The Psychology of Skill Development
If you train for any length of time, chances are high that at some point, you will find yourself stuck. You might try increasing weight, increasing reps, working harder, and resting more. As you try various things and the inevitable frustration sets in, you find yourself wondering if there are any mental tricks to help you break through your plateau.
Figuring out how to break through plateaus is something skilled movement practitioners do with relative ease. In fact, it could be argued this distinguishes expert practitioners from those who are competent, but can’t seem to make the jump to more impressive feats. From a mental perspective, one of the more challenging aspects of improving performance requires letting go of the idea there is a right or wrong way to perform a skill.1
For instance, if you are learning how to handstand, it makes sense to handstand in the same way for a while. Once you have mastered the essential components of strength, mobility, and coordination, it's time to move onto more challenging things. If you only handstand in the way you learned, in the place you learned, with everything perfectly stacked and every variable accounted for, you will get to a place in your handstand practice and stall. Things will not progress, and your ability to explore other ways of handstanding will be nonexistent.
However, if you begin handstanding in other environments or in different ways, your handstand will change. The skill will be adaptable, and your ability to perform the skill in a variety of conditions will improve, making the original handstand stronger.
This is a key principle of deliberate practice,2 a technique that requires focused attention, immediate feedback, problem solving, and the opportunity to practice a specific task with the intention to improve.
If you have truly mastered a skill, it is adaptable to any situation, not just the confines of the gym. [Photo credit: Mats Hagwall | CC BY 2.0]
Focused attention is exactly that: paying attention to the task at hand. This means distractions are limited. You aren’t having a conversation with your coach about the best shows on Netflix, or watching the best show on Netflix while practicing the skill. You are paying attention to what you are doing. This can be challenging, especially since we live in a world where our cell phones are never far away.
An effective way to improve focused attention is through mindfulness-based meditation. Here is a simple template:
- Find a comfortable seated position.
- Set a timer for three minutes.
- Focus on your inhale, focus on your exhale.
- When your mind wanders (which it will), acknowledge that it wandered, and return your awareness to the inhale and the exhale.
Attention, like all things, is something that can be improved with practice. Practicing attention has the added benefit of improving cognitive performance;3 a nice side effect when the ultimate goal is skill mastery. Instead of viewing a mindfulness practice as another thing to do, view it as a way to enhance other parts of your life.
Getting immediate feedback after performing a skill forces you to think about how you performed the task just a moment ago. This is what a coach does by providing a real-time critique, giving you a chance to use what you just learned and apply it to the next attempt.
Directed questioning also impacts learning and appears to improve decision making.4 If you don’t have a coach to ask you questions after performing the skill, keep a journal with you. Write down your impressions and use the journal as a way to monitor your impressions of the task. Ask yourself two simple questions:
- What was my experience while performing the skill?
- What could I do differently next time to improve the quality of the movement?
Another way to gain immediate feedback is through video. In the era of smart phones, video feedback requires nothing more than taking the time to set up your phone and hitting “record.” Analyzing the skill directly after performing it gives you an opportunity to critically assess yourself. It enhances learning and improves cognitive expertise.5 It is important to remember the video feedback is not being used to compare your performance to someone else’s; instead, it’s providing information about how you are performing a skill right now.
Let's return to the example of learning a handstand. When you begin practicing handstands, you might find it’s difficult to orient yourself while upside down, which makes it challenging to know what’s happening during practice. Are your arms shoulder-width apart or are they wider? Are you actually doing a split-leg kick-up or are the legs coming up at the same time? Video feedback allows you to see what you are doing and apply that knowledge to the next repetition. As you become more skilled, what you look for will change. Are your toes pointing? Are your arms straight? Your perception of what is happening and what is actually happening aren’t always the same thing. Video feedback helps to clarify your mind’s image of how you perform the skill.
Problem solving happens after receiving immediate feedback. Problem solving also occurs when you perform the task in a slightly different context or a slightly different way. Movement experts have the ability to quickly modify skills under unusual circumstances.6 This is partly because they have practiced the task in a variety of ways, so they aren’t limited to one movement option. They can make subtle adjustments in order to still achieve the desired outcome.
Let’s pretend you have now become an expert hand balancer. You can perform a handstand any time, anywhere, because you have practiced the handstand 5,000 different ways. If the conditions aren’t right for a split-kick entry, it’s not a big deal because you can use a tuck entry. If the surface is uneven, you can subtly shift the weight on your hands to accommodate the circumstances and stay upside down.
But what if you are still a beginner? If you can’t use the split-kick entry, which you’ve practiced 100 times, you might try a tuck entry. You may or may not be successful, and if you are successful, chances are high it won’t look easy and effortless; more clunky with a bit of luck thrown in that you stayed up. An uneven surface leads to large, obvious movements to stay upright. Contrast this with an expert hand balancer, whose movements are so small they are barely perceptible. Variability leads to improved mastery.
Practice with Intention to Improve
Finally, practicing with a desired goal of improving is necessary to achieve mastery. If you practice in exactly the same way, for the same number of repetitions and sets, and without any purpose other than to finish the workout, that’s perfectly okay. Just don’t expect to achieve a greater sense of skill. If you instead direct your attention, focus on performing the movement a little bit better each time, and take your time to understand how you are performing the movement, you will become more adept at your desired skill.
It is easy to get caught up in numbers to gauge improvement during training. How much, what percentage, how many, and how long are all questions we ask when we are practicing a physical hobby. By occasionally shifting the focus to sensing, feeling, and verbalizing our experience, it becomes possible to transcend our abilities and take our movements skills to different level.
Put your mind in the right place to improve:
1. Collins, Dave, Veronica Burke, Amanda Martindale, and Andrew Cruickshank. "The Illusion of Competency Versus the Desirability of Expertise: Seeking a Common Standard for Support Professions in Sport." Sports Medicine 45, no. 1 (2014): 1-7. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0251-1.
2. Ericsson, K. Anders. "Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview." Academic Emergency Medicine 15, no. 11 (2008): 988-94. doi:10.1111/j.1553-2712.2008.00227.x.
3. Ching, Ho-Hoi, Malcolm Koo, Tsung-Huang Tsai, and Chiu-Yuan Chen. "Effects of a Mindfulness Meditation Course on Learning and Cognitive Performance among University Students in Taiwan." Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2015 (2015): 1-7. doi:10.1155/2015/254358.
4. Moreno, M. P., A. Moreno, L. Garcia-Gonzalez, A. Urena, C. Hernandez, and F. Del Villar. "An Intervention Based on Video Feedback and Questioning to Improve Tactical Knowledge in Expert Female Volleyball Players." Perceptual and Motor Skills 122, no. 3 (2016): 911-32. doi:10.1177/0031512516650628.
5. García-González, Luis, M. Perla Moreno, Alberto Moreno, Alexander Gil, and Fernando Del Villar. "Effectiveness of a Video-Feedback and Questioning Programme to Develop Cognitive Expertise in Sport." PLoS ONE 8, no. 12 (2013). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082270.
6. Kast, Volker, and Christian Leukel. "Motor Experts Care about Consistency and Are Reluctant to Change Motor Outcome." PLOS ONE PLoS ONE 11, no. 8 (2016). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161798.