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.
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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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