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Why you should never trust a pro

A few years ago a friend of mine and I were intent on learning German. We were both taking an adult beginning German class together and were trying to make sense of what the teacher was telling us. As time progressed I began to use CDs in my car to practice the language everyday. I could repeat a lot of the phrases and slowly built up my ability to speak.

From 2007-2009, I had the good fortune of spending three summers in Berlin doing research thanks to a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Over time I was able to speak more and more German and my approach of spending lots of time listening and speaking was paying great dividends. My friend, whose wife was from Germany, also spent a significant amount of time in Germany every summer. A few years later, I was finally able to carry out a conversation with his wife in German. But my friend was still struggling. He was slow to pick up words and although working hard seemed to lag behind.

A similar thing has happened to me in another domain. I am a recreational tennis player and enjoy learning more about the game and about how to improve. Recently, I received an email invitation to improve my doubles game. I don’t play doubles a lot but I went a long anyway. I entered my selection by indicating that I had trouble poaching. This is when someone crosses to the other side of the court while at the net and intercepts a ball to end the point quickly. After I entered my response I received my own personalized video tip. Basically, the Bryan Brothers, the most successful doubles team of all time, suggested that I see the ball before it was there. There was no time to react to the ball. So I needed to simply imagine where the ball would be and move to hit the imaginary ball before it was in that place. The video ends by saying that I heard it from the most successful doubles players on the planet. Who could be better at teaching me to poach well?

Suffice it to say that it was not that simple. Sometimes I would imagine where the ball was going and I could get to it. But other times I would miss the ball completely because it did not go where I expected it to go. Like my German-learning friend I seemed to be lagging behind the Bryan Brothers in my poaching ability.

Chess. CC0 via Pixabay.
Chess. CC0 via Pixabay.

The differences between experts and novices has been the topic of discussion for many years. Adriaan de Groot, was the first to test this in the realm of chess. He found that chess experts outperformed less skilled players on tests of memory in real game situations. Follow-up work found that experts also showed different patterns of eye movements. K. Anders Ericsson has extended this seminal work by understanding the factors that play a role in the development of expertise. He has established that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to become an expert. But it is not simple exposure that plays a role. Experts engage in deliberate practice during which they are given feedback about their performance. This feedback helps experts fine-tune their skills over time so that they become automatic.

The role of deliberate practice can explain to some extent the differences between the Bryan Brothers and me. During their childhood, the Bryan Brothers, spent thousands of hours playing with tennis balls. Their father, Wayne Bryan, is a tennis coach and played tennis games with his sons at a very young age. As they grew older, they played doubles together. They probably missed hundreds of balls and made many errors. Now in their 30s the Bryan Brothers are able to literally see the ball before someone hits it. Like the chess experts tested by de Groot, they can anticipate what is going to happen because of a large database of experience.

A similar situation exists for my friend and I. When he asked me what he could to improve his language skills, I suggested that he listen to German CDs and just develop his ear for it over time. Eventually, he would learn to anticipate what was coming because of his experience of hearing many sentences.

Suffice it to say that my suggestion did not work so well. The problem was that I had not anticipated the difference between us. Like the Bryan Brothers, I grew up with two parents that had extensive experience with language and language learning. My mother taught English as a foreign language for 30 years in the public school system, has an M.A. in comparative literature, and has written poetry and prose in Spanish and English. My father was a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, learned Arabic in graduate school, and would listen to the Portuguese hour for fun on the radio. As a child I was exposed to five different languages to varying degrees, eventually gaining proficiency in two. At the age of 20 I lived in Brazil during which I gained extensive experience in a third language as an adult.

What I had neglected to account for was all the hours I had spent learning languages in some form. Like the Bryan Brothers I took for granted how much this experience had sharpened my learning abilities. Practicing with a CD in my car had a very different effect on me than it had on my friend.

So the next time a “pro” promises to teach their secrets over the internet in a few weeks, run in the other direction. There is no substitute for the number of hours required to gain expertise in a skill or ability. It doesn’t mean that learning cannot happen over time. But it requires patience and time that a “pro” often neglects to mention.

Headline image credit: Tennis ball. CC0 via Pixabay.

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