If Random Practice Is Better, Why Isn’t It Used More?

Random Practice is an area that many coaches and organizations are now very familiar with. It has a growing science backing, and is starting to gain popularity among baseball coaches. Random practice is almost universally accepted as a better way for players to not only learn but to also retain knowledge from sessions. Studies have consistently shown that Random Practice of a skill is better than Blocked Practice. So why aren’t more coaches using this practice strategy more often?

As a reminder of Blocked Vs. Random I’ve included the graphic below which looks at the differences between two golfers doing participating in two different practice styles. I don’t want to get too deep into these two styles so here is a basic model of what it looks like.

I think that most coaches realize the value of implementing Random practice into their Coaching Practice. I think the greatest challenge when it comes to implementing Random Practice is that it doesn’t feel good for anyone involved.

Random Practice is hard. It takes a ton of effort and it is often uncomfortable for athletes to participate in. The learning from Random Practice is often slower and more cumbersome than Blocked. Blocked Practice feels easier for everyone while making quicker ‘gains’ that can be seen by athletes. These gains though are quickly ‘forgotten’. Lastly everyone feels as though they have mastered a skill when they will quickly forget.

More importantly sessions are usually run by coaches. The toll of Random Practice also plays on them as well. Coaches and players can both feel the ‘grind’ of Random Practice. No coach wants to go into anything thinking that athletes will not ‘get better’ during their time together. So it is easier for coaches to slip into the trap of seeing a player get better, this desire often leads them toward using Blocked Practice which as outlined above shows quicker improvement but not lasting acquisition.

Blocked Practice creates the Illusion of Mastery. Which is a cognitive trap that both players and coaches can easily fall into. Blocked Practice is smooth, often effortless, and shows quick improvement. Which is pleasing to both Player who is trying to master skills, and coaches who are trying to impart the skills. Avoiding this trap is where Random Practice finds its true gains. Implementing Random Practice is hard for this simple fact. No one wants to see players struggle to gain skills. It simply doesn’t feel good. But we must avoid this thinking as best we can when working with players.

Coaches want players to improve, and Random Practice feels like a player is getting worse before he gets better. Normally in Random Practice just as you get the hang of a skill it is switched, leaving the coach feeling as though the player didn’t truly improve. This cognitive trap plays on coaches, which is something that we need to avoid. Just because it feels more effortful, and we don’t see immediate improvement doesn’t mean that learning isn’t occurring. In fact just the opposite is happening, but the mind of a coach will often say ‘ease up here we have a player struggling’. It is easy to shift practice toward something easier in order for a player to see themselves improve. It is in the struggle where learning occurs. We need to keep this in mind as we work with players. Struggling is good for learning. In fact it is essential for long term retention of skills.

Some ideas might be to create a practice plan and stick to it more rigidly in order to guide a session in the way that we want. I also think that just bringing our awareness to this when things get hard should be something we consider before practice as once you get into the heat of a session it is hard to shift thinking. Also having another coach model this not only with us but for us could help to improve this strategy. We will inevitably fall into the trap of going into Blocked Practice at some point. I don’t think that this can be avoided, but I think that we can do our best to attempt to avoid it.

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