To Learn Faster, Raise the Stakes


The other day Stephen, my daughter’s violin teacher, pointed out a pattern he’d noticed when he was teaching his students to play difficult passages.

When he instructed students to try to play it perfectly five times, the kids learned slowly. Some kids took thirty tries to get the five perfect ones; others took a hundred; some never got it.

However, when he told the kids to try to play it perfectly five times in a row and if they missed  they started again at zero, they learned it far faster. Instead of fifty tries, it took ten. “Much, much faster,” was how Stephen described it.

When you tell someone they need to do a task perfectly, but are vague about how it needs to be done, part of the learner’s brain switches off. The subconscious message is: take as long as you need, buddy. Every try isn’t really that important. Don’t worry, it’s just practice.

The vagueness serves as an escape hatch. (Which is completely natural — remember, our brains are always searching for an excuse not to give effort.)

However, you provide clarity plus urgency — say, when you tell someone that they need to do a task well five times in a row and if they miss they go back to zero — you’re sending a completely different signal. Now the subconscious message is: every single try matters immensely — and if you get one or two in a row, the importance increases even more. This is for keeps.

It reminds me of this great passage in Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, where he talks about his songwriting technique:

You’d be surprised when you’re put right on the ball and you’ve got to do something and everybody’s looking at you going, OK, what’s going to happen? You put yourself there on the firing line — give me a blindfold and a last cigarette and let’s go. And you’d be surprised by how much comes out of you before you die.

Good practice is designed to create that feeling. You’re on the line. The clock is ticking; every rep is pressurized. Good practice nudges you out onto the knife edge, over and over. Because that’s the place where skills are built.

There are lots of straightforward ways to raise the stakes in practice: limit time, count reps, make it a contest, track progress from day to day and week to week, post results. The real trick is to raise the stakes by the right amount; you want to hit the sweet spot where it’s seriously challenging but still do-able, where each failure teaches a clear lesson, and where each success builds to the next.

How else can you raise the stakes? I’d love to hear your techniques.

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17 Responses to “To Learn Faster, Raise the Stakes”

  1. Marshall says:

    Fascinating. My piano teacher did the same thing to me, and it made me as peevish as an 11-year-old usually gets. It also worked. When you have to start at the start, every moment becomes progressively more important, and your adrenaline kicks in. To badly mix metaphors, there are no mulligans when you’re walking the tightrope. You can’t expect to bump into a perfect rendition eventually or by chance. This reminds me of the deep frustration Scorsese et al. felt when, at the end of that uninterrupted seven-minute Copa shot in “GoodFellas,” Henny Youngman blew his line. A line that he’d spoken many thousands of times.

  2. Ray says:

    As a girls softball coach – my teams have always improved vastly defensively after using a drill called 21 outs. It is a defensive drill where we have to record 21 straight outs as I hit calling out situations – or we go back to 0. You would be amazed how the intensity picks up after resetting the outs back to zero a couple of times.

  3. Walter Stemberg says:

    We do a similar drill with our U12 soccer boys. The field is divided in 3rds. There are 3 sections. The idea is for section #1 to get the ball across to section #3. Section #2 however has 3 players in it waiting to steal the ball as it passes by them into section #3. Back to section #1 where there are 3 boys passing the ball around and 1 chasing them trying to steal the ball. When given those instructions, the boys in section #1 take their time getting it to section #3. At times they are slow, over pass, and just don’t concentrate. As soon as we put a 7 second time limit on them and add a scoring system, the drill works 10 times better! So in this case, a scoring system (cuz now it becomes a competitiion) and a time limit. Oh BTW, if the 3 guys get the ball stolen from them by the one defender, it’s 10 burpies!

