Random vs. Blocked “Practice”

In the worlds of football, volleyball, and other ball sports the thought of practice is commonplace, but in climbing not so much. We often think of doing exercises to become stronger, or projecting a route or problem. However, every time we perform a move we are practicing a different skill.

Whether we are grabbing a jug or executing a drop knee we are either developing or re-enforcing what are called motor programs. Motor programs provide our bodies with a general idea of how to perform old as well as new tasks. So if every time we climb we develop motor programs, what is the best way to practice climbing?

Random vs. Blocked Practice

In Schmidt and Wrisberg’s Motor Learning and Performance, blocked practice is defined as a practice sequence in which individuals rehearse the same skill repeatedly. Random practice is defined as a practice sequence in which individuals perform a number of skills in a (quasi-) random order, thus avoiding or minimizing consecutive repetitions of any single skill.

In climbing blocked practice would be climbing the same route over and over and over, where random practice would be climbing a new route every time you got on a crag or wall. Studies have shown that when individuals participate in random practice they are less successful then those who participate in blocked practice initially. However, the individuals who participate in random practice show better performance later than those involved in blocked practice.

There are a couple of hypotheses to why this happens. The first is the elaboration hypothesis. Shea and Zimny state that the elaboration hypothesis is the idea that random practice during practice causes people to elaborate or discover the distinctiveness among skills (whereas blocked practice does not), which is beneficial for performance in a retention test. In other words, when performing the same skill over and over we don’t need to think of the nuances involved, but when we perform a different skill each time we often find a new aspect of the skill.

The other hypothesis is the forgetting or spacing hypothesis. Schmidt and Wrisberg state that random practice prevents the repetition of a given task on successive attempts, allowing short-term forgetting, which requires the learner to generate the solution on every trial (whereas blocked practice does not); the method of generating the solution is learned which is effective on delayed tests of retention.

What it all means…

I’m not suggesting that we all stop projecting routes and problems, but I am suggesting that we start climbing a greater variety of routes even if they are easier than our limits because there is always something new to be learned and you may find your ability to on-sight or flash increase.