Low Stakes, High Frequency

My brother-in-law, Jim Blair, has a theory about how people become really good at a new skill, a theory that he refers to as Low Stakes, High Frequency. When he explained it to me, I found it really helpful for myself and also as a parent, and I started seeing Low Stakes, High Frequency examples (and opposite examples) all over the place. I think Jim should definitely write a book about it. But until he does, here’s the concept as I understand it.

The best way to get good at something is to demonstrate your skill publicly (meaning: there’s an audience), as often as possible, when there’s very little on the line. A few examples:

Swim Team in Oakland. Our youngest three kids participated in swim team while we lived in Oakland — the team was called the Temescal Tidalwaves — and it was such an excellent experience. Because of Oakland swim team, all three kids are top-notch swimmers, strong in all four strokes, and were immediately placed with the top swimmers when we moved here and started swim practice.

The main features of the Oakland swim team are that it is incredibly low-stress, but swim meets happen often. Practice is daily in the summer, Monday-through-Friday. Any kid or teen who knew how to swim can join the team, at any skill level. There is no try-out. It is inexpensive to join — $50 for the whole summer (with waivers for those who don’t have the budget). Lots of kids show up daily, but some don’t take it as seriously, and only show up a couple of times a week. Which is fine. No one is stressed out about it. Swim team is supposed to be fun, and it is.

There are lots of teams like the Temescal Tidalwaves all over Oakland, and swim meets happen every Saturday morning, with 2 or 3 teams matching up at a local pool. The pools aren’t fancy. The facilities are very basic; all are outdoor.

There is no seating, and no shade, so families of the swimmers would bring folding chairs from home, and pop-up canopies. There are no official timers, so parents took turns volunteering with hand timers, clipboards, pens, and paper. There is no snack bar, so every one who can brings some food and puts it on a shared table so any kid can help themselves. Uniforms are out of reach for many of the swimmers, so there is no emphasis on matching suits or swim caps. Every kid who shows up gets to swim in the meet, in 2 or 3 races. There are no team captains. No rankings of the swimmers. No drama about who is on the relay teams.

Meets are short, very fun, with lots of team cheers and gentle rivalry. We would typically arrive home by mid-morning, no later than 11:00, in plenty of time to make a late breakfast of pancakes. Winners of the races are not announced at the meet. There are no medals or ribbons at the meets. But the coaches know the times and can let the kids know if they had a particularly good race.

Our kids got really good at swimming. They got good at swimming publicly and weren’t stressed out by it. At the meets, they had lots of opportunities to watch other good swimmers from other teams and notice their techniques. They got lots of encouragement from team members and the parents of other team members. They wanted to do well, and improve their time, and get points for their team, but there wasn’t really pressure to do so. There were no negative consequences if they didn’t improve their time.

At the end of the season, there was a team party at the pool where they worked out. Coaches gave out a trophy to each participant and sweet/silly prizes like “most improved”, or “best splash”.

As you would expect, some exceptional swimmers have come out of these Oakland swim teams and have gone on to more intense training, and to swim for their college, and even the Olympics. But for the most part, the teammates were never going to be pro-swimmers. They’re just regular kids that can confidently swim all types of strokes, and will very likely enjoy swimming as a lifelong skill and a great way to exercise. And they got good at swimming with little to no stress. Because: Low stakes. High frequency.

Maybe the swim programs are similar where you live. Or maybe they are the opposite. There are lots of places where swim programs are intense, competitive, and exclusive. It’s expensive to join. You have to tryout and not everyone makes the team. Meets go for 8 hours or more, and families are expected to stay the whole time, so people have to really commit to it and make big sacrifices to participate. There are less swim meets because they take so many officials to staff and are expensive to run. And the kids who aren’t top swimmers get fewer chances to participate in races during the meets.

Kids may get stressed that they are not good enough. There are medals and rankings at every meet. Parents get upset if their child isn’t getting placed in the “best” races. When the kids do get to race, there’s a ton of pressure, and it feels like a major loss if they don’t do as well as they hoped.

The programs no doubt produce some excellent swimmers. But just like in Oakland, most of the kids will never go on to be pro-swimmers. They’re just regular kids, who may or may not be turned off by swimming altogether depending on how intense their program is. These types of programs are high-stakes, low frequency.

