About a mile from where I live, there’s a soccer field. If you were to pass by, you would see elementary-school teams practicing in the traditional way. Coaches set out orange cones, and kids form lines and wait their turn to participate in various drills.
If you saw them, you might think: Seems like a lot of kids are just standing around.
A few blocks away stands a high school. If you were to pass by, you would see a math class. The class operates in the traditional way: students sit silently in their seats as the teacher gives her lecture.
If you saw them, you might think: Seems like a lot of students are zoning out.
You might think those thoughts. But you wouldn’t have a way to objectively measure the effectiveness of their learning. You wouldn’t have a yardstick.
And you should.
If science has taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that all learning spaces are not created equal. High-quality methods of practice are efficient, because they are aligned with the ways our brains actually improve. Ineffective methods are inefficient, because they are aligned with tradition, or emotion, or the teacher’s ego, or what looks good.
There are an infinite number of ways to screw up a learning session. But high-quality practice sessions share a few basic characteristics. Which means that it should be possible to create a simple metric to measure practice effectiveness. And since that yardstick doesn’t seem to exist, I thought I’d take a crack at creating one.
Please say hello to the Skill-ometer, an attempt at measuring practice effectiveness by measuring seven key elements.
Here’s how it works: Score your practice session by responding to each of the following statements on a scale of 1-5: 1=strongly disagree; 2= disagree; 3=neutral; 4=agree; 5= strongly agree
- Intensity: We gave 100 percent effort and attention.
- Engagement: We were emotionally immersed in the tasks we took on. We knew what we had to do, and it felt like a game.
- Practicality: We practiced exactly the skill that we’ll be using later, in the same way that we’ll be using it in “game situations”
- Repetitions: We embraced the value of repetitions, especially for the most challenging skills
- Clarity: We understood the day’s goal, and where it fit in the larger picture
- Reachfulness: We were pushed to spend time on the edge of our abilities, struggling and reaching just past our current competence
- Fun: It was hard, but not miserable. There were moments of laughter and surprise.
Scoring: (Out of a maximum 35)
- 30-35: You are in the elite zone, hanging out with Peyton Manning and Yo-Yo Ma. Keep doing what you’re doing.
- 25-30: This is a B-plus. You are highly effective, with a few things to work on.
- 15-25: This is closer to a B-minus. You do a few things well, but have some clear weak spots that need addressing.
- 5-15: You need to rethink your approach and design. Start by finding those in your field who score higher and study them.
Now, this is just a rough first attempt, but it’s interesting that most of these elements are about design and communication — areas that are 1) controlled by the coach; 2) can be planned for in advance.
I think it underlines the fact that the most effective learning sessions don’t depend on what happens in the classroom or on the field, but rather on what happens in the days and hours before, when the teacher or coach is thinking, planning, and communicating.
So here’s my question: what other factors do you think should be included in this metric? What other characteristics mark your most effective learning sessions? I’d love to hear your suggestions and ideas.
But in fact, as the psychologist Carol Dweck and others have shown, this idea is mostly wrong. Motivation is largely social; fueled by our interactions with the people around us. In other words, motivation is less about what’s in your heart, and more about how you connect with your social circle.
Check out this passage from a new soccer book called Stillness and Speed, which tells a story about a promising but unproven younger player named Robin Van Persie and a veteran star named Dennis Bergkamp. It begins with Van Persie recalling an afternoon on Arsenal’s training ground.
Van Persie had finished earlier and was sitting in a Jacuzzi which happened to be by a window. Out on the field he noticed Dennis doing a complicated exercise involving shooting, and receiving and giving passes at speed. Robin decided to get out of the bath as soon as Dennis made a mistake.
“It was a 45-minute session and there wasn’t one pass Dennis gave that wasn’t perfect,” [Van Persie said.] “He did everything 100 percent, to the max, shooting as hard as possible, controlling, playing, direct passing… That was so beautiful! To me it was plainly art. My hands got all wrinkled in the bath but I just stayed there. I sat and watched and I waited, looking or one single mistake. Bu the mistake never came. And that was the answer for me.
“Watching that training session answered so many questions I had. I can pass the ball well, too. I’m a good football player as well. But this man did it so well and with such drive. He had such total focus. I found myself thinking, ‘OK, wait a minute, I can play football well enough but I’ve still got an enormous step to take to get to that level.’
And that’s when I realized, if I want to become really good, then I have to be able to do that, too. From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment. With every simple passing or kicking practice, I did everything at 100 percent, just so I wouldn’t make mistakes. And when I made a mistake I was angry. Because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”
Van Persie, of course, went on to become a huge star. It’s a familiar pattern. You start out thinking we’re pretty good. Then you have the thrilling, slightly frightening experience of seeing somebody who’s on the next level. Then, using that person as a north star, you start taking steps that direction.
