Daniel Kirschenbaum, Arnold Ordman, Andrew Ordman, and Robert Holtzbauer

The Big Idea

This study is not of this decade or even of the 21st Century (1982).  But no matter because it is a classic example of the early days of psychological research into what is called self-regulation theory.  The big idea is to figure out how and in what ways and under what conditions we can guide our own behaviors.   This study concerns self-monitoring, and especially what is called differential self-monitoring.  Its potential lesson is still relevant to modern sports skill acquisition and development.


  • One way of looking at how to progressively improve skill level in a sport is to learn how to intentionally monitor our behaviour.
  • In other words, the more control we have over what we choose to pay attention to in the act of learning, presumably the better we learn.
  • But there seems to be a relationship between our level of mastery and the kind of attention we give to what we learn.
  • In other words, we can pay attention to what we are doing right in our learning, the so-called positive self-monitoring.  Or we can pay more attention to the negative side of learning, namely to what we are doing wrong.
  • Consistent with previous research this study of female bowlers in league play suggests that low skill level players significantly improve mastery if they practice positive self-monitoring over negative self-monitoring.
  • Higher skilled players are usually found to improve by way of negative self-mastery, although in this study there was no difference between positive or negative self-control.

The Research

The authors explain that in previous laboratory research reports there had been intriguing interactions between differential self-monitoring and level of mastery.  First, this means that in the lab it was noticed that a person’s behavioral self-control could be monitored either positively or negatively.  A person could focus on trying to change or improve behavior by increasing positive behaviors or by decreasing negative ones.  Second, it also appeared that positive self-monitoring produced dramatic improvements with the unskilled or low skilled; and negative self-monitoring worked best for the higher skilled.

These authors took this conundrum into the field by designing a study on competitive league bowling.   There were 133 women participating in league bowling on a weekly basis for eight months.  The study began five weeks from the end of the league’s scheduled play.  The experimental group included 84 volunteers (of the 133).  All of the 84 women were given a 20 to 30 minutes lesson by a professional bowler.  The lesson included seven components of the skill:  foot position, stance, grip, spot, approach, push away, and finish position.  A written summary of the lesson was also made available each subject to refer to for the remaining weeks of the league play.  The remaining 49 subjects (of the 133) received no instruction.

Then the 84 bowlers were first divided up into low level and high level league bowlers.  After which the researchers created three groups for the low level bowlers and three groups for the higher skilled bowlers.  In each group, one third of the women were assigned to be positive self-monitors, negative self-monitors, or instruction only.

For positive self-monitoring, after each bowling frame, the bowlers were asked to review the seven components of the “Brain Power Bowling” instruction.  They were asked to rate their performance on each of the seven components from 1 to 3 where: 1=good, 2=very good, and 3=excellent.

The negative self-monitoring, after each bowling frame, were asked to review the possible errors when compared to the “Brain Power Bowling” instruction.  They rated themselves on the seven components: 1=terrible, 2=very poor, and 3=poor.

So the primary differences between the groups were: Positives focused on effective execution; Negatives focused on avoiding errors; and Instruction-only were not told to self-monitor or self-instruct in any specific way.  All the groups turned in their bowling scores each week of the study.

Now the working hypothesis for the study, based on previous results of laboratory studies, was that the positive self-monitoring would produce significantly increased bowling averages for low skilled bowlers; and negative self-monitoring would be a significant advantage in the higher skilled bowlers.

Here’s what they found.  The unskilled positive self-monitoring women increased their bowling averages by 11 pins per game and 100% more than either the 49 who received no instruction and the instruction-only group.  But the negative self-monitoring did not significantly improve scores for the higher skilled bowlers.

The researchers concluded that positive self-monitoring works best when a player is learning something new, or difficult, or perceived as difficult.  It was less effective when they are just maintaining or refining self-regulated behaviour over time.

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