I won’t go into it as deeply, but Jim mentioned classical music is another place he’s seen low-stakes-high-frequency play out. Jim has four kids who play, violin, viola, cello, and piano. And he’s noticed that in some places, there are lots of chances to perform, and the performances are low stress. Families can come and go during the concert — you don’t have to commit to sitting still for a full multi-hour program when your kid is playing one song near the end. The performances aren’t fancy. They don’t require a ton of staff or formal clothes. And because these more casual performances are easy to put on, they happen more often, and kids get lots of chances to be on stage, and perform for an audience (even though it might be a small audience). Low stakes. High frequency.

But in other places, performances are a big deal, and tend to be few and far between. Students get one shot to perform on stage, and if they mess up, it feels like the end of the world, because it may be another year before they are on stage again. Performing in front of others becomes an incredibly stressful thing. High stakes. Low Frequency.

One last example I’ll point out is blogging. I’m a much better blogger now, than I was when I first began. When I started, I wasn’t great, but that was okay. I published posts publicly every day (high frequency), but hardly anyone was reading at the time, so if the post wasn’t that good, oh well (low stakes). By the time I had a large readership, and my posts (and topics) felt more high-stakes, I was a much better writer, and knew how to handle public responses (the good and the bad).

Do you have any thoughts as you read these examples? Can you spot any High-Frequency-Low-Stakes situations in your life, or the life of your kids or someone else you know? Do you find the theory helpful? Or does it not ring true for you?

54 thoughts on “Low Stakes, High Frequency”

  1. I’m a math teacher and this is definitely true for that kind of learning. If we can practice a lot and keep the pressure down, we’re good. I hadn’t thought about it for other contexts and parenting… but I like it. Filing it away in my brain for future reference.

  2. I wish that our swim meets were like this when I was younger. Maybe I would have stuck with it! I definitely believe in this especially with learning an instrument!

  3. What an interesting theory.

    I have heard that you don’t actually get good unless there are stakes. E.g., your kids in the pool in Oakland, it’s not like the pool was empty. They actually had to swim – they couldn’t just bum around lazing away the morning, or so it seems. There has to be SOME accountability in order for it to matter at all, otherwise why would anyone want to improve?

    I see low stakes and low frequency at my public pool, where it’s crowded, everyone is doing their own thing, and you don’t actually improve unless you practise daily and have mentoring.

    1. Right. The high frequency needs to be related to public performance. You’re not just playing in a pool with a floatie. You’re at a swim meet, doing very specific strokes, in a race, with people watching.

  4. I grew up learning to play piano in this way. My teacher had a students-only recitical every other month with a theme such as Halloween or Beethoven. The bigger recitals that included parents and other family were at Christmas and the end of the school year. I recommend it.

  5. Absolutely. I’m a professional musician (full-time chorister at the Metropolitan Opera for the past 21 years) and I performed all the time as a child. In my church (weekly or more since early childhood…my dad was the minister, I was a good singer, you do the math) then in elementary school, then in competitions in high school (low pressure, lots of fun) then on to college and grad school where the stakes were higher, but it was so normal at that point that I was fine performing in public. By the time I got to the auditions at the Met, I was ready. Giving children opportunities to perform in public in any area (musical, sports, spelling, debate) is a huge gift of confidence for their future!

      1. This makes me think of the “origin story” of various musical stars who started out in church choirs. Google tells me that list includes Usher, Jessica Simpson, Diana Ross, Katy Perry, John Legend and Aretha Franklin. Also the start of Selena’s career was her dad’s family band performing all over south Texas at any bar or wedding that would have them. She certainly had a TON of performance experience before she hit it big.

  6. My experience in Toastmasters was exactly this – a high frequency, low stakes way to improve my public speaking. Some Toastmasters clubs are much more intense, but mine, at my workplace, was low-key and relatively casual and thus I felt willing and able to get up to speak in some capacity at every meeting.

    1. Several of my college professors brought this idea up and used it in their classrooms- ie: daily quizzes that counted for 1% of our grade overall or weekly presentations on science journal articles that were graded only on whether or not you gave the presentation but not the quality of the presentation.

