Practice Tip for the Week

"Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required.  This could be one of our biggest downfalls.  'Adults think much more about what they are doing,' says Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 'Children just copy what they see.'

"Wulf's work over the past decade shows that you should focus on the outcome of your actions rather than the intricacies of the movements.  She applies this finding in her own life: as a keen golfer, she has found it is better to think about the swing of the club, for instance, rather than the position of her hands.  'I'm always trying to find where best to focus my attention,' she says.  Similarly, if you are learning to sing, then you should concentrate on the tone of the voice, rather than on the larynx or the placement of the tongue.  Study after study shows that simply shifting your mindset in this way accelerates your learning--perhaps by encouraging the subconscious, automatic movements that mark proficiency.

"Misplaced conscientiousness may also lead adults to rely on overly rigid practice regimes that stifle long-term learning.  The adult talent for perseverance, it seems, is not always a virtue.  Left to their own devices, most people segment their sessions into separate blocks--when learning basketball, for instance, they may work on each shot in turn, perhaps because they feel a desire to master it.  The approach may bring rapid improvements at first, but a host of studies have found that the refined technique is soon forgotten.

"Instead, you do better to take a carousel approach, quickly rotating through the different skills to be practised without lingering too long on each one.  Although the reason is still unclear, it seems that jumping between skills makes your mind work a little harder when applying what you've learned, helping you to retain the knowledge in the long term....  According to work by Arnaud Boutin at the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors in Dortmund, Germany, venturing out of your comfort zone in this way helps to ensure that you improve your overall performance rather than confining your progress to the single task at hand."

"If none of this helps you learn like a child, simply adopting the arrogance of youth may do no harm.  'As we get older, we lose our confidence, and I'm convinced that has a big impact on performance,' says Wulf.  To test the assumption, she recently trained a small group of people to pitch a ball.  While half were given no encouragement, she offered the others a sham test, rigged to demonstrate that their abilities were above average.  They learned to pitch on target with much greater accuracy than those who didn't get an ego boost."

--David Robson, "Old Dog, New Tricks: You never lose the ability to learn like a child," New Scientist, 218:2918 (May 25-31, 2003): 35.


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