Practice and Improvement

22:59 Mon 11 Dec 2006. Updated: 00:05 16 Dec 2006
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A perennial area of interest for me is how one improves skills. The obvious answer is “practice”, but for a lot of things that’s not specific enough, and figuring out exactly what and how to practice can be quite difficult.

How to be an expert suggests that part of the difference between an expert and an amateur is that the expert is willing to constantly improve the often mundane subskills that make up the larger skill. This makes sense, and you can see it in sports, where drills (and drills and drills and drills) are what professionals do—they don’t just play the sport all the time for practice. There’s also fitness training, which is more difficult to identify for skills that aren’t physical.

The idea of breaking down a skill into its components, improving those components, and then reassembling for overall improvement makes a certain amount of sense to me. And with the game that I was probably best at (in terms of skill relative to the rest of the population) in my life, CPMA Quake 3 Arena, I had direct experience of this, although I didn’t really realize it at the time.

I had plateaued at the game, and felt that I simply was not improving despite a lot of play time (which I thought was “practice”). I thought that perhaps I was limited by my aim, and that perhaps I had hit my limit of aiming ability as a right-hander. I’m left-handed, but had moused right-handed for all my years of mousing, primarily because the first machines with mice I encountered were in public labs that all had mouse mats fixed to the right side (boo!). So all of my FPS mousing had been as a right-hander. I had recently begun mousing as a lefty for OS use at home because it seemed to help with wrist pain I was experiencing, so I thought I could try the transition with gaming also.

It was extremely difficult—on a near-physical level. My brain didn’t want to deal with the remapping required. The first time I tried it in earnest, I developed a headache almost immediately, and also rapidly became nauseated. It simply felt wrong. I could only try it for about thirty minutes before I just had to stop. I felt as if smoke were coming out of my ears.

It got easier after that, and then the frustration stage began. Because, of course, I could still remember all the tactical aspects of the game. In other words, I knew what I should have been doing, and what movements I should have been making, and where I should have been shooting. I just couldn’t do any of them. I dropped like a stone in terms of what players I could beat, losing to people who had previously struggled to make a single frag against me.

Eventually, after a couple of months, I got back to my previous level. And then I kept getting better. The plateau was behind me. I kept getting better more or less until I stopped playing. (I suppose I reached another plateau, the interest/determination plateau, but that’s another matter.)

I no longer think that it had anything to do with handedness. I think that in switching hands, I had to relearn a lot of skills, deconstructing and reconstructing them, and that in doing so I improved the subskills that made up the overall skill at the game.

I think that this could work for other skills too, although it’s harder to break them down. With writing, I think that variety and doing help a lot. I’m not sure about drills, partly because subjectivity makes it harder to evaluate them, but I should probably try to find some “drills” and work on them, as a way to improve. With coding, I think that a lot of practice with simple things, for example doing a hundred different array manipulations, would help, but I’m reluctant to commit to those (because who wants to do that, right? But that’s probably part of the price of improvement). With DDR, I haven’t hit any kind of plateau from just playing, so I’m content to do that for the near future, but I figure that eventually I’ll have to switch to another methodology if I wish to continue improving. I feel fine with my driving right now, and again think that just doing more of it is the practice I need. But if I did want to improve it, I would probably target specific things and practice those.

So for a bunch of things that I want to improve at, I can see specific subskills to work on. And I’ve had experience of improvement using that approach. There’s one major exception: MTG. It doesn’t seem amenable to drills, as far as I can tell. The only subskill I think would have a big impact involves teaching myself to do on-the-fly probability calculations, and I haven’t put the effort into doing that—but I’m also unconvinced as to whether that would truly help my game (although I do think I should do it just because it would be challenging and would stretch my mind). I feel I’ve hit a plateau with the game, and that simply continuing to play isn’t going to result in much improvement unless I identify the subskills and work on them accordingly.

Despite that problematic example, the message seems clear: to improve, practice, and that includes practicing the little things, the mundane things, the drills. Find satisfaction in improving the small things just as much as the larger (usually considered “more fun”) things. And, as always, focus.

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