You’re Doing It Wrong! Practice versus Performance

I watch a gymnast work on her handsprings. Or a blues dancer try to learn the “pulse.”  Over and over again my initial response upon watching someone practice something new is an internal shout: “You are doing it wrong!” There may be some hair pulling involved. Then I calm down, decide if the person would benefit from my feedback, usually decide that they won’t and go back to what I was doing.

Want to perform better? Stop making practice matter! (Photo: Martin Gommel)

I do know that “You’re doing it wrong” isn’t the most useful way to teach. Mea culpa. Of exactly the style of teaching I am writing about. We can all of us do better. And I have exciting news: a little change goes a really long way.

There are many studies within the study of motor learning that demonstrate that practice is not the same as performance. Common sense! Less intuitive is that when we demand high quality performance during practice we get poorer overall results.

First off, what do I mean by the terms practices versus performance? A practice or training interval is the period during which a person is attempting to improve at an activity. The performance interval is crunch-time – that period when the person puts practice into practice. In real life this means the basketball player above is about to score (or miss?) game point!

It makes sense that sports typically place a lot of emphasis on how well people perform during practice. That is an easy metric because the results are right there, right away, for everyone to see. When I watch people train I see them place a great deal of importance on their performance during practice. This means that they are getting less out of their practice than they might otherwise.

Let’s look at a couple of the reasons:

  1. Regular feedback during practice distracts from the process of learning. Most often feedback is given regularly during practice. A basketball player is inherently given feedback after each practice shot – did the ball go it or didn’t it? Similarly, the gymnast or the blues dancer attempting is learn a new skill will often be given feedback after each attempt by her coach or peers. Put yourself in the place of the student. If you have someone giving you constant critiques while you are trying something new – constantly pointing out what you are doing wrong – are you going to be focusing on and excited to learn the new skill? Probably not! The fix is simple – much less feedback, much less often.
  2. Emphasis is placed on the end outcome, resulting is less attention to the skill itself. Thus the skill isn’t ever learned as thoroughly as it could be. Even during practice it is all about results. I’m all for results but not when the purpose of practice is to learn the new skill. If we are talking about scoring the winning point in the basketball NCAA championship, by all means do whatever it takes! But practice need not be urgent. By simply shifting the focus from results to experiences during practice, when it does come time performance will increase enormously.

And back to me. After I stop pulling my hair our and before I decide not to contribute to feedback overload I often take a moment to marvel. I am amazed at how well what we use does work! Getting feedback after every single iteration gives a student far more material to work on than can be absorbed in so short a period of time. Regular and consistent feedback doesn’t create an environment where the student is able to really attend to what they are doing. And despite our self-imposed handicaps we are all learning machines! Before I go back to my own workout I dream about how much more we will all learn through a few simple adjustments.

What skill or activity would you like to learn with greater ease? Within that skill or activity I suggest getting really excited about the exploration of it! Don’t let others give you feedback and don’t critique yourself. (You can always get feedback later.) Immerse yourself in experience of the new skill. Be easy in your practice. Play more. Look to learn. I would love to hear from you in the comments! What are you working on and what have you found that works?

By Robin Zander

Robin is the author of this blog. He is a dancer, producer, and entrepreneur, and passionate about learning and behavior change.


  1. I’m a little torn about the feedback portion here. I’m currently taking beginning lessons in West Coast Swing. Because of my extensive social dancing experience, I am learning faster than a complete beginner might, but of course my teachers have such an amazing depth of knowledge that they never fail to find something (or many things!) to ask me to do differently. Here are my two initial thoughts:

    In many ways I agree with you. In this situation it is usually more frustrating than helpful when I am asked (for example) to be careful about my upper body positioning during the Whip. It’s not helpful for me because I was currently trying to figure out my feet position and working on that! A dance pattern/move combines a lot of skills and body mechanics and I can only focus on improving so many different things at once. Once I feel my footwork is fine, I will move on to making sure I am on the correct beat, and my hand pressure is good, and my upper body is where I want it, etc. You are absolutely correct that the constant (gentle) reminders of what I need to do differently, is more demoralizing than it is exciting.

    On the other hand, while drilling the same dance move over and over in class or at home, much of our goal is to take our academic knowledge of what must be done, and get that into “muscle memory.” Yesterday my teacher asked me to not give her hand pressure pushing her back during a certain pattern, but instead to simply let her go and then stop her at the end. It was frustrating because I had a lot to work on and was feeling overwhelmed… but also I legitimately had misunderstood this aspect of the pattern before that moment. So my question is, what about the trap of accidentally drilling the wrong way of doing a skill? Does more frequent feedback help protect us from getting too good at doing things the wrong way and then having trouble re-learning a skill the right way?

  2. great put up, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite experts of this sector do not notice this. You must proceed your writing. I am sure, you have a great readers’ base already!

  3. Ian –

    “The trap of accidentally drilling the wrong way.” My personal preference is not to drill, or at least very rarely. Think of learning a new skill like being in a room with the lights out. We have an end outcome in mind (the way your teacher teaches, the way you see skilled dancers dance, etc.). In the mean time you are fumbling around in the dark trying to figure out where the walls are and where the light switch is. (I understand that you aren’t a clueless dancer or fumbling around. Stick with me.) You can stress and insist on getting the lights on right now. That works and you’ll probably get it. You may also fall down and skin your knees in the dark! I suggest instead to play and explore. Do it fifteen different ways even if you know most of them are “wrong.” The more variations you have the more likely the preferred one will happen anyway. You’ll likely encounter some new ways of doing the movement and some altogether new movements along the way. And when you actually go out and try to perform the original movement you’ll have a whole lot more context within which to place it.

    My second take on learning a skill the wrong way: In my experience there is always a very straightforward reason why we pick up a motor behavior that isn’t ideal. I used to twist to the left in my back handsprings. After a couple of weeks of doing this I began to wonder why and quickly realized it was because the way I was putting my hands down hurt my wrist. I was responding to the pain without ever clearly identifying it. As soon as I identified the cause I had a lot more options for changing the behavior.

    Finally, your question is about using feedback to prevent a rut. It depends in part on how you want to learn. You say that you were overwhelmed already. I can and sometimes do practice when I’m overwhelmed but don’t usually make much progress. Do you think you’d learn better if you were happy and easy (i.e. another day) than in the state you described?

    I’d love to hear what you think and if/how you apply these ideas.


  4. 752232 398770Hmm is anyone else having issues with the images on this blog loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a issue on my end or if it’s the blog. Any responses would be greatly appreciated. 856983

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