Recently, I have been doing a ton of research on the topic of Motor Learning and Development as I am working on a book covering these principles. One of the key tenets of motor learning theory is the concept of random practice being more effective than blocked practice. Take a look at the two videos posted below and decide which of the two you believe to be the most effective form of practice and developing skill:
After watching the two videos above, let’s take a look now at what some of the actual game shots Curry takes in current games: which practice best reflects the shots he takes in the game?
Let’s take note of a few things:
– It is very rare that Curry takes the same exact shot from the same exact spot two times in a row
– Sometimes he shoots off a 1-2 step
– Sometimes he shoots off a hop step
– Sometimes he takes dribble jumpers while going towards the rim
– Sometimes he takes dribble jumpers going away from the rim
It is clear, Steph Curry is much more than simply a catch and shoot player. So how did he get this way? Did Steph become the best shooter in the world because he was born with great talent? Did Steph become the best shooter in the world by launching 100 uncontested three-pointers after every practice? What is the best way to develop skill and improve the transfer of practice performance into game performance?
Blocked practice is a form of practice in which the participant performs a single variation of a skill, rep after rep, until improvement is shown. Random practice is when the participant performs multiple skills or a multiple varieties of one skill, without repeating the same skill or variation of a skill two consecutive times.
Blocked practice would be shooting 10 shots from the same spot, all off the catch. Random practice would be shooting a three at the corner, cutting to the wing for a dribble pull-up jumper, and then sprinting to the opposite wing for a catch and shoot jumper.
In a study done by Shea and Morgan, participants performed three various skills and then were tested for the best transfer of learning. The first group performed the skills in a blocked practice structure. They completed the first task until success, then the second task until success, and finally the third task until success. The second group performed the task according to the principle of random practice. They did not complete the skills in any particular order. Additionally, the random practice group was not permitted to perform two consecutive repetitions of the same skill.
The results of the study showed that the blocked practice group had a higher rate of success during the practice period, but the random practice group proved to perform better on the retention test. The study concluded that random practice is superior to blocked practice when the goal is long-term retention and transfer to game performance.
Why is this the case? There are two different explanations and both have merit. The first is called the “elaboration hypothesis”, and the second is called the “forgetting hypothesis”. The elaboration hypothesis states that by refusing to perform the same skill two times in a row, the learner is forced to find common themes and similarities amongst the two skills, which helps promote learning. The forgetting hypothesis states that when tasks are performed in a random order, the participant is forced to generate a new solution on every repetition. Generating a new solution on each repetition takes the participant off “autopilot” and forces him/her to be more engaged in the process of each rep. Both of these hypotheses have proven to be effective explanations for why skills are best learned through random practice.
In basketball, every skill has three parts to it. The three parts are this: read, plan, execute. Blocked practice tends to only focus on the execution of technique, covering only 33% of the skill. Does it matter how sound your shooting technique is if you are not able to decide and prepare when to shoot in the game? Additionally, contrary to popular belief that there is only one proper shooting technique, watching Steph Curry shoot seems to argue that there are principles of shooting that must be mastered, but subtle variations of form must be implemented depending upon game scenarios. Steph Curry is constantly making variations to his technique to adapt to the current situation.
Random practice is more effective than blocked practice because it forces the athlete to go off autopilot and to engage in the three aspects of skill (read, plan, execute) every single time they perform a rep. When you do not perform the same exact variation of a skill two times in a row, the athlete must read (how far am I from the basket?), plan (how hard/quickly do I need to shoot the ball?), and finally execute (perform the appropriate variation of the technique).
Additionally, random practice is beneficial because it mirrors what occurs in the game. Random practice makes many coaches uncomfortable because it is so different from how it’s always been done before. This creates a need for us to ask a few questions:
1. Why do we practice?
2. Is the way that we practice dictated by factual science or long-standing tradition?
3. Do I have a growth mindset and believe that my way may not be the best way, or am I set in my ways and unwilling to open my mind to other options?
We practice to perform well in a game. We do not practice to become good at practice. It is vital that the way we practice leads us to the best possible performance in games. Science has shown time and time again that the best way to learn and retain skills is through random practice. The question is: As a coach, are you and your players willing to be uncomfortable in practice in order to achieve better game results?