From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment… I wanted to be like Bergkamp.
Those moments are powerful because they’re fundamentally unpredictable. They can’t be scripted by a coach, or inspired by mere words. They’re more like social lightning bolts, high-voltage connections between people that happen when you least expect them.
That said, I think it’s possible to engineer these moments by paying attention to the design of our learning spaces. Because while these lightning bolts may be uncontrollable, the odds of them happening are increased if you follow certain rules. For example:
- 1) Design for openness. Don’t separate the stars from the rest of the group; instead, provide space for lots of mixing of various skill levels, whether it’s in the office, the classroom, or the locker room.
- 2) Build in free time. In our hyper-busy world, we tend to be allergic to unstructured time. Yet these moments — when someone sits idly by a window and stares in rapture at a brilliant performer — are exactly when this sort of connection happens. So let it.
- 3) Be quiet. So many coaches, parents and teachers feel like they need to be talking in order to motivate their learners. But it’s exactly the opposite. Words shatter the spell.
Can you imagine Van Persie’s reaction if a coach would have come over and started giving him an inspiring speech about how he should be more like the veteran star?
Uh, thanks coach — but I really gotta go.
And Van Persie would have been absolutely right. Because it’s not about the coach, the teacher, or the parent. It’s about creating a learning space that’s aligned with the way motivation really works.
Question: why do so many kids quit organized sports?
Have you checked out the numbers? No fewer than 70 percent of American kids will quit organized sports by age 13. According to my slightly-less-formal survey of parents, figures for music and dance are in the same ballpark, if not higher.
Some of this quitting is fine and good — after all, kids should try a lot of different stuff. However, I think most of us would agree that the current numbers are unhealthy, especially in sports, which (at least in the U.S.) is increasingly dominated by a travel-team culture that focuses on elite performers and ignores everyone else.
While there’s no shortage of blameworthy factors, it might be more useful to focus on the kids — specifically, on the reason most kids quit.
Here’s the thing: most kids quit because, at that moment, it feels like the logical thing to do. They take a hard look at themselves, and they measure themselves against the elite competition, and they figure (wrongly) that they have zero shot at long-term success.
So the real question isn’t about changing the entire screwed-up culture of youth talent development. Rather, it’s more about changing the way kids look at themselves. About shifting their perspective to one that’s more accurate.
With that in mind, check out this two-minute video that uses some classic Wallace and Gromit-style claymation to send a powerful message: developing your talent is far less about possessing magical genes and far more about motivation and hard work.
What I especially love about this video is the straightforwardness. It doesn’t sell kids any of the sugary Disney “just believe in yourself and you’ll succeed” syrup. It doesn’t overload them with scientific talk. It simply lays out the facts. Find something that you love and that suits you. Everyone develops at different rates. Hard work is the path forward.
My question: Why isn’t this video shown at the start of every youth sports season, at the start of every school year? I could imagine similar videos for music and dance — not to mention for math and writing.
And I wonder: does anyone know of any other similar videos and/or learning materials that would be good to share around?
Together, they’re part of a larger trend away from the traditional one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, and toward what you might call an organic-farm model: simpler, individualized, targeted programs that are more aligned with the way talents actually develop.
Here are two I especially like.
1) Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, founded in 2012, teaches software coding in the same way that the Navy SEALs teach marksmanship — as an intensive, immersive, no-holds-barred boot camp. They transform students (many with no previous technical experience) into proficient coders in the space of three months. And it works: 90 percent of Bitmaker grads have been hired by tech firms.
Bitmaker does it, in part, by reverse-engineering the educational process. Rather than taking the theory-based academic approach, founder Matt Gray and his partners asked 50 software companies what skills really mattered. Bitmaker built its curriculum around that feedback: an 80-hour prep course followed by nine weeks of project-based learning at Bitmaker’s headquarters — which, naturally, is open 24-7, the better to replicate the intensely immersive startup environment.
Here’s what one 18-year-old Bitmaker student wrote in his blog:
“The education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students to become workers by, for example, having them follow instructions and do repetitive tasks. This resonates with my experience in college and I didn’t want to spend a big chunk of my life doing things that weren’t meaningful to me. I didn’t want to learn so I could get a diploma or a job, but so I could be empowered to affect the world in the way I want to.”
2) Joy of the People, a Minnesota youth soccer program that aims to reinvent how kids learn the game. (It’s named after the famous Brazilian player Garrincha, who was so exciting that Brazilians called him Allegria do Povo — Joy of the People).
