by Thomas Kurz
Evidence from neurological research proves the soundness of limiting teaching movement skills to one new skill per workout.
Until now the reasons for doing so were only the practical experience of coaches and guesses about what happens in an athlete’s mind during and after a workout in the course of learning.
Many of these reasons are explained by Józef Drabik, Ph.D., in Children and Sports Training. This book has a lot of information on methods of technical and tactical training because laying good foundation of essential skills must happen at the beginning of a sports career. (Adults who take up a new sport can equally benefit from this information.) Here are some reasons for teaching one skill per workout: it allows for arranging warm-up exercises so the athletes warm up just right for this one skill; it gives athletes time to digest the information and then apply the results of their deliberations in their next workout; and it keeps the athletes practicing rather than standing and listening.
Apart from the obvious reasons given above, research now reveals one more: It takes several hours after learning a new skill for the neurological changes needed to “move” it to permanent memory. If during that time another new skill is taught, then the first skill might be “erased.”
Research by Shadmehr and Holcomb shows that it takes six hours after completion of practice for the changes in the brain needed to make the skill permanent. Those subjects who learned one new skill and immediately began learning another skill lost proficiency when tested on the first skill.
Earlier research by Brashers-Krug, Shadmehr, and Bizzi shows that four hours must elapse between learning two skills to prevent disruption of the first skill.
So what should you do during a workout after you learned a new skill to keep it from being disrupted? Do exercises you are thoroughly familiar with: skills that you have mastered or conditioning exercises. After learning a new footwork pattern, for example, a boxer can spar, work on the timing ball or speed bag or heavy bag, jump rope, or run–as long he or she can do it “habitually” so that none of these activities involves learning any new skills.
What if you want to teach (or learn) two similar skills? Don’t! Not only can you slow down learning, but also you can get them mixed up.
Limiting instruction to one technique or variation at a time helps retain the skill. Although it may seem to slow down the pace of learning, this measured rate of instruction actually facilitates progress because you learn the skill more reliably.
Brashers-Krug, T., Shadmehr, R., Bizzi, E. 1996. Consolidation in human motor memory. Nature 18;382(6588):252-255.
Czajkowski, Z. 1997. Celem cwiczen nie jest “dawanie w kosc” ale podwyzszanie umiejetnosci ucznia/Exercises are not for “giving a hard time,” but increasing skills of a student. Sport Wyczynowy 11-12(395-396):106-109.
Drabik, J. 1996. Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit and Happy. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Co., Inc.
Shadmehr, R. and Holcomb, H. H. 1997. Neural correlates of motor memory consolidation. Science 8;277(5327):821-825.