practice in physical therapy and sports performance

Everyone has heard the saying “practice makes perfect” many times. I have personally heard it from almost everyone around me: my parents, my friends, my coaches, my teachers and even from the guy at the gym who struggles with a 40kg snatch (well, more like 35kg).

It is very true, practice does make perfect, but what does this really mean?

Let me start off by saying that all physical therapists and weightlifting coaches believe in the same concept -  motor learning. This is “a change in the capacity of a person to perform a skill, the result of practice or experience” (O'Sullivan S, Schmitz T, Physical Rehabilitation. 5th ed, Philadelphia, FA Davis, 2007). In other words, motor learning is the essence of leaning a new skill, be it walking for someone after a brain injury or performing the snatch in weightlifting.

This concept is built upon an understanding of how all constructs of motor leaning are combined and utilized to essentially teach someone how to perform the needed skill. One of these constructs is practice. The concept of practice can be divided into different types of practice (schedule of practice) and each type of practice should be used wisely in accordance with the circumstances at hand.

Here is a short list of these different types of practice and when they should be used in weightlifting, or even in therapy. I’ve also included some practical examples from weightlifting:

Ø  Mental - just like it sounds, repeating the skill in your head rather than physically. This can be a helpful type of practice for someone who is new to performing the skill and can reduce their fear of doing it. Think of a new lifter who hasn’t snatched before. Let them help and understand the constructs of the whole snatch and ask them to describe the movement to you.

Ø  Distributed - practice time is generally shorter than rest periods. This type of practice should be used when the athlete is required to perform at his/her best, for example during a competition. It could also be used with an athlete who has decreased motivation to train but who is still expected to lift properly. For example, a clean and jerk performed only for four sets of one repetition.

Ø  Massed - practice time that almost has no rest periods. This practice is rarely used because it is very demanding on the nervous system and could cause unwanted reactions to movement and eventually injuries.

Ø  Blocked- the type of practice that everyone thinks of, drilling the same movement again and again. Highly effective with new lifters.

Ø  Variable- practicing various skills at one time. This practice is highly effective when you want to increase functional abilities. Think of going from snatch right into clean and jerk, somewhat different movements but it can be very useful for learning the lifts. I personally use it often during warm ups with my athletes.

Ø  Random - practicing several skills but with no known order. This practice is highly effective in improving the retention of the skill. Think of a coach asking one of his athletes to perform a hang clean right after he/she stood up after picking the barbell off the floor.

Ø  Serial - practicing several skills but now in a known order. Just like random practice, this is highly effective in improving the retention of the skill. Think of having to follow a complex set, let’s say, overhead squat with snatch press and snatch balance.

A good coach/therapist will use these types of practices frequently. But overall it is up to the athlete to practice. Too often I see athletes and the general population become so frustrated with weightlifting that they just stop all together and move on to a new sport. The fact is that weightlifting is a sport and it is a skill. Skill is not developed in a day or a week, or even in a year. The best lifters in the world compete after practicing the movements for more than a decade, day after day, sometimes twice a day, sometimes three times a day. Not everyone wants to reach competitive levels in weightlifting, but if you do, you know what you need to do - PRACTICE.