JOTP founder Ted Koerten has a simple idea: to provide American kids with the chance to learn soccer exactly as Brazilians learn it: having lots of fun in small spaces. So he got rid of elite teams and elite travel and instead built a kid magnet: a series of small inflatable soccer fields — smaller space, smaller goals, with barriers to produce more continuous play. Younger kids are focused almost entirely on fun; older kids on more deliberate practice.
As Koerten told me in an email:
The old models tend to structure youth soccer (and all youth sports) heavy on the deliberate practice…. The dark side of the idea that players are made is that now mad scientists are all trying to make them. But our model is kid centered and understands that kids need to be kids in order to complete the hard work of adults.
Koerten is full of ideas: for instance, he has the kids play with balls that vary in size from tiny to large, and employs a tennis-ball machine to increase touches. He’s interested in cross-pollinating with newly invented sports like Puckelball. And it’s working: he’s drawing 600 kids a week.
Which brings us to the deeper question: what lessons do these organic, free-range models provide? How can they help us improve and innovate our own talent-development spaces? Here are four:
- Focus on creating rich, people-centric ecosystems. They are based on the principle that the best learning happens when humans are in intense collaboration.
- Put fun first. These aren’t solemn, self-important places — rather, they’re looser, more user-driven. Emotion is not some background factor, but a vital part of the process.
- Design for lots of mixing. People aren’t segregated into levels and classes; rather, they’re mixed together in a style that might be described as Montessori-like, which provides a rich environment for relationships and mentoring.
- Focus far less on lectures/theory, and more on doing stuff. Knowledge isn’t transferred from the top down so much as it is grown from the bottom up, through challenge, smart design, and lots of intense reps.
Do you know of any new, surprising, and/or innovative talent-development programs? I’d love to hear about them.
Which is why I love the approach of Rob Miller and Bruce E. Brown, who run a coaching outfit called Proactive Coaching LLC. In their quest to understand what makes a successful parent, Miller and Brown used a stunningly simple method: They asked kids what worked.
For three decades, Miller and Brown made a habit of asking college-age athletes about the ways their parents had made a positive or negative impact. After several hundred interviews with a wide cross-section of kids, their informal survey had two insightful discoveries.
Number one: what kids hate most, by an overwhelming margin, is the conversations during the ride home after the game. You know, that quiet, strained, slightly uncomfortable time when parents ask questions, give praise, offer critiques, and generally get involved by saying things like:
Great job today. So what happened on that play?
What did your coach tell the team after the game?
Do you think the team could have hustled more?
These types of moments, Miller and Brown point out, are well intentioned, and often contain truth, but the timing is toxic. The moments after a game are not the time for judgement or pressure and definitely not for instruction (which is the job of the coach, not the parent). In fact, many of the kids said they preferred having grandparents attend games, because they are more joyful and less pressurizing than parents.
But it’s not all bad news. Because there’s a second finding to emerge from their work, and it might be the best parenting tip I’ve ever read.
The kids reported there was one phrase spoken by parents that brought them happiness. One simple sentence that made them feel joyful, confident, and fulfilled. Just six words.
I love to watch you play.
That’s it. Six words that are the exact opposite of the uncomfortable car-ride home. Because they reframe your relationship — you stop being the watchful supervisor, and you start being a steady, supportive presence.
I love to watch you play.
A signal that sends the simplest, most powerful signal: this is about you. I am your parent, not your coach or your judge. You make me really, really happy.
I love to watch you play.
Try it out, like this parent did. I know I’m going to. Let me know how it goes.
A couple days ago I was in Canada talking with a group of Olympic coaches. Late into the night, after a Molson or two, the conversation turned to the question of performance under pressure. One coach (a former Olympic mogul skier, as it happened) put it something like this:
You’re standing on the top of the mountain at the starting gate, clock counting down. Twenty thousand people are screaming, millions more are watching on television. I don’t care how much you train. Some people can come through in that moment, and some people cannot.
In other words, is there an X factor? Do high-pressure performers – Michael Jordan, Shaun White — heck, let’s throw in Winston Churchill and Stonewall Jackson — have an uncanny natural ability to shine in crucial moments when the rest of us fall apart?
I think this is an important question, mostly because we rely on the X Factor all the time to explain success. It’s the Sasquatch of high performance — a powerful, shadowy entity that explains everything. Is it real? And if so, how do we get more of it?
Here’s what I think:
- 1. At the very top levels, studies show that clutch performers are a persuasive mirage (here and here). Performance under pressure tracks extremely closely with the rest of performance — great performers remain great, average performers remain average. After all, these people rise to the top level precisely because they have the ability to deliver under pressure. The clutchness we perceive is a function of good old luck and our intense desire to believe in it.
