Errors are the Way
Practice make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
The above statements, particularly the latter version, are part of the dogma of coaching. The implication is that high volumes of unchanging, exacting repetitions are required to achieve expertise in any domain. The concept that it takes 10,000 repetitions, or some other ridiculously high number, to automatize a skill is derived from the same thought process.
While coaching practice is built upon this framework, what if this thought process is inherently flawed?
“No man ever steps in the same river twice.”
Skilled movers of all levels never perform their skills the same way twice. This has been demonstrated in elite athletes during competition. In actuality, variability is the marker of a system that can successfully adapt to dynamic circumstances in the pursuit of a goal. This phenomenon was pointed out by Nikolai Bernstein, one of the fathers of motor control and motor learning. While studying blacksmiths, he noted that the blacksmiths never missed their mark, yet HOW they accomplished the task varied significantly between trials.
This observation is the basis for Bernstein’s famous quote, ‘repetition without repetition’.
When attempting to accomplish a goal (hammering steel, shooting a basketball, swimming fast), the motor system is flexible in its ability to accomplish that goal, and often MUST be flexible due to varying conditions. This becomes important later.
The keys points to remember are that movement variability is ALWAYS present and goal directed-behavior allows tasks to be accomplished in multiple ways.
What group displays the fastest rates of skill acquisition? Novices.
What group displays the greatest number of errors and greatest degree of variability? Novices.
What group displays the slowest rates of skill acquisition? Experts.
What group displays the least number of errors and least degree of variability? Experts.
As expertise grows, the degree (not frequency) of movement variability (‘errors’) begins to decrease, as does the rate of skill acquisition.
It is not the ABSENCE of variability (perfect practice), but the PRESENCE of variability that facilitates the acquisition of skilled movement.
By comparing the relative merit of varying movement attempts, skilled movement begins to emerge. However, as variability begins to decrease, less contrasting information is presented, which reduces learning rates. If you believe that strict repetition is required to continue the learning process, there are actually few options to accelerate skill acquisition due to low variability.
If errors are required for learning, yet experts make fewer errors, what are options for enhancing learning?
Deliberately introduce variability into the training environment. Make ‘mistakes’. REQUIRE ‘errors’ and DESIGN ‘errors’ into the training process.
As discussed in the first observation, movement is goal directed-behavior. Movement will be organized to accomplish a clear goal.
The critical aspect is to create clear and relevant goals (swim as fast/efficiently/easily/etc). These goals can be quantitative outcome goals (time/stroke count) or qualitative process goals (sustain rhythm/body position). Once these goals are clear, then add constraints that force swimmers to achieve these goals with novel (variable) strategies.
The constraints can either be direct or in-direct. In the former case, you are deliberately attempting to move a swimmer towards a solution (i.e. use a tennis ball to improve propulsion with the forearm). In the latter case, you are introducing variability that is less purposeful (i.e. requiring straight arm freestyle recoveries even if you don’t intend for a swimmer to race that way).
In both cases, these ‘errors’ are introducing variability that can facilitate learning. With these new constraints, and clear goals, the swimmer will figure out how to accomplish the task effectively. Whatever they learn can transfer to improved skills and faster swimming.
Accept that variability, or errors, are present in all swimming for all swimmers. By artificially increasing variability to exploit these errors, instead of minimizing them, coaches can take advantage of natural phenomenon to enhance skill acquisition.
Instead of striving for perfection, the path to excellence might need to get a little messier.