Illusions of Confidence or True Learning

Written by Aaron Weintraub

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Illusions Of Confidence Or True Learning


When discussing why we do it that way, leaders are unimpressed by the answer, “Because that's the way it's always been done. ”

“It is a sad fact that most practice, even at the highest levels of sports, is merely mindless, low grade exercise and not consistent with practices that could be called maximally effective training methods. ”

Smart teachers adjust the old saying “practice makes perfect” into “practice makes permanent” or “perfect practice makes perfect.” Indeed, practicing a skill wrong will make a person better at doing it wrong. Practice must be designed with quality in mind, as opposed to quantity. Two great repetitions will cause an improvement; 102 bad repetitions will not.

Leaders coach themselves. They know they are good, and they know why they are good. They take advantage of coaches and teammates who can help them coach themselves more effectively, but they always try to find answers for themselves first. The mental laziness of dependency on others for answers is foreign to them.

Leaders design their own practice effectively. Skill development is not assured just because execution is better after a number of repetitions; true learning requires retention and transfer. This can only be measured by performance at a later time and preferably in the game context. Proficiency at a drill is not the goal; leaders work to get better in the game. Their goal is not to look good, but to be victorious in competition.

For example, some hitters look like superstars hitting the ball hard until they get into the game. Unfortunately, if they do not know how to get their pitch in the game with good timing, this skill in practice will not transfer. There are many superb batting practice hitters who cannot hit .250 against decent pitching. Leaders design practice wisely, making sure that it avoids illusions of confidence and leads to positive outcomes against quality competition.

When designing practice, the stage of skill acquisition is important to consider. At the earliest stages, props and aids to indicate how to do something can be very helpful. So can keeping conditions constant. These strategies can also be motivational for more advanced performers by allowing them to achieve objectives. Unfortunately, they have very little true learning potential beyond the early stages of skill acquisition.

Other practice design issues will directly affect the rate of true learning in the brain. Will skills be practiced in parts or wholes? Making practice like performing requires execution of the whole motor program at once. However, fixing a mechanical flaw can often be best achieved by identifying and working on the precise part that is flawed before integrating the adjustment into the whole movement. Will practice be massed or distributed? Massed practice means repetition have little or no rest between them, so the motor program does not have to be re-planned on each repetition. For advanced performers, this means that the repetitions after the first one in massed practice often have little or no learning value. If a practice segment will work on skills A, B, and e, will they be blocked (AAA, BBB, eeG) or variable (A, B, e, B, e, A, B, A, G)? Again, the motor programming required to work through the contextual interference within variable practice usually makes this practice design worth the extra effort.

An athlete gets an illusion of confidence when she makes an improvement in practice that is hollow because there is no retention or transfer. Often, she is dependent upon external factors such as a coach's instructions to execute the skill. If she learned new skills, which cannot be truly defined until later, she will be able to execute these skills under pressure and use her learning as part of effective adjustments.

Another illusion of confidence forms when the drill is easier than the competitive situation. Batting practice is a prime example, as many hitters want the batting practice pitcher to throw straight balls down the middle of the strike zone at a medium speed. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what the pitcher will be trying to do in the game. A leader does not complain when the batting practice pitcher throws a ball; she appreciates the opportunity to practice her swing decision. She uses variability of practice to enhance learning by encouraging her batting practice pitchers to “mix it up,” throwing pitches with different spins and speeds, including some that are slower than what she will face in the game and some harder (or simulate this by moving closer). Also, she does not worry that her confidence will be shot if her last swing of the round did not produce a line drive. Instead of asking for one more pitch, she uses her time between rounds to think about making effective adjustments.

