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by Thomas Kurz
This article quotes extensively from Hock Hochheim’s post “6 myths of police training that inhibit effective learning” but it applies to all skill training in any sport or martial art. The post is based on Robert Bragg Jr.’s presentation on skill instruction at the latest conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Association. Robert Bragg Jr. is the manager of fitness, force, and firearms training for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission’s academy. In the presentation he criticizes myths he says undermine police officers’ ability to grasp and retain physical skills that could be decisive in life-or-death confrontations. Read about each myth and about rational training and post your comments at the end of this article.
Here come the myths (quotes from the original Hock Hochheim’s post are in italics):
MYTH #1: Perfect practice makes perfect performance.
“This oft-repeated bromide ‘suggests there’s “a” perfect rep that can be practiced over and over in a stable, predictable environment with no variables,’ Bragg says.”
No, it doesn’t. The perfect practice for most physical skills is quite variable, even within the so-called blocked practice method (see Myth 3). Examples:
As soon as a form of a punch or a combination of punches is grasped and performed correctly (not perfectly yet!), which may take just a few minutes of practice, a fighter begins to vary the initial position and footwork and eventually adds a sparring partner.
As soon as a grappling move is working on a nonresisting partner, the grappler tries different angles of attack, adds feints, and changes the partner every few reps.
MYTH #2: Slowly practicing a movement that needs to be delivered fast is beneficial.
“’There may be some value in this in the very early stages of learning, to help you understand the motor movements involved in a new technique,’ Bragg says. ‘But spend very little time practicing slowly, especially where forceful movements are involved.
[. . .] There are very few skill-based actions in law enforcement that take place at slow speed. Train at the speed at which you need to deliver, using realistic role-playing scenarios.’”
But, if you keep making an error in a technique–caused by faulty instruction, inattention, or whatever–you need to go back to slow motion, as slow as the slowest tai chi. This is the way to remove needless movements and excessive tension, both errors themselves and causes of further errors. Slow-motion practice also removes “blank spots” from your perception of the technique in your mind’s eye. This is very important because, to quote from Science of Sports Training, “An athlete who consistently repeats a technical mistake in physical action is probably making the same mistake in imagination or is completely unable to imagine the movement at the point at which the mistake occurs.”
MYTH #3: Blocked instruction speeds learning.
“’High-liability motor skills like shooting, driving, and DT are often taught in a blocked format–intense cram sessions where officers are expected to grasp techniques well enough to replicate them shortly afterward to prove they’ve been ‘learned,’ Bragg says.
“’In the short term, the learning seems to happen faster, but the long-term retention rate where physical skills are concerned is dismal.
“’Distributed’ learning [the author here means `distributed practice’–TK], where instruction and reinforcing practice occur over time, works much better. Short, spaced, mini-training sessions–15 minutes once a week, say–tend to dramatically improve skill retention. Some flexibility and creativity with scheduling may be needed, but the results are worth it.”
A few explanations of what is what:
A trainee performs the same drill over and over, with little variety within the practice session. Blocked practice is the dominant way of learning skills in behavioral training (read about it in Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training: The Quiet Eye in Action by Joan N. Vickers). It delivers good performance quickly in the short term but poor retention and poor stability of skills in the long term.
Blocked practice is necessary when the skill is first learned as well as when it has to be made automatic.
A trainee practices variations of a skill (the same skill applied from different positions, at different distances, in response to different actions), in conditions similar to those of a planned application.
A trainee practices different skills in conditions similar to those of a planned application. The practiced skills are put into combinations, as they would be in realistic tactics. The order of combinations and the variability of skills within these combinations are unpredictable to the trainee.
Now, distributed practice is a way of, well, distributing practice sessions of whatever kind–blocked, variable, or random–throughout long periods of time, say weeks or months.
MYTH #4: Immediate and frequent feedback hastens improvement.
“Bragg believes the science shows that an instructor who offers immediate and frequent critiques of a trainee’s performance ‘programs the learner to depend on external feedback and does not force him or her to “seek” feedback from their own body and behavior, which they ultimately must do in the game on the street.
“’A really good instructor doesn’t say a whole lot.’ [. . .] You have to learn to self-diagnose, because then you’ll know how to fix yourself, even in the midst of battle when there’s no one there to correct you.”
Since when is feedback limited to an instructor’s talking? What about the sound of a steel target in shooting; the feel, the sound, and the movement of a boxing bag; the way the wrestling dummy falls, and so on? For more, read “Immediate Feedback in Technical Training” in Science of Sports Training.
“Feedback that’s intermittent and delayed is most helpful for skill retention.”
Feedback should be built into every repetition–if you do A correctly, then B happens. For example, if you sidestep correctly, you are in this spot in relation to your opponent; if you enter the clinch correctly, you feel this and can do that. . . .
MYTH #5: Muscles have memories.
“’Muscle memory’ is a catchy phrase,’ Bragg admits, ‘but it suggests that muscles are the only thing involved in mastering a physical skill. It’s a concept that usually accompanies the block-teaching approach, and it gets you thinking that all that matters in learning are reps. To really learn, your whole nervous system has to be involved. [. . .] You need to stay mentally involved. Once your brain is no longer engaged, you’re just going through the motions. You cease to learn.’”
Once the skill is mastered so well that “your brain is no longer engaged,” or to put it better, that you don’t need to pay attention to details of your movements, then your mind is free to attend to tactical and strategic considerations.
“’When you’re learning a new physical skill, you tend to be stiff and robotic.’”
This is a characteristic of the first stage of learning a technique. However, the first stage of learning may be very short, even impossible to notice in properly trained people. Their general and versatile background causes very little or no generalized excitation in the central nervous system (the cause of the excessive muscle tension) because the new technique contains elements of previously mastered movements. They start learning at the second stage (read about the four stages of mastering techniques in Science of Sports Training). In other words, correctly trained people are not likely to get “stiff and robotic” because a competent instructor minimizes the newness of the skill through suitable lead-up exercises.
MYTH #6: Repetition is the key to learning.
“Forget the claims that it takes 3,000 reps to learn a new physical technique or 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, Bragg advises. ‘People have different abilities and learn at different rates. Yes, repetition is essential–you’ve got to get the reps in–but what you do before and after the repetition may be more important to learning than the mere repetition itself.’”
Knowing what to look at and what to think while performing a technique are integral elements of the technique and are taught by every competent instructor–duh!
Read more articles on related subjects at Teaching Movement Skills for Sports and Martial Arts.
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum