Why Purposeful Practice Matters for Every Athlete

Published April 24, 2017



Why Purposeful Practice Matters for Every Athlete


-by Coach Rachel 


     When you learned to walk, you stumbled and tripped a lot. You were learning to control your balance and coordination, making sure that the right muscles fired in the right order to put one foot in front of another without falling. Now when you walk, that coordination of movement takes no thought at all.


     The process you underwent to turn stumbling across the floor into walking fluidly is the same process you undertake when you are learning to kip, pose run, deadlift, snatch, squat, and muscle-up. It is also the same process you experience when you attempt to fix improper movement patterns.


     As your brain forms connections to create motor patterns, movement is a little slow and uncoordinated. Think about when you first learned to power clean. As you practice, myelin begins to coat the neurons responsible for the motor patterns you are creating. Myelin allows electrical impulses to travel faster. The more times you perform a movement, the thicker the myelin sheath becomes, and the faster that motor pattern becomes. When you’ve mastered the power clean, it’s smooth and fast. You don’t need to concentrate on each part of the movement. It just kind of “happens.”


     But what happens when we try to correct a movement inefficiency?


     Let’s go back to the walking analogy and pretend that we have been injured and now need physical therapy. We can walk, but we’ve favored one side over the other for a couple of months and now we’ve got some hip pain.


     Well, our PT is going to prescribe very small adjustments to start, like banded work and walking slowly, with focus on activating the right muscles at the right time. This will allow us to strengthen our weaknesses and re-learn the correct pattern. Seems smart, right?


     Every single rep that we perform of any movement coats that motor circuit with more myelin. The more myelin a circuit has, the more difficult it is to stop ourselves from performing the wrong movement. In order to fix a movement inefficiency, we have to perform a movement correctly more times than we’ve performed it incorrectly. That new motor pattern needs to be coated in MORE myelin than the old one.


Again, because this is really important:


We have to perform a movement correctly more times than we’ve performed it incorrectly in order to fix it.


     This is a scientific fact. You cannot get around it. From double swinging on T2B to squatting with our knees caving in to using our low back to swing a kettlebell: the more times we do it, the more difficult it is to undo the pattern.


     It really challenges our egos to modify workouts, and I care about your feelings, but I care more about how you’re going to feel about your progress a year from now.


     Coaches will ask us to lighten the weight, lower the volume, scale the movement down, or move slower during WODs so that we can correct movement inefficiencies. This is because your brain is used to performing movements in a certain way, and if we add intensity (weight, volume, or speed), your brain is going to let you keep moving the same old way. 


     You wouldn’t make a baby learning to walk do overhead presses as he practices, or send an injured veteran out to hike the AT on a painful hip with instructions to “just try to walk better.” The baby is going to trip and fall over a lot more than he needs to in order to learn, with a high possibility of injury, and the veteran is going to re-injure themselves. 


     Yes, modifying means scaling workouts and movements that we could technically do Rx, and learning something new and focusing means going slower and feeling uncomfortable with our lack of coordination. But it also means giving ourselves a shot at being better a year from now. Mechanics-Consistency-Intensity is the code of CrossFit that coaches are taught at their Level 1 Seminar--it’s what allows us to move safely and with an intelligent progression towards virtuosity. While we are training, which is what we are doing in WODs, we are focused on Mechanics and Consistency. Intensity is for special workouts so that we can practice mental toughness.


    What we're after on "purposeful practice" days is what is known as Threshold Training--between perfect technique with low intensity and terrible technique with high intensity is where the magic happens. Weights and movements that are moderate enough for us to move well and within the intended stimulus of the workout are what bring us the results we want. (For more, see the video below.) Time-capping out of a workout means that we did it incorrectly--we missed the intended stimulus. It happens to all of us, but when it becomes a pattern, we have a problem: we need to bring mindfulness and intention to our training in order to really improve. 


So, make this promise with me, in honor of the athlete you want to be next year:

I will perform GOOD REPS. I will focus and slow down. I will modify workouts, because I accept that my movement is not perfect. I will listen to my coaches and modify when and how they tell me to, because I know they are thinking about me one year from now and the athlete I want to be. I will be patient with the process and with myself.


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