Two Things Experts Do Differently Than Non-Experts When Practicing

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Have you ever found yourself wide awake at 2am, watching infomercials, wondering where they find these folks who can go from a size ten to a size four in eight weeks, throw out their “fat pants,” and live happily ever after? (If not, you gotta check out these five all-time worst fitness infomercials – especially the Hawaii Chair, which you could totally use to tone your abs while you practice.)

I will admit that I’ve been tempted by the Bowflexes, Perfect Pushups, and various other devices, because the frustrating thing about working out, is that it’s hard to know if you are making the best use of your time.

I mean sure, doing something is better than doing nothing…but what if there’s another exercise routine that could be getting me far greater results in the same amount of time?

What do the fittest people do that I’m not? How are their workouts different? Are there key things they do while they’re working out that provide a bigger payoff than the things I do? In other words, are they extracting disproportionately greater results from their time at the gym than I am?

The same can be said for the practice room. Like, what do the most effective practicers actually do in the practice room? What do the less effective practicers do? Are there any differences?

Indeed, it appears that there are.

Best vs. worst

Two researchers from the City University of New York did a study (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2001) of basketball players to see if they could discern a difference between the practice habits of the best free throw shooters (70% or higher) and the worst free throw shooters (55% or lower).

There were a number of differences, but it boiled down to two in particular.

Difference #1: Goals were specific

The best free throw shooters had specific goals about what they wanted to accomplish or focus on before each practice free throw attempt. As in, “I’m going to make 10 out of 10 shots” or “I’m going to keep my elbows in.”

The worst free throw shooters had more general goals – like “Make the shot” or “Use good form.”

Difference #2: Attributions of failure were specific

Invariably, the players would miss shots now and again, but when the best free throw shooters missed, they tended to attribute their miss to specific technical problems – like “I didn’t bend my knees.” This lends itself to a more specific goal for the next practice attempt, and a more thoughtful reflection process upon the hit or miss of the subsequent free throw. Far better than saying “I suck” or “What’s wrong with me?” or “Crap, I’m never going to get this.”

In contrast, the worst performers were more likely to attribute failure to non-specific factors, like “My rhythm was off” or “I wasn’t focused” which doesn’t do much to inform the next practice attempt.

It’s not what you know, but whether you use it

You might be thinking that perhaps the worst performers didn’t focus on specific technical strategies because they simply didn’t know as much. That perhaps the best performers were able to focus on technique and strategy because they knew more about how to shoot a free throw with proper form.

The researchers thought of this as well, and specifically controlled for this possibility by testing for the players’ knowledge of basketball free throw shooting technique. As it turns out, there were no significant differences in knowledge between experts and non-experts.

So while both the top performers and the worst performers had the same level of knowledge to draw from, very few of the worst performers actually utilized this knowledge base. Meanwhile, the best performers were much more likely to utilize their knowledge to think, plan, and direct their practice time more productively.

Take action

When you’re working on something technical, try using more specific goals for each practice attempt.

But perhaps more importantly, pay attention to how you talk to yourself after those practice attempts that don’t go the way you want. Do you find yourself putting on your detective hat, getting curious, and focusing on identifying the little technical adjustments and tweaks that might help you get closer to the goal on your next attempt?

Or does the critic in your head throw out a few curse words, and instinctively jump right into another practice attempt without giving you a chance to figure out why you missed the last one?

The participants in the study were asked to talk out loud and describe what they were thinking as they practiced their free throws (to make it possible for the researchers to know what was going through their minds). And though this might feel goofy at first, it might not be such a bad idea to try this yourself, and see what thoughts are actually going through your mind as you practice. =)


References

Cleary, T. J., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2001). Self-Regulation Differences during Athletic Practice by Experts, Non-Experts, and Novices. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(2), 185–206. https://doi.org/10.1080/104132001753149883

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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Comments

27 Responses

  1. Loved this article!! Will pass this on to my violin students.

    It occurs to me that this applies equally to life skills. For example, how I would like to relate to myself (e.g. powerful leader, excellent teacher, high achiever, good friend) versus old habits (not capable, not as good, kind of a screw-up, no one will like me). The habits occur as “I’m stuck being like this,” when the reality is, “I’m not using the tools I already have, to stay effective and empowered.”

    It’s not magic … it’s application. Thank you for the boost of empowerment!!

  2. Both as a musician, and as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I especially like this article. In essence, there are two main principles to implement and adhere to: One, make paying attention to the quality of process (what you do with yourself as you carry out your activity) primary, rather than focusing exclusively on results. Two, give discernment (the specific, objective details of what you do) priority over judgement (your subjective reaction to the quality of what you do).

    Your examples of non-specific (and mostly useless) judgement are spot on (“I suck”), as are your examples of specific discernments (“I didn’t bend my knees”).

    Of course, much of what you’re describing here are habits of thinking. I often encourage my students to cultivate the habit of looking for useful information (discernment) when observing themselves and approaching their problems. It helps them considerably when they do so! I’m so pleased you are bringing these principles to your readers. Thanks!

