Teaching Yourself Physical Skills: The "Mist-Stars" Method

Study Tip #6


At some point you may need to learn to do physical skills well. For example, you may need to play a sport like tennis, to play a musical instrument, to type on a keyboard, to weld metals or hammer nails or clean teeth or drive cars. You can use these techniques to learn faster.

"MIST-STARS"--the main idea. The main ideas are embedded in the code word "MIST-STARS". Develop Mental Images from your Self and Teachers about STimuli and your right Actions that lead to Results that match the Standards.

Mental - Images - Self - Teachers - STimuli - Actions - Results - Standards.

Some Examples of Learning Physical Skills
1. From time to time I have tried to learn to play tunes on the piano.  Once I tried "Home on the Range." I have heard it sung before and have a mental image of how it should sound, the standard. I could see the notes on the page of sheet music; they are some of the stimuli I see. As I strike the keys with my fingers I am making actions that produce the results of sounds in a poor jerky rhythm with mistakes.  I can compare my poor tune (the results) to the real music (the standard) and can plan to correct it and improve. When I learn to play the tune, I will have an inner mental image, a "memory in my muscles."

2. I taught my children to drive cars with stick shifts. It is hard to do. When drivers shift, they do a sequence of actions that is complex and closely timed. Their right hand moves the gear shift and their feet press the clutch and accelerator. They must feel the stimuli of their feet's position and hear the stimulus of the engine's speed. As they act, they have to notice the result of the gearshift's position and compare to what it should be, the standard.  To learn to shift smoothly, they must notice the result of jerky shifts and compare it to a standard of smoothness. My kids did not always notice jerkiness, and I had to teach them to feel smooth versus jerky shifting.  Once they learned to drive, their mental images came from personal memories of good driving.

Watch a Model to Start Learning

  • Watch someone good at the skill do it. This can be hard because skilled people move quickly and do many actions. All this complexity is hard for beginners to see and understand clearly. Even so, when you see a model acting naturally, you learn a lot because you see their rhythms and action patterns.
  • Ask the skilled person to do the action slowly, to break it into little bits. Ask the person to explain what he sees or hears as a signal to act. Ask the model to carefully show the fine points of the actions, to describe how to identify results that match the standard.
  • Copy the model. Depending on the actions, you may break them down into natural short chunks. When the skill permits it, try to move at the same time the model does. You will learn faster than if you watch first and copy.
  • Form vivid memories of the stimuli, actions, results, and standards.  You may take notes, study written manuals, examine pictures and view videotapes and anything else useful. A common error that both teachers and students make is to focus only on the actions. The reason you should also learn about the stimuli is to know when to act. The reason you should learn about results and standards is to get feedback so you can improve.

Set your goal before you practice.

Think before you act. Think about your mental image of the teacher first. Try to copy it. The purpose is to give your mind a model to guide your actions.

Choose a part of the skill that you think you can do. Don't try things that are too fast, too long, or too complicated at first. If you try too much, you will make too many mistakes. Plan to do it slowly, only a short part of it, and in a simplified way. Notice that this simplicity means that you set a sub-goal of learning a "beginner's standard." Judge yourself by your own phase of learning.

As you practice, think of your goal as wanting to produce results that match the standard, but also accepting a beginner's standard until your skill improves.

Notice feedback. Compare your results to the standard.

After each time you practice your action, pause. Be still and go inwards. Notice how well your results matched the standards. This is the time when you get the information you need to make corrections. Use your eyes, ears, sense of touch, and your mind to find the result you produced. You should decide what ways your result matched the standard and what ways it differed. Use your mental image of the teacher in the early phases to compare to.

Build mental images.

Remember success. Consciously notice the inner feeling of your own good actions and make new mental images, new memories, of them. You will use these internal images to guide your future actions. Let yourself gradually stop using images of seeing your teacher's actions. You will now have an inner feel for what's right and wrong and can correct errors before they start.

Practice to build up your speed and accuracy.

  • Practice, practice, practice. The more you practice, the more you will learn. This is very important. The ancient law of exercise. You can't practice too much.
  • Do slow practice sometimes to build up accuracy. It is important to practice slowly even when you are good.
  • Do fast practice sometimes to build up speed, even if you make mistakes.  Fast practice will help you pick up the rhythm, the feel, the pace of normal exercise. Accept normal mistakes.
  • Do mental practice after you have memorized mental images of correct actions.  Research has proven that people can improve their skills by mental practice -- as long as they avoid practicing doing mistakes.
  • Caution: Always notice the feedback to your actions. Otherwise, you can accidentally practice mistakes to the point where they become habits.

How to Correct Mistakes.

  • Often you will develop habitual mistakes in your actions. This can  happen even when you "know better." You will intend to change your behavior but will repeatedly fall right into the mistake again. Here are three cures.
  • Do slow practice. Slow your practice rate down to a speed that permits you to concentrate fully on what you do in each situation. Practice the correct action and note feedback again and again. As you get better, build up speed.
  • Do practice of sub-skills separately. Practice the problematic skill apart from the other skills. For example, practice one musical chord, one move in football, one word in typing.
  • Practice inhibiting the wrong action. Think of the stimulus that triggers your action, start to do the mistake, stop, say "No", and switch to the correct action. Next merely imagine doing the mistake and saying "No" and switching. Next shorten the cycle still further.  Build an inhibition against using the wrong behavior.
  • Warning: If you build a successful inhibition, your brain may always need to take an extra half-second to think of the wrong action, stop it, and switch to the correct action. In sports and music you must not waste that time. So always add slow practice and sub-skill practice of the right action.

Avoid Self-Talk. Concentrate. Shut your mental mouth.

  • During the very early phases of learning a physical skill, you may want to talk to yourself as a way to remind yourself of what to do next.  That's okay in the beginning. But as soon as you get past the beginning, you should stop talking to yourself.
  •  Why? People who practice physical skills need to put their full attention on the stimuli and their actions and the feedback.  Research on skills shows that people who concentrate without talking learn faster and make fewer mistakes. But people who constantly tell themselves what to do and who criticize themselves are stealing mental space and time that they need to operate their skill with. They make more mistakes.
  • There are two times it is useful to be quiet mentally: (1) When you watch the stimuli that signal an action (as a tennis player watches the ball coming), and (2) after you have acted and want to notice the results and plan corrections.

Remember MIST-STARS. Practice and practice again. You will start clumsy and end up with a smooth automatic skill.