If you're like most coaches you may have wondered at one time or another why your athletes perform one way in practice but differently in competition. The answer may be found in your practice design. To best train players for competition, coaches must create practice environments that promote long term retention and transfer. What does this mean? It means skills learned in practice must be retained beyond the training session and must be taught in such a way that the motor programs developed in practice transfer to competition.
Retention and Transfer of Motor Skills
To help coaches do this, motor learning science has identified several prominent features of effective practice design. Practices should train whole
skills, under randomized conditions, with effective feedback, in a game-like environment that re-creates the moods and emotions of competition. Coaches who follow these "laws of learning" enable their athletes to develop in practice the "relatively permanent improvements in the execution of skilled motor behaviors." that are essential to improved performance in competition.
Does Exercise Promote Retention of New Skills?
Want more good news? New research out of the University of Copenhagen now suggests another potential element for promoting long term retention and learning. Researchers in the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology examined the impact of exercise both on the rate of acquisition and retention of new skills and found that participants who exercised after practice retained more of what they learned when later tested for proficiency.
Participants were asked to engage in 15 minutes of intense cycling either before or after practicing an accuracy tracking task. The task required right-handed men to use a joy stick to trace a white line over a red squiggling line appearing on a monitor in front of them. Researchers wanted to explore whether the exercise or its timing in relation to practice effected the acquisition or retention of the practiced skill. Acquisition was measured during practice and retention was measured 1 hour, 24 hours and 7 days after practice.
Regardless of timing, the cycling exercise did not significantly effect the rate of motor skill acquisition or short term (1 day) retention. However, both exercise groups showed significant retention when measured 24 hours and 7 days after practice; and compared to participants who exercised before practice, participants who exercised after practice showed even greater retention when measured 7 days after practice.
According to researchers, these findings "indicate that one bout of intense exercise performed immediately before or after practicing a motor task is sufficient to improve the long-term retention of a motor skill. The positive effects of acute exercise on motor memory are maximized when exercise is performed immediately after practice, during the early stages of memory consolidation."
Application to Volleyball Coaches
So what does cycling and tracking a red line have to do with coaching volleyball players? Maybe nothing - human understanding of motor learning continues to develop. In the meantime, this research may suggest to coaches that a short intense bout of exercise inserted at the end of their practices may enhance the long-term learning of what is taught in practice.
 Bain, S., McGown, C., Motor Learning Principles and the Superiority of Whole Training in Volleyball. Available here.
 The study, A Single Bout of Exercise Improves Motor Memory, is available here.