Motor Learning: Block vs Random Practice in Table Tennis

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How often do you see a coach or player practice with a traditional approach whereby they are focussing on achieving a high number of reps with the same movement consistently until they are satisfied? For example, hitting 15 forehand topspins in one position or hitting 1 backhand and 1 forehand over and over again against a block. Quite often! This block practice whereby the player focusses on repeated movements may look fancy in practice, but does this transfer into a game. This is the question this article will try to uncover with alternatives and more effective ways to design our practices for our players.

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A standalone skill in practice is much more different than a skill in a match. It’s not as simple as playing a forehand topspin and labelling it as a skill, there are so many external forces that have an influence on the skill being performed. I.e. ball positioning, placement, variety of spin, speed, position of opponent and a whole lot more. This is why recent research now calls skill, “total skill”.

Total skill is the process a player reads, plans and dos. This is whereby a player reads, plans and then executes the movement. Often during block practice the reading and planning part is removed from the training as it can be easy, and only repetitive focus is being performed. Total skill brings in the reading and planning by randomising the practice. This approach diminishes rep practises by placing the ball in a different place on every shot. For example the performer would now play the forehand topspin from different spots of the table covering 75%. This variable practice brings in decision-making skills which are needed to topspin well in a match.

Researchers believe this random approach leads to greater retention and  skill transfer to a match. This transfer is where real learning takes place, the ability a player can display the practice in an actual game. Players learning skill in a random approach are forced to read, plan and do for every shot.

Why is blocked practice used so often?

Often coaches naturally use the blocked practice approach because they see an increase in performance, usually because blocked practice is easier, less decision making is taking place so consistency is higher. Increasing the difficultly using the variable practice approach will lead to retention of the learned motor skill which is the definition of a successful practice.

The ability to retain what has been learnt is extremely valuable to the performer. The retention of a motor skill has been shown in research to be higher in instances where variable practice has occurred. This was supported by Sherwood (1996) where variable practice showed that variable practice of rapid aiming movement over different amplitudes was more effective in retention of the skill than blocked practice. The study was later replicated by Green and Sherwood (2000) who found the same results that variable practice aided retention more effectively when compared to blocked practice.

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Trevor Ragan explains Block vs Random Practice in this brilliant video below looking at a variety of sports with many incredible insights. Be sure to check out the video from 11.35 where you can see the cool skill gauge in different practice situations.

In this video below we can see Ma Long’s coach Qin Zhijian randomising the practice making Ma Long read, plan and do on every shot.

Ultimately, variable/random practice leads to better decision making and develops more of a creative mindset for the performer.

The reason why random is important? Is because a game is random.

Do you have any ideas on how to randomise practice in table tennis? Comment them below.

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