Contextual Interference

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Ok, so you know how often we practice skills by repetition, repetition, repetition? You’ll practice runners by running, undefended, at a post, where you’ll receive the ball exactly when you want it and shoot. Then you’ll go to the back of the line and do it EXACTLY THE SAME again. Sounding familiar?

When have you ever had that sort of a situation in a game? More likely, you’ve finally got past your player, the ball comes in late and, as you go to shoot, the defenders switch and you have to pass it for the drop-off. So why on earth do we practice that way? Before I offer a solution, I need you to quickly understand something:

A closed skill is one that is repeated the exact same way each time it is performed. Like a perfect bowling strike, or a korfball penalty.

An open skill is one which is performed differently every time it is performed. This is true of EVERY skill in Korfball, except penalties and, to a certain extent, free passes.Every pass/shot/collect you make will be in a different place, to a different person and with a different defender.

Closed skills are best practised by repeating them over and over again, and only altering what are called ‘non-regulatory conditions’, ie. Conditions you cannot control, such as the penalty taker’s heart-rate, light shining through the sports hall window, some noises etc. Everything else (‘regulatory conditions’) is controlled – the ball, the post, the distance should all be completely the same for penalties.

To practice closed skills then, does require just repetition, pure and simple. You can aid this, however, by trying to practice in different non-regulatory conditions. So when the player is fresh/tired, thirsty/quenched, with/without a bit of noise.

Open skills however, so the research says, are not best practised in this way. If practised in such a way, you would notice an improvement when actually practising. But this improvement will not be retained, and will not transfer over to different instances of the same skill – and all non-penalty korfball skills are open ones, as we’ve said.

The theory behind this is that when you perform a skill, you create in your mind a motor-action-plan, which guides you through. This creation is what aids your development. However, if you immediately repeat the skill, the motor-action-plan remains in your short-term memory, and you have no need to create it again. Therefore you do not develop proficiency in the skill.

So how do we fix this problem? Contextual Interference (CI). CI is basically shoving something in between repetitions of a skill to clear the memory of any motor-action-plans. Thus, when the skill is repeated, a new action-plan has to be created. CI can simply be that, doing an arbitrary exercise in between repetitions of a skill, or it can be designing drills that will practice different skills in a random order. It is this randomness, of not knowing what you will practice next that leads to better retention and transferability in learning skills.

Word of warning though – in Random Practice (what we’ve described above), performance in the actual practice will take a hit, i.e. not as many shots will go in. The benefits on the court however are clear. And there’s no point in being able to score 20 runners repetitively in training if you miss them in a game. However, be wary that missing lots in practice can be a bit demoralising.

Type in ‘Richard Magill Contextual Interference’ into Google if you want to check the references for this one out.