The Role of Feedback in Promoting Deliberate Practice and Skill Retention
In examining great performance we must look at what separates a good performance from a truly exceptional performance. In doing just that, many researchers and journalists are now suggesting that what really makes the difference is a highly specific type of practice or training which has become known as deep practice or deliberate practice. Geoff Colvin tells us in his book Talent is Overrated that “deliberate practice isn’t the kind of hard work that your parents told you about. It’s difficult. It hurts.
But more of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance”. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle actually gives us the physiological explanation for the success of deep practice based on recent research and how it can increase skill up to ten times faster than conventional practice. Here we begin to understand the role of myelin in this fascinating story.
Think of myelin as the insulation that wraps around our nerve fibres (the white matter); it works to increase the speed, signal strength and accuracy of the neural firing mechanism. Thus, “the more often we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluent our movements and thoughts become”.
So, with increased amounts of a certain type of practice, layer upon layer of myelin gets laid down around our nerve fibres. The more we develop the circuit, the more automatic the skill becomes. This process is a slow one. And this deliberate practice requires that we make mistakes. Many experts agree with the estimation of at least 10 000 hours of deep or deliberate practice to become an ‘expert’ at virtually anything.
Generally speaking, in learning a new skill we must extend ourselves beyond what we have been previously capable of performing. A good coach encourages the following process during learning: the student explores a little, makes mistakes, acknowledges and then works to correct those mistakes. The universal instinct is to slow down the new movement at least initially, often breaking it into its most basic components. Then work begins on mastering each component and finally taking a look again at the task as a whole. Finally, work is done to speed up this new movement/skill.
One of the keys to successfully promoting this process of deliberate practice is the manner in which ‘feedback’ in training is provided by coaches. As we find ourselves utilizing 3D technology and audio biofeedback more regularly to facilitate technical change, we should examine this mechanism for change more closely, asking ourselves whether in fact we are supplying this feedback in the most effective manner. If this ‘augmented’ feedback is not provided in a way that reinforces the concept of deliberate practice, we may find some of our coaching methods falling short of the mark.
Traditionally, augmented feedback (verbal, visual, audio) in coaching has been provided as often and as soon as possible following execution of the ‘new’ movement skill in such a way as to reduce performance errors. But is this a true learning effect? And are learners becoming too reliant upon augmented feedback in order to correct the movement errors? We already know that cognitive processes play an important role in the early stages of skill acquisition, and this seems to fit in with the concept of deliberate practice.
Past research in motor learning has focused on the use of certain coaching strategies in order to ensure skill retention rather than simply improved performance during practice. Yes, there is a difference! Some of the conclusions on augmented feedback and practice regimes made by Lee et al in a literature review on cognitive effect and motor learning are listed below:
1) Low relative frequency of augmented feedback may be an important variable in learning better than high relative frequency. Thus, encouraging the learner to interpret their own performance by reducing the relative frequency of the feedback positively affects cognitive effort;
2) Fading the relative frequency of feedback over the course of the practice has been shown to be an effective strategy;
3) Relatively good skill retention has been measured following practice in which augmented feedback was made following a delay;
4) Encouraging the golfer to estimate their own augmented feedback has value (suggesting that there is a cognitive effect in attempting to learn to interpret their own intrinsic feedback);
5) Augmented feedback is most beneficial when it serves to encourage the golfer to learn self evaluation skills using sources that will be available during competition;
6) Random practice (e.g. hitting to different targets in random order) often results in much poorer acquisition performance than blocked practice (e.g. hitting several consecutive shots to a specific target) but better acquisition on skill retention tests.
Thus, random practice may encourage a learner to compare and contrast the methods and strategies used for performing the different tasks better than repetitive type practice.
Obviously the goal of most learning situations is for the learner to become somewhat independent of the teacher. And as coaches, one of our goals is to provide feedback as a ‘reliability check’ to ensure that intrinsic sources of feedback are being correctly interpreted by the learner, hence ensuring a positive learning situation. In effect we must educate the learner about learning!
Lee D.L., Swinnen S.P., D.J. Serrien. Cognitive Effort and Motor Learning (1994).
Colvin G., Talent is Overrated, (2008).
Coyle, D., The Talent Code, (2009).
Extract from: VOLUME 3, ISSUE 5, Golf BioDynamics NEWSLETTER