Optimizing Practice: 2 Things That the Best Performers Do & 1 Thing That the Best “Improvers” Do

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Whether it’s copying their moves or wearing the shoes they wear, we often look to elite athletes for insights on how to develop our skills and perform more effectively.

For example, you might remember reading a basketball study (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2001) not long ago (here), which found that the best free throw shooters practiced in a much more proactive way than the worst free throw shooters did. And that they engaged in a process known as “self-regulated learning,” which basically involves three phases:

  1. Forethought phase: think about what you’re going to do before you do it 
  2. Performance phase: do the thing you planned
  3. Self-reflection phase: reflect on what just happened and consider what adjustments might help you get closer to your initial goal

Other studies have also identified a link between self-regulated learning and higher-level performance, so we have some idea that this approach to practice is important.

But a related question that hasn’t often been asked is – what practice behaviors are associated with improving at the highest level?

After all, it’s nice to know that self-regulation strategies are associated with better performance, but wouldn’t it also be pretty awesome to know what the best “improvers” do? So we too might be able to maximize our growth and get more out of our practice time?

National-level Dutch swimmers

To explore this question, a team of Dutch researchers (Post et al., 2022) recruited 157 national-level Dutch swimmers (ages 12 to 21), and followed their training habits and competition performance for a full season.

Self-regulated learning

The researchers tracked the number of weekly training sessions and hours each swimmer spent training, and also asked them to take an assessment that was designed to measure the degree to which they used four self-regulated learning processes in their practice.

  • Evaluation: e.g. “After each practice session, I think back and evaluate whether I did the right things to reach my practice goal.” (1=never; 5=always)
  • Planning: e.g. “Before each practice session, I plan my actions relative to the goal I want to attain during the practice session.”
  • Reflection: e.g. “During each practice session, I try to identify my strengths and think about ways to improve these even more.”
  • Speaking up: e.g. “If the coach changes an exercise and I don’t understand the change, I ask the coach to explain.”

Plus a couple motivation factors

And to see if there were any motivational benefits associated with this type of practice, they also asked several questions related to self-efficacy and effort:

  • Self-efficacy: e.g. “I am confident that I can deal efficiently with unexpected events.”
  • Effort: e.g. “I put forth my best effort when performing tasks.”

Higher vs. lower-level swimmers

The first thing the researchers wanted to know was…might there be any differences between the practice habits of the best and worst swimmers in the group?

They looked up the slowest season-best swim performances by age, sex, and swim event of the top 50 swimmers in the world, and used this as a minimum performance standard. So participants whose season-best performance was faster than this time were considered high-level performers. And swimmers whose performances were slower, were lower-level swimmers.

And was there a difference in how these groups approached practice?

Two practice differences

Indeed there was! After controlling for differences in training time, there were two self-regulated learning processes that differentiated the higher-level swimmers from the lower-level swimmers.

Difference #1: Reflection

For one, the higher-level performers had higher reflection scores. This means that they were more mindful and reflective during their training sessions. 

Translated into music terms, this would mean that they were listening more carefully. Thinking more deeply about what a passage just sounded like relative to their goal for that passage. Taking time to identify their weakest areas, and thinking of ways to improve these. Monitoring the progress they’re making (or not making) towards their practice goals, and making adjustments accordingly.

Difference #2: Effort

The other difference, was that the higher-level performers had lower effort scores. 

Wait…what?!

Yeah, I know that seems totally backwards, but when you take a closer look at the assessment questions in this area, it actually does make sense.

The authors explain that while both groups’ scores were pretty high, suggesting that both groups devoted a lot of effort to their training, the lower-level performers may have been less thoughtful and strategic about their effort.

In other words, the lower-level swimmers may have used a ”maximum effort ” philosophy in all of their training tasks, regardless of the task’s importance. Meanwhile, the higher-level performers may have been more intentional about which tasks to devote their limited time and energy to. Directing maximum effort to the important tasks, but less effort to less-important tasks. Which could lead to more efficient, more effective, and relatively speaking, less effortful training sessions.

Advanced vs. less-advanced progressors

Then the researchers went a step further.

They wanted to see which self-regulated learning processes might be related to the most growth and improvement during the course of a season.

So looking only at the higher-level swimmers, they calculated the improvement between each swimmer’s first and best performance of the season. And then they compared this with the average performance improvement within a season for the top 50 swimmers in the world (considering age, sex, and swim event). If a swimmer’s improvement was greater than this benchmark, then they were defined as an advanced progressor; less than this benchmark and they were categorized as a less-advanced progressor.

And was there a difference in the practice habits of the most and least-improving swimmers?

One practice difference

Yeppers – indeed there was!

The swimmers who improved the most during the season engaged in more evaluation processes after training sessions than the swimmers who still performed well, but improved less over the course of the season.

And what’s evaluation, exactly?

Difference #3: Evaluation

Evaluation is actually something that happened after practice rather than during. For instance, swimmers who engage in evaluation might reflect back on their practice session and think about whether they did the right things to become a better swimmer. Or perhaps look back at notes from their practice session and consider whether they used the right strategies to reach their goals.

In music, this might be like reflecting on why the metronome practice you did today didn’t solve the rushing tendency you identified in one passage. Where as you continue to ponder why this might be, you begin to wonder if perhaps it would be more helpful to practice with a bigger beat, or use your app’s random beat silencing function to more effectively cultivate an inner pulse (as described in this video by violist Molly Gebrian).

Or maybe as you reflect on why slow practice didn’t fix the tricky string crossing passage that has been your Achilles’ heel in previous auditions, you begin to wonder if because of the tempo and bow stroke involved, slow practice may not be the answer. And that at-tempo practice or note-grouping practice might actually be more useful.

Caveats

This is all very intriguing and makes perfect sense, but it’s important to note that given the design of this study, we don’t yet know if this relationship between the reflection and evaluation processes of self-regulated learning and higher-level performance and greater improvement is a causal one.

Meaning, it’s quite possible, and perhaps even likely, that reflecting and evaluating one’s practice does contribute to better performances and maximizes growth. But it could also be that there’s something else involved that we’re not aware of, that is actually the key driver of these performance differences. (If you could use a chuckle or two, here are some other very significant – but not at all causal – relationships.)

Takeaways

Nonetheless, today’s study reminded me of something Olympic diving coach Jeff Huber once said (check out the full podcast episode here). He noted that there was one “tell” that often let him know when one of his divers was about to experience significant growth.

And what was that “tell?”

It’s when an athlete would come to practice, approach him, and say “Hey coach, so I’ve been thinking…”

To be clear, there’s a big difference between productive post-practice reflection, and unproductive rumination. So it’s important to remind yourself sometimes to leave work at work.

But given what we learned in today’s study, it probably wouldn’t be such a bad idea to get in the habit of ending practice a few minutes early, spending that time reflecting on how things went 🤔, and deciding what adjustments you might want to make next time 🧐.


References

Post, A. K., Koning, R. H., Visscher, C., & Elferink-Gemser, M. T. (2022). The importance of reflection and evaluation processes in daily training sessions for progression toward elite level swimming performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 61, 102219.

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.

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