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“Repetition Without Repetition”: Applying Bernstein’s Principles to the Baseball Practice Setting

There is a common narrative when it comes to practice: the more you do something the more proficient you become. The concept of “getting reps in” is something that has been ingrained in athletes as the primary means of making progress when it comes to their skills. While this seems to make sense in theory and is logically sound, research doesn’t exactly match up with the idea that more practice is necessarily better. I, in no way, will dispute that you have to work hard and put a great deal of time into your craft in order to become better at it. However, the concept of more always equals better isn’t exactly what you think it might be.

When the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell was released in 2008, it set the precedent for how an individual, whether it be a coach, athlete, teacher, or instructor should approach practice. The most noteworthy premise that Gladwell highlighted in his book was the “10,000 Hour Rule”. His claim was that the people who achieved a world-class level skill or expertise did so by practicing, in a very deliberate manner, for around 10,000 hours. This method of deliberate practice over the course of an immense timespan enabled the likes of the Beatles, Robert Oppenheimer, and Bill Gates (to name a few) to achieve immense success in their particular areas of expertise, according to Gladwell. These claims by Gladwell were based on the original research of Swedish psychologist, Dr. Anders Ericsson. While Ericsson is a huge advocate for deliberate practice, he has been quoted numerous times disputing the notion of the “10,000 Hour-Rule”, often noting that his research has been widely misinterpreted by the general public. The biggest issue regarding this misinterpretation is the emphasis being placed on the quantity, or amount of time spent in practice. This brings me back to the opening lines of this post. It is my belief that far too many coaches, instructors, and teachers are incorrectly giving priority to the amount of time spent developing a skill set or knowledge base, rather than focusing on the underlying dynamics involved in the learning process.

Learning is rather complex.

There is no secret formula. There is no hack. There is no “10,000 Hour-Rule”. There is no end-point. The idea that there is no end-point is sometimes hard for people to understand or fathom. We often look at athletes, musicians, or actors as the ideal models for what we are striving to become. “I just wish I had (insert player’s name here) swing/delivery/mechanics,” is a phrase all of us in the baseball or softball community have said or thought at some point. The issue with this end-point, or idealized model of what ideal technique should look like, is that it is far too subjective to be deemed useful. We can probably all agree that Mike Trout and Justin Verlander have solid mechanics, however, how we view the various components of those mechanics is incredibly varied. There are a wide range of philosophies regarding mechanics developed over the course of careers through on-field experiences, off-field learning, and upbringing that give us all different insight into what we deem as “correct” or “ideal”. This subjectivity and bias towards different models creates an environment where there is no right or wrong, simply productive and unproductive. What I am finding to be more advantageous, when it comes to a practice setting, is an environment that highly values exploration, working through challenges, and independent learning. “Getting your reps in” for the sake of “getting your reps in” in a setting that prioritizes immediate, or short-term success over the evolution and maturation of a movement pattern is a great disservice to the long-term development of an athlete.

While it was Gladwell that brought the concept of a more methodical or strategic way to practice to the general public, the scientific community has been searching for answers to better our understanding of the process of learning many years before that. The title of this post is actually a quotation from the neurophysiologist, Nikolai Bernstein, a pioneer in the field of motor learning. Arguably, the most noteworthy contribution Bernstein made to the field of motor learning was his expansion on the motor equivalence problem, which is now largely referred to as the Bernstein Problem, or the degrees of freedom problem. To keep things relatively simple, what this motor learning problem states is that there is an incredibly vast amount of ways for organisms to coordinate movement in order to reach a specific goal. Physics defines these possible configurations of movement as degrees of freedom. When performing a task, the central nervous system coordinates which of these degrees of freedom are the best option to complete the task. The issue that comes into play is that due to the incredible overabundance of degrees of freedom available to perform a specific task, the central nervous system has to choose the coordination pattern required to complete this specific task.

What Bernstein hypothesized was that through practice, we can instill or “freeze” certain degrees of freedom to make them more accessible and pertinent, and in return, turn the process of performing a specific task much more efficient or of less effort to coordinate correctly. The common analogy used is the hypothetical task of attempting to independently control all four wheels on a car, which would be rather difficult. By placing a horizontal axel between the two back wheels that restricts their movement, and another horizontal axel between the two front wheels connected to a steering wheel that gives control of their movement, the car is all of a sudden much easier to maneuver. By establishing these connections, or patterns of coordination within the body we are able to much more easily maneuver our various parts in order to complete a particular task or achieve a certain goal.

