Periodising training is common practice for strength and conditioning coaches. Planning training to aid skill acquisition should be no different, but for some reason it has largely been neglected in sport.
Damian Farrow and Sam Robertson recently published an article in Sports Medicine that detailed a framework to assist skill acquisition periodization. The framework follows the SPORT acronym: Specificity, Progression, Overload, Reversibility and Tedium.
“The extent to which practice prescribed reflects the demands typically experienced in competition”.
The aim is create practice environments that are highly specific to competition.
“Progression can be considered in terms of the actual improvement in skill performance of an individual, which is of course the ultimate metric. However, progression may also be considered in terms of an athlete’s capacity to complete and tolerate an increased skill practice load.”
With this in mind, progression can be achieved by manipulating variables in practice to ensure the “challenge-point” is constantly achieved. The challenge-point hypothesis suggests that optimal learning emerges when practice difficulty is appropriate for the performer.
Training load refers to (1) cognitive effort and (2) the volume of practice.
Cognitive effort – the level of mental engagement in the task. High amounts of cognitive effort is consistently associated with enhanced learning. Cognitive effort can be manipulated by altering the order in which skills are practiced. For instance, practicing multiple skills in a random order increases cognitive effort (this is also referred to as high contextual interference). Typically when a person is learning new complex skills, cognitive effort will be high regardless of the order in which the skills are practiced. As skill improves, the order in which skills are practiced can be altered to ensure cognitive effort remains high.
Volume of practice – the number of times a skill is performed. Whilst practice volume is important for skill acquisition, it is more important that practice is challenging and therefore demanding high cognitive effort.
Much like resistance training, practice can gradually increase in load over a 4 week period by manipulating cognitive effort and/or practice volume.
Reversibility suggests that the benefits of training are lost when practice reduces by a certain threshold, but this effect is reversed when practice resumes. It is important for coaches to regularly be aware of the player’s skill level (either through observation or skill testing), as this will indicate if reversibility is taking effect.
This refers to being bored due to monotonous training and should therefore be avoided. Increasing variability in practice is an effective strategy to both reduce boredom and assist skill development. For instance, rather than asking a player to constantly repeat a prescribed technique, which often leads to monotonous practice, a coach can design drills that requires the player to constantly challenge themselves in new situations. The aim being that the player learns to adapt their technique to meet the demand.
Applying SPORT to training
Coaches should consider each aspect of the SPORT acronym when planning a block of training. The aim should be to gradually increase training load so that cognitive effort remains high and skill improves. Eventually improvements will cease and the player will find stability with performance. It is then time to taper before introducing the next training block.