Almost everybody I know has had this experience at some point:
They will spend a lot of time training and practicing a skill, trying to improve and understand it more and more. After awhile, however, they reach a plateau and additional practice doesn’t seem to be making them better at all. On the contrary, they feel like they’re doing worse and worse as time goes on. Then some life emergency, some schedule conflict—or nothing more than frustration—forces them to take a break. They don’t practice for months and finally come back. After a few minutes of shaking off the rust, they’re suddenly playing just as good as they ever did. In many cases, they end up being better.
How does this make any sense? We’re supposed to improve by doing things; not doing things and getting better doesn’t jive with that. I have several ideas on why this might be the case. They’re speculative and definitely shouldn’t be taken as gospel—perhaps they are all tiny pieces of a bigger picture, and perhaps some are just erroneous—but I believe at least one or two of these should hold some water.
1) THE NOVELTY EFFECT
Our brains tend to kick into overdrive when confronted with new and exciting situations. They want to collect data about new situations, to learn how to handle the unusual and the unknown. It’s a survival mechanism that says, “I’m not familiar with this situation and it might be dangerous, so I really need to concentrate.” I think it’s very possible that prolonged exposure to your game can increase your comfort level, and decrease the energy your brain is willing to allocate on something that it thinks it’s already familiar with. When you take a break and come back, however, the situation feels new again, and your mind is willing to allocate more resources, giving you better concentration and processing power. The improvement might even stick, as you learn new things and see the game in a different way thanks to your increased attention.
2) EMPHASIS ON SIMPLICITY
Our brains have a tougher time making good decisions the more options we have. When you take a test for reflexes, a test with only two options—act or not act, yes or no—that focuses on a small amount of information will get you a score of X. As more options are added, and the information you focus on increases, not only does your speed diminish, but so does your accuracy.
It’s very possible that when you return to a complicated task after a break period, you will try and ease into it. You’ll only use a couple tools, familiarize yourself with the whole process, and streamline your decision making (making it faster and more accurate). The game will seem a lot more clear and simple because you are actively avoiding cluttering your brain with more choices.
It's worth noting that you can consciously try to take a reductionist policy to your game. Try to spend your energy on fewer choices and easier choices as time goes on. Likewise, if your game allows it, try and force your opponent into scenarios where he has lots of options to pick from.
3) THE BRAIN AND SKILLS ARE LIKE MUSCLES
Contrary to popular belief, you do not get stronger in the gym; you get weaker. You expend energy, you break down muscles, you tire yourself out. After a certain point, continuing to exercise damages your growth rather than encourages it. Your muscles only regain that strength—and then gain even more on top of that—when you rest. If you don’t rest, and you don’t focus on taking in and storing nutrients, your body has nothing to get stronger with.
The brain is somewhat similar in that it is biologically limited. It relies on energy sources to learn and create the pathways that it uses to retrieve information and make choices. If you don’t give it time and fuel to do its job, it just won’t do its job! If we use the muscular model, the answer is simple; use your brain, exercise those skills, trigger the mechanisms for growth, and then focus on resting. Calculated rest is as important as dedicated training for improvement.
4) UNCONSCIOUS PROCESSING
Closely related to the point above, the time you spend not working on your problems consciously is a time when the mind does so on its own beneath the surface. My evidence here is (disclaimer!) anecdotal; my father has told me on numerous occasions that he frequently goes to sleep thinking about a complicated problem--typically business related--and wakes up with his answers. When trying to speedrun a game, I had a dream about one of the rooms in it, and I woke up with an idea for improving my path that happened to work. Sometimes your brain goes vigilante and works outside your consent to solve problems for you while you aren’t looking, so sometimes it pays to look away on purpose.
5) PARALLEL EXPERIENCE
Everything you do teaches you lessons. Similar principles apply even across radically different looking disciplines. The time that you spend away from your game or your profession may be time spent learning new principles in other areas. When you come back, sometimes you are in a different “mode” of thought, where you’re using the principles of a different discipline to your advantage in ways you didn’t imagine. If you concentrate on it, you can use that to expand your repertoire of mental tools to succeed.
6) LOWER EXPECTATIONS
Expectations can increase stress. You may come to believe that you must perform at a certain level because of all the time you’ve spent practicing and training; when you combine that with the stress of competitions, or the stress resulting from a game that’s just genuinely intense, it can push you over the edge and decrease your performance. People who don’t expect a lot of themselves can be more free to play loose and confident, to take risks that pay off, and they also don’t get upset if they mess up. Since everybody messes up at some point anyhow, having a slightly more relaxed mentality will keep them from letting it screw them up even more. Of course, after awhile people start to develop expectations of themselves again, and this benefit can go away.
It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyhow. You don’t get good at things without practicing them at some point. You have to invest time learning in order to acquire knowledge. But the time you spend triggering your growth, and the time you spend allowing yourself to grow, should be separate. Give yourself the opportunity to rest and recuperate, to let information settle and solidify, and come back to your discipline with fresh eyes. Thanks for reading!