Blocked Practice & Varied Practice, Part 1

Learning physical skills is a tricky thing. It’s important as a student to practice in the most effective and efficient manner for getting results in your desired performance environment (e.g., a duel, a tournament, a melee, etc.). There are two primary practice schema that can be applied when acquiring new skills:

  • Blocked Practice. You learn skill A, then practice skill A over and over again in sequence.
  • Varied Practice. You learn skill A, then skill B, then you alternate between practicing skill A and B.

Both of these types of training have their place. Blocked practice is good for:

  1. Establishing the foundations of a new motor program — i.e., developing the general shape of a movement. You repeat the movement in a series to help create the correct motion before applying it in context or in varied practice.
  2. Refining an existing motor program — Here you take an existing technique but work on making it more accurate, efficient or powerful. Repeating the same action over and over without variability can allow you to focus on the various components of the movement.
  3. Reprogramming an existing motor program — Often we try to learn a new movement and find that an old movement is “in its way.” You could be learning a parrying technique with a new weapon, yet each time you attempt to execute it you use a parrying technique for a different weapon that you had learned before. Here, having a repeated presentation of the same action can help you set in place the new motor program and replace the old one (at least in this context).

Blocked practice however does not help you:

  1. Mentally retain new skills. When you repeat a single action over and over again, then move onto a new action that you repeat over and over, you may gain some physical conditioning but you are not putting your mind through the recall process, which is essential for long-term retention. It’s kind of like the experience of having someone direct you when you drive to their house, then realizing you have no recollection of the route you took.
  2. Apply skills within a tactical environment. Repeating one technique over and over again does not develop your ability to choose that technique at the appropriate time or adapt the physical aspects of the technique to be successful in a performance environment.

This is where Varied Practice comes in. By asking your brain to recall a series of different techniques you reinforce the recall process and thus up your ability to retain those skills. We’ll explore this idea more in depth next week. Until then, enjoy your training!

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