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Deciding how to design practices

By Jeffrey T. Fairbrother, PhD


The decision to use any given practice schedule should be based on the skill level of the learner, the demands of the task, and the eventual performance setting. Random practice can present an overwhelming challenge if a learner is relatively unskilled. For example, a novice tennis player might not be able to get into position quickly enough to practice forehands, backhands, and volleys in a random fashion. Instead, this player might initially benefit from blocked practice as she learns the complex patterns of coordination required for each stroke.

  • Starting out with a blocked schedule seems to be particularly helpful for younger learners. Children are often not developmentally advanced enough to deal successfully with task demands. A tennis court, for example, offers relatively more ground to cover for an 8-year old than for an adult.
  • As the learner gains proficiency, the instructor should begin to use random practice schedules if the task and performance setting will eventually require the performer to recall multiple tasks from memory.
  • Varied practice should be used when the task and performance setting will require the learner to scale to the speed, force, or amplitude of his movement patterns. For example, an artist needs to learn how to select the correct amount of force to apply when painting. To transfer more paint to a canvas, a relatively large amount of force will be needed; to create very fine details, a relatively small amount of force will be needed.
  • Constant practice can be used for those tasks that are performed the same way every time (e.g., a free throw shot), but it is important to recognize that such stable conditions are the exception rather than the rule in most real-world performance settings.
  • Distributed practice schedules should be the first choice, but skilled performers might complete some practice under massed conditions if the eventual performance setting will require a similar effort. A skilled runner, for example, should have some experience in practicing correct stride technique while fatigued. Some form of massed practice may also be needed to train assembly line workers who have a limited amount of time between tasks.

A good rule of thumb to use when designing practice for any motor skill is to devote a portion of time to practicing in ways that resemble what occurs in the real-world performance setting. In sport, this can be accomplished by scrimmaging. For other movement activities, such as learning to button a shirt after losing the use of one hand, the instructor should identify the demands that the learner will face in an actual performance setting and try to duplicate them as closely as possible. For example, the person should wear the shirt so that the button and the hole are oriented in a realistic way. This idea is similar to the dress rehearsals that actors complete before opening a play. Dress rehearsals or scrimmages can provide a great opportunity to test a learner’s skills. But because players in competitive simulations (e.g., scrimmages) often focus on outcomes (e.g., winning), overusing these types of drills during practice can cause learners to rely mostly on their strengths while neglecting their weaker skills. This situation can become even more pronounced in team sports, in that a focus on winning a scrimmage might mean that only the best players get any meaningful practice at all.

With a little bit of planning, the instructor can use rehearsals to systematically test the skills of the learner to identify aspects of the skill that may need more practice. Once these weaknesses have been identified, the instructor might then decide to set up targeted practice drills using some of the practice schedules discussed earlier. For example, a piano teacher might decide that a student needs to spend some time in constant practice to work on a commonly used transition from one hand position to another. After this targeted practice, the instructor would once again test the student with a rehearsal by having her play music in which the transition occurs.


This is an excerpt from Fundamentals of Motor Behavior.



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