Thoughts on “Salon” article about different types of practice

My office manager forwarded an article from the Sunday April 20th edition of Salon called “Ditch the 10,000 Hour Rule.” It takes the position that improving your skills is not just about grinding out the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell allegedly depicts in his books. Whether it’s an accurate depiction or not, they make a good point that “mass practice,” or obsessively practicing the same skill in an accelerated format, is not the best or only way to acquire skills. They cite different ways that might be more effective for long-term skill acquisition:

  • Spaced Practice — Space out practice sessions with a longer time interval between them such as a week
  • Interleaved Practice — Rather than practicing one skill into the ground before moving on, you can work on multiple related skills at the same time.
  • Varied Practice — Not limiting yourself to just practicing the skill to pass the test (e.g., tossing a basket from 3 feet away), practice the test at distances or other variations around the goal. Such variation will improve the ability to transfer the skill from skill to another due to broader understanding

Total Immersion coaches like me have been discussing how to structure practice to optimize learning and skill acquisition. For those who work with us (or want to work with us in the future), here’s how we would apply this article to the sport of swimming.

  • Mass Practice
    • We encourage people who are trying to improve their swim to do shorter but more frequent swims and be consistent week to week rather than doing one long swim
    • There’s a myth of just “putting in the yardage” in competitive swimming. Swim lots of volume, swim hard, to religiously follow the clock. If you can’t get where you want to go with 3 practices, go to 4, 5, or 6 and grind it out. This approach is more “random” practice but it hits on the fallacy that just “putting in the yardage” might not be the best approach to learn skills.
    • A weekend immersion class can be a great way to quickly acquire skills, but you need to spend time after the class going methodically through the skills in the weeks that follow to ingrain them into your neuromuscular system.
  • Spaced Practice
    • Classes or lessons done on a weekly basis help give you time to either practice or absorb the lessons before continuing
    • Consistent lessons throughout the year for kids are a great way to get steady progress rather than run a fire drill in May to get ready for camp and then never touch water until next May
  • Interleaved Practice
    • The obstacle course in our Infant-Toddler classes where we have children cycle through a circuit of activities for a short period of time rather than do one skill for a long time before moving on
    • Doing practice sets in “rounds” rather than in one chunk. Rather than doing 12 x 25 Drill + 9 x 50 Fist Swimming + 15 x 100 yard freestyle, we’ll break it into 3 rounds of { 4 x 25 Drill + 3 x 50 Fist + 5 x 100 Freestyle } with a different goal or task each round. By interleaving the skills and breaking them up in rounds, the swimmer’s mind stays engaged and she doesn’t get stale on the activities
  • Varied Practice
    • Working on different speed gears and stroke counts to change the feel of the stroke and develop greater control in multiple situations
    • Using pool tools like fins or fist gloves to change the feel of the stroke to force different
    • Incorporating different strokes and some speed work just to change up the activity rather than just doing one pace freestyle training
    • Incorporating games, song, and play into children’s lessons to change up the way that skills are delivered to the little swimmers.
    • Changing up what you focus on while swimming can change how you are doing your practice and make it more engaging for your brain

The article not only gives great food for thought for coaches but it also is important for improvement-minded swimmers. Take a look at how your practices are designed and ask yourself, “Can I change up my practice to help me learn more effectively and enjoy the process?”

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