Learning vs Performance

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When working with young players or relative beginners to table tennis should we focus on increasing their performance, which sounds somewhat logical? Or, should we focus on enhancing their learning?

The relationship between performance and learning is often misunderstood. Traditional coaching looks to minimise mistakes during practice and looks for high levels of success. Coaches say things like “you’re making too many mistakes” and “perfect practice makes perfect”. This means that coaches use drills where the player is likely to show high levels of performance. Many coaches take these high levels of performance to mean that “learning” has occurred. The coach is using performance as a measure of the amount of learning. They then believe that this high level of performance seen in practice will transfer into a competitive situation and match conditions. Skill acquisition theory tells us that this kind of coaching is ineffective and does not yield the results that the coach and the learner are expecting. Performance is often momentary and therefore a poor indicator of learning. Distinguishing between learning and performance is important and can have a positive impact on the players.

So how can we determine if learning has happened within our practices? There is currently no direct way to measure learning. However, learning can be assumed if the particular skill being practiced has a high retention rate and if the performance transfers to a real match situation.

Retention is how well a player can perform after an extended period of time not doing the practice activity or skill. A high retention rate from the players is precisely what a coach should be aiming for. Research tells us that higher variability during practice will result in higher levels of retention of a skill (variable/random practice). Even combining the skill with others will increase retention levels (contextual interference). For example, I might ask a player to do a practice activity working on forehand topspin. I feed them 20 balls to the same position and see how many they hit on the table. They manage to hit 17 out of 20 balls on the table. Although 1 week later I ask them to do a retention test of the same task and suddenly the player’s success level has dropped to only 8 out of 20. This practice has had a poor retention rate. What if my first practice had included a higher level of variability and contextual interference? For example, playing at varying places on the table, against different levels of spin whilst, being interspersed with other shots. Success levels during the practice may decrease to 14 out of 20. However, 1 week later when the player is performing the retention test their success rate is 12 out of 20. The high variability and diversifying of the skills will result in a higher occurrence of mistakes and lower levels of performance during practice (17 vs 14). However, retention of the skill will be high (8 vs 12). Having a high retention rate is a clear signal of effective practice.

Random vs Block Practice

Transfer of a skill can also be an indicator of learning and the effectiveness of practice. Transfer considers how well performance in a practice activity will transfer to a match situation. The ability to transfer to a novel task during competition is extremely useful in table tennis (and sport in general) where skills are diverse and involve multiple degrees of freedom. In a study of elite long jumpers, Wu, et al. (2012) noted “practicing a task in a variety of ways will promote greater transfer to novel tasks than utilizing a constant practice strategy – practicing one variation of a skill” (pp.116). The practice task should relate strongly to what will occur in a real match. It is very common in table tennis to practice to a block. But, how often do you play to the same place in a match and receive the same shot back? This kind of exercise has a limited transfer to a match scenario. If there is not a high transfer level there is not a high level of learning. I prefer to use the term control. For example, the feeder plays anywhere in the backhand half of the table from the backhand control. The term control implies that they are dictating the pace and positioning of the rally but does not restrict them to playing a single type of shot. This has implications for both players performing the practice. The player “doing” the exercise encounters a wider variety of spin and pace more closely resembling a match. Also, the “feeder” doesn’t get bored doing the same shot repeatedly and gets to practice manipulating play in a more transferable way.

So, in summary:

  1. Conditions that encourage many mistakes (practices high variability and high amounts of contextual interference) during skill acquisition lead to higher levels of learning when compared to conditions with lower numbers of mistakes (blocked practice, repeated efforts of one skill).
  1. Practice should closely relate to that which will be experienced in a match to enable skills to transfer to competition.

The flipside is making more mistakes can impact on confidence and self-belief and the needs of the individual need to be taken into account. However, for a young player or someone relatively new to the game, the long-term focus should be on learning. Not the immediate performance seen in an exercise or drill. This will enhance the long-term development of the player as their skills learnt in practice will be retained and will transfer into match play more effectively.


Wu, W.F., Porter, J.M., Partridge, J.A., Young, M.A., & Newman, N. (2012). Practice Variability and Training Design: Strategies of Elite Horizontal Jump Coaches. Sport Science Review, 21(5-6), pp.113-127.


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