Practice in Sports

Practice  typically  comprises  activities  that  are designed  to  help  a  person  acquire  a  new  skill, improve in an already acquired skill, or maintain a  skill.  Practice  can  be  deliberate  and  engaged  in for  a  specific  purpose  (such  as  attaining  a  speed or  accuracy  goal)  or  it  can  be  more  incidental  in nature,  potentially  engaged  in  for  fun  or  for  the enhancement of some other goal (such as practicing  a  swimming  stroke  to  help  improve  fitness). Practice is usually considered with respect to two characteristics:  how  much  practice  (i.e.,  practice quantity) and what type of practice (i.e., practice quality).

Quantity of Practice

Practice  quantity  is  typically  thought  to  be  the most  important  variable  for  motor  skill  acquisition.  In  most  cases,  more  practice  is  better  than less practice, and although there might be diminishing  returns  associated  with  practice,  there  are rarely performance costs associated with increased practice  (cf.  automaticity).  In  the  past,  researchers  have  attempted  to  fit  performance  curves  to practice data in order to describe how an increase in  practice  amount  is  related  to  performance. Most  commonly,  performance  data  as  a  function of practice have best been described in a logarithmic fashion, known as the power law of practice (although  exponential  curves,  similar  to  power functions,  also  fit  these  types  of  data  well).  The logarithm of speed-related variables (such as reaction times [RTs] or movement times [MTs]) or of errors  has  been  shown  to  decrease  linearly  with the logarithm of practice attempts. Significant performance  gains  are  seen  early  in  practice,  but  as practice  proceeds,  the  performance  benefits  start to decrease and appear to plateau. Some researchers  have  argued  that  this  continuous,  linear  pattern of behavior is an artifact of averaging across different individuals. Indeed, there is considerable variation in the learning curves observed between individuals  and  across  tasks,  suggesting  that  the power  law  of  practice  is  an  oversimplification of  the  learning  process.  It  might  be  the  case  that learning  is  a  nonlinear  process,  with  moments  of success and failure and/or long periods of practice that show no observable change in performance. It is clear that merely looking at practice amount to make predictions about learning or to intervene to improve performance is by itself insufficient.

Practice  quantity  as  a  variable  of  interest  has received  renewed  interest  with  respect  to  attainment  of  high  levels  of  motor  skill  and  expertise. This  has  been  spurred  by  suggestions  that  expert performance in sports and other domains requires approximately 10,000 hours (or 10 years) of practice. Researchers have argued that high quantities of  sustained,  “deliberate”  practice  are  necessary (and  potentially  sufficient)  for  elite  levels  of  performance in sport. It has been demonstrated that performance-related markers of expertise in sports and  other  domains  are  monotonically  related  to practice amounts (i.e., a specific increase in practice translates to a specific increase in performance quality). Importantly, it is not only the amount of practice hours that is important but also the quality of practice. High amounts of effortful practice, designed  to  improve  current  levels  of  performance,  are  deemed  necessary  for  success.  There is  considerable  evidence,  across  a  wide  range  of sports, that elite-level performers have consistently acquired many more hours of practice that fits this definition than their less elite, age-matched peers. Indeed,  one  of  the  most  important  contributions from this work is the emphasis on the “deliberate” nature  of  practice  necessary  to  see  performance gains (despite the fact that there has been a wealth of studies in sport where the focus has just been on quantifying practice amounts). It is likely that variations  in  performance  curves  as  described  earlier are related to different types or quality of practice undertaken by different individuals that will therefore have differential impacts on performance.

Quality of Practice

Attempts to study quality of practice in sport and movement  skills  have  mostly  been  conducted  by researchers  working  with  non-athletes,  practicing mostly artificial, laboratory-based tasks, over relatively  short  time  periods.  Exceptions  have  been noted whereby sport experts are studied in the field (such as on the ice rink) and comparisons are made across  differently  skilled  individuals  with  respect to the types of activities that are engaged in during practice;  the  amount  of  actual  physical  practice; and the time spent watching, listening, and/or resting.  Questionnaire  data  have  also  been  collected from skilled athletes to ascertain their perceptions of  various  practice  type  activities  in  terms  of  the amount of physical effort, concentration, or enjoyment.  This  has  allowed  for  inferences  concerning what  types  of  practice  typify  sporting  excellence and  are  most  related  to  success.  Although  there have  been  manipulations  to  practice  conditions engaged by skilled performers, such that comparisons  can  be  made  across  performers  matched  for skill level, research of this nature has been limited. This is probably a function of the time needed to see improvements in a skill for high-achieving athletes, difficulties in intervening and controlling the practice  conditions  of  elite  athletes,  and  gaining access to elite populations.

