Thursday, 16 April 2015

Blocked vs Random Practice - Application to Cross Country Skiing

As coaches we are all extremely intent on helping athletes improve their technique.  Its easy to burrow down into the minutia of technical instruction - bend your elbow more, have more ankle flex, start in a tall position...  This is important stuff, but its not the only thing that will help athletes improve. 

I recently watched a video from Its worth watching. 

As with any of these sorts of resources, the big question is how does it apply to cross country skiing?  The examples in the video are mostly game based territory sports - volleyball, football, basketball.  Trainugly explains block practice as a practice where repeated skill drills are performed from one position, or using the same variables over and over.  e.g. driving golf balls at a driving range - the skill is repeated over and over in the same starting place and on the same terrain.  Random practice is described as practice that incorporates a variety of skill applications. e.g. shooting drills in basketball that incorporate lots of movement around the key with other players involved.

The big idea is that a static blocked practice type skill drill doesnt incorporate two other important dimensions of skilful play - those are reading a situation, planning to deal with it, and then executing the skill. The big idea is that random practice of a skill better incorporates thet skills needed in a game or competition.  Driving a golf ball is different on every hole and is different if there is wind or rain.  So the big question, what is the value of driving balls on a driving range.

Research supports the notion that random practice leads to higher skill retention than blocked practice.  This is because it better resembles actual game play.

So what are we doing in cross country skiing?  are using mostly blocked practice or random practice? and does it really apply to our sport?  The answer is a clear yes - random practice of a skill does apply to cross country ski skill development. 

In cross country skiing are your diagonal stride drills done mostly without poles on a flat teaching grid? or do you practice striding on flats, slight inclines, moderate climbs and steeper climbs? As a coach, do you set up your skill learning focusing only on the technical pieces? or do you incorporate some element that is related to how the skill will be performed in a race?  it doesnt mean you need to do it all at race pace, but surely there are lots of ways to simulate race conditions outside of intensity workouts.

Do you work on transitions of technique and terrain? this would be random practice.  Performing a one skate on flat terrain or simply on the same hill over and over is the same thing as shooting 50 free throws from the foul line in basketball practice.  Research shows that skill retention is alot less than in a random practice scenario.  Perhaps the reason that it takes so long for kids to learn a skill and perform it well in a race is that the skill is always only block practiced.

Additionally, as trainugly points out in the video, technique is only 1/3 of the skill necessary in any game or sport.  The other thirds are reading the situation and planning to respond to the situation.  Perhaps this is another reason why some ski clubs tend to have higher level performers - because the coaches do more than teach technique. They also help athletes to develop the skills of reading the situation in a race by creating practice situations that develop this skill.  trainugly would say that these coaches also provide opportunities for athletes to develop the skills of planning a response to either terrain change, other athletes, or conditions.

Cross country skiing is what is considered an open skill sport, much the same as volleyball or basketball and very different from swimming or gymnastics.  Great performers know to vary the skill they use in response to terrain and other athletes.  How are we as coaches helping our athletes to develop these skills?  Research shows that random practice far outperforms blocked practice in skill retention.  So we have to ask ourselves, if we are blocked practice coaches, why are still doing it?

have a great spring day!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

twitter - @roystrum

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Watch this...Do that...Thoughts on Next Steps

I recently watched a great spoken word video written and performed by a high school student about the purpose of learning that got me thinking about engagement of youth in sport.  What is it that young people are looking for that would keep them engaged? How do we as coaches create meaningful engagement to reduce drop out in sport participation? In cross country skiing in Canada, this is vitally important.  Why is that so many of our young promising athletes get to the end of their participation in sport at the end of high school? What can we do to change this?

Survey research  tells us that 'fun' is the most important reason why youth are engaged in sport. #2 on this list is 'skill development'. Thinking about how we best balance fun and skill is of prime importance as a coach of youth sport.  Too much fun and kids are engaged but not improving; too much focus on skill development, and sport can become drudgery.

I'm not sure I have many answers today.  But I did want to share out a few links to get you thinking as a coach about how to improve engagement with youth. Its vitally important.  If 80% of your athletes stop racing at the end of high school, you've got to ask yourself 'why'? The challenge is to create engaging enough learning that when your athletes are done with you as a coach, they are chomping at the bit for the next step after you.  This is important with 12-14 year olds, and its important with all youth in sport.

Happy Springtime!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB