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We Were Wrong: IMperfect Practice Makes Perfect

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First, we were told ‘practice makes perfect’.

Then, they told us ‘PERFECT practice makes perfect’.

It turns out though – they were wrong.

In fact, according to the latest research, PERFECT practice may actually be the worst way to learn a new skill.

What you need isn’t perfect practice, but instead, practice riddled with errors.

So why did we get this so wrong? And why are mistakes such an important way of fast-tracking skill development?

Whether we’re talking about learning a complex exercise, learning a musical instrument, or learning to walk for the first time, it all comes down to two things. Attention and Neuroplasticity.

Attention is pretty simple, it’s our ability to focus on a certain task. If we want to get a little more technical, it’s the ability to focus our attention on a sensory event. This sensory event may be something we see, like hitting a bullseye on a dartboard, something we hear, like striking the correct keys on a piano, or something we feel, like the position of our body in a highly technical exercise like Olympic weightlifting.

Neuroplasticity is a little more complex. It refers to our brain’s ability to change itself. Imagine you stretch a rubber band. When you let it go, it springs right back to its original length. This is because the band has what, in physics, is called an ‘elastic’ property. Now imaging stretching a piece of cling wrap. When you let it go, it remains deformed at its new length. In physics, we call this a ‘plastic’ property.

Our brain isn’t elastic like the rubber band. It’s plastic, like the cling wrap. When the brain learns something new, it retains that new skill. Neurons in our brain connect together to form ‘skill pathways’. Our brain changes itself.

So neuroplasticity is a good thing – it allows us to learn and adapt.

You’ll remember we talked about the need for both attention and neuroplasticity. In fact, attention leads to neuroplasticity. If we give our focus to a new skill, we improve our ability to learn that skill.

But here’s the key. We NEED errors to cause us to focus our attention.

Errors focus our attention, focussed attention leads to neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is what develops a new skill.

So how does this work?

When you make an error, say striking the wrong key on a piano, or losing your balance when performing a snatch in Olympic Weightlifting, it causes a certain part of your brain to activate. Crucially, this is the part of your brain that heightens attention.

This error is sending a signal to your brain that something needs to change so the same error doesn’t happen again.

Not only are errors ok, they actually create the perfect conditions for optimal neuroplasticity. Errors are a vital part of the learning process.

The more errors you make, the more signals your brain receives, and the more we can create favourable changes in our nervous system. Making a lot of errors is important – and lots of errors can only come from high repetition of the skill. 

The perfect environment to learn a new skill is therefore very high repetition of a skill in a short amount of time. Allocating a finite period of time to repeated practice. Performing the skill again and again and again. Making errors again and again and again. This is the best way to fast-track learning. Because the more mistakes you make, the more we can focus our attention on the skill, and the more ‘plastic’ the change in the brain becomes.

And eventually, when you’ve missed enough bullseyes on the dartboard, dropped enough barbells, or fallen over enough times, you’ll perform the skill correctly.

And when you do, something special happens. Your brain releases a reward chemical, called ‘dopamine’. Dopamine causes that little ‘internal fist pump’ you experience when you achieve something you’ve been working hard at. Not only does dopamine make you feel good, but it also consolidates the skill you’ve just achieved – locking it into your brain.

So what can teachers and coaches learn from this updated thinking around learning?

First, we can flip our outdated perspective of what makes a good coach. We naturally think of a good teacher as someone who provides constant feedback. Although this is important for the student to be able to identify where their errors are, it must be balanced out with time where the learning can make their own mistakes without constant feedback. ‘Over-coaching’ prevents neuroplasticity and can actually slow the learning process. Giving people time to make mistakes allows the errors to tell them what to focus on. More focus equals more attention equals neuroplasticity equals learning.

So how can someone looking to learn a new skill use this information to fast-track their progress? There are four steps:

  1. Cram as many reps as possible into a period of time where you can maintain focus.
  2. Pay attention to the errors you make.
  3. Celebrate when you perform the skill correctly  – the hit of dopamine will cement that skill.
  4. After your bout of intense practice, do nothing for a while. It helps the mind ‘replay’ that skill which will further help the learning process (and prioritise sleep, that will do the same).

And if you’re a teacher or a coach, don’t be so quick to jump in to make corrections. Give your students time to work it out for themselves.

Perfect practice doesn’t make perfect.

IMperfect practice makes perfect.

References:

  • Norman, K. J., Riceberg, J. S., Koike, H., Bateh, J., McCraney, S. E., Caro, K., Kato, D., Liang, A., Yamamuro, K., Flanigan, M. E., Kam, K., Falk, E. N., Brady, D. M., Cho, C., Sadahiro, M., Yoshitake, K., Maccario, P., Demars, M. P., Waltrip, L., Varga, A. W., … Morishita, H. (2021). Post-error recruitment of frontal sensory cortical projections promotes attention in mice. Neuron, 109(7), 1202–1213.e5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2021.02.001
  • Huberman, Andrew (2021), How to Learn Skills Faster. Huberman Lab [Podacast].
Dan Williams

Dan Williams

Founder/Director

Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.