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?