Monday, May 20, 2013

Block Vs Random Practice


Whilst this article could fill a dissertation (and I am not known for my bite sized articles), I will try to keep this briefer than it should be.

There are two main types of practice you can perform. One is called ‘block’ practice and the other is called ‘random’ practice. They both can be beneficial, depending on what you are trying to achieve.

Block Practice

This is probably the most common form of practice you see. Go to your local range and you will see hoards of people beating balls, shot after shot with the same club to the same target. Whilst I wouldn't normally consider this ‘quality practice’ as such, it can serve us a purpose. Although, I would almost put that in the category of 'non-practice', or a warm up, as you are not being conscious or present through the process. We are essentially helping our body and brain to create a more consistent technique, although it may not be consistently what you want (for example, that consistent 40 yard slice).

True Block practice is repeating the same skill over and over; whether that is trying to ingrain your current swing, or making changes to it through heightened awareness and intention. The act of repeating something makes physical changes; our brains start to wire new neurons together (in a new movement pattern), those neurons then start to wire together more solidly, and they get wrapped in an insulating substance called myelin – which makes it more and more likely to happen. Repeating something makes it more likely to be repeated. Our bodies become more flexible for that specific movement, and specific strength changes occur in the muscles in order for that movement to become more dominant and easier to perform – this is why it is so difficult to change our swings after we have had them so many years, but this idea can be to our advantage when we are trying to ingrain a new, better technique.

A block practicer can hit this pyramid in 3 minutes :)
Coaches tend to call these guys 'machine gunners' or 'bad players'
although, block practice doesn't have to be a waste of time.


Block practice tends to be useful for the beginning stages of learning something new – when we are in need of creating the movement pattern. We can get lots of feedback in a short period of time (5 balls a minute or more). We can also make adjustments on the spot, leading to an immediate calibration style of learning. It can also be good for confidence boosts, as we are able to quickly improve our performance during the session – however, this comes at the expense of raising our expectation level too high, which is usually bad. Block practice is also great for building up new mental concepts for how to hit the ball, as well as mental concepts in general. 


But there is a disadvantage to block practice. It tends to neglect the preparation and access of the movement. For this reason, and the above reasons, we tend to see a performance which raises very quickly during the session, but then drops down close to baseline again after the resting period. In other words, we feel like we are learning a lot during the session, but the next day most of it is gone. We do retain some of the information, but retention of skill tends to be lower.



With this graph, you can see the typical performance of a block practicer.
The solid red line represents the great performance improvement during the practice session
The broken red line shows what happened when they stop - a dramatic loss of performance
The broken blue line represents the actual retention of learning


It is also a great tool to push our skill levels into new areas which we have not seen before. Whether or not we retain all of this 'newly acquired skill' is irrelevant - it has opened up new belief patterns and neural pathways for us to access.

Random Practice

Random practice is not practicing at 4am with a balloon attached to your hat. It is simply practicing by changing the shot every time. For a beginner, this could be as simple as using the same club but changing targets. For a better player, this could be changing club, target and shot shape whilst going through a full on-course routine before each hit.

Random practice means using different clubs and hitting different shots, just not all
at the same time


Most players avoid this type of practice because it requires more discipline, pre-shot preparation and it is a massive amount more difficult than block practice. But, you should be practicing this way more often exactly BECAUSE of those reasons. The fact that it is more difficult just makes you learn quicker. But it has the added benefit of automatically lowering your expectation levels. It is also much more course realistic (how often do you stand on the course and hit 30 7 irons in a row?), so the chance of your newly found skills transferring to the course is much greater.

Also, random practice is about preparation. It’s about developing the brain’s ability to recall the motor pattern. Think of it like a file on a computer. Block practice may have created the file, but random practice is going to allow you to find the file quicker. The more you perform random practice, the quicker and more efficient you become at being able to find that file/motor program. For this reason, people who practice in a random fashion tend to see their performance level stay low during the session(due to its difficulty level), but the next day they find an improvement in performance. Like so;


In this graph, we see the solid red line representing the lack of improvement
during the session. But during the rest period, the player goes through
more Delayed Learning  and comes off better at the end of 
several sessions

Take home notes for golf - and other things you are learning

So which do you want to be – the Block practicer who gets great results during the session but can’t hit it on the course and loses the things they learned the very next day? Or the Random practicer, who may not hit it great on the range, but they perform better on the course and their learning over time improves more rapidly? I think it’s a no-brainer really.

Block Practice advantages

  • Improved confidence through instant results
  • Movement memory improvements (neurological and physical)
  • You can get a lot of experience in a short amount of time
  • Can help you push through 'sticking points' in improvement (see The elastic band theory of learning)
Block Practice disadvantages
  • Poor tranferrence of skills to the course
  • Potential increase in injury risk, due to amount of balls being hit
  • Can be difficult to maintain mental engagement (a pre-requisite for learning)
  • Increases expectation levels
  • Retention of learning tends to be poor (there is an important difference between learning and performance)

Random Practice Advantages
  • Lowers expectations
  • Performance during the session may be poor, but retention of learning is increased
  • Better transference of skills to the golf course - improved access of motor programs
  • Lowered injury risk - improved longevity in the game
  • Heightened mental engagement

Random Practice Disadvantages
  • Increased difficulty - can affect confidence
  • Less body conditioning improvements
  • requires discipline

As an important note – both methods of practice can be beneficial, but I tend to promote random practice more, simply because of the fact that everyone already practices block practice. As a rule of thumb, if you are practicing something NEW, do block practice - but make sure you are mentally 'present' and you are practicing with intention. But once you can perform that move/skill relatively well (say 5/10) it is probably time to move on to random practice.

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4 comments:

  1. this post is spot on, the evidence seems clear as does the rationale...and yet i love block practice. To me there is a satisfaction and (i think) an education in isolating variables and breaking down a motion thru repetition and analysis.

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  2. I completely understand Bryan. I too use a lot of block purely as a form of entertainment for myself. Although, If I were to compete again, I would change it to 80% random 20% block. Maybe less enjoyable, but much more productive - I know this from experience.

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  3. Hard for most golfers to "random practice" when they cant stop hitting a slice. Great tip for better players.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment Andrew.

      RE beginners vs better players. It is true that in the early stages of learning a skill (such as learning to fix your slice by drawing the ball), block practice may be slightly more beneficial. But after that point, random practice will provide not only quicker learning (even with poorer performance) but more skill transference (ability to take it on the course).

      Random practice does not have to be hitting different types of shots (which would be a better player's goal) but maybe the act of simply standing back, picking a different club and then different target.

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Currently working for the World famous Turnberry Resort at the Golf Performance Academy. I am a golf coach who specialises in not only what to learn, but 'how' to learn. I am always looking to further education of myself and others, and improve knowledge and understanding so that we can be better golfers and coaches