      I found that I learned a lot from those exercises and was so much less stressed about them than similar assignments in other classes that were high stakes, low frequency. I also grew up playing violin, and think I would have benefited a lot from a more low stakes, high frequency environment.

  7. Our swim team was like this growing up. Pur town had 3 pools, each pool had a team. Practice was daily if you wanted it to be with 3-4 meets a summer. It was great. We are in Sonoma Co and the teams are much more intense here.

  8. That’s quite fascinating! I totally agree and wish school in france would allow that, no grading but intense and engaged study and practice…

  9. giselle taminez

    We live in Bethesda, MD, a Washington DC suburb and it is the exact opposite in everything. This is an affluent area with a lot of successful parents. There was a lot of pressure about everything my oldest daughter did. When she was 11 and doing soccer, the moms had a meeting to tell us how soccer games had to be the most important thing for our families. For ice skating, we were told that if she traveled often to visit her dad in FL, we had to find her a private coach there. although she struggled with a lot of anxiety in her high school years. She is now a freshman and chose a small liberal arts college rather than the more prestigious schools she got into because she wanted to have less stress and enjoy her life more. I am also mom to a 6 and 4-year-old, and getting the chance to do it all over again, I am taking it slow and evaluating all this craziness. Low stakes, high frequency sounds much more appealing than all this pressure we are putting on our children and parents.

    1. Agree. I live in DC, and it is very very hard to to find low stakes sports teams or activities. My oldest, who is 8, has either aged out of many recreational teams (because they are now travel/competitive and he’s not good enough or is not interested enough for that–not to mention that I don’t want to devote all of his or my free time to travel soccer, etc.) or he is way behind other kids his age if he wants to try a new sport/activity because he hasn’t been doing it since he was 4. I think this is very much tied to economics, as some of the only places he can try out new sports in a less competitive environment is through some free or reduced price leagues designed for kids in under-resourced parts of the city.

      1. This has been my experience as well. I’m in Canada, and the hockey pressure, especially, is unreal! My 12 year old wanted to try out ballet, and we were able to find a casual/fun studio in a small rural village that would accept an “older” newbie. All the studios in town refused! I think a lot of talented and interested kids are missing out because of expense or pressure, and it’s a total shame.

      2. Yes. One of the reasons we moved out of the DC area. Even our “fun” neighborhood swim team was highly competitive and not really fun at all. The homework workload, even for my kids in kindergarten, was insane. There were parents paying top dollar to put their kids into standardized testing classes in Grades 1 & 2 so that their kids could get an upper hand into the district’s gifted and talented program in Grade 3. Not the environment I wanted to raise my kids in.

        1. I live in Vienna, VA and have an almost 2-year old. The insanely competitive nature of the DC metro area is something my husband and I talk about frequently. In this area, I feel like we often expect more from our middle and high schoolers than we do of some adults. We’re contemplating moving, homeschooling, a mix of public and home school…really anything to enjoy a slower paced life at home where it doesn’t feel like the stakes are so high starting at such a young age.

      3. We’ve noticed the exact same thing in Atlanta. 4-year-old activities are just-for-fun introductions, but by second grade, you better be ready to commit to multiple practices a week, expensive performances, and a lot of lifestyle buy-in. This is why my 7-year-old who loves ballet has already given up ballet lessons. We just didn’t want to commit to $10,000/yr ballet for a child who in all likelihood won’t become a pro ballerina. I feel like you have to look for more obscure activities for your kids where they aren’t aced out if you aren’t already deeply invested by early elementary. Girl Scouts has been a good one for us.

  10. I’m the parent of a 4-year-old and just starting to think about organized sports of some kind. What you’re describing is exactly what I want for my kid, should he take to swimming or soccer or basketball. I’m going to keep the Low Stakes, High Frequency concepts in mind in the coming years as we try on activities for him.

  11. This is so interesting and cool! I love this idea. It’s much more based in actual skill-building, than accolades and prestige.

  12. Wow! What a lightbulb moment especially as I’m in the absolute weeds as I parent a kid with a lot of anxiety. Both my kids participated in karate last year but the infrequent testing and tournaments were just overwhelming for my daughter. She actually won 1st place in skills and 2nd place is sparring in the state this summer but gave it up this fall. She enjoyed practicing but she hated the pressure of testing for her belt.

