Updated: Mar 24
Learning can be defined as the set of changes in the neuromuscular system derived from practice and experience, that, in the long term, will be the foundation for permanent changes in our motor behaviour.
The process of learning is dependent of 3 different variables:
· The task that’s being performed
· The individual that performs the task
· The environment in which the task in question is being performed
That being said, we can conclude that any motor output must derive from the interaction between the 3 dimensions mentioned above. In other words, any movement that we produce will depend on the task being performed, our perception of the environment in which the task is executed and our personal characteristics, values, etc.
In this article we will approach the concepts regarding the factors related to the dimension of the individual. Discussion of the other 2 dimensions will be left for another post.
More Training Means Better Performance?
As we know, there is a genetic matrix that is unique for everyone. This matrix will increase or decrease the probability of an individual being good at performing a determined task or activity (such as tennis, for example). However, this genetic predisposition will have no real effect unless there is an investment regarding training and the development of the physical and mental qualities necessary to reach elite performance levels.
That being said, a lot of people still have the misconception that more hours of training leads, in a direct way, to better performance levels, in a learning curve similar to the one that is presented below:
However, scientific evidence tells us that this learning curve doesn’t accurately translate reality, because the learning process varies from people to people and is a chaotic phenomenon, resulting in the interaction between a great number of factors, that can be divided into two groups:
· Internal Factors: genetic matrix, personal values, personality traits, level of commitment to training, etc
· External Factors: family support, social background, relationship with other athletes and with the coach, etc
Bearing this in mind, and according to the model suggested by Fitts & Poster, which has already been discussed in a previous blog post, the learning curve that describes, with the best level of precision, the learning curve for the majority of the population is the following:
By analysing this graphic, we can conclude that on an initial phase of the learning process (when we star practicing tennis), we will have a very slow progression regarding our performance levels, which can be explained by the fact that there is a lot of theoretical information and important details to rationalize, and a lot of motor patterns (forehand, backhand, serve) that must be acquired in order to reach a consistent baseline level of performance.
After this stage there tends to be a period of rapid development, named the steep acceleration phase, in which the performance levels will tend to increase linearly. This can be explained because this is the moment where the acquisition of the basic concepts and basic motor patterns regarding the game is completed, which enables the learning of more advanced principles that will have a very positive impact in the quality of our game.
In the two stages previously mentioned, we can apply the principle of “more is better”, as the higher the number of practice hours (both on-court and off-court, with the development of physical and mental qualities), the faster will tend to be the player’s development. Nevertheless, sooner or later everyone will reach the peak of their performance levels and hit a plateau, that can be defined as the point in which we reach the maximum level of our capacities, and our performance levels will tend to stabilize in the long term.
When this moment comes, practicing more hours will not have the same positive impact on our performance levels that had during the previous two phases. That being said, the way we practice becomes now much more relevant (in spite of being an important factor regarding our progression). Training sessions should be guided through carefully established goals, that must be set up with the athlete’s, in order to increase their commitment to training.
The main purpose of this phase is to solidify the athlete’s strong points while trying to improve their weakest’s.
All things considered, it´s not correct to talk about Practice making Perfection, because perfection doesn´t exist, as there is always room for improvement, even for the top players in the world. We should talk about Practice making Permanent, because practicing is the only tool we have to maintain our performance levels at their peak and to avoid a regression in the quality of our game. The hardest thing is not reaching the top. It’s staying here. And that’s why the most important question is not how much time should I practice, but how should I practice.