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 first hand, 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 too 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 dependent 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 as there is too many details to remember. (What material is your bowstring made from? How long is it … exactly? How many twists are in it? How many strands? How long is the center serving? And that is just the bowstring. Note: all of that information is necessary to make a replacement bowstring.)
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.