- 2. At lower levels (where most of us live), performing under pressure is essentially about emotional control — as Kipling put it, of keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs. And that is where intensive practice seems to make a difference (for an example, check out this article on teaching emotional control in school).
- 3. In my experience, top performers make a habit of pre-creating pressure situations in vivid detail, so that when the time comes, they’re ready.
For example, many concert musicians use performance practice. They simulate the precise conditions (same formal clothes, same chair, sometimes even the same auditorium) and run through their program exactly as if it’s opening night. Many sports teams routinely rehearse the last moments of games, piping in crowd noise, and increase tempo beyond what they might see in a game. Special Forces soldiers spend virtually all of their training inside a pre-created, live-ammo, high-pressure world — not to break them, but rather to accustom them to it.
So the question isn’t, Do you have the magical X Factor?
The question is, How do you specifically train for high-pressure moments?
That’s not to say that everyone would succeed equally — after all, luck and emotional temperament do matter. But with smart training, you can make them matter a lot less.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories of the ways you accomplish this kind of training in your life, or in the lives of the people you teach.
It’s also Study Tip Season — that time of year when kids and parents start thinking about how to improve their lives by studying more effectively and efficiently.
With that in mind, I thought I’d try to distill the best advice into a few simple words. Three, to be precise.
The first word is reach. The most effective studying happens when you’re slightly out of your comfort zone, when you go the edge of your ability and make an intense, targeted effort beyond it. This is how our brains make new connections — not by leaning back and letting information wash over them, but by leaning forward, making mistakes, and fixing those mistakes.
(Parent tip: when your kid is struggling on the edge of their ability, resist the urge to heroically swoop in and rescue them. Instead, let them know that those are the moments when progress happens.)
So if you have to learn material in a textbook, don’t just read it over and over. Instead, read it once, close the book, and then summarize the main points on a separate sheet of paper.
If you’re a fan of highlighting (which research has shown is not that effective), you might want to follow it up by organizing all your highlighted material into an outline.
The best way to reach? Make a habit of testing yourself. Testing yourself works best of all, because it’s a double-reach: first you have to figure out the important questions to ask (one reach), then you have to answer (another).
The second word is loop. Embrace the idea of learning stuff by repeating it in short sessions over a number of days. In other words, don’t study in a straight line, but in a series of short loops, returning to the material over and over. This technique, called spaced repetition, works because each repetition embeds the information more strongly in our brains.
So instead of studying just today’s work, go over work from the previous few days as well. Instead of trying to learn all the Spanish vocabulary words the night before the quiz, learn a dozen each night, and keep going over them. And, of course, avoid cramming, which feels really satisfying, but doesn’t work that well.
The third word is mix. Our natural instinct is to attack homework like a dutiful worker on an assembly line, focusing on a single area for large chunks of time. But what works better is to mix it up — to interleave different types of problems and allow our brains to navigate the conceptual landscape, to make connections that might have otherwise been missed.
Instead of focusing on one type of algebra problem, switch it up by doing several different types of problems, so your brain has to sort through the different possibilities. Instead of studying one narrow aspect of science (say, cell division), try to link it with other, related areas. Study like a great athlete works on their game — working on a bit of A, a bit of B, a bit of C, and combining them.
So that’s it: reach, loop, and mix. Your brain will thank you. For more study tips, here’s a useful compilation from one of my favorite writers, Annie Murphy Paul: as well as another from The Washington Post.
Though now I have a confession to make.
There’s one more word, which might contain the most effective study tip of all.
Clue: It has five letters, and begins with S. Any guesses?
Saw a movie last night called Somm, and my verdict is in: this is the Citizen Kane of wine-tasting movies. The documentary, by Jason Wise, follows four young men as they chase the near-impossible goal of passing the Master Sommelier exam (there are only 197 masters in the world). The exam is a true Everest, requiring crazy-deep knowledge of wine theory, history, and, yes, the magician-like ability to take a single sip of wine and precisely identify it by type, region, and year.
Anyone who’s ever tried for something really, really hard will be able to relate to the journey of these guys: the obsessions, the wild ups and downs, the group and family dynamics. And above all, the training. Watching these guys blind-taste a glass of wine is exactly like watching NFL quarterbacks practice their progression of reads, or watching a ballet dancer polish their moves. Their final test, where each goes before the judges and has to identify six glasses of wine, is more nerve-jangling than any Super Bowl.
Click the above trailer to get a taste. And be warned: watching the movie makes you very thirsty.
