If you've tried to perfect a difficult, long task by repeating it multiple times, you'll know what I'm talking about.

You start tackling the first few phases of the problem, until you succeed. Then you fail later on and you must start over. After enough restarts, you'll eventually start having trouble performing the first few phases you thought you had down pat, way before those where you were really trying hard to get through. It's as frustrating as short-lived however: after a few more tries, you'll return to previous or higher levels of performance.

If you are the visual kind of person, here's a terribly confusing and misleading graph about what I'm talking about:

enter image description here

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    Well, those dips or troughs are local minima on the path to the global maximum. – Hugo Dec 13 '11 at 17:12
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    Two steps forwards, one step backwards. At least you know you're (slowly) getting there with that one. Unlike One step forwards, two steps backwards, where it would probably be best to give up asap. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 17:41

You might want to look into the phenomenon of 'choking', which is believed to be a sudden regression, under stress, to an early learning phase known as 'explicit learning'. Here is an excellent article on this subject which explains the difference between explicit learning and implicit learning which is akin to what we might call 'muscle memory'.

The article explains that each type of learning uses a different part of the brain, and that even those with a high level of expertise can suddenly revert to beginner level, albeit temporarily. The example used in the article is the fascinating Wimbledon ladies' final from 1993 where Jana Novotna suffered a textbook example of 'choking' in her loss to Steffi Graf. Novotna went on to win the tournament in the same venue five years later.


In software development, regression, "reappearance of a bug in a piece of software that had previously been fixed", is a commonly-used term, which in general means a regressing, a return to a previous state.

You might also refer to going stale, overtraining, or backsliding. Overtraining means:

Overtraining is a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity. They cease making progress, and can even begin to lose strength and fitness.

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    It's not entirely appropriate, because sometimes I'll just find out entirely new ways to screw up at the same task as I strive towards completion, and not just mistakes that I'd done in the past. – badp Dec 13 '11 at 17:14
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    @badp: But when you regress you go back to a less advanced state. The fact that you make new mistakes as you try to proceed is irrelevant, the result is the same. – Irene Dec 13 '11 at 17:24
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    @Irene: I play the piano. Sometimes, the more I practice, the more I suck. I'm not regressing, I'm just sucking more. As badp notes, I find new ways to screw up. – Gnawme Dec 13 '11 at 19:10
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    @Irene: OP: "If you've tried to perfect a difficult, long task by repeating it multiple times..." I agree; the OP's goal is achieving, not completing. But re composition, I wouldn't use regression, which seems to imply that you're composing less well. – Gnawme Dec 13 '11 at 19:32
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    I've heard the phrase "performance fatigue" used for this but I'm failing to find a decent cite. – Wudang Dec 13 '11 at 19:41

Sports psychologists talk about overcoming performance plateaus and slumps.

slump, verb: To decline or fall off in activity or performance.

Your graph illustrates the plateaus and slumps typical of working toward mastery or completion of some task or activity.


To retrogress or regress is to return to an older and worse state. The graph shown is said to highly oscillate or fluctuate, moving repeatedly from one position to another.


In sports especially, you could say that you choked, which covers the idea of failing at something at which you normally succeed.

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 13 '11 at 21:05

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