Perfect practice and nonlinear learning

by on September 27, 2015
in Athlete Learning

Learning is nonlinear. We know this intuitively, and we see this on a daily basis, but we often get terms and concepts confused. Consequently, we see learning described as a learning curve:

Essentially, the typical learning curve suggests that the more that we practice, the more we improve. Initially, we have a steep learning curve, or we improve rapidly. This makes sense, as beginners improve more quickly than experts because they have far more room to improve. Eventually, as we near the asymptote, learning slows. We are said to reach a plateau. We have to work harder, longer, and more specifically to make improvements.

Again, this make sense. We accept this. But, it is wrong. And potentially harmful.

I worked with a player years ago. When I met him in 8th grade, he was headed to a private high school with a very good basketball program. I honestly thought he had no chance to make a team at the school, and I was initially reluctant to work with him for this reason. I did not want to take the family’s hard-earned money for a fool’s errand. However, I never want to be the one to extinguish a dream, however unrealistic, so I agreed to work with him.

He was one of the most frustrating players who I have ever trained. Because he made very quick progress in the first 2-3 weeks, he expected this day to day progress; he expected linear learning. He expected one hour of practice to equal x amount of improvement. Every day.

He had a breakdown one day, and I nearly quit working with him. He said he was not improving anymore. I explained that it was unreasonable to expect improvement every single day. 1hour of practice does not equal x improvement; sometimes it equals y; sometimes it equals – x. The road to improvement is not a straight line; there are many bumps in the road (below).

I tried to explain that he needed to take a long-term view of his improvement. If you look at the learning curve above, over time, one sees a big progression from the start to the end of the red line; however, on any individual day, there could be a plateau, a trough, or a decline.

When we speak about learning curves, linear learning, and perfect practice, we can create the wrong expectations for athletes, coaches, and parents. One hour of practice does not equal x amount of improvement.

The best analogy is chopping down a tree. Imagine it takes 100 swings of an axe to chop down a tree. The first 99 swings, there is no change in the status of the tree. There is no improvement. However, on the 100th swing, there is a dramatic change. That does not mean that something was wrong with the first 99 swings, and the 100th swing was finally correct. The 99 swings were not wasted effort. Instead, it takes time to chop down a tree just as it takes time to learn a skill. Not every practice swing leads to the desired result. Not every hour of practice leads to immediate improved performance. Sometimes, a player has an off-day; sometimes, fatigue creates a drop in performance; sometimes a new skill may frustrate a player; sometimes, the new instructions or cues cause a temporary decline.

Our goal is not perfect practice. Our goal is not immediate improvement. Our goal is long-term learning and progression. When we viewed the player’s progress over 6 months, he had improved by leaps and bounds. However, on a daily basis, those tremendous gains were much more difficult to detect. A lack of improvement from day to day is not the end of the world; we need to take a longer view, and that requires a re-thinking of our typical learning curve, perfect practice, and linear learning.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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