Tag Archives: Practice

Training Goals

There is a lot of research that shows the best kind of practice the coach should do with his team.  The best kind of practice that a coach should do with his team is distributed practice.  Distributed practice provides the best conditions for learning and importantly the retention of the learning.  That is clear.  Everyone knows that*.  So it logically follows that distributed practice is always the best way to practice.  Or does it?

What if the goal of a particular practice session is NOT learning? What if the goal is team building? Or active recovery? Or providing feedback? Or developing a common language?  Or improving communication? If the goal of practice is not learning then is it necessary to use only distributed practice formats?

The practice below was originally recorded by Volleywood for a Facebook Live Event.  The goal of the practice activation.  The team had had two free days prior to this practice.  Contrary to popular belief, professional athletes are not better when they have had free time and tend to be fairly sluggish.  Sometimes practice can look like the players have never met each other, or a ball, before.  In such cases, to prevent practice being an essential dead loss, we can have a morning practice that activates the nervous system and muscles, in preparation for the days that follow.  In that case we want to have simple activities and movements that allow a player to get back in communication with his body and with the ball.

The video quality is not perfect, and it wasn’t recorded with the view of being a training aid, but you can get the idea.

*Sadly, not everyone knows that.  But they should.

Shooting Blind – A Life Without Feedback

This week my club president invited the team and staff for a casual get together / get to know you / team building activity at a local gun club.  If you think about it, it is a logical place to hold a team get together.  I mean what brings a group of men more enjoyment than shooting stuff?  Oh, you can think of a few things, eh? Well, anyway that is where we went.  After struggling for a few minutes with the personal morality of shooting a gun at all (particularly as I don’t want my son to have even a toy gun), I decided to join in.  It was an interesting experience.

The first problem I had was that I wasn’t wearing my glasses.  This wasn’t an issue about seeing the target, or not, but an issue of not being able to see what I hit.  I took careful aim at the target, carefully squeezed the trigger and off in the distance there was a cloud of dust.  I had no clue whether I had hit anything in between those events.  I was shooting blind.  I realised that without being able to see the target I had no feedback on what I was doing.  Between series I was able to see the target and eventually piece together some information.


In the picture on the right you can see the 8 and 6 below the bullseye were in my 3rd series.  The 10, 9 and 8 were in my 4th series.  With feedback, I could quickly improve.

Oddly, considering how many millions of times I have seen it, I am much better able to ‘see’ where a ball lands after having spent a season working with the video challenge system in the Polish League.  For the first time in my over 30 year involvement with volleyball I have had actual feedback on where a ball has landed.  It turns out that is important too.  Who would have thought.

The lesson is, as always, there is no learning without feedback.

What Actually Drives Performance Improvement?

Statement 1 – In the last thirty years the understanding of techniques and tactics and training methods has improved enormously, leading to the increased performance we see today.

Statement 2 – In the last thirty years equipment and technology have improved enormously, leading to the increased performance we see today.

If asked I am reasonably certain that everybody involved in sport would agree with both of those statements with the proportion attributed to each variable due to the particular sport that person is most involved in.

A Canadian science show recently did a piece investigating and trying to isolate the effect of technology on performance in a few individual events.  The show can be seen here.  The basic premise of the show was to give current performers the conditions of their predecessors and see how they perform.  The most interesting one was the world championship 100m sprint bronze medallist who was given similar conditions as Jesse Owens.  Running on a cinder track, with leather shoes and no starting blocks, he ran 0.7 seconds slower than Owens.  There are of course other contributing factors (including habituation to the conditions and absence of competition) but it is a stunning point.  The athletes in other disciplines showed similar, if less stark results.  These results suggest a ‘what if?’.  With all of the increases in training knowledge, technical knowledge and pharmaceutical assistance, what if the majority of improvement in performance can be attributed to improved equipment?

Yesterday, I posted about the psychology of improved performance.  Athletes perform relative to their expectations of performance.  Perhaps they model their performance somehow on previous performance, their own and others.  As an experienced coach, this makes some intuitive sense.  I could also name specific examples from my own personal experience and from history when the performance of a team has improved simply because a new coach brought with him higher expectations.

Putting those two threads together if you consider training, equipment and psychology, could it possibly be that training, training methodology, technique, tactics, scouting, (drugs) are actually the least important component of our programs?  At the very least, the above evidence seems to suggest that we may be overvaluing their importance.

There Is No One Answer!!

I have written several times over the years about the 10,000 Hour Rule.  While I understand that this is not in fact a ‘rule’, it has always been an intriguing idea for one reason.  Explicit in the ‘rule’ is the importance of practice.  And not just any practice, deliberate practice which has the specific goal of improving performance.  This is the most powerful, and more or less only, takeaway.

Since it was first popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, the ‘rule’ has been often used to prove that talent does not exist. For example by Daniel Coyle and Matthew Syed.  The suggestion that talent does not exist is an intoxicating one, particularly for coaches who can tell their athletes that hard work is the sole determinant of success and everyone has an equal chance, and thereby increasing their own importance in the process.  They continue to maintain this stance despite the fact that it is patently ridiculous.

With that background, I read a blog post that quoted studies digging deeper into the importance and effectiveness of training.  The researchers quoted a figure of 18%.  That is practice accounted for 18% of variance in sports performance.  For the non maths experts, 18% is less 100%.

“Our conclusion is that, of course, deliberate practice is an important factor, but it’s not the only factor or even the largest factor,”

Shockingly, the author of the study on which all of this is based, K. Anders Ericsson, disagrees with that conclusion*, pointing out all sorts of flaws in interpretation and method.

