When Practice Makes You Worse
I was on the dance floor, having repeated the steps half a hundred times. The beautiful woman opposite me was still smiling, but it wasn’t just my imagination: the corners of her mouth had started to turn up into a sneer. The teacher to my side, said “No, like this!” and demonstrated one more time. It was a simple dance movement, a Swing dance step that thousands of people know by heart. I tried, and failed – again. I just couldn’t get it.
I went to bathroom to splash some water on my face. I had come out to try a new type of dance as a fun experiment, and here I was stressed out and making zero progress.
As I stood facing the mirror, I thought for a moment about practice. I imagined all the times I had failed to learn to flip. And those times attempting the gymnastics giants when I had fallen on my head. The frustration of doing tango poorly in Argentina or of feeling out of place practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In that moment, something gelled and I realized that most of what we know about practice is wrong.
Here are some of the ways that my practice was actually making me worse:
- Less variation over time
- Rote practice resulted in less retention
- So much feedback hurt performance
- Creativity was dampened
- Lack of community
According to a series of studies on motor learning conducted as early as the 1950s, rote practice hampers performance. In my case, the repeated failure to accomplish the steps of the dance move resulted, not only in not learning the steps, but in learning them less and less well over time. Anytime someone is attempting and failing to learn something, the continual failure to succeed grooves in failure on the nervous system. A learner who fails repeated in much more likely to fail again, on the next try. (For a thorough breakdown on failure, and how to short-cut the rut, read Fail Fast, Fail Often. For a study describing the value of non-rote repetition applied to tennis read this article.)
Rote Practice and Retention
A little know fact about rote practice is that it inhibits retention. When a student is practicing by rote, very often they seem improved performance during practice. However, this is a false measure of progress. A truly analysis shows that practicing the same thing over and over results in less long-term retention. Essentially, by wiring the brain to learn something is one specific way, it becomes possible to recall that task only in that specific way. Benny the Irish Polyglot discusses this dilemma in his book Fluent In 3 Months. Benny teaches that instead of trying to learn words of a foreign language through brute repetition, the best polyglots and language learners instead learn words through a variety of creative approaches. (I particularly like Benny’s engaging mnemonics in the chapter 3.) Multiple ways to recall is a much more accurate measure of success than just percentage of correct performance during basic practice.
For my own approach to loving feedback, begin with the article Ask More Loving Questions. The kind of feedback that makes practice worse is actually much more subtle. The purpose of feedback is to enable the student to better appreciate what they are doing (and maybe, if a teacher is really good, why they are doing what they are doing) to improve overall performance. Compare this to how feedback is usually offered:
“You did it wrong, because…”
“Right foot back, not left.”
Feedback is rarely actually about helping the learner to recognize what they are doing, but rather just about pointing out the “Right!” or “Wrong!” of their practice. The result of this is that it disengages the practitioner from their practice. This lack of focus is the real problem, and regular rote feedback hampers a learner’s concentration. (For a thorough breakdown on the negative consequences of rote feedback in a physical therapy context, read this article.)
How to Dampen Creativity
I have what in dance is called “facility.” This means that I have a degree of innate ability to dance, and express myself through movement. But I certainly didn’t have any of that supposed facility when I was practicing those Swing dance steps! Everyone has an innate style that is inherently their own. Every student in any discipline has a style of learning and expressing themselves that is unique. I learn dance best when I am dancing and able to express my joy of movement, disregarding the rigid “correctness” of a given series of steps. World record grappler Marcelo Garcia says that he is among the very best in the world became of how much he loves the game of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I, too, am at my best when my dancing is an expression of my love for the form.
When a teacher tries to force a student to practice is a specific way, even (and perhaps, especially) when that way of practice is one that has been successful with others, the teacher is overlooking the best individualized route for that student. Whether for a situation as simple as the instructor teaching me Swing dance steps saying “Try again” rather than encouraging me to question why I was struggling, or a math teacher who expects that all of his students will memorize multiplication tables in the same way, the parent of a child with autism who wants their child to ditch an obsession with trains in favor of speaking English (rather than using the interest in trains to learn to speak!), or a professional athlete expected to follow the same course as their predecessor, teachers, coaches and students ignore an individual’s creative drive at their own peril.
Social dance is… social. Brilliant basketball coach Phil Jackson uses Lakota Indian tribal models to better understand the social context of his players and help them grow. Even middle school math is at least as much about social maturation as it is about multiplication. And yet the social components of any learning environment are oftentimes among the easiest to overlook. In my case, my dancing partner was getting frustrated at my incompetence, which effectively ended any community I may have felt. Some of Phil Jackson’s start basketball players over the last three decades (including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant) blossomed when they learned to combine their personal extraordinary ball-handling skills with a sense of team inclusion, which also allowed their teammates to shine. Some learning activities are more communal than others, but the opportunities that become available from having a community of supporters on any learning project are not to be underrated. For more of my writing on community start here. For a book on the value of peers and a strong network I recommend Never Eat Alone. I also highly recommend Phil Jackson’s book on success Eleven Rings.
The emotional upset associated with learning is a common occurrence. It bears repeating that frustration, unused, destroys the learning process. By unused I mean that frustration (anger, or any of its derivatives) can be used to fuel creativity but more often is the death of learning. This is what I was experiencing during the attempt at learning Swing dance: self-condemnation for not already having succeeded at learning something I didn’t know how to do. From an early age school children are taught that success is the desired outcome, and failure is pitiable. The result is that in school learning becomes secondary to succeeding. The result for me practicing Swing dance was that I wasn’t thinking about how to let go of my frustration or channel it into renewed determination. Fortunately, I came back from a short break with new ideas about how to practice. 10 minutes later saw me and my partner swinging out across the dance floor, while our teach stood to side, bemused. For further reading on frustration and the impact judgement has on the learning process, read this essay which is summarized from a recent presentation I gave at UCSF and this essay on what I call the attitude that works.
None of the aspects of practice I’ve discussed exist in a vacuum. It is entirely possible to learn quickly and well, while receiving regular feedback or without a supportive community. However, taken in combination the application of a little bit of variation and creativity dramatically increases the efficiency of practice. As for me, after my short break I came back and spent the evening enthusiastic for dancing, enjoying the connection I had with my partner, and exploring the subtle variations in steps that the music provided.