Dr. Nicola Hodges on the value of effortful practice

“Basically, I study practice,” says Dr. Nicola Hodges, professor and researcher at the School of Kinesiology, as we open up our conversation about her work here. “I’ve been studying how people learn new skills and how to optimize this for better performance for the last 25 years.”

In her lab in War Memorial Gym, Nikki and her team go about studying practice in two ways: Firstly, they try to isolate the factors that change learning or make for the most effective practice conditions, and they do this by assigning simple tasks to beginners like throwing a dart, putting a golf ball, or completing a key press sequence, to probe the learning process.

To complement this research, Nikki studies people who are already skilled at a particular activity. “I look at the differences in how people perform when they’ve already acquired a skill.” This branch of her research has led to partnerships with professional soccer clubs in the UK and Canada.

Starting young

Nikki has been playing soccer since she was a child, and her interest in the sport, coupled with her undergraduate degree in psychology, led her to do a work placement with the Tottenham Hotspur F.C. (UK) where she kept busy thinking about sport psychology. It was this experience, coupled with her honours thesis where she got to study the memory and tactical components of expertise that really got her excited about the field of motor behaviour and sport expertise. This culminated in her seeking out Dr. Janet Starkes at McMaster University, who at the time, was doing similar research in hockey.

This was the jump-off point for Nikki’s Canadian Adventure, as she calls it. Thereafter, she completed her Masters at McMaster in Human Biodynamics in 1995, before coming to UBC and completing her PhD at the School in 2001.

Big questions in sports

“I’ve continued to study perceptual-cognitive skills – those things involved in anticipation, making good decisions, reading the play,” she says. “For example, if someone shoots a basketball, and a skilled participant is watching a video that is suddenly frozen before the outcome is know, they can decide with accuracy if the ball is going to go in or not. This anticipatory decision-making requires physical skill actually shooting, not just experience watching (as a fan might do).

For Nikki, smaller questions feed into bigger questions that keep her busy around the clock. “The question about how we learn is fascinating on a global level and especially when you put it in the context of movement skills,” she says. “I’m a big sports fan, I’ve always engaged in sports, and I have young kids who play soccer and I help coach their teams – doing this, I do come back to what I’m doing in the lab and the research in my field. You can design quite simple studies and ask quite complex questions. These questions have bigger implications.”

More recently, Nikki was asked to do some consulting work with the Canadian women’s soccer team, to observe their practices. “At first, I was pretty nervous because these people are already at the highest level of performance in their sport, but I realized that this wasn’t about coming in and telling the coaches big new things, it was thinking about small improvements – how best to get information to the players in terms of tactics, how to make the practice environment optimal etc., so that there can be learning and improvement going on at this really high level.”

Now, with new SSHRC funding, Nikki is conducting a sport participation research project to follow up with girls who play soccer, looking at the types of practice and amounts of practice, as well as predictors for staying in the game and for success.

Bringing her research home

With two young girls of her own, Nikki says that of course her research impacts how she works with her kids. “I’m involved with my kids’ coaching – I find it hard to keep my mouth shut, even though I’m not a trained soccer coach,” she laughs. “But I do know a lot about learning, and though there are different skills involved, I think the two should interact a lot.”

Practice is something she thinks about often with her kids. “Anders Ericsson, who proposed this deliberate practice theory, which was then popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, covers the idea of consistent, effortful practice in order to become an expert in anything. He really makes distinctions between good practice and bad practice. This is happening right now with my daughter, who is 11. She’s learning her multiplication tables, and she writes them all on the board, but she’s looking at it, and I’m thinking ‘that’s not practice!’ And she knows that too. So I go, ‘okay turn the other way, I’m going to test you’ – that’s practice. It’s not enjoyable, and it’s hard work, but that’s how you actually study for a test.”

As a parent, Nikki is constantly looking for ways to engage and facilitate self-directed learning behaviours. “When my daughters say things to me like, ‘oh he’s just good in math!’ I say, ‘no, no, no, he’s just had a lot of practice, we just need to find a way to get them interested in the material, and change their mindset to one of ‘I can do these things, I just need to figure out how to study.’”

When I ask if her kids are receptive to these talks, she laughs. “Sometimes!”

“Sometimes before they go for practice, I say, ‘What do you want to get out of this practice today? What’s the one thing you want to work on?’ and my daughter will say, ‘I dunno, I just want to play.’ And I’m thinking oh okay, we’ll keep working on that. I do get rolling eyes, but it’s sinking in,” she smiles.

Nikki says she would give this advice to anyone learning something new – not just her kids, but her students, her colleagues, etc. “You have to follow your passions, but be receptive and don’t get caught down this path that people are better than you. The reason they’re better is mostly because they’ve had more practice. You’ve got to stay in the game and it’s hard and effortful, but if you’re motivated and you have good people and mentors, then anything is achievable.”