    The same kid also plays violin and loves to perform. There are obviously no trophies for violin but one of her teachers introduced her to busking and she loves it. (Plus sometimes you make a couple bucks which to a nine year old is everything.) Busking lets her perform in public when and wherever she chooses.

      1. Similar to busking, the city where we live (Portland) has a program each summer called ‘Pianos in the Parks’ where the parks department puts pianos rehabbed by local artists in parks all over the city. We make a game of it each summer and try and visit each piano. My son’s piano skills took off as soon as that program began (he went from a very average musician to quite amazing, almost overnight, and now will attract large crowds when he is playing). I have no expectations of him being a great musician so it was all about him having fun while getting lots of playing time in front of others. Maybe our parks department needs to start ‘Math in the Parks’?

  13. We have a public skating rink in a park a few minutes walk from our apartment, and over the winter break we took our (young) kids there almost every day for 10 days. It’s free to skate, and if they got frustrated from falling a lot or simply got tired, we could head home after only 20-30 minutes, no big deal. As a result they both got a lot better and more comfortable on the ice and it was really fun!

  14. I found this true for the swim program here in my town in the central valley of California. Ours is similar to the Oakland program. We were new to our town when my kids joined. We were very poor and its hotter than heck here in the Summer. $50 for a whole summer of swimming is such a win. They made lots of longtime friends and gained swimming skills that lasted a lifetime. None went on to compete after childhood even though they gained B times the first year and went on to rank high nationally for their age groups. For them it was just a fun activity. I used to love helping with the timing because of the heat. It was a place you got splashed regularly.

  15. Oh, wow, I love this. I participated in a similar swim team in upstate New York when I was growing up 30+ years ago. I started at age 5 and stopped when I was 12 but every summer I would practice every morning M-F with low-key meets on the weekends. I wasn’t the best swimmer when it came to races but I am a very strong swimmer as an adult, even if a lot of time passes between getting in the pool. I credit this entirely to my swim team experience as a kid.

    This also made me think about the charter school my 3 boys attend. It focuses on challenging academics, lots of AP classes in high school, etc. The students are required to do a lot of testing throughout the year starting at a young age but it is designed to be low stakes, high frequency most of the time. Except for final exams (in upper grades, not elementary), they are always allowed to do test corrections to improve their grade and each individual quiz/test is only a small percentage of their grade. I wonder now if it was designed this way to help them get more comfortable with test-taking and reduce anxiety overall. I know this might not work for all kids and I was hesitant about this part of the curriculum at first but it actually really seems to work fine for my boys.

    Now I’m going to think about if there any other opportunities that are high frequency, low stakes that my kids could participate in. We won’t have a a swim team option like you describe in our cold mountain town but there are other activities they would enjoy that are structured similarly.

  16. This resonates! Any advice for kids for whom everything is high stakes because of anxiety? Our town swim team sounds similar to what you described but the very idea of a race turned them off–what if they screwed up?/came in last?/etc. — no amount of assurances worked! I guess that’s a different post.

  17. Oh my goodness, I love how this is explained. I grew up in a small town and was able to try most activities, relatively inexpensively and without a ton of pressure. There was great freedom in that.

    As an adult who is learning a second language for work purposes, I wish there was a clear outlet to practice with low pressure, high frequency. Instead it feels like its the opposite, with few opportunities where using the second language is required, but when it’s needed, your skills better be really good. (Perhaps that’s not truly the case, but that’s how it feels if you don’t have much confidence in your skills to begin with).

  18. Wow. Very interesting. I think he should do a Ted Talk about it. And create a corporate training program around it, as part of a management track.

  19. I love this idea. It describes perfectly my newest habit. Today makes 200 days in a row working out. I started just with no goal in mind except to move my body at least once every day. (Personally I find keeping a streak is the only way I will continue doing anything).

    I am not doing huge workouts most days or have a target weight goal, just a little something every day. (10 mins minimum I tell myself)
    It has helped get through this winter and has been so fun!

