Dr Ed Coughlan: If you really want to improve your game, then practise like a kid

Behind the apparently effortless grace of a Roger Federer forehand or the controlled ferocity of a Rory McIlroy drive is a history of practise, writes Dr Ed Coughlan

This practise is often ignored to allow us to revel in their apparently natural gifts, which gives us a free pass to excuse the reasons why we didn’t make it as a professional athlete. The truth is a lot less forgiving.

Practice is arguably something everyone has experienced. In fact, the benefits of practise are familiar to anyone who can ride a bike or tie their shoelaces. The importance of those tasks to a child drive them through periods of failure and frustration to a point where they can eventually do them with little or no thought.

The freedom promised to a kid who can ride a bicycle is so great that crashes resulting in cuts and bruises do not deter them from getting up and trying again. That willingness to move on from a failure without spending too much time beating ourselves up is something most of us lose as we get older.

The incredibly powerful self-belief of a child is soon replaced by unhelpful, comforting thoughts that convince us ‘I am not that way inclined’ and ‘it’s not for me’ — the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Kids rarely use words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ in a negative way. Instead they can be heard saying such things as ‘I never miss’ and ‘our team always wins’. Of course, both are likely to be untruths but are equally helpful to ensure continued engagement. Yet as we get older we change the script to accommodate thoughts such as ‘I never score’ and ‘we always lose’. Also equally likely to be untruths but irrevocably damaging.

Another critical element of a child’s practise is how they hunger for achievement now, not in five weeks’ time. It may still take five weeks but the urgency that underpins their learning ensures they learn from every attempt. Almost unknown to themselves they reflect on each trial so as to avoid, or at worst lessen, the next fall. This cycle of self-regulation where they monitor their effort as they commit to it, evaluate the level of success just after and refine the plan for the next go is the essence of good practise.

Maybe this robust nature of children is innate. Rational adult thought processes have no place in climbing trees or building the tallest human pyramid of pre-schoolers. We become very good at finding the path of least resistance; of sitting in the comfort zone where nothing of worth is ever achieved.

So what are the principles of practice that result in meaningful, long-term change in behaviour? And where sport is concerned, transfer from the training paddock to the competitive arena?

Decades of sport science research have identified a multitude of different forms of practise. However, there are three that consistently surface worth mentioning. Blocked, random and variable practice.

Blocked practice is defined as the repeated execution of the same task over and over again. Such as taking the same four-foot putt from the same place repeatedly. When there is another task involved in the same practice session, such as a chip and run from the front of the green, that too would be done in isolation, over and over again from the same spot before switching back to the four-foot putt.

Random practise is defined as the practice of a few separate tasks in an order that reduces the likelihood of the same task being practised in succession. For example, a kicker in rugby practising a drop-kick, a place-kick and a kick-to-touch within a single session. The structure of the practise would aim to move from task to task in a random order.

Finally, variable practise is defined as the practice of a variety of versions of the same task. Such as a tennis player working on their forehand cross-court, forehand down-the-line, and forehand topspin within a single session. They are all forehand shots but with subtle changes in the action that result in a different outcome. The overarching message from the research is to randomise the tasks engaged in during practise sessions like the rugby kicking example above. This apparently causes sufficient challenge in our brains to keep us engaged in the process of learning enough to embed the new or improved skill long-term. Even though blocked practise satisfies an immediate sense of accomplishment, the effects soon wear off, apparently.

However, the science is not foolproof. Most of the studies that inform us of how to practise were conducted in environments that do not resemble the space where athletes train. Most of the participants in these studies were not even athletes. Most of the tasks measured were of no interest to the participants involved. In fact, none of the studies on practise showed conclusive evidence backing one method over another.

Sure, there may have been significant differences in the average scores of one group doing random practise compared to another group doing blocked practise. But averages suggest there were differences within each group. So not everyone responds in the same way. Therefore it is misleading to suggest to coaches and athletes one method of practising is best. Instead maybe we should just encourage practise.

It is likely every world-class athlete we know from individual sports such as golf and tennis and team sports such as rugby and Gaelic games have spent countless hours practising on their own. It is also likely many of those hours were spent in practise that resembled the often-snubbed blocked practise. For example, Wayne Rooney is on record describing the hole he made in a local wall he used as target practise as a kid growing up in Liverpool. So how can this apparent conflict between research and reality be explained and resolved to guide the next keen athlete and interested coach to engage in practise that works?

Emerging evidence suggests there is no such thing as blocked practise if the athlete engages in a process of reflection between attempts, even of the same task, so as to glean the most from each effort. In addition, purists suggest we are incapable of producing two identical tasks in succession anyway, such is the variability in our movements and complexity of coordinating our limbs.

What is consistent in this emerging evidence is the similarity between how elite athletes practise and how kids practise. Kids focus their effort on something they truly want to master. Once they have this task in mind, they do not grow despondent with failure. In fact, they learn from it, quickly, because they are so immersed in what they are doing. They have a laser focus on the target, and they do not complicate their actions by focusing on their body parts or joint angles. They have vivid pictures in their heads of how they would like the outcome to look and they constantly compare what actually happened with what they had hoped would happen.

They are fantastic at providing vivid, realistic context for every kick, shot or strike they attempt, never questioning the madness of placing themselves on the final green of the Masters with a putt to win the green jacket. Championship winning interviews with athletes regularly cite how “this is a dream come true, I remember when I was young...”

So the next time you want to improve your game as an adult, practise like a kid.

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