Saturday, July 28, 2012

Science of Coaching: Why Do We Practice?

Why do we practice?  Most people would say that we practice to get better.  But get better when is the question?  Are we practicing to get better in practice or are we practicing to get better in competition?  While the answer may seem obvious the question itself has profound importance for the science of coaching and how to design practices that best train our players.

The goal of practice should be to improve players' performances in the long term (beyond any one day) and to support the transfer of the training to non-practice environments (competitions).  Many coaches believe that the training methods they use to enhance players' performances during practice will accomplish these twin goals.  In fact, the science is otherwise.  Motor learning research has shown consistently that the training methods that best enhance performance in practice do not transfer well to players later performing in competition.

Now this can be very difficult to accept because what the science is saying to us coaches is that the methods we're using - and which are actually working - to get our players better during practice should be scrapped because they're not teaching the players how to play and compete in actual competitive games!  That's a tough one to swallow, so stay with me and keep reading to learn how this can possibly be so.  The explanation depends on a distinction between what motor learning experts call blocked and random practice.

The Science: Blocked Practice Versus Random Practice

Motor learning research distinguishes between two types of practice styles.  Blocked practice involves athletes repeatedly performing the same skill again and again, usually until some "improvement" is shown.  This is commonly done in skill drills where players practice a single skill numerous times before moving on to the next skill drill.  Repeat passing or repeat setting drills are classic example of blocked practices.
Random practice, on the other hand, involves players practicing multiple skills in a random order while minimizing the number of consecutive repetitions of any one skill.  Game-like drills requiring players to perform several skills in random order (as the situation demands) with only a single opportunity each time to perform each skill would constitute a random practice style.

So which of these is more effective?  If we're practicing to get better when we compete (as opposed to getting better for practice) then the science overwhelmingly favors random practice.  Numerous researchers and studies consistently have concluded that blocked practice makes players better in practice and random practice makes players better long term in competition.

In their excellent article, Motor Learning Principles and the Superiority of Whole Training in Volleyball, Carl McGown, Ph.D. and Steven Bain, Ph.D., summarize the research as follows:

"Random vs. Blocked Practice:  The random versus blocked practice methods represent a fundamental paradox regarding athletic performance during training and subsequent performance during competition.  Based on performance measurements during practice, blocked activities, in which athletes repeatedly rehearse the same task, result in superior performance during the training session.  In comparison, performing tasks and skills in random order decreases skill acquisition during training.  Consequently, based on measurement of performance effects during practice, many coaches and players believe that blocked practice is superior to random practice.
Such a conclusion however, mistakenly assumes a positive correlation between performance in practice and long-term skill retention.  The paradox arises from the fact that blocked practice is in fact very ineffective for transfer of learning to competition as performance improvements measured during practice degrade rapidly, and inefficient because retraining on the same skills will be necessary.  Conversely, random practice is both effective, transfer to competition is high, and efficient, skill acquisition is relatively permanent.  Indeed, the superiority of random practice has been substantiated for a large number of sports skills including volleyball, badminton, baseball, basketball, tennis, and soccer, and its utility and training applications thoroughly reviewed by Schmidt and Lee.
Finally, scientific research into the neurological reasons for this superiority have revealed that variable activities increase and strengthen the brain connections that are responsible for learning motor skills whereas simply repeating the same activities exerts no measurable effect on these brain connections.  Therefore, if motor learning (transfer and retention) is the goal, random practice is a fundamental principle to follow." (references omitted).

What Does This Mean for Coaching?

Armed with this scientific knowledge what does this mean for the volleyball coach?  Simple.  It means we must make our practices more game-like by designing "drills" and "games" that incorporate the science of random practice.  It means we must do what we implore our players to do - get out of our comfort zones - and creatively put our players in situations that resemble the randomness of the game.

For me, studying motor learning principles has caused me several seasons ago to scrap one of my favorite drills - Passing 150 - which required our three main passers to pass 150 balls in a row from our servers.  Now I know that the while the first 25 pass attempts made it more likely that the next 25 would be better, the players were not likely going to retain much from the experience in our match the following day when they received at most 2 or 3 balls in a row and had to play the game of volleyball in-between each one.

The challenge for us coaches is creatively to design our own drills with scientific principles and our teams' needs in mind, to never stop learning and sometimes to ignore what our lying eyes see happening in practice.

[Originally published February 18, 2011]

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