by Matthew Leitch, 17 February 2002
Misconception: Through coaching and practice we gradually get better. The curve looks like this:
How skill really works: Learning is not so gradual. The familiar, smooth curve is the result of psychologists averaging the results of groups. If you look at an individual's learning very often you see this, for each skill:
Learning periodically slows down, sometimes seems to reverse, and then races ahead again. It seems that the skill restructures in a significant way, causing an initial drop in performance, but then other details are adjusted and performance rapidly improves. This has been called the "moat effect" because the dip tends to prevent us from changing what we do. It is a barrier.
Example: Swimming. Some of the muscles used to swim front crawl with a good technique tend not to be well developed in non-swimmers. Initially, people sometimes find they swim faster with poor technique that lets them use other muscles. However, once the muscles needed for good technique are better developed the best performance is with good technique.
The practical implications are important: