I previously put forward definitions of the concepts of blocked vs. random (and constant vs. variable) training to help coaches understand the proper meaning of those terms. They are often misunderstood. So too are their implications for skill acquisition.
A consistent pattern has emerged in the research into training methods that looks like this (which I first shared here).
What we seeing is that during the training phase, blocked training is better at developing skills more quickly. When you then look at how things are after the training block, and in terms of putting those skills to use in a game situation, the situation reverses. Players trained in a blocked fashion actually backtrack in their performance. Meanwhile, those training in a random fashion not only retain the skill they developed, they actually show additional gains.
Here’s a specific example of this in volleyball using hitting vs. a block. Interestingly, in that case the blocked group didn’t actually show any gains at all, while the random group did.
Blocked better short term, random long-term
The takeaway from the research seems to be that blocked training is perhaps better for short-term skill acquisition. Random training, however, is consistently shown to be better for longer-term development and application in a match environment. This is how you can get situations where players look great in practice, but can’t perform in actual matches.
The videos I have in this post on skill acquisition for volleyball provide some explanation for why this is the case.
By the way, this short-term bump from blocked training is why kids so often come away from a clinic or camp better than when they went in. Those situations are very often highly blocked in structure by their nature. Problem is it doesn’t stick long-term.
So why use blocked at all?
If random training has consistently been shown superior in long-term skill acquisition, why would you use blocked training at all? For me, the main reason from a developmental perspective is to create and/or reinforce conceptual understanding. Let me explain using blocking as an example.
You want to teach your Middles the footwork to block an outside set. It make sense (to me at least) to used blocked reps to get them to understand the steps. Call it the initial teaching. Once you see that they have the concept, however, you want to move to a more random approach for actual skill development because that’s where the sustained long-term gains will happen. If you need to reinforce the movement pattern because a player is struggling, pull them aside for a few blocked reps again so they can reset the expectation in their mind (reinforcement), then right back into the more random work.
You definitely don’t want blocked reps to be the main training focus. For match preparation, though…
The confidence element
About halfway through this episode of the Coach Your Brains Out podcast, guest Martijn Nijhoff says straight up that mindless repetition is fine for confidence, but not for skill acquisition. Nijhoff is the Skill Acquisition Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates (baseball). He also teaches on the subjects of motor learning & motor control, movement analyses in his native Netherlands.
There are two elements to what Nijhoff says there. First, as I’ve written before, you never want to be in a position where players brains shut off in a training context. Once that happens, learning stops. Preparing for competition, however, isn’t about skill development – which is the second element. It’s about getting mentally and physically ready to compete. Confidence is part of that, and blocked reps can serve well in that role.
Please note that when I say you want to shift away from blocked reps quickly in the training context, that doesn’t mean going straight to full game-like training. Yes, we want to make things as game-like as we can so players learn the cues they need. At the same time, however, we need to simplify things so they aren’t overwhelmed. We’re always looking for that balance of challenge.
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