  4. Doc says:

    I’ll apologize before hand if I am overstating the obvious but we have to make sure the participants have the ability to perform the act perfectly. The reason I say this is that I recently observed a high school softball coach employing a similar drill while working on defense. They kept on and on to no avail.. Problem was that the girls just didn’t have the throwing skills to do what was asked. The Coach (in my opinion) could have best spent that time teaching them to throw better.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Great point, Doc — if the goal is set too far out, the drill is just a frustration machine, isn’t it? Thanks very much.

  6. Robert says:

    The idea is to make them able to produce the desired experience for the desired action.
    Just making a game does not cut it.

  7. Rod Roth says:

    If what you practice is important to your financial well being, it doesn’t hurt to get a scare. In my case, there was a question as to whether my wife’s teaching contract would be renewed for next year. Really got my attention! And it made a huge difference in my effort to develop my futures trading method. You can’t plan these things, you just have to be lucky enough to get jolted out of your complacency every now and then.

  8. Dale says:

    It’s not a technical technic and it may sound a little silly but I create a narrative around the effort. Something along the lines of “No one has ever done this, it’s considered impossible, but…” 🙂

  9. djcoyle says:

    I love that, and I’ve found it’s really effective too. When it comes to motivation, it’s impossible to beat a good story.

  10. Gt says:

    As a violin teacher, i always make sure the goal is achievable. On top of “going back to zero” technique, i use
    1.” plus/ minus one” technique. It is for simpler, but challenging task. If the kid get it right, it’s plus one. If the kid’s trial doesn’t work, it’s minus one. Depending on the time limit, you can aim for between +5 and +10.
    2. Sometimes i set timer between 2 to 5 minutes to see how the progress goes under limited time while doing plus/minus one.

  11. At the start of each of my practice sessions (I’m a pool player), I require myself to make a certain warm-up shot 10 times in a row. The warm-up shot requires nearly perfect form and technique in order to make the ball, so my adrenaline starts to kick in when I get to 7 or 8 in a row. I must control my body’s response to the adrenaline and mentally focus on maintaining proper technique. If I fail to make 10 in a row, I start again at zero and keep trying until I do. Most days I achieve 10 in a row on the first or second attempt and by that time my mind will be hyper focused and ready for the deep practice session that follows. Occasionally I can’t make 10 in a row, so I break down my cue and come back to the table when my mind is ready for the challenge.

  12. Casey Wheel says:

    For basketball, a great warm up I have used is to swish 10 or 20 shots in a row, right in front of the basket. If it hits rim, start back at 0. Do this everyday, and you will get a quick feel of how your body is sequencing your shot (long or short). Aligns mind and body very quickly.

  13. John Turner says:

    Here’s an interesting example from golf. In 1974, Joe Campbell became the men’s golf coach at Purdue University. Joe had been the PGA Tour rookie of the year in 1959 and won three tournaments in his tour career. He seemed to never hit a shot off-center and never seemed to struggle to break par. Early in his first year as coach, I asked Joe how he practiced. He said for years his routine had been to start by hitting pitching wedges and would only move on to the next longer club, the nine iron, after he had hit five shots exactly as he wanted. He did this through the entire set, ending-up with the driver, the longest club in the bag. Given his ability to seemingly hit every shot pure, what made the biggest impression on me was his comment that there were frequently days he never got to the fairway woods, much less the driver! As I read The Talent Code, it occurred to me this practice technique had all the elements of deep practice described in the book, and it is also an example of “raising the stakes.”

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book and wish I had been able to read it as a teenager. My wife and I both played two sports in college and can see how our experiences could have benefited from the lessons shared in The Talent Code. The musical references are particularly interesting since our daughter plays French horn in one of the top orchestras in North America. The examples in the book of how musicians learn and grow sounded very familiar!

  14. First of all I want to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have had a tough time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Kudos!

  15. It is so true, Daniel
    Thank you so much for breaking the process down for us.

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  17. Jeremie says:

    I am agree with you and I like to make a challenge and combining it with tracking your progress to raise the stakes as you said

    Great value you explained here in your article

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