Having a mental representation helps progress


Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, explores directed practice and what it takes to become and expert. His key finding was that “expert performers use mental representations to improve their performance.” (Loc 1422) Their mental representations help them detect mistakes and to direct their practice towards correcting them.

Image you are learning to drive. You have had all of the necessary lessons, and now you need to clock up practice time. The challenge is that you don’t want to pay the instructor for just sitting with you while you practice but you do need to spot mistakes and correct them. If you are lucky before the end of your last lesson, your instructor will try to describe what good driving is and provide you with a mental image. Jackie Stewart, winner of 27 World Championship Grand Prix victories, said that “Good driving for me is smooth driving.” The best drivers in the world never appear to be driving dramatically. Stewart instructs his students “to be the best chauffeur in the world.” Imagine your passenger is short-sighted and reading a newspaper. Your goal is to drive the car so that the newspaper never touches the passenger’s nose. 

Stewart gave his students a mental representation to enable them to detect errors. Once you have this image in your mind, you can spot instances when your driving wasn’t smooth, and you can think of changes that will make it smoother. It gives you a way of improving and helps you progress towards passing your driving test.