Blocked and variable practice are two main practice styles coaches can use to design the layout of their practices. Both styles have a distinct mold which ultimately influences how athletes learn skills, retain them, and refine them with practice. While research tends to favor variable practice for long term skill acquisition, both styles of practice can help accelerate the learning curve. As a coach, knowing how to use both is a fundamental component when it comes to designing engaging practices and maximizing the time you have with your athletes.
Blocked practice is the most common and traditional method of practice. It involves predictable, consecutive repetitions of a specific skill. There is little to no variance between repetitions. Motivation behind blocked practice usually involves a desire to perfect a certain technique. Variance in patterns is minimal, but less skilled athletes can show more unintended fluctuations in technique.
It is very common to see examples of blocked practice when athletes are first learning a skill. In a baseball setting, an example of this would be fielding 10 ground balls in a row hit right at you or taking 10 consecutive swings off the tee in the same place. Because of the lack of variation, blocked practice tends to be the easiest to set up and execute - part of the reason why it is very common.
Variable practice is a type of practice in which consecutive repetitions differ through slight fluctuations. In true variable practice, repetitions of the skill are unpredictable (performing predictable fluctuations of a skill falls under a hybrid variation of blocked practice). The variability of repetitions is designed to try and create a more game-like environment in which the athlete is challenged to find various movement solutions as opposed to just one in blocked practice.
This type of practice is more difficult because athletes are not able to rely on their most recent solution to execute the next rep. Each rep presents a new challenge which forces the athlete to build a large database of movement solutions. Variable practice is most effective when done at the edge of an athlete’s current abilities. Too big of a challenge creates helplessness while too small of a challenge lacks necessary stimulation for learning.
The Shea and Morgan experiment of 1979 was one of the first studies that dove into the effectiveness of blocked and variable practice style. Participants for the study were grouped into a blocked practice group and a variable practice group. Both groups learned a skill and were tested for skill retention using a 10 minute post test and a 10 day post test. Researchers found that participants in the blocked group outperformed the variable group in the initial acquisition trials but were significantly outperformed by the variable group in the 10 minute and 10 day post test. In other words, the participants in the blocked group could not retain the skill they had just learned only 10 minutes after doing it. Ever feel like you’re starting all over with an athlete every time you see them? It might be worth going over the practice environment before you blame it on their lack of dedication.
Frans Bosch, Dutch neurophysiologist and leading expert in motor learning principles, explains this phenomenon using the terms “adaptable” and “adapted” athletes. Athletes in blocked practice settings haven’t really learned anything - they’ve simply adapted to the task at hand. It may look good or feel good in the short term, but the monotony of it does not engage the physical and motor learning systems in a meaningful way that promotes long term retention of skills. On the contrary, athletes in the variable practice setting have become adaptable by grappling with problems and implicitly discovering new solutions within the context of various internal and external constraints (ex: physical limitations). It may look ugly early on but the athlete is actually learning at a much faster rate than his counterparts in blocked practice.
Chad Longworth, hitting instructor and creator of LPD+, further dives into the effectiveness of variable practice by explaining the role of the Central Nervous System (CNS) in human movement. When solving movement problems, the CNS uses sensory information from the environment to construct a “roadmap” of neural pathways that guide the body to perform a specific skill (i.e. hitting a baseball). As the pathways strengthen with time and experience, the skills become much easier to execute and the roadway created becomes an ingrained manual the athlete can consistently recall. This process effectively puts skills on “autopilot” meaning minimal conscious thought is required to repeat the skill in the future. This process is a natural human phenomenon to conserve mental energy and save it for more demanding tasks in life. We all have a limited amount of energy that we can use throughout the course of the day so it would be a great disadvantage to us if we spent a large portion of it doing things like breathing, walking, or driving.
While throwing a baseball is not as second nature as breathing, it is a skill that becomes more automated with practice - and it must be to perform in competitive environments. The double-edged sword to the automation of skills is no new learning occurs when the skill is on autopilot. The CNS is not forced to adapt to any new information because of its familiarity with the skill. The learning systems once heavily involved in the skill acquisition process are no longer necessary. If practice fails to engage the learning systems, athletes are merely going through the motions. This is why more practice is not always better. The quality of your practice will always outweigh the quantity of it (see “Deliberate Practice” for more information on this).
When athletes are faced with new challenges through variable practice, autopilot is turned off and the brain is forced to adapt by creating newer and better skill pathways. This process helps create positive adaptations that supercede their previous skill level. These adaptations help athletes solve complex motor tasks by challenging its physical capabilities and neuromuscular efficiency. If challenges do not push athletes beyond their current skill level, their body will sit in its ideal state of homeostasis - the body’s natural mechanism to provide stability and resist change. When acquiring and refining skills, we are fighting against homeostasis.
Plenty of research (see more) since the Shea and Morgan experiment has been published and collectively suggests athletes are better able to learn and retain skills through variable practice over blocked practice. With this, variable practice is not the end-all be-all way to train your athletes. Being able to use both styles of practice is critical to maximizing the effectiveness of your coaching to all athletes - but the scale definitely should not be tipped in favor of blocked practice.
Blocked practice is going to be your most basic tool for teaching new skills. It is effective with novice athletes that lack experience, body control, and awareness. It is also effective with athletes that have built an ingrained CNS map of how to do a specific skill the wrong way. The CNS maps for bad patterns do not just go away when you do the skill correctly. As a result, it is important to give athletes time to practice the skill so they can construct and strengthen the new CNS maps. With enough practice, these maps can become strong enough to automate the skill and make it usable in game environments. This process does not happen overnight, but using blocked practice can be an effective way to build an early foundation for the skill that you can build on top of.
Keep things simple early on when utilizing blocked practice. Get athletes to build competency in one area before trying to move to three different areas. If you’re looking at a couple of different things, start with what will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Give the athlete some basic parameters to work within, but don’t get caught up in the aesthetics. Three different athletes might accomplish a certain task three different ways. Understand your non-negotiables and give the athlete space to individualize. You’re not trying to create clones.
When a certain level of competency has been reached, it is crucial you challenge the pattern using variable practice. This is a continuous process that must happen in order to facilitate future learning and refinement of skills. It’s also something that should be done sooner rather than later. Since we know athletes don’t retain information very well in blocked practice, it would be a disservice to the athlete to spend most of your training time in blocked environments. Learning is messy. If you want kids to look good, tell them to join a beauty pageant.
As you add difficulty to the task, monitor to see where the pattern breaks down. Variable practice is tougher to introduce because it’s much more difficult for kids. This can be discouraging at first and if you’re not careful can create negative associations with helpful training processes. You don’t necessarily have to explain the science behind it, but kids need to know what variable practice looks like and why it is important. No one feels good when they try something challenging and fail. As a coach, you need to be a strong mentor and give kids the psychological safety to try new things, fail, and use feedback so they can learn from their mistakes. The challenges you introduce should be enough to stimulate them but not enough to crush them. This process is difficult and requires a lot of trial and error, but don’t be afraid to regress if you’re not getting what you want from the athlete. It will be better for them in the long run.
Below are some examples of variable practice that you can implement with your athletes:
- Overload/Underload Bats
Overload and underload training goes back to Soviet experimentation in the early 1970s and is one of the most researched forms of variable practice. Overload bats are going to be any bat weighted heavier than the athlete’s game sized bat, while underload bats are any bat that is lighter. Overload bats are great for mechanical patterning by constraining the body to move more efficiently. Underload bats are a great tool to build bat speed by allowing the athlete to move faster than they normally do. Utilizing a combination of the two is a pretty effective way to improve your exit velocity off the bat - something we know correlates very highly to success.
Research has studied bats with weight variations that range from +/- 20 percent, so this is a pretty good place to start with most athletes. If you’re struggling to find an underload bat, a fungo is a great option (you also get a couple of different training effects that I’ll discuss underneath). Whiffel ball bats are also great underload options for young kids. Popular progressions include heavier overload bats (up to 100 percent in some studies) and varying the overload portion of the bat (ex: end loaded, handle loaded, etc.). If you have some old bats that you don’t use anymore, turn them into weighted bats using some duct/bat tape, pennies, and a scale. The more variation the better.
- Different sized bats/barrels
Really good hitters have a great feel for the barrel of the bat. Building barrel awareness is an important skill to help hitters make consistent hard contact. This can be trained using bats that are longer, shorter, and barrels that are smaller. Each bat presents a movement problem in which the hitter must reorganize to find a new movement solution. While long and short bats are great for general barrel awareness, they can also be utilized to help influence a certain movement pattern. For example, short bats can help athletes who pull off the ball prematurely and long bats can help athletes who have a steep (hands directly to the ball) attack angle to the ball. This is why the fungo bat can present a variety of training effects - the length, size of barrel, and weight all create a unique combination for the motor learning systems to navigate.
- Weighted baseballs
Weighted baseballs follow the same training principles as the overload/underload bats. Overload balls - such as plyo balls - constrain the system to influence more efficient movement patterns. Underload balls help train arm speed by allowing the arm to accelerate faster. Utilizing both training effects is a great way to develop velocity the same way overload/underload bats improve exit velocity. Oh, and we also know throwing velocity correlates highly to success.
