I think that one of the most interesting phenomena in skill acquisition and training is the phenomenon of the plateau. Most people will experience one at some point in their life, whether in a game or work or personal development.
A plateau is an extended period where one experiences no growth or very limited growth. The reason plateaus are such interesting phenomena to me is because when somebody breaks their plateau, their skill tends to skyrocket (relatively speaking). The plateau itself is highly frustrating, because the player will practice and train something, often relentlessly. They will see no gains, limited gains, or might even feel like they’re getting worse. If you’re competing against other people (and have no objective measurement of performance), that will definitely feel like losing ground, because your competitors are striving to improve. If you were ahead, they catch up. If you were even, they pull ahead.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the plateau is gone and the player is playing like a fiend and just magically doing better. Why does it happen?
I do not have a magical answer for solving the plateau problem that plagues you. This post is more about examining ways people seem to get over it, and the circumstances that seem to surround plateaus.
Take A Break
One of the most interesting ways I’ve seen people break plateaus is… well, by breaking. They stop playing or practicing for awhile, and for whatever reason they come back stronger. I’ve hypothesized that it’s because your habits dissolve a little, and if you have bad ones holding you back then you’ve got better odds of changing them after a break. I think this is a fair way to look at it; repetition builds habits. Ceasing repetition takes you away from those habits, from unconsciously doing the same actions over and over. This might put you in a more consciously observant state of mind, letting you see things that you glossed over before.
Another hypothesis for the “take-a-break” method is that you simply lose some of your expectations. You feel more justified in making errors--”I haven’t played in two months!”--so you have less stress about winning or losing. Without the stress, you don’t tense up and judge yourself, you have more focus, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that less-tense, more-focused states lead to better performance. Then as you receive positive reinforcement from that better performance, you repeat the actions that lead to it, and you get better.
One interesting explanation I thought of is that, when you leave the environment and then return to it, it (maybe) gains a new veneer of novelty. Whatever part of our brain feels compelled to learn more in the presence of novelty seems to come back to life. The game doesn’t feel as stale, as cut-and-dry as it did before, and the brain becomes excited to learn more. So your original knowledge base gives you a place to start, and then the desire to learn and process novel information continues working from there. This seems possible to me because, after a break, many people say their game feels “fresher” or new again. And along with that, sometimes there’s a rediscovery of the love of the game that propels so much interest and improvement in the first place.
We don’t only conquer plateaus by taking breaks though. Sometimes people seem stuck, they grind away at a bunch of different skills and techniques, practicing and getting nothing out of it. It seems like fifty hours of practice yields a minute’s worth of improvement. Then suddenly, they wake up one day and start playing much better and don’t know why. The most common description of this is that “things just clicked,” or they just “see” things differently.
The way I’ve come to understand “the click” is that most games, especially very fluid ones, goes like this: you train skills individually, but mid-game the parts must interact. If you practice in basketball for instance, you will probably practice dribbling. You will practice shooting. You will practice passing. You will train your body. And until you’re actually playing games, you will train all of these things mostly separately.
But many games demand that you integrate those things seamlessly. You don’t just use footwork and you don’t just use a swing or a shot, you use multiple things in conjunction with one another. And you’re also typically practicing some kind of situational awareness too.
This is why practicing and improving can be such a pain; when you’re trying to improve one skill it affects how you think about others. When you try to integrate and switch tracks, you want to fall back on your habits in the heat of the moment. Your body and mind tend to automatically perform the less optimal versions of skills. You know, the ones you’re trying to improve.
Then when the “click” happens, all these skills suddenly fit together in an intelligent way. You understand the way the different parts of your game flow into one another, and it causes a massive improvement, because all these things you were practicing suddenly make sense relative to one another. Now most of them are working and it all happens at the same time. The plateau gets left far, far behind.
