Being Driven Crazy by Psychology

There is a burgeoning field of scientific endeavor which is the study of the acquisition of expertise. I am trying to write a book on the mental game of archery and since there is too much material for one person to study, one needs to do a lot of reading to find out what others say, hence my interest in this subject. Anything that helps us understand how to make expertise more attainable, makes us better coaches.

A promising viewpoint on the attainment of expertise is Ericsson’s work on what is called “deliberate practice.” Ericsson’s claim is that undirected practice has minimal benefits, the main one being making us more physically fit to perform the task at hand … maybe. But if you want to improve the quality of a performance, highly focused practice  is necessary, with the focus on a specific aspect you wish to improve, using directed drills/exercises to that end.

The mainstream press, though, has asked the omnibus question: Is practice all you need to develop expertise? And lately they have brought up a number of topics researchers claim have a role. One of these is “working memory.” Working memory is a hot topic in psychology right now which is why people are trying it out for a leading role in … you name it. (Such is science: when topics are “hot” a whole bunch of scientists jump on that bandwagon. This is probably a manifestation of scientists looking for a place to work in which results are easier to get, not unlike gold prospectors.) working memory is how much information you can cram into your mind and hold it there while you are working; this is definitely “short-term memory.”

Working memory is now claimed to play a role in sight reading of music and any number of other performance-related fields. Apparently the people making these claims haven’t looked at a performance critically. For example, studies show that in order for a musician to play from music they are reading, they have to “read ahead” several notes ahead of where they are playing. It was discovered (by the simple expedient of covering up the music and exposing it at rates the scientists could control), that professional musicians read ahead farther than amateurs. But to the researcher’s surprise, the difference was very small. When reading music and playing, there is an optimum read ahead distance: if you are to close to the playing time, musicians stumble. They apparently do not have enough time to translate the symbols into actions. If they get too far ahead of playing, they also stumble because they tend to forget what they had read before they are supposed to be playing it. So, working memory does play a role in sight reading music (reading as you are playing) but the part working memory plays is as part of a chain of events. Obviously if you do not have enough of working memory, you will struggle at this task. Other studies show that “experts” have more working memory than amateurs in this arena. So, the question I have is: does working memory get improved through practice? If so, then the question (Is practice all you need …) is too broad.

Yet, huge claims are being made regarding the role of this bit or that bit when it comes to practice. How any one of us is to make any sense of the current state of research is beyond me (literally). There seem to be some reasonable conclusions one can come to with regard to practice that have low chances of contradiction later.

  • So, should archers practice? Yes. Practice is a route to better performance. But, how effective the practice is is dependant on how smart you practice. So, practice as focused as you can.
  • Is there a way to project the amount of practice needed to meet a goal? No. Longer practice sessions do not seem to be as effective as more frequent shorter ones. (What “longer” and “shorter” are is ill-defined.) If you want to perform consistently, you must develop to the point you can shoot larger numbers of arrows in a session than required for performance.
  • It also seems that the best physical practice for a performance is the performance itself. So, if you are a pianist, play the piano. If you are an archer, shoot arrows.
  • In order to tell what works and what does not, you must … keep … records of your performance. Memory alone just doesn’t work.

My feeling is the question “Is practice all you need to develop expertise?” as discussed in the mainstream press, supports the meme that there are natural “talents” for particular activities: a talent for math, a talent for the violin, a talent for baseball. This is not only unsupportable by any science (the existent of sport- or activity-specific “talents” has no evidence supporting it) but is a toxic concept; even if it were true, there is no benefit from believing it.

Performers who believe in “talent” tend to quit easier when they encounter difficulties, believing they “just don’t have a talent for math or whatever.” They also shy away from greater challenges because they have no idea how far their “talent” can take them and they don’t want to test something they don’t understand. Plus, since this talent-thing is responsible for their ability, why practice? These reactions to the belief in the concept of talent have been documented and seem to make sense.

If you don’t believe in “talent” then the outcome is determined by how much you learn and how hard you practice. If your performance isn’t good enough, you either need to work harder or smarter (better: both). This nonbelief in talent has this benefit in that we can now see the effect of deliberate practice upon skills developed and it is quite positive.

