Blocked Vs. Random Practice, With Drills For Hurdlers

Bret Otte, Van Zanic, Geneva College

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Blocked practice sessions concentrate on one aspect of technique, practicing it over and over again until you get it right. Random practices employ several aspects of technique within a session. There is value and a time and place for both, as the authors explain. Though they direct the article toward hurdlers, and provide dozens of hurdle drills, the blocked vs. random concepts apply to all events.

 

HOW DO WE LEARN NEW SKILLS AND RELEARN AND REFINE PREVIOUSLY LEARNED SKILLS?


    This is the daily and yearly challenges that face motivated and task-driven athletes and coaches. The science of motor learning has made large inroads into unraveling the mysteries of the mind-body connection. In fact, scientists are discovering that instead of separate parts, a human should be considered a complicated, holistic matrix.
    Learning and relearning skills can be frustrating, challenging and fun. How athletes and coaches construct and approach the practice can make each learning opportunity one of the best practices of the season---or a practice to forget.....quickly. So how can we construct a good training session?
    We should consider the two main types of practice structures and make some decisions about design based on the age and experience and psychological make-up of the athlete in question. The two main types of skill-based practices are blocked and random designs.
    A blocked practice is defined as practicing the same drill until the movement becomes automatic. This would make intuitive sense as athletes and coaches want movement to be on autopilot once the movement has been initiated.
    The random practice design does not follow the order of the movement. Drills for the skill are mixed up throughout the practice and, within extreme examples of random practices, the same drill or movement is not repeated throughout the session.
    In both controlled experiments and within the practical setting of a practice session, random practices are proven to be superior to blocked practices with regard to retention of learning and better performance over time. However, the random practice design does not lend itself to better performance compared to the blocked design on the day of practice. In other words, the athlete and coach will notice poorer initial practice performance within the practice setting. However, the athlete will perform the skills more effectively in the next practice session compared to the blocked design. So the adage "Short term pain for long term gain" seems to hold true for the random practice design, while "Short term gain for long term pain" seems to be true for the blocked practice design.


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WHY DOES THE RANDOM PRACTICE DESIGN WORK?


    The success of the random design stems from the Elaboration Hypothesis and the spacing of movement: the Forgetting Hypothesis. The Elaboration Hypothesis states that when a learner performs a series of separate skills in a random order, the learner begins to recognize the distinctive nature of each skill. By understanding and feeling how each movement was distinctive, the learner is able to store the movement more effectively within long-term memory.
    An example of the Forgetting Hypothesis is when a learner is practicing a specific drill or movement that focuses on that particular task. When using a different drill, the learner performs a separate movement and will temporarily forget about the previously rehearsed movement. If the learner is asked to go back and perform the first drill, he/she must reconstruct that movement. The act of reconstruction stimulates the brain activity to conjure up the sequence necessary to perform the movements for the drill. The Forgetting Hypothesis is a complicated matter of setting parameters of effort and time that most coaches would call rhythm. The Forgetting Hypothesis uses the act of retrieval and setting parameters of the movement as a tool for learning and performing.

 

WHEN AND HOW DO YOU CONSTRUCT A RANDOM PRACTICE?

    Early in the learning stages, it is best to use the blocked practice plan. Psychologically you want the athlete to feel like he has accomplished something when he leaves practice. A random practice can be confusing and frustrating to a person new to an event or the sport of track and field without making practices harder through randomizing movements and drills.
    When the learner has hit the more automatic stages of learning the random practice is a valuable tool. Practice is not the same old thing done day after day. Each day is new and challenging; in fact, each minute of each practice is new and challenging. We like to use the random practice extensively within each practice. This can be more effective when trying to break bad habits that have crept in due to previous coaching or inattentive learners rehearsing something wrong over and over again.
    Athletes get excited about the changes each day and must focus more in order to learn. They also begin to see long-term results and improved performances, which in turn enhances intrinsic motivation.

 

HOW DO YOU CONSTRUCT A RANDOM PRACTICE?

    It's best to use a few variations of the random practice design.
    Variation #1---Use a number of drills to rehearse the same movement or skill within the event and then change to a different movement and different drills. The drills are not done in the skill sequence of performance.
    Example: Lead Leg of Hurdling-" A" drill, "B" drill, Marching Lead-Leg Drill, Calvesi Drill, Skipping Lead-Leg drill, Skipping Lead-Leg drill with 5-stride pattern. Do each drill once per set and randomize the order within the set or incorporate new drills as practice moves along.
    Variation #2---Pick three movements or skills and randomly practice each skill with different drills. The drills are not done in the skill sequence of performance.
    Example: Skipping over side of the hurdle with trail leg, Skipping over side of hurdle with 3-skip rhythm using only trail leg, One-stride hurdling with trail only, Calvesi drill, Sprint in three-stride pattern through hoops or over cones.
    Variation #3---Mix up the movements and skills of the entire event, never repeating a drill throughout the entire practice.
    Example: The sky is the limit for this variation. You can use any drill at any time. Keep moving from drill to drill in rapid fashion. This variation should be used only for athletes who are fairly advanced in their learning of the event.
    Example: Skipping over hurdles in a 3-stride pattern, Sprint over 11 hurdles at full or discounted (in from competition marks and down from full height), Sprint in 3-stride rhythm over 30 cm (cones at 3.5-4 meters apart), Wall Attacks (place hurdle along a wall and perform high" A" drill and hand attack). Add more drills to use the time you have for practice.

    This form of practice is fun and exciting for both coach and athlete as it pushes both parties to think and react in a practice setting. You will need a fairly extensive menu of drills and the confidence to enter a practice that is open-ended. A random practice is much like a blank canvas. You may have an idea of what you are about to paint but until you start, you are never sure how the painting is going to take shape.
    Random practice will mean no more redundant practice plans or dull repetition of drills in a sequence. Variety is the spice of life and random practice is like hot curry compared to the vanilla of blocked practice that was recycled from last year at about the same point in the season for the same event for the same athlete. Have fun and enjoy and have a cool beverage ready because these practices are hot!
    In order to help with organizing drills with regard to difficulty I have put together a menu of hurdle drills collected from a variety of sources.

 

 

FROM: TRACK COACH 176

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