You need to learn to walk before you can run

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

You need to learn to walk before you can run, but getting better at walking doesn’t always help you get better at running:

A similar thing can happen in music too. For instance, have you ever encountered a speed plateau in a piece you’re working on? A section that you can play perfectly at about 80-90% of the final tempo, but no matter how hard you try, you keep hitting a wall, and can’t seem to get over the hump?


Back in the 1950’s, a psychologist named Paul Fitts wrote an influential paper about the relationship between speed and accuracy. Namely, that there seemed to be a proportional relationship between the two. Want to move faster? No problem, but your movements will be less accurate. Want to be more accurate? Ok, but you will need to sacrifice speed.


But going back to the walking vs. running analogy, is it possible that we could be developing bad habits by trying to learn a tricky passage too slowly as well?


In one study (Belkin & Eliot, 1997), a team of researchers recruited 16 children aged 6-11 to learn some basic hockey skills (none had any previous organized hockey experience).

The kids were randomly assigned to two different groups, and given some basic instructions on how to hold a hockey stick and how to stand. Then they were placed 25 feet away from the gym wall, and instructed to hit a street hockey ball at the wall — but each group had a slightly different objective.

One group hit against a wall which had a vertical line of masking tape placed on the wall. This was their “target” which they were instructed to aim for. After each shot, they were given their accuracy score, and encouraged to improve their score on the next shot. This was the accuracy group.

The other group of kids was simply asked to shoot the ball as hard as they could. Their wall was totally bare, with no target to aim for. So they basically couldn’t miss — they just had to hit the ball against the wall with maximum velocity. These kids also received feedback after each shot, but theirs was given in miles per hour — the speed of their shot as measured by a radar gun. After each shot, they were encouraged to shoot even harder. This was the speed group.

Over the course of two days, both groups improved. The accuracy group improved their accuracy scores by about 34% — from 95.975 cm on Day 1 to 65.375 cm on Day 2 (lower scores is better, indicating that they hit the ball closer to the target).

And the speed group improved their speed scores, going from from 18.275 mph to 21.188 mph (an increase of about 16%).

Neither of which is especially surprising, of course. And then Day 3 happened.

On Day 3, everyone was tested on both speed and accuracy. Unlike the previous day’s tests where each group was asked to focus on either speed or accuracy, this time both groups were being scored on their ability to shoot as accurately and as fast as possible. They were told that one wasn’t more important than the other, and that they both mattered equally.

As you can imagine, the speed group hit the ball significantly faster than the accuracy group — more than twice as fast, in fact (21.725 mph vs. 10.063 mph). And when it came to accuracy, the groups were no different. If anything, the speed group was even more accurate than the accuracy group (56.588 cm vs. 66.300 cm — though this difference was not statistically significant).

So after the same exact amount of practice, the group which was instructed to focus on speed (and where accuracy was de-emphasized), ended up performing substantially better than the group whose initial focus was on maximizing accuracy.

The researchers note that even over a very brief 2-day period of practice, the two groups developed very different shot mechanics. The accuracy group seemed to shoot with a tighter, more constrained set of motions. Their shot loosely resembled a putting stroke in golf.

The speed group, on the other hand, swung much more freely — with a longer backswing and follow through. A much more efficient and effective motion which was a closer approximation of what the shot should actually look like.

In other words, the stroke mechanics that were developed to maximize accuracy, worked ok for accurate shooting. But the same movements were no longer effective when speed was also important. Conversely, the mechanics that were developed to maximize speed, not only worked well for maximizing speed, but were much more easily adapted to successfully account for accuracy too, when that became an important factor.

Another study (Engelhorn, 1997), conducted over a 6-week period with 10 and 11-year old fast-pitch softball players, found that excessive focus on accuracy in the early stages led to the development of poor throwing mechanics, which ended up impeding overall development.

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