HOW TO TAKE YOUR SKILL ACQUISITION AND LEARNING TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Ever feel like you're struggling to grasp or perform a new skill in a competition even after you've spent hours and hours practicing, enduring repetition after repetition? Chances are, you need to give your brain time to soak it all in and learn to react before you can really perform.
Most people's version of practicing a skill is through endless repetition. This is called blocked practice. In short, blocked practice is a method of doing something over and over, usually in a controlled, predictable environment (Schmidt, 2013). In the sports world, it's most effective when trying to develop your form and get used to a new movement. Blocked practice helps athletes get comfortable with the technique. For a soccer player, this could be learning the proper form of a volley using the laces, inside, and outside of the foot; for a track and field sprinter, setting up and getting out of blocks; for a quarterback, avoiding a sack.
Once an athlete has laid the foundations and is comfortable with performing the action, the real work comes from random practice. Random practice occurs when an athlete completes the task interspersed between other activities. This requires the athlete to solidify the application of the skill by forcing a delayed recall. Most notably, random practice is more similar to the real-time situations an athlete will find themselves in during competition. Random practice forces the person to think on their feet, assess the situation they are in, and then perform the skill. The delay in action compounds your retention. So in alignment with our previous examples, random practice for the soccer player would be having a teammate or coach toss the ball at different angles, requiring the athlete to adapt and use the most efficient volley (laces, inside or outside of the foot); the track sprinter could practice getting out of the blocks, running a lap, practicing baton handoffs, and coming back to the blocks; the quarterback could practice multiple handoffs and plays before a coach allows a defensive lineman to breakthrough.
Although each type of practice is beneficial, they are best when used strategically. Blocked practice is most effective when an athlete is first working on a new skill to get comfortable with the technique and execution. These back to back repetitions allow the athlete to work on physically adjusting their body to move appropriately. Random practice is most effective when working towards mastery. This random practice demands that the athlete asses the situation and act accordingly, which is never the same in a real game situation. An athlete's training methods will impact their success, so it is important to identify when they have mastered the basics and are ready for application (Rukavina & Foxworth, 2009).
The main point here is, mix it up. Challenge yourself. Once you have an understanding of the skill, step away from it and come back. This solidifies your ability to learn the skill through retention. By incorporating random practice, your brain is forced to think on the fly and react with instinct instead of mindless repetition. While blocked practice helps an athlete learn a new task or activity, random practice is what takes you to the next level.
Next time you're learning something new, anything from studying for a test to nailing down your form, try this:
- Perform blocked practice (repetition) of the skill or problem until you're confident in your ability to perform the task.
- Take. A. Break.
- Try working on a different homework problem, shoot a couple of baskets, maybe make a sandwich.
- Then, come back to your task. Try it again. If you've succeeded, great! Now, take it to the next level.
- Alternate your skill with 2 or 3 others.
- Continue to push yourself to come back to the skill after longer and longer breaks in between.
The more time you spend in between practice of the skill, the more you solidify this concept into your brain. It will help you prepare better for the unexpected flow of real competition. This is what helps you improve. This is what helps you take it to the next level.
Rukavina, P., & Foxworth, K. (2009). Using motor-learning theory to design more effective instruction. JOPERD: The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. 80(3), 17-37.
Schmidt, R., & Lee, T. (2013). Motor Learning and Performance with Web Study Guide: From Principles to Application, 5th ed. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.