The coaches toolkit revisited (2): Blocked, Variable or Random?

Following on from reviewing my use of the coaches’ toolkit, I wanted to take a look at how I deploy different types of practice — Blocked, Variable, Random — and what I can do better.

I have long been an advocate of game-based practice — because I like playing games, and so do (most of) the children I coach — so I’ll admit in advance a preference for Random.

But that doesn’t mean there is no place for Variable, or even Blocked, practice — there always will be, but for me it’s games, first.

Random

Working with children, often quite new to the sport, I generally favour game-based practice, wherever possible. This does mean that we see a lot of mistakes, and I’m sure there have been players who have given up without ever succeeding.

But kids (generally) like playing games, and they do persevere if there is a chance of success.

And I like games!

I am (slowly) developing a more theoretically-based justification for this preference, around context and motivation (players want to learn and demonstrate a skill to succeed in a game), actively do-ing (needs suitably small-sided game formats), and making sense (especially via Game Sense practices).

The alternative, of starting with traditional Blocked practice with neat rows of kids, stood by their cones and “practicing”, might look good from the sideline. But I find that drills can quickly become boring for players and coaches, and, perhaps, only rarely encourage effective learning and retention.

Variable & Blocked practice

So even if I start a session with a “drill”, it will be wrapped up and “gamified”, where possible. At the very least, there will be the promise that the participants will get a chance to test their new skills in a game, of some sort, soon.

Can you make 5 simple catches? OK — how about 5 with one hand? Or 5 clap-catches? Clap-clap-catch?

Or “chaos catching“ in pairs — 4 catches, then take a step away from your partner; 4 more catches, and step away again; winner is the pair furthest apart when the “drill” ends.

With explanations, demonstrations, interventions and explanations, as required, of course — players aren’t left to work out everything for themselves.

Ironically, I see more scope for Blocked and Variable practice when working with more experienced players.

I have seen videos of good players (County, international, even) hitting top-hand-only drives off bobble feeds — about as basic a drill as possible — and finding benefits in the practice.

Batting against a bowling machine (not always quite as repeatable as they are claimed to be) gives the chance of repetition-without-repetition that gameplay might not for a player who already understands the context in which they will deploy the skills being practiced.

There are challenges with using bowling machines, most notably with batters moving into position in advance of a delivery. Difficult to get around this, unfortunately, but a few “mis-feeds” (“accidentally” let the ball roll around the top of the feeder, rather than dropping straight in!) tends to make the batter aware that they are not really watching and reacting; engaging the built-in random-mode can have the same effect.

I do not advocate setting the bowling machine to deliver 85mph half volleys and crashing these repeatedly back at the machine, however…

In conclusion

I am now most comfortable at the ”Random” end of the practice spectrum — works for me, seems to work for the young participants — but gamified drills (falling somewhere between Blocked and Random, with inherent variability) also play a big part.

Variable (or even Blocked) seems to work if the player already knows why they are practicing i.e. the technique already has a game context.

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