If you were asked to pick two people on opposing sides of the nature/nurture debate, you might pick myself and David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you haven’t bought it already, you should: it’s a fascinating, thought-provoking look at the leading edge of sports performance, written by a guy who knows the territory. David, besides being a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, was a collegiate runner for Columbia University. More to the point, he’s a terrific researcher and a fine, thoughtful writer.
Last week David and I had a wide-ranging barroom-style chat that covered Jamaican sprinters, the 10,000-hour rule, and the secret role of David’s mother in his new book. You might think we would spend the entire time hurling barstools at each other. You would be wrong. Partly because David is an incredibly nice guy, and mostly because science is shining new light on this area: when it comes to raw athletic skills (endurance, speed, leaping ability) genes are a difference-maker, particularly at the world-class level. With complex athletic skills (basically everything else), it’s far more about environment (quality practice, coaching, motivation, etc.).
Here’s how our chat went:
DC: David, let me start by saying how much I admire the book, your work, and how it made me appreciate physical talent in a different way. I can only presume that the skill you show in writing this book is mostly genetic.
DE: It’s funny — my friends think of me as a guy who thinks that training is a miracle, because it can totally transform someone. But the questions I get on TV are mostly, “What’s the gene for this, what’s the gene for that?” Like this TV show I went on yesterday tweeted “David Epstein thinks that there’s an actual sports gene that separates athletes from the rest of us.” I totally don’t think that.
DC: I’m especially interested in this notion of trainability you write about — how when some people exercise, they get a lot more fit, and other people who follow the exact same regimen don’t improve at all, and it seems controlled by genes. I wonder if you found any evidence whether these same sorts of variances apply to the brain and the process of learning skills.
DE: Yeah, I didn’t get into skills as wide ranging as you have, but I did look at twin studies, fraternal and identical twins, heritability and things like that. Experimenters would have them doing skills like balancing on a plank that has a ball under it, and the identical twins would usually progress in a way that was similar to each other and different from the fraternal twins, and sometimes significantly different. But it depended on the tasks. For tasks that were really simple, everyone would get better at the same rate, fraternal and identical, and everybody would end up in a pretty similar state. But if the tasks were pretty complex, sometimes people would actually get more different from one another with practice. Identical twins would move together, and they would move away from the fraternal twins. So it seems, even though we don’t know the genes for all that, that in complex tasks there was usually a trainability phenomenon, or almost always a trainability phenomenon.
I had to cut 40,000 words from the manuscript, and some of the material I cut involved some studies like this. One of the genes was the BDNF gene, which stands for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” There’s studies with versions of BDNF called val and met, and they’d have people do a driving simulation and people with a certain version would tend not to repeat their mistakes as much, so when they would bring them back, a day or month later, they’d remember the course better. The same thing happened with putting pegs in holes.
I absolutely love this video. It’s from Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s new Eagles documentary on Showtime (and if you’re my age, here’s a warning: you will watch this obsessively, because it’s a time machine to your teen years, and because it’s wildly entertaining for reasons that Bill Simmons details here.
But what I really love about this clip is that it shows how lead singer Glenn Frey began to master the creative skill that underpinned the band’s success. And he did it in an unusual way: by listening through his floorboards to his neighbor, Jackson Browne.
I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly, did you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal? I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs, ’cause Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse and first course, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted it. And then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot going off again, and it would be quiet for 20 minutes, and then I’d hear him start to play again … and I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it? Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.”
It goes on from there, all great stuff. For me, the takeaways are:
1) Proximity. Glenn Frey didn’t read a book about songwriting, or hear a talk. The breakthrough started with his social network — on making friends with a guy who was involved in the same craft, and at a slightly higher level. Frey and Jackson Browne became neighbors, and the lessons began.
2) Habit. Through Browne, Frey learned a lesson that eludes many creative types: it’s not about inspiration. As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work.” Browne’s teakettle goes off at 9 a.m., the process starts.
4) Looping. Browne’s creative process is built on the act of circling back through the structure — changing a small piece and looking at the entire thing, then doing it over and over. This is the pattern with any creative act, whether it’s writing or juggling or comedy. It’s an act of construction, where each piece impacts the whole structure.
5) Repetition. Frey learns the repetition isn’t boring; it’s actually kind of thrilling, because it’s the tool that builds songs.
There are also a few other valuable lessons in the documentary having to do with peyote, groupies, and Stevie Nicks — but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy.
Speaking of enjoying, I hope you’ve all been enjoying the summer. Now that September almost here, I’ll be posting more often, starting with a Q/A with David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you have any questions for David, please let me know (we’re talking on Weds Aug 14).