To rub salt into the wounds,

“…it’s time to get beyond the idea that talent is either “born” (genetic) or “made” (all about practice). Instead they propose what they call a “multifactorial” model. It features arrows going all over the place in an effort to capture how factors like basic ability, personality, and deliberate practice affect each other and the overall development of talent.”

It is incredibly attractive to think that for every situation there is only one answer.  It allows us to simplify the world into patterns we can more easily understand.  Coaches love to think that there is a best technique or method and applying it will inevitably lead to success.  Attractive as it is, this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t take into account reality.  There are so many factors involved that trying to identify a single answer can only ever lead to superficial thinking.

There is NEVER only one answer.

*Presumably Gladwell, Coyle and Syed also disagree.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Blocked Practice Is Priming

None of the following is based strictly speaking on any actual research.  On that basis, it is purely speculation on my behalf.  I will defend myself however by writing that I am taking research results from different areas and putting them together, so I am not just making stuff up.  But it is just a collection of thoughts that might not in reality fit together.

Blocked practice has been shown, as reported here for example, to produce some positive short term learning effect but overall less retention of the learned activity than random / distributed practice.  For learning it is therefore clear that random practice is essential.  But at different moments during the course of the season, the goal of the coach may not necessarily be learning.  Sometimes the goal of the coach is a short term improvement in some particular area for a specific match.  In this situation blocked practice might be a perfect solution.

As I wrote previously the content of practice is in itself a form of communication with the team.  By choosing to practice a particular area in any way at all, even in a way that does not directly lead to long term learning, informs the team of its importance and draws their attention to it.  In this case blocked practice can lead to on court success by priming the team for certain skills and situations.

If I take the train of thought further and add a few more speculations on top…

Although blocked practice does not lead to long term learning, coaches persist with using it.  Obviously no coach wants his team to be worse, so one can only conclude that the coach ‘sees’ improvement in his team after blocked practice, particularly intra session improvement.  In seems likely / possible that what he is actually seeing is just the priming effect of the drill and not actual learning.  Hence the confusion.

It’s just a thought.

Priming And Coaching


Most people (rightly) contend that communication is one of the key skills in coaching and for coaches.  However, the biggest focus in those discussions is on verbal communication.  Yet there are studies that show only 7% of actual communication is through words, and those studies focus only on the face.  Body language is another important method of communication for a coach, but only one of many.

One method of communication that I pay great attention to is the content of practice and the drills.  The game areas you choose to work on, the drills you choose to work on them, the feedback you give, and the rules of the games you play all convey information to the team about their current level and possible areas of improvement.  If you work on a particular skill  every day, the team very quickly understands that it is important.  And vice versa.

There are other more subtle communication effects also at work.  One, I am sure, is related to to psychological concept of priming.  This is basically the idea that giving some stimulus to someone, makes a particular response more likely.  The first time I heard of this concept, I instantly thought of the scouting information that we always used to receive about a setter who always tipped straight after the opponent tipped*.  This seems to be a fairly classic case of priming.  Although I could be wrong.

I have had many experiences that I am sure are related to priming.  In one team, I spent a large amount of time practicing playing first tempo from poor reception.  When we got to the competition, we never played first tempo from poor reception.  But we did play it often, and effectively, from good reception.  I am sure that we played it a lot more than if I had just told the setter to set it.  This year I have had two interesting experiences with it.

Watching international matches during the summer, I noticed the frequency and effectiveness of one handed defensive actions.  I wondered how I could practice that.  I rather half heartedly did a couple of pairs drills using one handed defence, but I only did it twice for about three minutes each time and forgot about it.  Strangely, in the sessions that followed our defence and especially our one handed defence was noticeably better.  Later in the season, we played a warmup game in which I completely arbitrarily decided that only two handed contacts were allowed.  The next few days in training I noticed players diving for balls with two hands where they had previously been pancaking.  Mmm… priming?

Now whether or not this is actually priming (or confirmation bias from my perspective**) doesn’t really matter.  The point is that the content of your practice is at least as important as anything you say.  Everything you do communicates something to your team, your fans, your management.

The lesson is, as always, coaching is hard.

* I actually think this is possibly a very fertile area for scouting.  How does a setter / spiker / blocker respond to what the other team just did?

** If it is just confirmation bias, then the coach is getting feedback that his practice is effective and feels better about himself.  Which is important too.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Transfer, Transfer, Transfer

I think all coaches agree that the goal of practice is to create environment in which the activities taught therein are transferred to the game situation. How transfer occurs is naturally a topic that occupies the specialists in the field and there are many considerations.  Topics we hear about include blocked and distributed practice, game like practice, repetitions, drills, games, ‘the game teaches the game’, etc etc.  It seems that distributed practice, closely resembling the game is the type of activity that produces the most transfer.

However as with so many other things, the ‘discussions’ that begin on various coaching forums often take an all or nothing view. One way is right and all other ways are wrong.  As I was following a particularly aggressive version of this discussion I was reminded of a comment made by (I think**) Joe Trinsey.  To paraphrase:

“All training activities (within reason) produce transfer.  The question is only how much transfer, and would a different activity produce more transfer.”

There you have it in nutshell.  All activities produce some level of transfer.  No (or hardly any) activities are ‘wrong’.  Or ‘right’.  Only ‘better’ or ‘worse’, for today.  The art of coaching is finding the activity that produces the optimal amount of transfer under the current conditions of the learner. The answer to this question can change from week to week or even day to day, as conditions*** change and the individual develops.

** I am more than happy to be corrected and attribute it correctly, or to include the exact quote.

*** Conditions including, but not limited too, the age of the learner, the experience of the learner, the number of players at practice, the proximity to a match, the time of the season.