The Benefits of Perfectly Imperfect Practice

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“I want you to reach out with your lower leg and slam your heel into the ground when you run.”

I was standing at the track with a coach who was telling me to do something that every coach with whom I had ever worked—from junior high to the pros— had advised against. Conventional wisdom is that your foot should land relatively close to you instead of far out in front. If your foot lands too far out in front, you have a huge braking force, causing you to slow down. But here was this coach, telling me to do exactly that.

I listened. After all, it wasn’t just any coach telling me to do something wrong. It was Tom Tellez, the biomechanics master who had coached Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell, and dozens of the fastest sprinters in history. When Coach Tellez talked, you listened.

And it worked.

After a quick stride exaggerating the incorrect movement, coach Tellez told me to go back to normal. And, low and behold, my running form improved. The problem we’d been working on all morning had gone away.

Often, we think of repetition as the key to learning any skill. It’s why we have all heard quotes like, “Practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect.” And while there is some validity to that, recent research validates what Tellez taught: to improve, sometimes you have to do things wrong.

In the relatively small scientific field of motor learning, this method is called Amplification of Errors. If you are struggling with a movement, one way to improve is to exaggerate the error. In How We Learn to Move author Rob Gray explains a study that compared correcting a golf swing by telling the golfers how to do it correctly versus telling golfers what to do to make the problem worse. The group that amplified their error eventually increased club and ball speed, while the group that was given the actual solution off the bat saw no improvement.

When I asked Tellez why he had me run with hideous form, he put it simply, “You couldn’t feel what you were doing. When you exaggerated the movement, your body definitely felt what you were doing.” In another running form session, he had me take off my shoes and move from the soft grass to running barefoot on the unforgiving concrete. He was using the environment to help me self-correct.

With skills or movements that we’ve become accustomed to, we often fall into a rut. We get used to performing a movement within the same bounds. Our swing or throw isn’t performed exactly the same every time, but our body gets pretty good at knowing how we execute movements and what it will feel like. So when we tinker with the solution, trying to minutely adjust a hand position or the angle of attack, often we just fall back into that rut of what feels normal. It’s as if our brain goes, “Why would I adjust my pinky to the left when it’s more natural to just keep it slightly to the right, like I’ve been doing? Let’s do what’s normal.”

Larger forced errors nudge us out of that rut. They amplify our attention and awareness, alerting us that something is strange, that there’s a problem. This, in turn, puts us in exploration mode, where we look for a better solution. To use the terminology from modern motor learning science, we start to self-organize.

The same principle applies to other learning situations. It’s why research shows that students learn better when a teacher or tutor doesn’t immediately jump in to provide an answer, but instead lets them struggle with it. When we correct too early, learning doesn’t occur. As Peter Brown and colleagues wrote in the book Make it Stick, “When we’re asked to struggle with solving a problem before being shown to how to solve it, the subsequent solution is better learned and more durably remembered.” In education science, it’s creating desirable difficulties.

The next time you feel stuck, consider dislodging yourself from the rut of competence by doing things wrong. Amplify your errors, and exaggerate the incorrect approach. You just might find it pushes you away from your routine and back into creative exploration, helping you to the solution for your thorny problem.

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1 comment

  • As a behavioral psychologist I can’t believe I never applied this to my running and skiing. Thank you for the reminder – and now I’m off to run with totally wrong form (still tryign to come back from an overuse fracture that’s for sure because of wrong form).

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