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Deliberate Practice Strategies — Part 2: Motivation by Sean Millman

Apr 28, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

In the first installment of this series, I mentioned that desire-based motivation is one factor in this performance loop for deliberate practice strategies, but not all of it. It is important to note, however, that desire and drive do come first. None of the other elements of deliberate practice function for a person who isn’t bought in to the process, but this series is not designed to address initial, intrinsic, or desire-based motivation; resources abound regarding that issue. Deliberate practice is a grueling and time-consuming process that is only possible once that foundation is in place.

This initial motivation element of the loop is seemingly the most self-explanatory, but includes additional complexities under the hood. The obvious meaning of the term, the kind of motivation that boils down simply to “I want to do this, therefore I will work hard to achieve it” is clearly important. This kind of motivation can be cultivated and increased over time, through conscious decision making and emotional experiences. However, motivation can also be increased and leveraged over time through two additional elements, put forth in Wulf and Lewthwaite’s OPTIMAL theory of motor learning in an article titled “Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning: The OPTIMAL Theory of Motor Learning.”

The OPTIMAL Theory of Motor Learning

Millman Theory of Motor Learning

The attentional factor of external focus and the detrimental effects of self-focus will be touched on in the next article addressing the mental representation, but the motivational elements of this model are relevant here. These two elements are autonomy and enhanced expectancies. The theory refers to these as motivational factors affecting motor learning, meaning that they affect how well a performer encodes a motor skill during practice. These are the biochemical effects I hinted at in the introductory installment — the neurological processes that can be controlled to induce more efficient and more effective creation of muscle memory. In other words, ways we can make ourselves improve faster.

Autonomy refers to the learner having some form of choice during practice, and the research shows that this choice actually doesn’t even need to be task-relevant. For example, a xylophonist practicing the famous excerpt from “Porgy and Bess” can exercise autonomy by deciding which sticks to use or which rhythmic value to use on the metronome (task relevant), or by deciding whether to practice with the xylophone facing toward a wall or away from it (task irrelevant). This finding has clear relevance for individual practice, but can also be considered by teachers when introducing new skills, techniques, or motions. Teachers can try experimenting with offering a student a choice, remembering that “should I take notes in blue pen or red pen” is just as effective at creating autonomy as “should we play this measure or the whole line?”

Enhanced expectancies refers to the players’ expectation of their own future performance being raised by evidence of their improvement over time, such as if players think they will be successful in the next rep because they have seen themselves be increasingly successful in their previous reps. If that sounds like confidence, it should. Enhanced expectancies increase motivation, and subsequently players’ ability to learn or improve their skill at a motor task, by giving them reason to believe they will execute the skill correctly, or at least more correctly than before. 

This is not merely an admonition to use positive thinking to improve; it relies on evidence of players’ existing improvement as a foundation to increase the rate of their progress. Simply experiencing this improvement in the first person is effective, but additional ways to support the enhancement of expectancies will be found in the installment about feedback. In short, for now, watching and listening to increasingly successful self-recordings is helpful.

This initial motivation element is the one that changes the most on subsequent rounds through the loop; the concluding installment demonstrating how these concepts work in repetition will demonstrate how the kinds of deliberate practice that follow motivation work to improve motivation itself, and its subsequent effects on practice.

Sean MillmanSean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt, and a freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at

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