As much as I would love to continue to nerd-out on the various aspects of motor learning that have stemmed from the works of Bernstein, this post is much more about the general approach and mindset behind a practice setting rather than the mechanisms that actually drive motor learning. Thanks to a wide variety of work inspired by the original findings of Bernstein, most notably Karl Newell, there is a great deal of information providing us with a framework of what productive practice should actually look like. The piece of literature that I’ve found most valuable in this approach to better learning and practice is a book called, Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach. This book contains a great deal of information regarding the evolution of motor learning, and I view its contents as a hub for learning more about learning. What we find out quickly is that while Bernstein’s work exposed the scientific community to problems that needed solving, there was a great deal more work needed to be done in order to actually go about solving that problem. Then, in 1985 Newell proposed a model based on the work of Bernstein that attempted to account for these seemingly infinite degrees of freedom. Newell suggested that by applying constraints, which are essentially variables that can be manipulated in order to alter a movement system, practitioners can influence how a learner organizes and adapts to the absurdly dynamic process of skill acquisition. Newell, under the notion that all movement occurs based on three essential factors, categorized these constraints as the following: environment, task, and organism.

Environmental constraints include all of the external factors, both physical and social, that can influence a learner. Examples of environmental constraints include things like playing surface, time of day, weather, crowd size, gender, culture/ethnicity, and even gravity. Task constraints relate to the rules, goals, and implements/equipment of the particular action/drill/movement the learner is performing. Manipulating task constraints could involve changing the length or weight of an implement or assigning values to particular zones in order to influence intent in a particular direction. Constraints applied to the organism refer only to those that are located within the body. Factors like muscle mass, height, and weight are all organism-related constraints, as well as behavioral factors like focus, confidence, and motivation.

Manipulating these constraints is what will set the table for the learning process. Then finding the right balance between challenge and assistance within the variation will allow the coach or instructor to best facilitate the maturation and development of the skill. Bernstein referred to this concept as “repetition without repetition”. This means that less of an emphasis should be placed on the reproduction of an ideal movement pattern, with more attention being placed on exploration and discovery to achieve a variety of individual-specific constraint-based goals.

The key concept here is variety.

Variety is going to place an athlete in unfamiliar positions that require them to explore alternative movement solutions that may allow them to be more productive in their sport. The thing that is most noteworthy here is that there will likely be a large discrepancy amongst athletes in how they react to the constraints. A drill that works for Athlete A, may be entirely wrong for Athlete B, which makes the individualized aspect so important. You cannot expect to have a cookie-cutter approach or be unswayable in your beliefs if you want to have the greatest impact on the athletes you are working with. It is about being fluid, and simply serving as a guide that allows the learner to seek out what works and improve on their particular struggles. This point is conveyed wonderfully in an excerpt from Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach:

Given the theoretical influence of the information-processing approach on traditional coach education, it is not surprising that practitioners typically provide lots of verbal instructions to their athletes. In today’s winning-oriented climate, coaches are often seduced into this manner of teaching. As a result of social pressure to be seen as a hands-on instructors, the temptation to provide advice whenever an athlete makes errors can prove to be too great (Sidaway & Hand, 1993). Further, when working with large groups of athletes, many coaches present the illusion of being in control by barking out instructions. However, a major dilemma arises if athletes become overloaded with information or become too dependent on the coach’s input during practice. Therefore, although this method of coaching seems to produce immediate and temporary performance benefits, it may not encourage independent problem solving or effective performance retention and transfer (Davids, Kingsbury, Bennett, & Handford, 2001). There is little value in instructing athletes to copy an idealized motor pattern that may not suit their individual intrinsic dynamics. (Davids, Button, Bennett, 2008, p. 118)

A lot of people struggle with this notion because a greater challenge (increased variability in the practice setting) often results in an immediate performance decrease. Remember, the learning process is something that takes time and should not be rushed or favored for superficial, short-term success. Just because the initial results of a constraint may lead to a drop in performance or increased variability in performance, it doesn’t mean this is the wrong direction. Use discretion in how to apply constraints and carefully monitor the progress of each learner. Immediate results should not be expected.

Rather than summing things up with a rant on the flaws of a dogmatic and unswayable coaching style, I’m going to end this with a checklist based on the concepts laid out in Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach. This checklist is simply a framework for a coaching style that advocates thought and exploration, which are things I am quite fond of:

  • Views learning systems as nonlinear dynamical systems and holds that observed properties of human movement systems form the basis of a principled pedagogical frameworks.

  • Advocate awareness that a learner’s coordinative solutions are the products of self-organization and that periods of movement variability should be valued as part of the learning process.

  • Supports the manipulation of performer-environment interactions through alternating relevant task, environmental, and organism constraints.

  • Constraints are temporary influences of performers and that practice should replicate the specific dynamics that might exist in a particular performance context, such as a game or work activity.

  • Constraints may be emerging or decaying for each learning depending on the current status of the movement system and the nature of the task constraints that exist in the practice environment.

  • Facilitates independent learning through search, discovery, and exploitation of constraints.

  • Utilizes teaching games for understanding.

  • Understands that the amount of time spent in practice is far less important than the actually challenges set forth during that practice time.

Check these resources if you liked this article:

Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach

Learning to Optimize Movement: Harnessing the Power of the Athlete-Environment Relationship

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