When I was in high school, I wanted to become a basketball star.
There were many days in the summer when I left for the gym right after eating breakfast, and got home right before dinner.
I adhered to the method of practice, practice, practice and focused hard on improving my 3 point shot.
If you've ever played basketball, you can probably guess what my practice looked like, and it's what many coaches recommended to me at that time.
I did 20 shots from the baseline, 20 from the left wing, 20 from the top, and continued going back and forth, and back and forth.
The basic idea was to keep shooting from one spot until you got better, and then move to another spot.
Well, this type training led to a huge embarrassment during tryouts, but I'll talk about that a bit later.
I'll just say: if I knew then what I know now about how learning and skill acquisition works, I would never train how I did back then.
Now, let's take a quick detour to the 1970s.
Two researchers wanted to test how different types of practice would affect the learning of a group of kids.
The task was a simple game of cornhole - throwing a beanbag into a hole in a raised platform at a certain distance away.
The goal was to get better at throwing the bag into the hole from 3 feet away.
There were 2 groups that had nearly identical pre-test scores, that trained differently for 10 weeks:
The first group always practiced tossing from 3 feet away, while the second group practiced tossing from 2 or 4 feet away, but NEVER from 3 feet away.
In the final test, their performance was tested from 3 feet away.
Which group do you think performed better? The 3 foot one, or the 2 and 4 foot one?
Surprisingly, the group that NEVER practiced the 3 foot throw, outperformed the group that ONLY practiced that type of throw.
This and other studies demonstrates that varied practice, in this case varying the distances you're practicing from, makes it easier to use this skill in a larger variety of scenarios than massed practice - which in this case is tossing from the same distance over and over.
Instead of learning how to do a highly specific thing, in a very specific environment, varied practice makes you perform constant adjustments as you go from throwing from 2 feet, to 4 feet, and back again. These constant adjustments and changes allow you to create a better understanding of how a certain amount of force will affect where the beanbag goes.
For massed practice, on the other hand, you don't have to adjust as much. Once you are "dialed in," the knowledge for how to get the beanbag in the hole is in your short-term memory, and you can keep tossing it in one after another without a problem.
However, without those adjustments, you won't have as good of a feel for how small differences in your throws can affect the beanbag. Once the knowledge of how to do it is in short-term memory, you are no longer "practicing." You are just repeating a motion you have memorized for a short time, just like you might repeat a phone number before finding a piece of paper and a pen to write it down.
And what happens with that phone number once it's written down? Exactly. You forget it.
In a similar matter you might also forget the precise technique you need for getting the beanbag in the hole because it's only stored in your short-term memory.
As you can see, massed practice can lead to worse performance in the long-run and that's exactly what happened with me.
If I could dial in my shot, I could sink 15 3-pointers in a row. From the same spot of course.
But if I had to shoot in the flow of a game... well, the story becomes a bit different.
We were playing a game during tryouts, and I was excited to show off my newfound skills. The coach already knew I wasn't bad, but I knew that showing him that I was now a 3 point machine, would guarantee a starting spot.
The first 3 point shot of the game, from a spot I practiced thousands of times during the summer... I airballed.
And I thought... That's fine. It's just adrenaline and nerves.
But, as the game went on, I realized that if I shot from a spot just a bit different from one that I practiced in, or from a pass that wasn't as perfect as the ones I gave myself, or if anything wasn't perfectly aligned with how I practiced, I would miss.
The game that I thought would clinch my spot as a rising star on the team, almost led me to being cut from the team.
I listened to the famous adage of "practice, practice, practice," but forgot about a similarly famous one of "practice like you play."
If only I changed the spots that I shot from with every shot when I practiced . Moved a bit farther beyond the 3 point line, and then moved a bit inside of it. Gave myself bad passes. Shot from weird angles that might happen during an actual game.
Then I just might have been playing in the NBA instead of making this video for you. 😉 But now it's your turn. Practice correctly, and don't let my mistakes become your mistakes.
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Improve yourself today, and make time work for you. Not against you.