Note: I goofed up a bit when writing this post. It doesn’t change the main points much, but there’s a follow-up you should also read.
Interestingly, not long after I wrote a lengthy article on the topic of game-like training, one on a similar topic appeared in the Winter 2018-19 edition of the AVCA magazine. It’s titled Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. This is the second part of a sequence started in the Fall 2018 edition. Feel free to give it a read, if you can find it (my link no longer works). It’s not very long. I’ll share some of my thoughts here.
First, I’ve actually read the paper cited in the article. It’s very academic, so not the easiest thing to read. And, of course, it takes a lot of words and a couple of graphs to tell us something we all know. For more novice athletes we need to work on less challenging things, and vice versa. That’s the big takeaway of the first part.
The second segment of the paper gets into the blocked vs. random question. Here is where the AVCA article, I think, takes things a bit too far in advocating more blocked training for beginners. The authors of the paper do show that novices gain more from blocked training of open skills (the primary type involved in volleyball) than is the case for more expert athletes. The period for which this is true, however, appears to be short.
How short? Well, the paper cites a study where researchers looked at learners receiving 50, 200, or 400 blocked or random practice trials. They found that blocked training was superior with these novices at the 50 level, but that random practice was superior beyond that. Why? Because the learners quickly moved away from pure novice status to possessing sufficient skill that random training provided them the additional task difficulty conditions (to use the authors’ language) required to optimize their development.
So basically, what we’re talking about here is using blocked training to teach a skill initially, but then quickly moving on to random training.
The AVCA article talks about the process of myelination with respect to motor learning. If you’ve read The Talent Code, you’ll be familiar with this topic. The article’s author claims “…once you stop practicing a skill this myelination decreases and the skill cannot be produced as quickly or as precisely.” A decrease in myelination is simply the reduction in the production of myelin. It doesn’t mean that myelin goes away and therefor skill declines.
This is why the follow up comment that “This is one big reason why elite players see the value in ‘blocked’ training their skills all throughout their season and their careers” is erroneous. It makes the assumption that myelination only happens during blocked practice, which is simply false.
There is a tendency to not count repetitions that happen in games (practice or competition) as repetitions. That’s not the case, though. Those reps count. In fact, they count a whole lot because they are real game reps. They are not the simulations of real reps we get when we take repetitions out of a game context.
The AVCA article also expresses the view that training aids are useful. It makes the claim that the research paper cited suggest they can be helpful. At best, there is a passing reference to them potentially helping simplify things in golf. No research is presented in either direction. Similarly, the article’s author claims that “all kinds of training aides” are used in golf and tennis. This doesn’t mean they are of any real value, though.
That said, training aides have their uses. They come in most handy when you cannot easily replicate more realistic situations with sufficient control and/or volume. A prime example of this is individual and small group sessions.
Speaking of golf, both this article and the first in the sequence reference golfers working on their swings and repeating the same shot over and over. In other words, very blocked training. First, just because people do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This is an ad populum type of fallacious argument.
Second, and likely more important, golf and volleyball are very different sports. Everything is golf is a closed skill. That means the athlete is in complete control. The only closed skill in volleyball is serving. Everything else in an open skill. That means they are reliant on something preceding (e.g. a serve for someone in serve reception). This is why the Read-Plan-Execute framework is so important. The athlete needs to not only learn how to execute a physical movement, but also to be able to read the game and the prior contact, and determine the proper course of action, in an instant before doing so.
By the way, the paper I talked about above had a third section. It was about feedback. One of the big takeaways was that when you provide feedback matters. The basic finding is that higher complexity skills require more frequent feedback and low complexity ones require less.
The AVCA article at no point talks about feedback – either in the first or second part. Feedback is massively important to learning, though.
One final question
I will leave you with a final thing to think about. The first article in the AVCA sequence makes the assertion that “Blocked trainers advocate using a mixture of blocked and random training to help the transfer of skills to the game.” First, as I discussed in my own article, those advocating random training accept that some limited amount of blocked training has value.
More importantly, though, how often do so-called blocked trainers actually keep training technique when their teams work in a game context? Do they keep up the feedback and focus? Or does the focus shift instead to team aspects? If so, can we really count it as random training?
Not that I’m saying random training advocates don’t have a similar problem, mind.
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