Most of the motor learning literature emphasises the importance of errors for learning. For instance, errors are often an indication that the performer is challenged, and challenging the performer heightens mental effort – an important factor when learning a skill.
Based on this logic, does this mean that there is no place for error-reduced practice?
For tasks that emphasise aiming, such as golf putting, there appears to be strong benefits from reducing errors during practice.
Golf putting experiments
Studies by Rich Masters and colleagues have shown that error reduced practice facilitates implicit motor learning. Participants who begin practicing putting very close to the hole (hence minimal errors) before moving further away tend to improve skill without acquiring explicit knowledge of how the skill is performed.
When errors are made, the tendency is to try and correct this error by developing “rules” about the skill. For example, a golfer might develop the rule “I need to stroke the ball with a longer follow through”. Whilst this error-correction process can improve performance, it can also lead to the performer becoming reliant on the knowledge to perform the skill.
A person who is reliant on “rules” to perform a skill often displays a poor ability to multi-task. The ability to multi task indicates if the skill has been acquired implicitly. Significantly, a reliance on rules is also associated with performance breakdown under pressure.
Which skills could benefit from an error-reduced approach?
Whilst error-reduced practice might not be advantageous in a range of sport settings, there does appear to be a place for such practice in aiming tasks.
For example, kicking for goal in Australian football is likely to be a skill that would benefit from an error-reduced approach.
Moreover, error reduced practice is likely to be most beneficial for players who tend to overthink the skill, or who have developed the “yips” with performance. Reducing errors might help these players perform the skill with a clear mind.