Thursday, March 3, 2011

Raising the Bar: Skill Acquisition and Development

I have to remember that life exists outside of the new puppy fog. The Project is still the main focus here, and what is it all about? Improvement! Development! Learning! First we better ourselves. Then we can play with the puppy.

A few fellow internet writers (sorry, but the word blogger makes my skin crawl…so does moist and purse. Icky!) were recently passing around a great NY Times article on memory. (Click HERE for the link.)  If you’re lazy, in short a regular Joe decided to train himself for the world of speed memory competitions and in one year of hard work went from event spectator to ultimate champion in the task of memorizing an entire deck of cards.  The whole concept of training your memory was interesting enough, but the part that I found fascinating was his discussion of new skill acquisition and a thing called the ‘O.K. Plateau.’ It was incredibly relevant to my cause within the Project and may be as relevant to yours, so I thought I would share.
At an early point in his training, after showing nothing but improvement, he hit a wall. Despite diligent and disciplined practice he could not move beyond his current best times. His coach recommended looking into research on speed typing, where he found that in nearly every case, people went from concentrated ‘hunt and peck’ style to fluid, effortless typing. At this point the process seemed unconscious and in fact, the skill progression had stopped and truly become automatic.  As the idea of ‘practice makes perfect’ has been drilled into our minds, the concept that skill progression halted despite hours spent typing each day is a bit boggling. It is  due to the O.K. Plateau.

Scientists studying this broke the learning process down into three phases- cognitive (where we are focused on the new skill and learning to perform more efficiently), the associative phase (less concentration, fewer errors and more proficiency) and the autonomous phase where we have achieved the level we need to be at and can perform by rote. The third phase is the O.K. Plateau. Many researchers used to think that you could not improve your skill beyond this point- that you were as good as you could possibly be (scientifically, the ‘upper bounds of innate ability’).  

However- not so.  You set your own acceptable level of performance, it is not pre-set. I am as good as I need to be at typing, so I operate at the level. But I could be better. (And here is where this is actually applicable to agility, folks!)

The scientists who studied the plateau also found that top achievers in ANYTHING usually follow the same pattern, which starts by developing strategies for staying out of the third phase such as focusing on technique, being goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance.  The example they used was an amateur vs. professional musician; an amateur will practice a whole song, but the professional will work exercises and the hardest parts of the pieces.  The amateur will work on what they have mastered- the comfortable parts. The professional will work on the parts they have difficulty with.  The idea is not just to practice, but to always push yourself past that wall of your own limitations- go faster, make it harder, make it different. You have to pay the most attention to how and why you fail. To do this, you must let yourself fail.  When a breakdown occurs, you must take the time to study what obstacle prevented your success and make note. The largest difference between the best and second best was that the best treated the whole experience like an experiment, with a hypothesis, tests and data tracking. Analyzing the process was key.

To bring it fully back to our world (though you can apply this to any skill needing improvement), you can see many handlers who live on the plateau, whether by choice (Which is fine. I respect that a clean run is more than enough for some.), or without knowing it. I suspect many do so without knowing it, based on the comments I hear.  MANY people seem to live against their own personal walls. So here is some advice, if you want to move on:

Set goals. Make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timely).

Work on technique. It is one thing to run your dog around the course and “pass” but completely another to fine-tune the intricate handling maneuvers.  Drill, drill, drill.

Allow failure. Failure is where you learn. Don’t just drill the comfortable parts. Pick what you have the most trouble with and learn to make it work.

Study failure.  When it didn’t work- why? Track your progress. But remember, the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over expecting different result.

TAKE VIDEO. You can’t always rely on another person’s opinion of your run. And you certainly are in no position to analyze while you are running and practicing (yes, video practice too!). Video is invaluable and can show you what you didn’t even know was happening.  Plus, it’s another great way to track progress.
There lies my intelligent thought for the day. Now I am sleepy. So let’s end with a quote:

“There are no limits. There are plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”-Bruce Lee 

While I don’t love the part about being killed, I do love the relevancy. Go Dog likes Going Beyond.   

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