Motor learning skills are vital when it comes to skill transfer and long-term retention. Skills are acquired using specific techniques and are refined through great levels of repetition (Croce & DePaepe, 1989). It is said by psychologists that random practice increases the long term skill retention significantly more than that of blocked practice (Carpenter, 2001). Within coaching there are two main types of practice; Blocked and Random.
Blocked practice is done when an athlete performs a single skill multiple times with repetition being the key aspect to it. The amount of variety in training is nonexistent. The learner then moves on to practice another skill in the same way, for example a type of skill that is done in this way, is putting in golf. The practice would look very drilled, as they would simply putt from the same place for certain number of shots, regardless as to whether the hole the shot. This type of practice is commonly used when an individual is first learning a skill or when someone is wanting to perform a skill more consistently. A key area that separates this from other practices, is the levels of contextual interference. This is a learning phenomenon where interference occurs during practice that is beneficial to skill learning, in blocked practice, the levels are very low, as it is simply performing the skill rather than doing the skill in a game environment (Shea & Morgan, 1979). Some factors that would make ‘putting’ have higher interference would be taking shots from different distances, the weather and then at elite level there will be a crowd which could make noise whilst executing a shot. Blocked practice leads to better execution of particular skills in training sessions, however it leads to a false sense when applying this in games, as they have not been exposed to constraints, with this being the key limitation (Fazeli et al., 2017).
Despite this, in random practice, learners work on a number of different skills in combination with each other and they are randomly working on different trials and patterns. This practice gives the learner more meaningful memories of the various tasks by increasing memory strength and its relation to the sport in competition (Goode and Magill, 1986). For example, following on with golf, this practice would allow them to ‘putt’ the ball until they got it in the hole and then they would be able to move onto the next task, which could be putting from a different distance or on a green with different terrain. The random element of an activity forces the learner to be alert at all times, as anything could happen and they need to make sure that they do not fall into a repetitive routine. Random practice challenges the learners cognitive and motor skills to deal with the contextual interference of each task and enable them to develop the skill level and retention (Schmidt & Wisberg, 2008). Random conditions result in a much less skilled or ‘ugly’ performance than blocked conditions with regards to acquisition, however random-practice produce a greater level of learning and understanding, (Shea & Morgan, 1979).
As football is my main sport, I would look to use more blocked based practice when coaching youth footballers, as this enables them to practice a skill until they become almost perfect by doing this. This is important as it gives them the fundamental skills in order to progress through the sport. However, you could argue this would not be as effective as being spontaneous. This is because a session that has them alert at all times, will keep children more engaged and likely to complete tasks, rather than switching off, as they are doing the same task over and over (Carpenter, 2001). Random practice will be better in higher youth groups and adult football, as the practice is better for skill retention and looks to focus more on game situations, essentially producing a ‘mock’ fixture or event (Shea & Morgan, 1979). As I do not regularly coach, I would aim to focus my attention on the performance age range of football and would therefore take a more random practiced approach, as I feel learners will retain the skills better when using a game situation rather than just repeating the drill over and over. Due to my personal beliefs, I feel that learning to play in matches rather than just completing drills, is much more beneficial for performance, as it trains the athlete more skills at once.
Carpenter, S. (2001). A blind spot in motor learning. APA Monitor: 32(6), p. 62.
Croce, R. and DePaepe, J., 1989. A critique of therapeutic intervention programming with reference to an alternative approach based on motor learning theory. Physical & occupational therapy in pediatrics, 9(3), pp.5-33.
Fazeli, D., Taheri, H. and Saberi Kakhki, A., 2017. Random versus blocked practice to enhance mental representation in golf putting. Perceptual and motor skills, 124(3), pp.674-688.
Goode, S. and Magill, R.A., 1986. Contextual interference effects in learning three badminton serves. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 57(4), pp.308-314.
Shea, J.B. and Morgan, R.L., 1979. Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental psychology: Human Learning and memory, 5(2), p.179-187
Schmidt, R. A. & Wisberg, C. A. (2008). Motor Learning and Performance: A Situation-based Learning Approach. Human Kinetics Publishers.