Promoting Performance
November-December 2011

Gaining the Edge Through Expert Preparation

In a much cited quote, basketball coach John Wooden observed “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”  A recently completed study provides just a bit more insight into the preparation of top achievers.  The study identified and described the extent, function, nature, and timeline of practice and preparation activities undertaken by experts in order to adapt to unique constraints of specific, upcoming competitions.  The participants were 15 expert orienteers and 6 experienced orienteering coaches.  Several key concepts were revealed. First, specific preparation was necessary because the constraints of a given competition are not the same for the next.

Second, the competitors often receive limited advance information about the specific constraints of an upcoming event, which impedes their preparation for that competition. Third, the top competitors intentionally engage in a range of activities designed to gather information about the constraints of an upcoming competition. Fourth, this information is then used to identify or create practice environments that represent these constraints. Practice within these environments enables experts to adapt to these constraints before competing. This specific practice gives them the advantage over their competition.  Source: Eccles, D., et al., (2009).  Competition-specific preparation and expert performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Vol 10(1), Jan, 2009. pp. 96-107.

It Takes More Than Practice

In the current debate on developing expertise, a popular position suggests that for people of average health and capabilities, intentional practice alone is sufficient for reaching the highest levels of performance in almost any domain.  In other words, “talent” is not an issue in explaining someone’s climb to expert.   There is, however, growing evidence that practice alone may not be enough.  A study of expert performances in music found that higher-level musicians also had higher levels of innate characteristics such as general intelligence and music audiation, in addition to higher levels of accumulated practice time. The combination of pertinent innate qualities combined with extensive practice accounted for more of the variance in music performance than practice alone.  A multi-factor view is thus shown to be the best explanation for the acquisition of musical expertise.  Source:  Ruthsatz, J., et al.,  (2008).  Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice, Intelligence, 36, 330-338.

When Losers have a Better Chance of Winning

Harvard researcher Jonah Berger told participants that they were competing with a person in another room to see who could make the fastest keystrokes and that the winner would receive a cash prize. After one round he gave the participants feedback, saying that they were far behind, slightly behind, tied, or slightly ahead of their competitor. Only the people told that they were slightly behind picked up the pace significantly in the second round. Overall, the participants in that group performed faster than the “slightly ahead” group. Effort increased dramatically only for people who believed they were slightly behind in the competition. Interestingly, he found a similar effect when analyzing data from 60,000 basketball games, including 18,000 NBA games. The relationship between the score and the likelihood of winning was fairly linear. For every two points a team was ahead, its chances of winning increased by about 7%–except for this major discontinuity right in the middle. Teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win than teams that were ahead by one point at halftime. They won as much as 8% more often than they would have if the relationship had stayed linear. Based on this study, it appears that being slightly behind boosts motivation and thus performance. A team that is slightly behind knows it can compete and recognizes it must work harder in the second half to achieve its goal. So it does. After the Women’s World Cup soccer final between Japan and the U. S. in July, one commentator noted how odd it was that Japan seemed to play better when they were behind. The research shows it’s not that odd at all. Source:  Berger. J. (2011) If You Want to Win, Tell Your Team It’s Losing (a Little). Harvard Business Review, 89 (10), 36-37.

Are Super Stars Necessary for Success?

This study investigates the separate and joint effects of the inclusion of experts and collaborative planning on the performance of analytic teams. Teams either did or did not include members with expert-level task-relevant cognitive abilities, and either did or did not receive an intervention that fostered collaborative planning. Results support the authors’ hypothesis that analytic performance requires both task-appropriate expertise and collaborative planning to identify strategies for optimally using that expertise. Indeed, high expertise in the absence of collaborative planning actually decreased team performance. Teams engaging in collaborative planning were more likely to effectively integrate their information on key aspects of the analytic problem, which significantly enhanced their analytic performance. Furthermore, information integration mediated the effects of the interaction of expertise and collaboration on performance. The implications of the findings for the optimal use of team member skills and the development of team performance strategies are discussed.  Source:  Woolley, A., et al. (2008).  Bringing in the experts: How team composition and collaborative planning jointly shape analytic effectiveness, Small Group Research, 39, 352-371.

Positive Effects of Training with Anxiety

Two common questions in performance are: a) how to I get better transfer between practice and performance, and b) how do I prevent choking during an important performance?  Two experiments offer a solution to both problems.  Both studies examined whether training with anxiety can prevent choking in experts’ sport performances. In Experiment 1, 17 expert basketball players practiced free throws over a 5-week period with or without induced anxiety. Only after training with anxiety did performance no longer deteriorate during the anxiety posttest. In Experiment 2, 17 expert dart players practiced dart throwing from a position high or low on a climbing wall, thus with or without anxiety. Again, only after training with anxiety was performance maintained during the anxiety posttest, despite higher levels of anxiety, heart rate, and perceived effort. The findings from both experiments led to the conclusion that practicing under anxiety can prevent choking in expert performances. Source: Oudejans, R., et al., (2009).  Training with anxiety has a positive effect on expert perceptual-motor performance under pressure. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62, 1631-1647

Resources for Reasoning: Differences in Legal Experts and Novices

This study investigated the effects of the availability of conceptual knowledge on legal reasoning by comparing the accuracy and process of reasoning of students and experts when they could only rely on their knowledge. The three groups included 24 novice law students, 24 advanced (3rd year) law students, and 12 law faculty who were specialists in civil law.  It was found that experts performed better than students, but that their performance was still rather low. This study provides an indication of the extent to which experts depend on information sources when reasoning about cases. They do not only seem to need such sources for substantiating conclusions, but also for working towards conclusions.

Next we investigated the effects of the availability of the civil code on the accuracy and process of novice and advanced students’ legal reasoning. As we hypothesized, the availability of the civil code improved legal reasoning for advanced students, but not for novice students. Lack of conceptual knowledge and lack of knowledge of how information sources are organized, both by themselves or in combination, indeed seemed to lead to ineffective search processes when using the information sources. Such processes impose a high additional and ineffective (i.e., extraneous) load on working memory, that is, this load is not imposed by processes that contribute to the quality of the task performance (for a discussion of cognitive load theory, see Sweller et al. 1998; Van Merrie ̈nboer and Sweller 2005).  Source: Nievelstein, F., et al., (2010).  Effects of conceptual knowledge and availability of information sources on law students’ legal reasoning. Instructional Science, 38(1), 23-35.