Practice makes perfect, but not all practice is perfect

Half Moon Bay Review, May 21, 1997

By Martin Smith

Review fitness columnist

Learning new skills is important in everyone's life. It's important to a 7-year-old boy learning to play tennis, and it's important to his grandfather while learning to use a wheelchair.

Learning either skill would require practice. And there are many different forms of practice. Some forms, however, are more effective than others.

Anytime you practice the same skill over and over, like 20 tennis serves in a row, followed by 20 forehands and finally 20 backhands, you're doing what is called "blocking" practice. This will increase your performance on a skills test over a short time, like later that day, but it isn't very good for learning the skill and retaining it. It is similar to cramming for an exam: garbage in and garbage out. You may get an A on the exam, but when you try to recall that same information one week later, less of it will be around than if you had studied, or practiced, in a random format.

Randomly practicing the tennis swings in an alternating fashion seems like a small change, but it makes a huge difference in the amount of learning that occurs. It would be even more effective if the student didn't know what the next swing would be. This would require a coach of course, and is in itself a pretty good reason to get one.

The reason that practicing skills in a random format is so important is because it requires you to use your brain in a different way. It requires you to choose and initiate the movement or skill every single time, and from different starting positions. When you practice in a blocked format you aren't required to go through the entire process of selecting the skill or movement, and you already know what position you should start from. This reduces the quality of practice.

Other simple changes can improve the quality of your practicing, including distributing the practice over time. Basically, this means placing little rests in between activities. This allows your brain to assess what has happened, and make any changes necessary in the learning process. This rest can be as little as 15 or 30 seconds. The point is that it will better help you learn the skill or information.

The problem with distributing practice like this, of course, is that it isn't always practical. It would take a very long time to practice 60 tennis swings if you waited 30 seconds between each one. So a compromise of some sort is important. Perhaps inserting this rest after every five trials would be a better idea. Still, distributing rests throughout practice is important to make it effective.

The goal of any practice session is to simulate, in part or whole, the movements required for the activity. This could be all the components that make up a tennis match, or all the movements necessary to get around the house and community with a new wheelchair. To make your practice time effective, remember to distribute rests throughout, avoid blocking, and always be random.

Martin Smith runs a local personal training service. He can be reached electronically at runner^ His web site is

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