Another huge benefit to weighted baseballs is the proprioceptive (“feel”) adaptations it creates for throwers. Each weighted ball presents a new challenge in which the athlete implicitly learns an optimal solution for each throw. This can help the body reorganize into more advantageous positions by using feedback from each rep to make adjustments for the next. This can have positive impacts on velocity, command, secondary stuff, and arm health.
American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) research has shown heavier weighted implements (in comparison to the 5 ounce regulation ball) are actually going to be less stressful on the arm as opposed to lighter implements (the study looked at implements thrown off the mound that were 4-7 ounces). As a result, the majority of your weighted ball work should be done using overload implements. If you are planning on starting a weighted baseball program, make sure you consult with a knowledgeable coach or professional for an individualized plan to ensure maximal results.
- Different sized baseballs
Similar to weighted baseballs, different sized balls can have create proprioceptive adaptations for throwers. Different sizes and weights are going to create tendencies to miss in similar areas (ex: athletes are more prone to miss arm side with heavier, bigger baseballs). This forces athletes to implicitly learn how to make adjustments by using feedback from ball flight of their previous repetition. This helps build a larger database of movement solutions for the athlete that can positively impact command, for example.
- Variable sloped mounds
Every mound is going to have slight fluctuations that creates some external variability for pitchers. Some will be higher, lower, slope off steeper, or have more clay/dirt. Your job as an athlete is not to demand perfect playing conditions - it’s to adapt to the cards you’re dealt with. Having athletes pitch off a variety of dirt mounds is a great way to teach pitchers how to make adjustments and cope with less than ideal conditions. Coaches can also manipulate portable mounds by tilting them to the left, right, or having athletes throw up the slope to create certain movement adaptations.
For hitters, the use of slopes can help make batting practice or machine work more realistic by increasing the downhill angle the ball travels on. Throwing BP off mounds or placing pitching machines on mounds can help create a ball flight that mirrors a pitcher throwing off a mound.
- Different distances
Manipulating the distance from the rubber to home plate can help pitchers who have trouble making adjustments vertically in the strike zone. Coaches can narrow the distance for guys who miss up and lengthen the distance for guys who miss high. Coaches can also narrow the distance to help guys tighten up their breaking stuff.
Moving hitters closer to and farther away from the thrower is a great tool to simulate variances in timing. Moving them closer to the pitcher can simulate higher velocities while moving them further away can create the feel of adjusting to a breaking pitch. A popular drill for this is the three plate drill where hitters take a swing at three different plates which vary in distance from the thrower. Progressions include further distances, less pitches to move between plates, and different bats for different plates (ex: using a heavier bat when closer to the thrower, lighter bat when further away).
- Fatigue induced learning
Inducing fatigue in your training sessions can be a great way to create awareness for specific parts of a movement pattern. It can also simulate moments late in games when athletes are competing with higher levels of fatigue. If your bullpens are only executed when you feel freshest, don’t be surprised if your stuff starts to fall apart later in the game. Be careful with this one - patterns will break down under fatigue. Your brain is more concerned about task completion over task efficiency. Use this with athletes that have a more refined skill set and higher training maturity.
- Hitting plyo balls
Using heavy/plyo balls for hitting can help athletes get a better feel for positions at contact and overall swing plane. Different sizes and weights can also add another element of variable practice to the mix.
- Random Pitching Machine Sequences
In a multiple machine set up, you would have one person feeding both machines. The two machines would be set up from slightly different positions and can simulate either the same pitch or different pitches. The person feeding would pretend to feed both machines simultaneously but would ultimately drop the baseball into one machine. The batter is forced to adapt to the incoming pitch with no knowledge of what is coming. The variance in pitches, angles, and the unpredictability of the task creates a chaotic environment that better simulates a game.
If working with one machine, the person feeding can vary the tempo of how the baseballs are fed through the machine. Use a normal tempo for a fastball and use a slight hesitation for an offspeed pitch. Have the hitter gear up for a fastball and adjust if faced with the simulated breaking ball. Vary the sequence in which you feed fastballs and offspeed pitches.
Competition is the ultimate form of variable practice. The arousal levels athletes experience when competing against others are unparalleled. Being able to confront an opponent, take punches, and return punches is unpredictable, difficult, and demands a high level of focus and concentration. This is exactly what variable practice demands.
For more information on how to maximize competition in your practices, see our previous blog post “Compete!”
Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning and growing.