How to practise effectively

I was talking to a successful golf pro recently, and he raised the issue of practising well. He mentioned that in his experience, developing good practice processes is a topic that is often ignored, despite its importance.

Practising a skill in a sport might well sound simple. In my view, the fact that it sounds simple is partially why it is often taken for granted – people are often looking for something different and ground-breaking to improve performance. After all, everybody knows that to improve they need to do more of what they are trying to improve.

But optimal practice isn’t just a case of identifying a weakness and repeating the movement over and over.

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The particular way in which an athlete goes about practising a skill can make all of the difference. Practice can be overly general, dull and sub-optimally effective… or it can be motivating, challenging and highly impactful over time.

Below are a few key aspects of practice that are often missed in my experience.

Clear process goals

Goal-setting is something that most athletes and coaches attribute a degree of importance to. But again – like the idea of practice – it is often dismissed as “obvious”. But there is a bit of a knack to setting goals effectively.

Firstly, a long-term goal is necessary to guide all of the athlete’s efforts in training collectively, and also to provide a source of motivation and inspiration.

Secondly, the necessary steps needed to reach that goal must be identified; i.e., what needs to happen before that long-term goal can be achieved? Medium-term goals should arise from this thought process, which serve as milestones. They also serve as a way of monitoring the impact of practice over time.

Thirdly, the athletes should set some short-term goals. These can include outcome and performance goals, but what is absolutely essential for good practice is the use of process goals. During practice process goals should be the main area of focus, because they are more under the control of the athlete, they encourage task-focus, and they target individual elements which all contribute to success in the larger goals.

Process goals should encompass a variety of different skills and foci. You could be focusing on a specific movement, a mental skill, a feeling, or perhaps attentional focus itself. Either way these goals allow the athlete to practise focusing on the task at hand and address more specific aspects of their performance.

Measurement and feedback

Practice is most effective when you can measure its effectiveness. Measurement and feedback are important for two reasons. Firstly, they allow the athlete to decipher whether they are actually practising a skill effectively – as aforementioned, people can repeat a movement over and over (which could be described as “practice”) but it won’t necessarily result in an improvement. Measuring the outcome of practice and obtaining feedback serves to reveal whether the way in which the athlete is practising is going to be helpful or not, and so the athlete can adapt their practice processes if necessary.

Secondly, forms of measurement and feedback provide motivation and proof of progress. Most athletes will find themselves more motivated and confident if they can see how they are progressing.

Progression

Progressions are necessary for continual improvement, engagement and confidence. It’s all too easy to keep doing the same thing in practice, particularly if it has worked in the past. Practising under more challenging circumstances will increase an athlete’s self-efficacy, keep them focused and result in an increased skill level.

Practising under pressure

There is a lot of research that suggests that practising under pressure improves the athlete’s ability to regulate their anxiety and perform well in competitive situations. Not only is pressure then more familiar when it arises, but athletes are better equipped to manage the resulting anxiety, in part due to desensitisation. Essentially, athletes should practise under similar situations to those they will encounter in competition.

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Pressure can be created by using scoring systems, or practising whilst being observed. In addition, an athlete often only has one chance to get a particular shot or action right in competitive situations, whereas in practice they can repeat the desired shot as many times as they like. Altering the form of practice so the same skill isn’t repeated again and again will increase the pressure to get it right on the first attempt. Once an athlete becomes better at this in practice, it should translate into performance over time.

All of these aspects may be elements that many people are familiar with, but when neglected they take away some of the potential effectiveness of an athlete’s practice process.

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