“Given the overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrating the superiority of whole versus part training it is puzzling that part progression methodologies remain such a popular instructional paradigm.” – Dr. Steven Bain & Dr. Carl McGown
When I think back to my days spent in school, I was a decent student. I certainly wanted to be a good student. I was motivated by the prestige accrued by my peers who already had proven themselves smart. I did well in some subjects (biology, history, social studies and parts of English). I did poorly in others (math, chemistry, physics and parts of English).
To understand why I was both good and bad at English is to understand how education and, subsequently, learning was for me. The parts of English that involved memorization – like definitions – I was good at and the parts that involved problem solving skills – like grammar – I was not.
The sad thing is, even with good grades in the memorization subjects, I never really learned the material. If I had a test, I’d usually do the majority of my studying the morning of the test. I’d get up really early and I had a system for memorizing lots of information quickly. I could then spit it all back out on the test or exam but also promptly forget everything I’d memorized before the day was over. Still, that method got me 85-95% averages consistently in those subjects.
I had managed to get the information committed to my short-term or working memory but not to long-term memory where it would be at my beckon call not only for days after the test but for years to come. Science and math often involved little memorization and so I struggled to apply my technique to those subjects. When I did manage to get a problem right, say in math, I’d tell myself not to try and think to hard about how I did it for fear of confusing myself (don’t try to understand it, just do it!).
Oh boy, what a dummy.
More sad than this experience is that kids today are still being educated in ways that rewards memorization more so than problem solving. Spitting out facts and knowledge for a test is prized more than the ability to think critically (even though that’s a prime ability we say we want kids to develop).
Do we do the same thing to kids in sports? Do we coach them to be memorizers? I think we do.
Look at how we train kids when they come to practice. We do drills. We take the game or competition and we strip away all its layers of complexity in order to get at the one small piece that we have deemed in need of improvement. And then we have the kids repeat that action or task over and over and over again in the exact same way. By the end of the practice, we see improvement. All of that time spent doing the same thing in the same way over and over and over again has produced what appears to be a blip on the learning screen.
The problem? The kids come back a few days later to train again or to compete and the task is not done as successfully as it was previously or there is a complete absence of the activity you had so expertly helped them develop only a short time ago.
Learning that is to be considered meaningful or that sticks comes from truly understanding the task or activity and how it relates to the overall game or competition. While repetition is needed to help make things habitual and therefore automatic, an understanding of when to do that action or, more importantly, why to do that action cannot be improved by it.
Whole (i.e., game-like) versus part training (i.e., drill-like). That’s what the quote at the start of the blog refers to. Do you train using a more game-based or drill-based environment? If you do train in a more drill-like environment, are you justifying it to yourself now by saying that the kids need to practice an individual action in isolation because that is the only way they’ll learn it? Or it just makes sense to do it this way – move from simple to complex.
Unfortunately, we’ve been wrong to take this approach and as the quote at the beginning of the blog tries to encapsulate, game-based training situations are far superior to drill-based methods. Science has known this for quite a long time now (more than two decades). Strange why we still stick to something that is inefficient and less effective, isn’t it?
As I said, the repetitious environment of drills can be valuable to creating (good) habits though. We just have to construct those drills in a way that takes into account what the science of motor learning tells us about skills acquisition and not based on what we’ve always done or what seems to make the most sense.
And what science tells us is that we have to get away from block-style practice and move more towards random-style practice.
Blocked practice is doing the exact same thing in the exact same way over and over again. Like memorization in preparation for a test, it only makes you better for the day and only makes you better at that particular drill, not at the overall game or competition. This is a point well made in a blog post by Trevor Ragan.
The variance so characteristic of the game or competition, is minimized or non-existent in blocked practice. And it is that lack of variance, what motor learning experts call contextual interference, that produces the sugar rush-like surge in performance improvement that we see (which is only destined to disappear not long after it first appears).
So the game-based training environment has lots of variance whereas the drill-based training environment has the same isolated action happening in the exact same way over and over again. If you can’t or aren’t willing yet to shift away from drills to games, then at least ensure that the drills you do don’t have the kids performing the action in the exact same way every time. Each repetition needs to stress the particular action but the exact way the action is carried out needs to be randomized.
In soccer for example, you may be working with your players to improve their ability to receive the ball on the ground when it is passed to them. So you pass it to them the exact same way each time until they show you that they can receive it properly. Then, once they’ve got it, you change the way you serve them the ball. Random practice says that right from the get go you should vary the service each time.
Yes, it will be messy and ugly during that practice and they won’t show the same improvement that they would if the drill was organized in a more block-like way. However, the science tells us that in the long-term they will better retain the correct ability to perform that action.
So my ask of you is that when you coach you make sure that the training you put them through is not turning them into memorizers – capable of performing the action correctly only for the present moment and for a short time – but instead into long-term understanders.
This is just one more reason to remember that coaching kids is about long-term development and not short-term wins.
Next post Saturday, June 28th.