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The Secret of Learning Faster

Great coaches always seek new information that leads to learning more quickly and effectively. Based on a new study conducted at Johns Hopkins University, there are ways that proved to be simple and beneficial. By implementing these changes in your practices, you will see a difference in how quickly your students develop and improve their skills.

Players will not improve without practice, but what is most important is the way they  practice. The example for this article will be ways to improve the serve, a skill that is practiced with a similar routine during most training sessions.

Serving practice is generally done with fixed conditions. The server stands behind the baseline and hits the ball over the net into the service court. This is repeated over and over. While repetition is beneficial, it did not improve skills as quickly as possible and players could even stop improving if the repetitions became stale.  

According to the research from Johns Hopkins, “What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row.”

The reason is reconsolidating, a term the researchers used to describe the process where existing knowledge stored in the memory bank is recalled and modified with new knowledge. In other words, players remember what they previously learned and layer on new knowledge.

In theory, and something that most of us have followed, hitting from behind the baseline into the service court over and over again will ingrain the right motions into muscle memory so accuracy and consistency improve. This, in fact, does happen, but a better and faster way to improve is to slightly adjust the conditions in your serving practice sessions.

If you make the conditions just a little different, you engage the reconsolidating process so players recall what they already know and add new knowledge. These changes should only be small modifications. If your players are doing something too different, this causes new learning rather than reconsolidating and building on existing knowledge.

“If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidating,” the researchers say. “The modifications need to be subtile.”

Be careful about practicing with modifications before a skill is leaned and can be recalled. This will not enable players to add new knowledge to existing skills because they have not had time for the skill to become an old skill in their memory bank. The key to improvement is making small modifications, evaluating the results and refining what is working. When you modify the conditions after a skill can be performed well, players can do the skill even better.

Let’s put these ideas into practice using the serve.

Perform the basic skill by practicing the serve under normal conditions. Next, have players hit serves to a specific target in the service court.

  1. The server should be better than just hitting in the service court because that is what happens with an increased focus during practice.

  2. After consistency is established, practice again but this time…

    • Hit with just a little more speed than normal. Players will make more mistakes but this is okay. They are modifying old knowledge with new knowledge which is how improvement occurs.

    • Hit a little slower than normal. Again, mistakes will be made that weren’t apparent at the faster speed.

  3. Serve from three feet behind the baseline. Players will have to hit up more on the serve.

  4. Serve from three feet inside the baseline. Will your players use more spin to pull the ball down more quickly in the court?

  5. Select other ways to modify the serve - anything goes. Examples would be to use  red or orange balls or serve after a few sideline to sideline sprints.

Making small modifications to let your players learn new information is very effective for improving motor skills. The point is not to do the same thing over and over again where players become stale and practice without having to think. Slight modifications make your practices more interesting and challenging and your players will layer on new knowledge over existing knowledge for faster learning.


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