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:

Sweaty and Frustrated – Shortcuts to happiness

As I write this I am covered in sweat having spent the last hour pushing a 600 pound motorcycle up San Francisco “hills.”

This is my angry face! Photo courtesy of college classmate and tanguero William Henner.

Had I stopped–paused for just a moment–and considered why the bike wasn’t starting up I would have realized that I had forgotten to turn the fuel valve back on. No gas, no engine. Instead of taking that moment to reflect I pushed 600 pounds of steel up a steep hill, rode it down and it died at the bottom every time. I was dead set on fixing the problem now (or maybe just getting home and taking a shower) that I didn’t take the moment I would need it to recognize my error.

So what could I have done differently? Things turned out okay: I’m home, safe, sweaty and the bike is fine. And I could have saved myself a lot of effort! But how–in those moments of stress–could I have done it differently?

Call a friend
I could have called a friend. I have a few people in my life who would have gotten really upset that I was having so much trouble. The owner of the bike. My mother. But most people would ask me a few questions starting with “What’s going on?” and “Why are you upset.” A calm voice in the background would’ve been enough for me to reconsider my situation.

Ask a question
I could have asked myself a question. Just like those in the previous paragraph asking “what,” followed by “why” would have led quite quickly to (at least) a distraction from the current situation and (at best) happiness and calm leading to a quick resolution.

Change the channel
I could have stopped. Just that. Stopped, taken off my sweating gear, walked around the block and then come back. What was I pushing the bike uphill for anyway? So that I could get home, take off the gear, and take a shower! Why not do that first and then reconsider the situation?

I didn’t because I was regarding the sweaty motorcycle situation as urgent. If I were on a train track with the train bearing down on me I would not have time to call a friend, ask a question or change the topic. I would need to act! Now! I was treating this motorcycle stall as a life-and-death situation, one that I needed to resolve immediately. But why? This is a motorcycle, stalled on a quiet road with plenty of parking and walking distance from my house. I could leave it for days! I was treating it as a life-and-death situation because that is how I know to handle what I label as “important” situations. Like the old adage “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a jail” one of the tools in my belt is the idea that important situations should be solved now! In my childhood there was often a feel of urgency. Our culture, too, that doesn’t teach that slow and gentle are the best ways to handle the unexpected. It was assumed that I would be nervous when I was taking AP exams. I was taught in college that stress is good for you. More recently I have found many ways in which this is untrue. I learn movement best by going slowly and with great care. As a result I love learning and learn very quickly. And in some places – like with the motorcycle today – I treat the important with urgency and upset.

As a take away for this whole affair, I have a couple of new skills. Next time my bike stalls I’ll recognize my own freak–out, call a friend, ask a question, or take a break. I live, I learn and I keep improving. And you can be damn sure that I won’t leave the fuel valve off again!

I would love to hear from you: what is the situation (the more specific the better) where you freak out and what are some tools you use to calm and learn yourself out of the situation?

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?

On New Fitness, TED, and Practice

I spent the weekend at Anat Baniel’s “New Fitness” workshop. My new conceptualization of enthusiasm, vitality, and fitness: A baby learning to crawl.  I, for one, have never seen anyone in a gym look so eager nor move so well.

I just watched Aditi Shankardass discuss neurological diagnostic techniques for learning disorders on TED talks. This seven minute clip is worth seeing.

Finally, I’m continuing to enjoy the writings of Jonah Lehrer. Specifically, in September he summarized a paper about the importance of practice.  Here’s the link and here is the conclusion of the paper:

On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure. If this proves to be a general rule of nondeclarative learning, it could help to explain how potent instances of learning can arise when sensory stimulation is not always coupled with attention.