Applying the principles of motor learning (brain pathway development) listed above is not as difficult as it may initially sound. Application to tee work is a great example, and this is a practice situation that is often made to be too easy. Hitters often practice with the ball placed in the middle of the strike zone, but this will not make her better at hitting the pitches on the comers. However, practicing on (or off) the comers will transfer to improved skill at hitting the ball down the middle. Some hitters will read this and think, “okay, but I just use tee work to get my back loose.” Why not loosen up and get better, faster, at the same time? Leaders use tee work to get multiple repetitions practicing the swing that they want to use in the game.

Leaders want to work at and just beyond the edge of their ability level, not well within their comfort zone. They actually practice getting jammed by an inside pitch by putting the tee farther back in their stance than normal. It is not that they want to get jammed, it is that they are realistic and want to have a fighter's chance when inevitable challenges occur. They practice being early on the outside slow pitch by placing the tee outside and forward. They practice hitting off-speed pitches even during tee work by sometimes slightly separating the stride from the swing (for all locations). Also, they take the time to move their feet or the tee so that they can hit the low outside pitch on one swing and the high inside pitch on the next swing. Such a variable practice schedule improves learning. Perhaps they were taught this, but perhaps they just assumed it to be so because they noticed it was harder this way. The logical rule is true: harder is usually better! And by the way… when leaders finish their tee work, their back is loose!

Leaders make practice as much like the game as possible. Scrimmages accomplish this goal fairly well, but there are physical limits and risks that often prohibit scrimmaging. During drills, leaders imagine that it is a scrimmage or “real” game and go game speed. Infielders imagine a fast batter-runner going down the line so that they will not have to do anything faster than normal when they face that blazing runner in the game. For team defenses, leaders in the infield do not “cheat” while practicing bunt coverages or first and third situations. Even though they know what is going to happen next, they see the play, then react, which causes their like decision making to different possibilities to be as close to the same as it will be in the game as possible. Of course, it is impossible to make practice exactly the game, but leaders strive for perfection by controlling the variables that are available to be controlled.

Leaders are creative and figure out ways to make practice relevant. They use the games to identify weaknesses, and then they design drills to focus on turning those weaknesses into strengths. For example, a hitter notices that she is swinging at pitches she would rather have taken. She also notices that her timing is either early or perfect, but it is seldom late. She uses this information to identify a need for greater patience in the batter's box. Then, she persistently asks, “How do I get more patience?” She might ask teammates, coaches, and the internet. She might study hitters who seem to be good at this skill. She might go stand in the batter's box without a bat while her pitcher teammates are throwing bullpens and have pretend at -bats, really swinging an imaginary bat, if appropriate. She could then evaluate her swing decision and timing for this practice. She might try as simple a strategy as saying “be patient” to herself as the final pre-swing thought. She might add a deep breath to her routine just after getting the sign from her third base coach. She will try several of these and other strategies until she notices timing mistakes are significantly reduced in frequency and half of the mistakes that remain are late.

Leaders learn skill that will serve them in many situations by practicing with a determination to get better, faster. Practice would not be practice to them without attention to details, creativity, and hard work. They work to develop a true confidence, not the illusion of confidence that comes from performing an easy drill effectively. They are not satisfied with being good without knowing why they are good. They constantly look for answers about what works so they can repeat it anytime. They get so used to working just beyond the edge of their current skill level that this becomes their norm. They seek out practices that would make others uncomfortable and likely to complain. Of course their attitudes about practice are contagious, so because of their competitiveness and maturity, leaders help build a culture of excellence.

aaron Weintraub Aaron Weintraub holds a B.A. from Emory University (1993) and a M.Ed. from the University of Virginia (2000). He served as an assistant baseball coach for 13 years before starting, a consulting business whose mission is to over-deliver value on goods and services designed to help you win the mental side of the game. He works with teams and individuals, adding clarity to help them get what they want for their sport. also runs camps and clinics and has an online store.Weintraub is the author of Coaches Guide to Winning the Mental Game (Coaches Choice, 2009) and An Elite Athlete’s Manual for Training Mental Skills (self-published, 2011). He lives in The Colony, TX with his wife, Nicole, and their four children.

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