One frustrating thing about the “click” factor is that it sometimes encourages people to believe that actually practicing isn’t what makes you better, and that improvement is all about sudden epiphanies. But you lay the groundwork for the “click” with a lot of drilling and effort. In this regard, it’s similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. You put a few puzzle pieces together here, a few there, then with all of those little chunks arranged, you see how they all connect to a central piece and suddenly you’ve solved a massive piece of the jigsaw, seemingly all at once. But you would never have seen that giant piece of the puzzle to begin with without the groundwork you did before.
In “The Art of Learning,” Josh Waitzkin describes his journey from being a young chess prodigy to an older, unhappy chess master. He was good but had difficulty dealing with pressure and travel. He left chess behind for some time, and became interested in, among other things, Tai-Chi, as well as Tai-Chi Push-Hands competitions. In one interview you can read here, he describes a process where he transfers Tai-Chi ideas to Chess and vice-versa:
“I am learning new ideas and refining my methods every day. Early in my martial arts life, I had this exciting experience of transferring my chess ideas over into a physical discipline. The two arts became one in my mind and it felt like I was taking my level of Quality from one discipline and just transferring it over to another.
There was one moment in particular when I was giving a 40 board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis, and I realized about half way in that I wasn’t thinking in chess language. I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding the energetic wave of the game like I had been doing in Tai Chi Push Hands practice for the past two years. I was winning chess games without playing chess. It was this experience that first inspired me to write my book.”
When you learn a different way to perceive things, maybe because you are working about it in a different discipline, you start to see underlying principles. When you view the game with a different attitude, you pay attention to different information; as a result, you make different decisions, you respond differently on an emotional level. This leads to different results, and sometimes a broken plateau.
Why Plateau At All?
I don’t really know exactly why people plateau. What I do know is that the ones who don’t seem to improve at all are people who exhibit at least some of these traits.
--Get easily frustrated
--Get defensive when criticized
--Want very desperately to improve
--Heavily dislike errors
Rarely practicing is a great way to not improve. When you train a skill, even if it’s a very complicated one, you decrease the focus and energy you need to perform it. You improve its consistency. It demands less attention while you play and compete. Practice and train a skill properly, and you’ll improve! Your brain practically guarantees it. Yet there are folks out there who expect to improve every time they sit down, or who believe they will find a way to “just do it” even though they don’t do much of anything.
But plateaus do not only happen to those people. Many people do practice a lot, and are extremely unhappy that no matter how much they seem to train, they find themselves never improving. When the time comes to perform, the same mistakes (or worse, new ones they’ve never made before) start cropping up. For these people, they are easily frustrated when they fail in competition, or they just really, really want to get better. What stinks is that those aspects also contribute to plateaus and failures to improve.
It’s kind of unfair that somebody can want it too much, and practice too much to break a plateau. But the more important something is to you, the more stress it generates when that thing gets challenged. High-stress is not what you want when training and improving. Too much stress when competing damages performance. If your competitions are public, having a poor-self image, being defensive about your reputation and image, these things contribute to extra high-stress and lower levels of learning and improvement. It can also make it tough to accept criticisms and advice from others, because of how much you want to appear good.
Don’t get me wrong, you can learn and improve in a very high-stress environment; if you look at countries like China and Russia, you will find children turning into amazing olympic athletes as a result of extreme pressure from all sides. However, it’s very hard to stay happy when your focus primarily derives from external sources of pain and stress, and there are a lot of people who don’t make it very far in those environments anyhow. The risk of burnout is high. When you’re pressuring yourself, it’s a great way to drive yourself crazy, especially if you stay plateaued for too long.
When I look at the kinds of people that don’t plateau, or the ones that break their plateaus, they are people who practice, have fun when they play, try new ideas, and stay confident that they’re going to overcome the plateau eventually.
I don’t really have much of a prescription for breaking your own plateau (even though the previous sentence probably sounds like one). You can try taking a break. You can try to practice something that’s new and different enough that you might come back with a fresh attitude. You can simply practice more and trust that things are going to work themselves out. Whatever you do, don’t lose the belief that the plateau can be conquered.
Thanks for reading.