The advantages of studying practice in the laboratory is that it is possible to create controlled conditions,  whereby  variables  related  to  practice  or individual  differences  can  be  manipulated,  minimized,  or  controlled.  By  studying  novel  tasks,  it is  possible  to  eliminate,  or  at  least  minimize,  the effects  of  prior  experience  on  learning  and  performance and hence isolate what specific practice conditions (when controlling for practice amount) best  promote  learning.  Despite  this  laboratory emphasis, this has not precluded studies of novice athletes practicing more real-world sporting skills under  laboratory-type  conditions  (e.g.,  putting, throwing, kicking, serving, batting skills). One of the  advantages  of  studying  practice  for  relatively simple  motor  skills  in  the  laboratory  is  that  only a short amount of practice is needed to see practice improvements and skill attainment. Although this is obviously a drawback when trying to make comparisons  to  long-term  practice  of  more  complex motor skills, the trade-off is usually one that researchers are willing to make in order to control the  practice  environment  and  make  conclusions about causality.

Practice Quality Variables

There  are  a  considerable  number  of  practice quality variables that have been shown to influence motor  skill  acquisition,  including  performance feedback  about  outcomes  and  movement  execution;  demonstrations  and  instructions;  variability in how the skills are practiced (such as practicing a putting skill across different distances or with different putters); variability in the order of practice conditions (such as practicing three types of shots in  basketball  in  a  mostly  random  order  in  comparison to performing the same shot in a repeated blocked  order);  rest  periods  between  practice trials; whether the practice is determined by oneself or someone else; whether practice is conducted in  pairs  or  alone,  in  small  subcomponents,  or  as a  whole;  and  the  similarity  between  the  practice conditions  and  those  during  testing  or  competition. What has been shown to be critical in finding the  optimal  or  the  best  conditions  of  practice  is matching the demands of the practice to the skill level  of  the  individual  (and  the  difficulty  of  the task  or  tasks)  and  making  sure  that  the  practice is demanding enough to promote long-term learning (retention) and/or transfer to new, yet similar; practice or performance environments.

In  motor  learning  research,  it  has  been  necessary to separate short-term performance gains and rate of motor learning from longer-term measures of  learning  and  performance.  There  have  been noted  dissociations  between  conditions  that  best promote gains during practice and those that best serve  retention  (and  prevent  forgetting).  One  of the best examples in motor learning research is the so  termed  contextual  interference  effect,  whereby interference encouraged by variability in the order that  different  motor  skills  are  practiced,  while hindering  rate  of  motor  skill  acquisition  during practice, has positive effects on retention. The conditions that are hardest, promoting more variability during practice, are retained better than those that are easiest. As noted, however, it is important that the interference or challenge is appropriate to the  skills  of  the  individual,  as  too  much  interference  in  practice  for  a  beginner  can  be  as  harmful  as  too  little  challenge  for  a  more  competent performer.

Motivation  has  always  been  considered  an important variable with respect to practice optimization and the acquisition and attainment of skill in  sport.  In  the  early  1900s,  theories  of  learning were  primarily  based  on  reinforcement  learning and  ideas  that  practice  behaviors  are  repeated  in order  to  gain  some  sort  of  behavioral  or  physiological reward. In recent times, there has been an acknowledgment that motivation-related variables interact with practice-related variables in quite significant ways. For example, merely telling someone the scores of a peer (who either does worse or better on the skill) will affect how that person learns and what they retain. Ideas concerning how motivation acts on practice behaviors and learning are still relatively undeveloped. However, it is thought that  manipulations,  which  increase  a  person’s motivation to learn (such as enhancing feelings of competency or control over the situation), impact their  subsequent  processing  of  task-related  information and cognitive effort. It is unclear whether these types of manipulations work in the same way as incentives or rewards.


In summary, methods for optimizing practice time, both with respect to efficiency (i.e., time to acquire a skill) as well as retention (i.e., how well and for how long a skill is retained), have received considerable  attention  from  researchers  working  within the motor learning and the motor skill acquisition or skilled performance fields. Despite the advances in these fields, there are notable areas where best practice  behaviors  remain  relatively  unexplored or unclear. In particular, there has been little study of  practice  behaviors  of  skilled  individuals  and what  might  be  considered  maintenance  practice. We are also somewhat unclear about what practice behaviors are needed to overcome slumps or plateaus in performance and transition between success and failure at a skill, or the acquisition of new skills  on  the  backdrop  of  existing  skills.  In  addition to manipulations to actual practice behaviors, there have been manipulations to what have been referred to as covert behaviors, specifically observational practice and imagery practice. These types of practice have received considerable attention of late due in no small part to discoveries of shared cortical  areas  in  the  brain  between  covert  and overt  practice.  However,  what  is  still  somewhat unknown are the mechanisms behind their successful or unsuccessful use in teaching new skills and under  what  conditions  observational  or  imagery practice will work to enhance learning in comparison to more traditional physical practice methods.



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