Kyle Weisbrod’s recent Ultiworld series on skill plateaux in ultimate is very interesting. Certainly it’s true that we all experience that feeling of stagnation pretty often as we progress through our careers.
And Kyle is bang on when he suggests that the feeling of hitting a plateau is caused by two things – by moving the goalposts on what we think we ought to be able to do by now, and by not understanding the variety of skill that is needed to be ‘consistent’. I won’t repeat all that he said – go read it if this introduction is too short to make sense to you.
But something else interesting to me is that hitting the plateau might sometimes be real. As Kyle says, there are strong psychological factors that will make you feel you’re going nowhere, even when you are improving significantly. But perhaps just occasionally there really is something fundamental going on that slows you down.
Research by Pascual-Leone et al* in 1999 showed a very interesting two-stage mechanism of learning in the brain. At a fundamental level, the brain actually displays evidence of a plateau in skill learning.
The skill in question was Braille reading. Blind subjects were taught Braille for 2 hours a day, every weekday, and their brains mapped to see what changes had been made. The area of the brain directly related to the finger that read the Braille was shown to get larger as they trained – just as taxi drivers have been shown to get larger areas dealing with spatial relationships, or violinists shown to have larger brain maps for the fingers the more they practice. The brain is plastic and changes significantly in response to what we do.
But what is really interesting is that the brains were mapped both on Fridays – after five days training – and on Mondays, after a weekend off.
For the first 6 months, Friday maps for the ‘index finger’ part of the brain got consistently and rapidly larger. As the subjects trained, they devoted more and more neuronal resources to the process of reading Braille. But Monday maps stubbornly refused to change. After the weekend, the brain largely defaulted back to its original state.
Clearly something was happening, because each week they were able to more quickly expand the map such that each Friday was larger than the last. But there was no real difference in the way their brains looked after a weekend off.
After 6 months, things started to change. The Friday maps continued to grow of course, but now the Monday maps began to increase also, eventually settling down to their new size at around 10 months. The speed of the participants at reading Braille was much more closely related to the size of the Monday maps than the Friday maps.
There really did seem to be a plateau – all that work wasn’t really having as much effect on skill as it ought to, but it was laying the groundwork for the kind of permanent changes in the brain that reflect real, autonomous skill.
After two months without training, the brains were mapped again and remained just as they had looked on that last Monday. More permanent change had taken place, after a long plateau. Daily training led to dramatic short term changes, but it took a long time – many months – before it was truly ‘learned’.
I’m getting much more speculative now. But it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to find that the kind of skills we need in a game – the ability to do complex things unconsciously so that we free our minds to deal with the wind, or the position of the defender, or a thousand other things – only appear once we’ve ingrained our learning over many months. Quite simply, I think there very probably IS a difference between the brain mechanisms that allow us to throw a nice disc in a closed drill and those that allow us to throw it in a game.
The ability to throw, and the ability to throw unconsciously, are not the same. The plateau is real. But the solution remains the same – keep pushing.