The Whack-a-Mole Phenomenon - and a More Effective Way to Learn New Skills
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
I remember the first time my kids went to Dave & Buster’s, and how their eyes lit up when they saw all the games, flashing lights, and wall of prizes.
For one reason or another, my daughter gravitated towards the whack-a-mole game. She could barely lift the mallet, but laughed maniacally as we worked together to pound the moles back into their holes. Although…and I realize it’s just a game, but I found it a bit aggravating that the little buggers wouldn’t stay down…
Anyhow, my whack-a-mole frustration reminded me of a similar phenomenon that occurs when we’re learning a new skill (or making an adjustment to an established skill). Namely, that we are totally capable of change – but as soon as we take our minds off of the new technique, we inadvertently revert back to our old ways.
For instance, when my kids were taking violin lessons, they had a tendency to flatten their fingers out when holding the bow, rather than keeping them rounded. A gentle reminder was all it took to get them to make an immediate correction, but as soon as their minds went back to the notes or dynamics or bowing or producing a nice sound, their fingers flattened out again. Of course, as soon as we got them to focus on rounded fingers, their bowings or notes would go out the window. Argh! It was just as vexing as whack-a-mole.
It was no different for me too, when learning or refining more advanced skills – like minimizing left-hand tension when playing double/triple/quadruple stops. Sure, I could remember to avoid pressing too hard with my fingers when playing tricky chords in Bach – but only when I was thinking about it. As soon as I started thinking about phrasing or bow distribution, my left hand would start clamping down again.
So how do we avoid the whack-a-mole problem? Is there a more effective way to learn skills so that they stick without our having to constantly keep our attention on them?
Learning how to hit with topspin
A pair of British researchers studied the learning process of 30 participants who had no previous training or formal instruction in table tennis.
Their challenge was to hit a set of balls to a specific location with a forehand stroke. But they couldn’t just hit it any old way; they were specifically instructed to hit with topspin (as opposed to hitting it flat or with backspin).
As table tennis newbies, none of the participants knew how to hit the ball so as to produce topspin, so they were given some instructions, and 300 practice hits, before being tested on their skills.
Everyone started off with the same basic instructions on how to hold the paddle, and were shown a diagram which displayed the direction of spin the ball takes when hit with topspin.
Then, one group was given explicit technical instructions (12 basic techniques for hitting topspin) while another group was simply given an analogy to think of while hitting (i.e. imagine drawing a right-angled triangle with the paddle; hit the ball while moving the paddle up the hypotenuse of the triangle).
Time for a test
After completing their practice session, the participants were given a test to see how much their performance had improved – and how stable their performance would be when given something cognitively demanding to think about. The idea being, how effectively could they perform their new skill when distracted by something else and unable to think about the execution of proper technique?
Specifically, they were asked to hit 50 balls (for accuracy and topspin) while simultaneously counting backwards from 1100 by 3 (i.e. 1100…1097…1094…1091…etc.).
So…what difference did the two modes of instruction make?
How stable was performance when thinking about other things?
During practice, there actually wasn’t much of a difference. Everyone started out at about the same level of performance, and improved at about the same rate.
But when it was time for the performance test, a different picture emerged.
When participants’ thoughts were tied up with the counting backwards task, the explicit learning group’s performance took a significant hit (ha – pun!), while the analogy group’s performance remained pretty solid.
Why does analogy learning help?
So why does analogy learning help us maintain proper technique when our minds are otherwise occupied?
Well, in the early stages of learning a new skill, there’s a lot to think about. If you think back to the first time you drove a car, you might remember how overwhelming it felt to consider all the things you had to pay attention to – until you had practiced enough that everything became automatic.
With regards to learning or refining a motor skill, it seems that the right analogy helps to “chunk” the essential elements of that skill into its simplest form, reducing the number of things you have to think about during execution. In this way, analogies make it easier to perform the skill in a way that comes pretty close to resembling proper technique, without having to get stuck in the minutiae or complexity of the movement’s mechanics while everything is still new and hasn’t yet become automatic.
In essence, you end up building the right habits, without even realizing that you’re building the right habits, freeing you up to think about other things like sound, vibrato, phrasing, or even just playing the right notes.
At some point of course, it’s not enough to perform a skill by analogy, and we need to switch over into explicit learning mode to figure out the underlying rules and mechanics and subtle details which govern effective performance of a skill. However, it seems like analogy learning can be a useful tool in the early stages of learning a skill to ensure that we get off to a good start and develop a sound foundation, after which we can make more fine-tuned adjustments.
Remember my tendency to press too hard in my left hand? An analogy that helped me to play with a lighter touch was to think of tiny helium balloons connected to my fingers and keeping them light on the strings. Another analogy I heard recently was to imagine that there are tiny blueberries under each string, and you want to press lightly on the strings so as not to smush them.
What are your favorite analogies?
Whether it’s breathing correctly, producing sound without forcing or pressing, executing smooth bow changes, or shifting to high positions, what are some favorite analogies that you use in your playing or teaching?
And a random drawing!
Everyone who submits a favorite analogy (or two) down below in the comments will be entered in a random drawing for one of ten fully unlocked copies of the popular metronome/tuner/recording app Practice+ (much thanks to the developer, who, incidentally, happens to be a clarinetist; check out a 30-sec demo of the app here ). Deadline for entering is Friday, Nov. 11th at midnight Pacific.
UPDATE: Contest now closed; drawing was held and winners were emailed on Saturday evening – congrats to the winners!
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
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 a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. 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 discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. 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.