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.
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. =)
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