  20. This concept resonates with me, a parent who as a kid never took any lessons nor played any sports nor joined any clubs (due to financial & family limitations). I really want my own girls to know how to do all sorts of things (swim, ride bikes, sing, skate, speak in public), so I have to be careful to not over-schedule nor put on too much pressure. Their dance school is very much aligned with the low stakes, high frequency concept. They perform regularly – whether it’s swapping audiences with another class of dancer, or for parent observation week, or for this week’s “winter showcase” which just is a routine performed during regular class time. Then come June, when they do the whole shebang recital with costumes and makeup in a local HS auditorium, it’s not such a big deal. It’s a pretty balanced approach that I think more youth organizations could adopt.

  21. I really understand this! Think of the ACT or SAT! Last year her high school counted test for a very little portion of the final grade, and it was not as stressful as this year when the grade moved to 80% test! I think we put way too much enhance on test, grades etc. It takes the joy out of learning.k

  22. This is like running with the Strava app for me. The social media component makes me feel accountable during my workouts both in terms of actually getting it done and trying my hardest. If a follower gives me a thumbs up for a work out, I am totally more motivated to go the next day. Also, the fact that my followers can see my workout (the route, elevation change, speed, etc) makes me strive to do my best. As a result, I am seeing a huge improvement in my fitness :)

  23. Ah, love this insight. It’s how I see the kids in our LDS congregation get used to public speaking, leadership, and giving lessons when they have to do it so often–by the time they’re missionaries/adults, it’s no big deal. Could apply it to other parenting and educational and life ideas, will think on that.

  24. I absolutely love this. I live in an urban area and think often about the pressures that will face my kids in the future, and I fall into the stress of it all as well (school rankings! extracurriculars! etc!). Thank you for continuing to remind us that we can raise good, interesting and compassionate kids with the (copious!) public resources around us and some empathetic, supportive parenting!

  25. I like this concept. My daughter joined her school swim team here in Bangkok. I knew that if she was swimming regularly it would be a life skill she could use forever (unlike so many sports). So we encouraged both our kids to join…only one was interested. She has only had a meet about once a month, but they have all be low stress and she really is just motivated to get better. There is no pressure because all the events are “friendlies” with other schools in the Bangkok area. At their age, it is really just about learning to swim and enjoy it!

  26. I haven’t had time to read through ALL the comments yet, I apologise if this is a repeated observation. The low stakes, high frequency feels similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s observation of 10,000 hours of practice to be great at something. He discusses the rule in his book ‘Outliers’.

  27. The instrument thing has me thinking about the new way our band director is doing things at the school I work at.
    Fifth graders take beginning band. For the past couple years, he’s started the year with two or three week rotations through instruments. Students have to try out 4-5 different instruments, and at the end of the 2-3 weeks they play a small concert for parents. Stakes were low, because they weren’t locked into the instrument they were currently playing, but frequency was high with several concerts before the big one in December (which wasn’t as big a deal as they had already played several).
    Just this month, January, they got to pick what instrument to commit to, but it was based on what they wanted to play, what they were good at, and what the band needed.
    It’s fun to see how it evolves and how kids learn different skis for different instruments, rather than just picking trumpet because it looks fun.

  28. I love this concept! Reminds me of our local library’s Read to a Dog program. Once a week, several therapy dogs (and their owners) spread out in one room of the library. Children read aloud to the dogs. The children get weekly practice at reading aloud—but the dogs never correct their pronunciation or tell them to slow down or read more clearly. The dogs are the perfect, attentive, low-stakes audience.

  29. I was thinking of practicing a musical instrument while reading this before you even mentioned it! I took piano lessons starting in first grade, with two recitals per year. They were relatively high stakes, but not so fussy that they felt like a “huge” deal. But, reading your post today, I understand that the more important opportunity I had was to perform regularly in our church. From a very young age, I had to opportunity to play piano solos and sing solos regularly. It became so commonplace that I was never nervous about it whatsoever. Plus, church people are always the most supportive!

  30. My kids play club soccer and it’s always HIGH stakes and I kind of hate that. Everyone knows that American soccer isn’t at the level of other countries. Many believe it’s because kids aren’t out playing in the streets and fields with their buddies from a young age – they develop in a low stakes environment where they can test their capabilities and develop their skills safely…before the stakes are higher.