  3. I might rephrase something:

    “So while both the top performers and the worst performers had the same level of knowledge to draw from, very few of the worst performers actually —

    knew how to utilize

    — this knowledge base.”

    It’s a small change, but I think it matters. I don’t know if teachers really get how much of practicing is not self-evident. That it’s not enough to say, “You need to keep your elbows in,” but you actually have to tell students, “You need to focus on keeping your elbows in; it won’t happen by magic. You really need to go down to that level and concentrate explicitly on these small things. They won’t go away on their own.” Students need to be told that one’s elbows won’t just start staying in by magic if you have “talent” or if you mindlessly do something over and over. Students really do have to reach down and do these things explicitly and deliberately and crush them out one by one over time.

    When I think of all the time I wasted doing things over and over and over and over at the piano expecting them to just sort of “get better” on their own, it certainly wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough. I had skipped grades and was busy busting every single grade curve I had ever run across. I was one of those kids who could swallow math, languages, art, and science like water; I’m an adult who still can. But the reason I “practiced” piano like an idiot for eight years as a kid was simply because no one ever explained that to me. As a 48 year old amateur, I am making headway on keyboard skills that I never expected to make in my life, because I finally am running into people like you who have at last explained to me that practicing means solving problems and testing your solutions.

    It really makes me wonder how many “natural” achievers aren’t simply people who happened to run into teachers who explained these things to them as kids. It reminds me of Don Greene’s story about Greg Louganis being fortunate enough to have a dance teacher as a toddler who told him to lie down on the floor while she played the routine music and to go through his routine in his head first. How many more “naturally gifted” people would there be in this world if teachers knew to explain these things to their students? “Keep your elbows in” isn’t enough for a kid who thinks this will happen on its own. “You have to make twenty shots while thinking consciously about keeping your elbows in” is what they need to hear.

    1. Such a good point, Janis. I realised, in my mid-20s, that most of the teachers I’d had through school and music college had never spoken to me about how to practise (only what and occasionally how much). I think there’s a misapprehension that a musician’s work is performing, and a lot of teachers seem to just teach how something should go in the performance. Of course, the real work is the practice, and performance is the product of that work. What’s the point of telling someone what the product should be like, but not how to produce it? (By the way, I was lucky to have one piano teacher for a few years who was the exception to this rule – he has a blog about practising that you might be interested in: http://practisingthepiano.com/ .)

  4. Allow me to share one of my favorite quotes,

    “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

    -Bruce Lee

  5. I agree! I think when your practicing whether its acting, drawing, singing you name it! You always want to set specific goals, for example. I want to be able to play 7th position on a trombone without having to mess my buzzing up… Its important to set goals in whatever your activities are! That way each day you can get better and little by little, you can improve whether its just a small little thing you learn’t.

  6. Hey Dr. Noa, Great article on this distinction. I have
    notice for myself that when I make a mistake whether it be playing
    piano, yoga, or anything else, I tend to ask myself how I can
    improve that one specific thing and repeatedly go over it. Now
    setting small goals like this is a great way to really make your
    practice count and make you more accountable for getting better.
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. In Germany we say Practice makes the Master. Practice what
    you know and you improve step by step. and if something goes wrong
    ,they say A master never fell from the sky ,start over Thank you
    Sherman

  8. The blurb on there about non-specificity was something to
    really think about! I know that time and time again it’s easy for
    me to get caught up in not knowing what I did wrong and just being
    generally upset. Now I know that if I focus on on my exact
    technical problems (especially when it comes to blogging) I could
    improve my result! Thanks for the great info!

  9. What a good post. I love to practice specific techniques
    yet I have found that many other people do not. When I play tennis,
    it is difficult to find a friend who will actually practice each of
    the basic shots each time we play – so that we can both improve.
    People either want to jump in and do something, without learning
    how to do it well, or they spend so much time taking lessons they
    never actually do it. I love the final quote. You need knowledge,
    technique and action. Warmly, Dr. Erica

  10. Thank you for the article. I really enjoyed it. I am studying knowledge management and one can draw an analogy from what a basketball players needs to do to get better to what companies need to do to be among the top performers. Can I get the reference to the study performed by the two researchers from the City University of New York, or their names, to read further about their studies, please? Thank you.

  11. Noa, thank you indeed for this article, and to all others for insightful comments above. Is there a practical way to track the number of relative correct trials I play; long term it would seem to be a smart strategy to focus on reducing my % of incorrect trials to within the range of the highest ranking practitioners. I also read recently that if I wish to change, I need to track my efforts in that area. Is there a practical approach to this tracking over time, without a demoralising amount of “admin” overhead? I imagine this % will have the same kind of plateau’s (in fact likely co-related) as my performance levels – so it seems investing the right amount of time/effort into tracking is a worthwhile long term practice in itself.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I worry a little bit about keeping track of specific repetitions too carefully for the “admin overhead” reasons you mentioned. The more important thing is probably to make sure each repetition is mindfully executed (planning beforehand and analysis afterwards). Because it’s fine to make mistakes here and there as long as we learn from each one – because sometimes avoiding mistakes can be counterproductive too.

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