How the Best Players in The World Use Metacognition

It’s a skill to be able to evaluate yourself honestly and deeply. In basketball, this is usually reserved for post-game assessments. How did I play? What can I improve on? What things did I do well? 

But I want to highlight another form of self-evaluation that should be occurring hundreds of times every day: when you’re training. The best players in the world go through this mini self-evaluation after each rep. 

They do it by taking a mental step back and analyzing their performance. After each rep, it takes just a quick moment to evaluate what was good about it and what was bad about it. 

From Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else:

"The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition – knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.”

So, what does metacognition look like in practice? It often shows up in the form of self-talk.

For example, after each shot during a shooting drill, you might say something like the following: “that one was flat, need more legs” “good smooth release, stay balanced” “shoot it, don’t aim it" “came off my pinky” “lost focus on that one” “good aggressive follow through.” 

Notice how none of these phrases are self-critical. It’s not “damn, that shot was so flat, I can’t do anything right today.”

Making the cognitive leap between poor performance and your self-worth is a surefire way to destroy confidence.

Another key difference between elite players and average ones is how specific they are in their analysis. Rather than “that was a good shot” or “that was a bad shot,” they figure out why it was a good or bad shot. What specific factors were good or bad?

Elite players can analyze their performance in such detail because they’ve spent time thinking and planning.

Before they even get to the gym, they "have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.”

The last phrase is very insightful, "they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.” Simply put, when elite players make a mistake, they know what went wrong. 

It’s only once you know what went wrong that you can begin to fix it. Without being able to take a step back and analyze your performance, improvement will consistently lag behind your effort.

If you want proof of the level of detail that elite players use, check out Kyle Korver’s 20-point checklist for every shot he takes.

You better believe that when Korver misses a shot in practice, he has a detailed idea why he missed. He doesn’t just ignore it and move on to the next shot. 

In my opinion, this detailed level of self-analysis is a crucial reason why he is an elite shooter. 

But it's not just for shooting, in every aspect of your training, you can apply the concept of metacognition to increase your rate of improvement.