Blocked vs Random Practice

One big component of your athletic development is your training and how you design your practices. Successful athletes have mastered many skills because their practices were well thought out and designed. A main characteristic of practice design is whether your practice is blocked or random.

Blocked practice means you spend a lot of time working on one specific skill, such as free throw shooting. You practice a skill for hours at a time, in hope that the many repetitions will result in improvement. In many cases, blocked practice is an effective strategy to improve. It takes a lot of time and repetitions to learn skills and change habits. However, there is a disadvantage to blocked practices. There are so many skills that athletes need to master to reach a high level, if you spend every practice working only on one skill, it will take forever to learn all the skills. And by the time you work on a certain skill, you may have forgotten how to execute skills that you learned a while ago. There is simply so many skills to learn and not enough time to train them all effectively using blocked practices.

This is where random practices come in handy. Instead of only practicing one or two skills per practice, random practice focuses on many skills. For example, a tennis player could practice forehands, backhands, serves, volleys, and overheads all in one practice, switching drills after 15 minute intervals. If you do random practices every day, you could train all the necessary skills needed for your sport within a reasonable time period. However, random practice requires a short amount of time dedicated to each skill. This short amount of time doesn’t provide enough repetitions to make a meaningful impact in one day. By only using random practices, you would be practicing many skills, but you would not be mastering any of them, at least in the short term. You would be well rounded, but have no strengths or weapons.

You can slowly build up all of your skills using random practice. After many years, you would eventually master all your skills. Or you can master skills one at a time (blocked practice), eventually reaching expertise for all your skills after many years. No matter how you design your practices, it takes a lot of time to master ALL your skills. But I believe that the shortest and most efficient way to master all your skills is to balance using both blocked and random practice designs. Use blocked practices regularly to make meaningful improvements on your skills. But also use random practices regularly to touch up on all of your skills. You could do blocked practices 3 days a week and random practices 3 times a week. Also, within one practice, you can dedicate 50% of the practice to touching up many skills (random practice) and 50% of the practice focusing on one specific skill (blocked practice). There is no perfect method to designing practices fit for all individuals. Every athlete and sport is different. It is up to you and your coach to design practices suited best for your situation. It’s an art. You will get a better feel for designing practices with experience and analyzing the results.