  31. This is very similar to the approach Norway has taken to youth sports with great success. With their approach, kids can try a variety of sports in their youth, without high fees or commitments to teams. They can switch teams when they want, no one keeps score at games, and there are no athlete rankings or conference championships. The goal is to have fun and learn. Only when a child reaches age 12 or 13 does that approach change.

    I also see it in my own coaching. I coach a club swim team and a neighborhood summer league team. They are night and day. Though I love my club swimmers and many have had great success, there’s something about the pure joy my neighborhood swimmers exude as they master a new skill and finish that first 25. They love it because it’s fun, and no one is worried about much more than whether the concession stand will sell out of pizza before they finish their next race.

    Thank you for sharing!

  32. I love this concept of low-stakes-high-frequency! My daughters are very shy so we involved them in a local youth theater. They have several plays per year that are no cut and at least one that’s not a musical. Which is great for those kids who like acting but not singing or dancing. They offer single day skill building workshops as well, like types of dance, voice, or improv classes. It’s very inexpensive and they have scholarships for families that need it. It has really helped them overcome their fears of oral presentations at school and even helped my teenager confidently get through her first job interviews. It also gives them opportunities to form friendships with like-minded kids outside of their schools which we’ve found to be very important.

  33. It’s kind of like how family life is the low stakes, high frequency of human interaction that prepares us for life life.

  34. I think I got decently good at public speaking (and not afraid to do it for the most part) because I had lots of practice in my church growing up. It was low-stakes (it’s a small congregational and pretty laid back- so if I made a mistake, it was perfectly fine), but I did it often (reading scripture, doing the welcome, etc.) and I also sang in the church choir starting when I was 10 or 11. I got used to being in front of people, which is a skill that I find useful still today.

  35. I LOVE that you wrote about this! My family and I live in a small ski town high in the Rockies that is competitive in many school aged sports – ski racing, soccer, lacrosse & hockey in particular and home to many world class climbers, skiers, mountain bikers and mountaineers, etc. My son, a senior, started climbing in elementary school as a reaction to being in organized sports with screaming parents and lots of pressure to ‘perform’ and limited time for fun. He joined the local climbing group as a middle schooler. Climbing Club is loosely organized, practice is 3x a week but not required, kids set the projects/climbs and all kids are encouraged to try the routes, meets are super chill. There are many routes set out in a climbing gym (rope and bouldering), kids can try any and all. If you climb to the top without falling, you ask a neighbor or your belayer to sign off as a witness so you can get a few more points. Kids naturally interact with others they don’t know to share beta on routes. Parents mingle, belay and cheer on everyone’s kids. Ranking isn’t known for up to a week after a meet. There’s usually a shared meal for families and coaches at a restaurant nearby afterwards. The whole experience is positive, encouraging and nothing like the long hours I spent sitting on cold field hockey benches wondering why I wasn’t getting put into the game. I love Jim’s theory and think he should jump all over promoting it!

  36. This also sounds a little like a treatment for anxiety that I heard about in the documentary Screenagers: The Next Chapter. Basically, you have those who experience anxiety do a lot of low stakes things that trigger the anxious feelings, and then let them sit with those feelings until they become not as overwhelming. The example in the documentary was going to a food court to a pizza place and asking if they serve sushi. Very Low Stakes, but anxiety inducing for most of them. It is also like the theory of learning touted in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning–high frequency testing in a very low stakes way–believing that the frequent recall of information is what creates permanent learning. Interesting read.

  37. Michelle Cornwell

    Yes. It’s about finding the sweet(er) spot of stress management, right? We all know high stress causes ‘flooding’ physiologically; high blood pressure, anxiety, … conditions not conducive to learning. While low stress lets one be relaxed and confident but you need a bit to be prepared, focused, and preform optimally.
    Wise older parents told me to wait until my kids beg for undies to know when they are ready for potty training which I think was kind of a way to tell when there was just the right amount of stress on them.

  38. Three of my five kids starting break dancing at a local studio a few months ago. One thing I love is that for the last 5-10 min of class they do a circle where the kids take turns going in to the middle and dancing alone. They just free style their own moves or practice things they learned in class. Everyone watches and it has been so amazing for building confidence in my kids. At the bigger end of term performance they were hardly even nervous since they had lots of practice dancing in front of others. And I’m a fan of Jim – we live on Locust Lane in Provo and he is favourite of many of us.

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