Essays: David Naylor on Practicing (part 1)

Part I
by David Naylor
     Even as a complete amateur, I probably practise juggling
several hundred hours a year.  Although I juggle solely for fun,
I've often wondered if there were some ways of making the most of
my available practise time. Is one way of practising more
beneficial than another?  With this in mind, I contacted Professor
Buckolz of the Physical Education Department at the U. of Western
Ontario. It turns out that there's been a tremendous amount of
research in this area, much of which is highly applicable to
juggling.  In fact, the reference book on Motor Learning Research
[ref. 1] recommended by Professor Buckolz features a juggler doing
five balls on the front cover!

     Almost everyone who has tried to learn a difficult trick has
encountered a performance plateau.  During this time, it seems that
your skill level is not improving at all, or even that you're
getting worse.  Academics have some good news for jugglers here.
As you will see, it's important to make the distinction between
learning and performance.  Experiments have shown that while an
individual's performance may level out or even decrease over the
short term, the long term rate of improvement is unaffected.
Magill [1] states that "Plateaus may appear during the course of
practise, but it appears that learning is still going on;
performance has plateaued, but learning continues".  This suggests
that it is still worthwhile to practise on those "off days" when
none of your hard tricks work - your tricks will have improved on
the next good day.

    Researchers have also looked at the effect of fatigue on the
learning of motor skills.  This has concerned me and perhaps
others.  Near the end of a long practise session, you're having a
rough time with difficult tricks and dropping a lot because you're
tired.  Personally, I've worried that this might reinforce poor
juggling technique.  Again the news is encouraging.  Experiments
indicate that mild to moderate muscle fatigue causes poorer
practise performance, but does not affect learning [2].  However,
extreme muscle fatigue does impair learning.  So, even though
you're not performing at your peak, juggling while slightly tired
will still improve your skill.

     Perhaps the most exciting research finding that I came across
has to do with something called "Transfer of Learning".  Transfer
of Learning is the influence of a previously practised trick on the
learning of a new trick.  This effect can be negative or positive.
For example, absolute beginners usually encounter a negative
Transfer of Learning effect when trying to learn three ball
juggling.  Often they have previously practised passing two balls
in a shower and it's a hard habit to break when trying to learn the
cascade pattern.

     As an experienced juggler, you can use Transfer of Learning to
advantage when trying to develop equal skill with a trick on both
sides of your body.  For example, equal skill is needed in both
hands when juggling even numbers of objects in columns.  It is well
supported by experiments that "Transfer of Learning can be expected
to occur between the same limbs when only one limb has been
actively involved in practise [1]."  Simply put, your left hand
will improve by practising only with your right hand!  This effect
is undisputed among researchers.  Also, experiments show that a
skill is transferred more quickly from one side to the other, if
you first develop a fair level of skill on your favourite side [1].
So, equal amounts of practise with both sides in a particular trick
is not the fastest way to develop equal skill.  I think that most
jugglers will find this surprising; it seems to be a common
misconception that it's best to practise both sides at once when
first learning a trick.

     From my own experience, I feel that I learned the head roll
faster with the above approach.  Contrary to the advice in Dick
Franco's book, first I learned how to roll the ball up and down on
one side of my head.  Once I had the technique figured out on one
side, the other side came much more quickly.

     There's an enormous amount of research into the best ways to
practise, and I've only touched on a few of the important findings
for jugglers.  In a future article I'll discuss other important
questions:  Is it best to practise in one long session or several
shorter sessions?  While practising, should you focus on one trick
or various tricks?  Should you always practise in the same place or
change your setting?  Stay tuned.


1. Magill, R.A.,"Motor Learning: Concepts and Applications", Third
Addition, WCB Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, 1989.

2. Lawther, J.D.,"The Learning and Performance of Physical Skills",
Second Edition, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,1977.

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