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. =)


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.

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.


27 Responses

  1. 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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