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The Superiority of Intentionally Imperfect Practice


One day in 5th grade, instead of going to gym class, my classmates and I were led to the cafeteria, and greeted by a whole collection of shiny band instruments lined up on a table.

The band teacher then pitched us on each instrument, hoping to pique our interest in at least one of them. I’ve forgotten most of the details – but I do remember that we all thought it was hilarious when he deliberately made the most horrible sound come out of one of the instruments, and joked that if we chose that instrument, we too could make that sound and annoy our parents anytime we wanted.

Of course, making awful sounds on purpose is not how we typically learn to play an instrument.

More often, we’re taught how to hold the instrument correctly, how to stand with good posture, and how to breathe and use our body in the most effective way. The goal being to minimize errors and produce a beautiful sound.

And this approach does work. But a recent study suggests that in the early to intermediate stages of learning a skill, it may actually be more effective to practice doing things “wrong.”

What?! How could that possibly be helpful?

A baseball study

In a recent study, Arizona State University professor Rob Gray recruited 40 participants (aged 18-22) to take part in a study designed to find out what kind of training would lead to better batting performance.

All of the participants had played some baseball before, but none were especially serious or advanced, as everyone had less than 5 years of baseball experience.

A batting test and practice

All participants began with a batting test to establish a baseline of their hitting skills.

And then they were randomly divided into one of two training groups, completing one practice session per week in a batting simulator over the course of six weeks.

Wait…a batting simulator?

How effective is a simulator?

Right – before we go any further, this is probably a good time to address the question that may have popped into your head. 

Specifically, how realistic is it to practice in a virtual batting environment?

Well, the short answer is that the important details are all pretty realistic, and it’s not just a glorified video game.

And research is still in the early stages, but there are indications that yes, if done right, virtual environments can enhance learning and lead to performance gains in real life.

In a 2017 study (Gray) for instance, baseball players who trained in an adaptive virtual environment improved more than the players who just practiced normally. These players also had a significantly higher on-base percentage in actual games.

Which is not so surprising when you think about it. Because simulators provide athletes with more opportunities to practice against particular scenarios that are either difficult to replicate consistently in real life or don’t happen very often in regular life (like hitting against a knuckleballer, or someone who pitches harder than anybody on your team). Which gives you an advantage when you face these scenarios in a real game.

The right way group

So anyhow…back to the study and the two training groups.

One group – the “right way” group – practiced hitting the ball the correct way. Their instructions were to “hit a hard line drive into fair play.”

And during their training sessions, a coach would observe and give them feedback on their technique and mechanics. And provide suggestions on how to improve their performance.

The wrong way group

The “wrong way” group on the other hand, received no technical instructions and no corrective feedback during their training sessions.

And their hitting instructions changed from one training session to the next. 

One week they were asked to “hit the ball as far to the right as possible.” Another week they were asked to “hit the ball as far to the left as possible.” Then they were asked to “try to pop the ball up in the air.” And then to “try to drive the ball into the ground.”

They were also asked to “hit a hard line drive into fair play” in one of their practice sessions, just like the right way group. But in five of their six practice sessions, they were asked to practice hitting the ball all the wrong ways.

So…which type of training led to better performance on the final hitting test?

The results

Well, as you would expect, the right way group that got coaching and practiced hitting into fair play improved their hitting in several key areas.

Their batting average improved, they struck out less often, and they hit more doubles/triples/home runs than they did in their initial test too.

But the wrong way group, which spent 5/6th of their time practicing hitting balls into foul territory, and other undesirable hits also improved their batting average, strikeout percentage, and slugging percentage.

And they not only improved in these areas, but improved by a lot more than the right way group did!

What?! Why does wrong way practice seem to be helpful?

Why does “wrong” practice work?

I think the gist can be summed up nicely by whoever said “If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your voice.”

To be clear, the value of this approach isn’t in getting things wrong. Mindlessly and unintentionally getting things wrong, in random different ways, isn’t much help.

The value lies in learning how to achieve specific undesirable outcomes, on purpose, with some consistency. Because it seems that purposefully doing things extremely wrong provides us with a lot more information about how to do things correctly, than trying to do things correctly and accidentally getting it slightly wrong.

For instance, if you hit a tennis ball out by just a few inches, it’s hard to diagnose what you might have done wrong. But if your ball hits the back fence or goes over the fence entirely, it’s a lot easier to figure out what’s causing this, and identify what adjustments would enable you to hit the ball into the court more consistently.

So what can we take away from all of this?

Take action

As an example, instead of asking a student to practice their scales with only a “good” clean resonant sound, it might be interesting to see what happens when you ask your student to intentionally and purposefully produce a specific set of sounds that we generally don’t want as well.

Like a shrill screechy sound. Or a thin raspy sound. Or a gritty crunchy sound. Or a weak whispery sound. Basically, sounds at the extreme ranges of the goal sound, that will force students to explore and discover the key ingredients (like bow speed, weight, point of contact for string players) that are involved in producing different types of sounds.

And do make sure that your students don’t get so carried away that they forget to practice producing a mellow, resonant, forte sound, or a pure, clear, piano sound, and a full range of other desirable types of sounds too, of course!

But I suspect that students may find this to be a fun and engaging way to practice. And based on the results of this baseball study, I could see how at least in small doses, at the right time in one’s training, “wrong way practice” could end up being a more effective way to develop a clearer concept of sound, and help students become more adept at producing their ideal sound on a consistent basis as well.

For all the nerdy details, check out Rob Gray’s video where he goes through the nuances of his study here: Learning to Do it ”Right” by Practicing Doing it ”Wrong”


References

Gray, R. (2023, April 11). Learning to Do it “Right” by Practicing Doing it “Wrong” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYwJTylX2c8

Gray, R. (2017). Transfer of Training from Virtual to Real Baseball Batting. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02183

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