 

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Being Driven Crazy by Psychology

  1. THOMAS J

    As you know, I’m into competitive archery and coaching , and I do a lot of bicycling, and used to play semi-pro racquetball. In addition, I’ve written some archery related books and I’m in the middle of writing two more books, one about the history of the sport since the development of the compound bow and the other about “Improving Archery Performance Through Goal Setting.” My editor is Steve Ruis, and he wrote the blog below today. So why am I sharing this particular blog? It ties into, of all things “music” and “practice”, for what it may or may not be worth. “Working memory” below is especially interesting since it applies to our music and how we actually go about it. As musicians, how many times do we think or even say out loud when getting a new piece of music, “How does it go?” We oftentimes need that crutch or a “key” to help us get kick started. Read the entire blog. I put the part about working memory and musicians in blue….the ties to my archery and racquetball link up closely (or it seems apparently so to me) to playing my accordion. In archery, you must work in the present, not in the past or get ahead of yourself. In racquetball and music, you MUST be ahead of the game in order to get better at what it is you are trying to play/accomplish; same with cycling. You cannot be looking down at the current road under you or you are guaranteed to crash.

    I don’t know about you, but if I try to play any song note by note without looking ahead, I stumble and fumble, if I get too far ahead of myself, I stumble and crumble. For me, the “more difficult pieces of music” are easier to stay with than the simple stuff. I have yet to figure that one out! How can this be to make more blatant and obvious mistakes on simple stuff than on something that is way more difficult? I have noticed that for some of the longer and more difficult songs that I have memorized, I get into trouble when I play them and use/read the music in front of me. If I look at the music, I’m inclined to lose my focus and really foul up…weird stuff. Yet, when I was learning the song, I had to be maybe a bar to bar and a half ahead so I “knew” what was coming up. Reading what is below helped me to understand things a little bit better concerning this thing called “working memory”. Can you “overpractice”? My opinion in all of my skill-related activities is YES! Do you have peaks and valleys in your performance regardless of the amount of practice? Again, IMHO…then answer is YES? Does “biorhythm” play any role in this variance in levels of performance? It hasn’t been proven, but many years ago, we archers mapped our biorhythm and found evidence and predictability of when we were going to peak out and when we were going to ‘crash’. I knew pretty well when I was about to peak out and knew when I was due for a poor performance. I haven’t figured this out for my music yet, however. Shooting an arrow and doing that same exact thing over and over and over again is a replication, while music is constantly changing during a song and in the next one. Enjoy the read….

    Steve Ruis posted: “There is a burgeoning field of scientific endeavor which is the study of the acquisition of expertise. I am trying to write a book on the mental game of archery and since there is too much material for one person to study, one needs to do a lot of reading”

  2. Tom Dorigatti

    I’m into competitive archery and coaching (have shot archery for over 50 years) , and I do a lot of bicycling, and used to play semi-pro racquetball. In addition, I’ve written some archery related books and I’m in the middle of writing two more books, one about the history of the sport since the development of the compound bow and the other about “Improving Archery Performance Through Goal Setting.”
    My editor is Steve Ruis, and he wrote the blog below today.
    So why am I commenting on this particular blog?
    Simple. I’m also a piano accordionist, so the blog ties into, and makes specific mention of “music” and “practice”, for what it may or may not be worth. “Working memory” below is especially interesting since it applies to our music and how we actually go about it.
    As musicians, how many times do we think or even say out loud when getting a new piece of music, “How does it go?” We oftentimes need that crutch or a “key” to help us get kick started.
    Read the entire blog. The ties to my archery, cycling and racquetball link up closely (or it seems apparently so to me) to playing my accordion.
    In archery, you must work in the present, not in the past or get ahead of yourself. In racquetball and music, you MUST be ahead of the game in order to get better at what it is you are trying to play/accomplish; same with cycling. You cannot be looking down at the current road under you or you are guaranteed to crash.

    I don’t know about you, but if I try to play any song note by note without looking ahead, I stumble and fumble, if I get too far ahead of myself, I stumble and crumble. For me, the “more difficult pieces of music” are easier to stay with than the simple stuff. I have yet to figure that one out! How can this be to make more blatant and obvious mistakes on simple stuff than on something that is way more difficult?
    I have noticed that for some of the longer and more difficult songs that I have memorized, I get into trouble when I play them and use/read the music in front of me. If I look at the music, I’m inclined to lose my focus and really foul up…weird stuff. Yet, when I was learning the song, I had to be maybe a bar to bar and a half ahead so I “knew” what was coming up.
    Reading what is below helped me to understand things a little bit better concerning this thing called “working memory”.
    Can you “over practice”? My opinion in all of my skill-related activities is YES!
    Do you have peaks and valleys in your performance regardless of the amount of practice? Again, IMHO…then answer is YES?
    Does “biorhythm” play any role in this variance in levels of performance? It hasn’t been proven, but many years ago, we archers mapped our biorhythm and found evidence and predictability of when we were going to peak out and when we were going to ‘crash’. I knew pretty well when I was about to peak out and knew when I was due for a poor performance. I haven’t figured this out for my music yet, however.
    Shooting an arrow and doing that same exact thing over and over and over again is a replication, while music is constantly changing during a song and in the next one.
    Good job on this one, Steve Ruis!

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