful.
But as we discovered last week (you can read part 1 here), we are actually a lot more capable of accurately assessing our own performances than we might think – at least, we are when we’re single-tasking.
That is to say, simultaneously wearing both our performer hat and diagnostician hat while playing makes us kind of sub-par at both, whereas video analysis frees up the cognitive and attentional resources we need to evaluate our playing more accurately.
And sure, accuracy sounds like a good thing, but at the end of the day, does all of this translate into practicing more effectively and playing our instruments better?
A tennis study
A team of researchers in a 1998 study (Hebert, Landin, & Menickelli) recruited 6 collegiate tennis players to see if integrating video analysis into their practice would help them improve more than normal practice.
They selected a specific skill to work on, that all of the players agreed was a weakness in their game1.
And then, twice a week for four weeks, the players spent about 15-20 minutes drilling this shot during practice, hitting a total of 30 shots during each session.
The players were divided into three pairs – one pair did four practice sessions without video (to establish a baseline of performance and learning), and then four practice sessions with video (to see if there was an additional benefit to using video). The second pair did six sessions without video, and then two with. And the final pair (control) did all eight practice sessions without video.
The video analysis sessions took place on the day following practice sessions. They weren’t given any feedback from coaches about technique or mechanics, but simply asked to describe what they noticed, and what they were thinking. With questions like “what do you see?” and “what are you thinking?”
So did video have any effect on their learning and performance?
Regular practice vs. practice with video analysis
Well, I’ll preface this by saying that it’s a reeeeally small sample of data, so we should take this with a grain of salt, but yes, the players who used video analysis did seem to improve and hit a greater percentage of their shots into the target zones after video was integrated into their practice.
During their first set of practice sessions, before introducing video analysis into the process, the players hit an average of 42% of their shots into the target zones in the corners. After they began to analyze video of the previous day’s practice, their average went up to about 58%.
The players in the control group, on the other hand, who never saw video of themselves, averaged 44%.
Not only did players’ shotmaking accuracy improve, but video seemed to qualitatively change their approach to practice itself. The researchers described four stages that the athletes seemed to go through in the course of their video analysis.
Stage 1: “Getting used to seeing myself”
During the very first session, which lasted for about the first 10 shots or so, the athletes mostly just reported noticing general tendencies – not necessarily even related to the skill they’re focused on.
Like “My forehand grip is so weird…” Or “I can’t believe how straight up I am. [Coach] always tells me I don’t bend my knees enough.”
Stage 2: “Detecting errors”
However, by the end of the first session, the players began to notice not just general tendencies, but specific technical issues related to the skill they were trying to improve.
Like, “My feet were everywhere on that one.” Or “I’m coming up too soon.”
The identification of these specific technical issues then seemed to help shape or inform their next practice session. With observations like “I need to, like, go after the ball more; not let it drop so much.”
Stage 3: “Making connections and recognizing tendencies”
After getting back onto the court to experiment with the insights gleaned from their first video session, they returned for a second video session. This time, their analysis was even more detailed, and they were able to make cause and effect connections between their technique and results on the court.
Like “You see, that time I stayed down; kept my knees bent.” Or “Those shots went wide because I’m hitting with my hand way out to the side.”
They also began to pick up on more of their tendencies, like having more success hitting down-the-line than cross-court, or noticing that shots were landing short due to excessive topspin.
Stage 4: “Correcting errors and reaching closure”
Only three of the players got to the fourth stage, but those that did, appeared to reach a point where they were able to pinpoint the key ingredients necessary to hit the shot more accurately on a consistent basis.
Like, “What I need to do on this shot is not get too close to the ball and hit it flat.” Or “Moving my feet, getting ready early, and not opening up too early.”
So what are we to do with all of this?
For me, the main takeaway from this study is not just that video analysis can help with diagnosing the cause of accuracy/consistency issues and identifying solutions – but that this process occurs over time.
That it’s not just about watching video and having an immediate “ah-ha” moment, but a more organic process of seeing something on video, taking that observation into the practice room to experiment with, watching video again to see what may have changed, taking some deeper discoveries and insights into the practice room again, and continuing this process until you find something that works, coming away with not only a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanics of the skill, but improved accuracy and consistency as well.
* * *
Video vs. audio
Ok, so do we really need to record video all the time? Or can audio work as well?
Well, audio is certainly way better than nothing. And in talking to some musicians who do use video, my sense is that even they use audio more on a day-to-day basis. But they do like how video – especially our phones’ slow-motion video capabilities – enables them to see what’s going on, and more effectively pinpoint the mechanical cause of complex problems that may not be discernible by feel alone. Or even discover new techniques that can help them get past a limitation or plateau that they’ve been stuck on.
For instance, guitarist Troy Grady has used slow-motion video for years, in an effort to deconstruct the playing of great guitarists, and identify what they are doing differently that enables them to play like they do.
A good example is this analysis of guitarist Steve Morse’s technique . Which I think is pretty fascinating to watch, even if, like me, you know nothing about guitar (I particularly liked what Troy said about practicing effectively and mindless repetitions, and how “You can’t practice what you don’t even know how to do.”)
But if you only have time to watch one video, take 15 minutes to watch THIS ONE , where Troy explains why some techniques must be learned at-tempo, and how it’s a waste of time and energy to start slow and gradually work them up, only to reach a speed limit at which that technique doesn’t work. If you remember hearing Met horn player Erik Ralske allude to at-tempo learning in his podcast episode and wanted more details about why this works and how to do it, check out Troy’s video here (I love the bit with mandolin player Andy Wood a few minutes in, on discovering and validating new techniques with “smoothness” as the primary criterion).
Ok. Let’s say you’re intrigued and sort of curious to give video recording a try…but…what’s the best way to record video?
Well, the easiest way is to just prop up your phone on a stand and press record. The audio quality may not be amazing, but when you’re trying to build a new habit, easier is often better.
If you really want to get better audio, I think you can. But it requires some more finagling. So even if you love geeking out about audio and video tech, I still think sticking with your phone is the way to go.
Hebert, E., Landin, D. K., & Menickelli, J. (1998). Videotape feedback: What learners see and how they use it. Journal of Sport Pedagogy, 4, 12-28.
- Specifically, they committed to working on attacking short balls by running around to their stronger side and hitting an aggressive shot to either of the corners (i.e. an inside-out forehand or backhand, I think it’s called?) – kind of like what Rafael Nadal does on this point