A popular conversation in sport is whether a coach should teach the “textbook” technique or whether the coach should allow the performer to discover a technique that works best for them. In support of the latter, one only needs to look at professional athletes from any sport to notice the variety of techniques that are adopted.
In a study of children learning to play tennis, Miriam Lee and colleagues assessed the difference between two types of practice. One group of children engaged in practice that emphasised the replication of the “textbook” technique (termed “Linear Practice”). The second group of children engaged in practice that focused on movement variability (termed “Nonlinear Practice”). The specifics of the two practice groups are detailed below:
LINEAR PRACTICE: This involved repetitive drills and prescriptive instruction. The main focus was to encourage children to replicate the textbook technique.
NON-LINEAR PRACTICE: Activities and equipment were constantly altered. This forced children to constantly adapt their movements and discover new movement solutions.
Both groups participated in 8 x 15min sessions over 4 weeks.
Children from both practice groups displayed similar improvement to tennis skill (as measured by hitting accuracy). However, the Linear Practice Group improved their ability to hit the ball accurately whilst producing a movement pattern that more closely replicated the textbook technique. Conversely, the Nonlinear Practice Group improved their ability to hit the ball accurately, but their technique was less alike the textbook.
Significantly, the Nonlinear Practice Group displayed greater movement degeneracy following the 4 weeks of practice. Movement degeneracy refers to the performer adopting multiple solutions for the same task goal.
Hence, children in the Nonlinear Practice Group were able to achieve the same hitting accuracy as the Linear practice Group by adopting multiple movement solutions.
Which practice method is better?
The results from this study cannot answer this question. However, Lee and colleagues argued that the ability to adapt movements to produce the same outcome is more advantageous. Accordingly, the Nonlinear Practice Group should be favoured.
Lee, M. C. Y., Chow, J. Y., Komar, J., Tan, C. W. K., & Button, C. (2014). Nonlinear pedagogy: An effective approach to cater for individual differences in learning a sports skill. PloS one, 9(8), e104744.