Practice Makes Perfect. Or Does It?

Article written by Michelle Berg, AFLCA Group Exercise and Resistance Trainer with mind/body and portable equipment accreditations, NASM corrective exercise specialist, and NAIT Personal Fitness Trainer program graduate. View Michelle’s full profile and qualifications on Fitdirectory.ca

We need to move to live. This concept applies to all areas of healthy living including sport and day-to-day activities.

Physical Literacy and Sport Skills Development

Physical literacy includes fundamental movement patterns such as running, jumping, throwing and kicking. Sport development incorporates these fundamental movement skills, focusing on the specific movements required to be successful at a given sport. For example, soccer players would need to work on running, kicking and jumping skills to a greater degree than throwing skills. Should good soccer coaches only focus practice sessions with the required movement patterns? If practice makes perfect it would stand to reason that a good practice should offer repeated drills to enhance the specific movements used in the sport.

Well, as it turns out, psychology and kinesiology science warn against using repetitive drills only to achieve and retain movement skills.

Blocked or Random sessions

Sport- or performance-centered practice sessions can typically be divided into two types – random or blocked. Random practices typically offer a variety of drills to teach and enhance similar movements or movement patterns but do not repeat the same drill. Blocked practices are quite the opposite and are based on repetitions of the same movements, movement patterns or drills as a means of enhancing specific skills. Science is finding that repeating the same drills over and over can decreases an athlete’s ability to perform optimally over the long term.

Research

The American Psychological Association offers further support from a 2001 article by Siri Carpenter of the Monitor’s Science Watch series. “Blocked practice leads to better short-term performance but poorer long-term learning [while] random practice requires people to repeatedly ‘reload’ the motor program corresponding to each task, which aids the later retrieval.” In the study, Carpenter goes on to state, “random practice requires that the several skills be differentiated in terms of their similarities and differences, resulting in a mental conceptualization that supports retention of those skills”. This lends credence to planning sport practices with a variety of motor learning options, and not relying solely on the repetition of movements to improve athletic performance.

A 2011 psychological study on motor and cognitive skills also supports the premise of variety in sport specific practice. “Practice manipulations that require more cognitive effort (i.e., random schedule) are predicted to be more effective for motor learning than practice manipulations that require less cognitive effort (i.e., blocked schedule)”. A sport practice session based on a random schedule philosophy requires a higher level of thinking required to successfully perform the skills involved. This higher level thinking transfers down to muscle activation, coordination, agility and proprioception (or knowing where your body and/or body parts are without actually looking). The more complex the skill, the more brain-muscle connections are required—beneficial to anyone seeking to improve their coordination, skill levels and physical abilities.

So in a nutshell: practice does make perfect, but only if that practice offers a variety of movements and movement patterns to avoid the brain going into ‘auto-pilot’ mode.

Human Kinetics also supports random practice theory in their 2014 text, Random Practice Conditions produce more learning,” Schmidt & Lee (2014), Motor Learning & Performance 5th Edition. Schmidt & Lee state, “random practice gives the learner more meaningful and distinguishable memories of the various tasks, increasing memory strength, forces the learner to generate the solution again on the task’s next trial, which is beneficial to learning.”

One-Solution Does not fit all

Is this method of changing things to enhance physical performance only applicable to athletes and healthy individuals? Quite possibly, states from Merbah & Meulemans study (2011): “subjects who present a cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients, are able to learn a new skill only through constant practice.” They go on to convey that there is “no universal practice schedule [which] can be applied in every context and for all types of people.”

Combined Approach

However, they urge those involved in physical activity to consider a combined approach to achieve optimal performance. “It might be possible to combine the advantages of the two schedules: using a blocked schedule in the early stages of learning would decrease the cognitive load, while the later introduction of a random practice schedule could enhance the subject’s [memory]”.

Break it Down

Recognizing the complexity of the desired skill is also a critical element in end-result performance. Complex skills can be broken down into steps that are easier to learn at first, and then built upon for increased capacity. Sport- or performance-based practice sessions could be enhanced with the application of the concept of variety and repetition., For example, a new or young athlete may simply need more repetition to become proficient at a movement, and then levels of complexity can be added as they progress.
While repetition has its place, it is very important to keep challenging the brain to create and enhance neuromuscular facilitation for improved physical performance in all levels of activity, sport and performance.

More information and sources

Physical and Health Education Canada LTAD and Sport

Canadian Sport for Life Resource Pages

Train Ugly youtube video

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