Not all practice is created equal

PeakThe definition of practice is to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it. As PE Teachers all we need to do is get our students to improve and develop new skills is to practice them. Then practice them some more. It is the rallying cry of Matthew Syed in Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, both of which used the research on expertise by Anders Ericsson and colleagues. Talent is overrated and if we practice long and hard enough we can all become experts. However in Peak, Anders Ericsson’s recent book on the new science of expertise, he defines three types of practice; naive, purposeful and deliberate. The volume of practice is not sufficient enough to obtain expertise, but we must also take into account the quality of the practice as well.

Naive Practice is where you just do something repeatedly, in the vain hope that the repetition itself will improve one’s performance. Many of my lessons are filled with examples of this type of practice. A instance of this in a recent lesson is the knock down practice in cricket, where in pairs a feeder drops a ball for a batter to forward drive into a net or wall. Doing this week in and week out will help, a little, but just swinging the bat and trying to hit the ball will only get our students so far. Once they have achieved a satisfactory skill level on this practice and the movement becomes more controlled and possibly automatic, continuing to practice in this way does not lead to further improvement. Ericsson’s research suggests that when we reach a level of acceptable performance, more practice at that level does not lead to improvement. To make any further improvements we need to develop our practice, to something called Purposeful Practice.

Purposeful Practice has the following characteristics:

  • Well defined, specific goals. Ensure there is a long term goal and then break it down, into little baby steps, to help reach it. A general goal is not enough. It needs to be specific that can be worked on with a realistic expectation of improvement.
  • Focused. This is a difficult one. Our students seldom improve without giving the task at hand their full attention. On a class level we need to work on building a culture where focus is understood and expected and on an individual level teaching students strategies on controlling their distraction. Focus must be a part of the design of the task itself, without it, it becomes naive practice.
  • Involves feedback. This can be done in three main ways, from the teacher giving direct feedback after each attempt, from the students themselves recognising where they are going wrong and from the result of the task itself. If we can manage all three in our task design that can be a very powerful tool for improvement.
  • Requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is the most important part of purposeful practice. It requires the design of the practice to require the individual to do something that they could not accomplish before. Sometimes that new thing is easy, so you keep pushing on. Sometimes that new thing is hard and becomes a barrier. Finding ways around those barriers is the key to purposeful practice. It is not about trying harder, but trying something differently.

When we design practices, ensuring they have the four characteristics mentioned above gives our students a better chance at improvement and learning. However this isn’t easy for the student, continual purposeful practice requires effort and isn’t always fun. Figuring out a way to help maintain our students motivation is a key element that underpins any purposeful practice. I think this comes from understanding the our students perspective, giving them some autonomy in the process of practising and ensuring we can relate it to their needs and desires.

Purposeful practice has it limits though. Pushing yourself to the limits of your abilities and practising there isn’t enough to develop expertise. Ericsson suggests two further additions to purposeful practice. It needs to be in a field where expertise is reasonably well established and it requires a teacher or a coach who has a good understanding of expertise in that field and therefore can design practices based on that accumulated knowledge. This is Deliberate Practice and is the gold standard of practice. To achieve expertise in a particular domain the practice that must be under taken must contain these traits:

Develops skills that others have already figured out to do and for what effective training techniques have been established.
Always takes place outside of one’s comfort zones, asking questions that are just beyond current abilities.
Is well designed, with specific goals, often asking improvement in a defined aspect of performance.
It requires the particpants full attention throughout the practice.
Involves feedback and modifcation of efforts in response to that feedback.
For the particpant to have a clear mental representation of what they are trying to achieve.
Involves building on or modifying existing skills, leading to a step by step improvement.

Purposeful practice can be summed up as where someone is pushing themselves to improve and deliberate practice is both purposeful and informed. Informed in particular by the best performers’ accomplishments in that activity and by understanding what expert performers do to excel. As Ericsson put it in his book ‘Deliberate Practice is Purposeful Practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.’ As PE teachers we are responsible for the development of our students motor control and learning. We do not require them to become expert movers in our time with us, but competent and confident movers. Therefore deliberate practice might not be needed, I think it might not even be achievable within PE, but purposeful practice certainly is. The hallmark of purposeful practice is that we try to get our students to do something they cannot do. Therefore any practice we design for our students within PE need to be well defined with specific goals, focused, involving feedback and finding what motivates them.  That we then help them to examine how they are doing it, why they might be falling short and help them to get better will ensure that their time within PE is worthwhile.



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