Thursday, November 10, 2005


One of my favorite bloggers Scheherazade, who is also the sailing coach at Bowdoin College, wrote an interesting post today on Teaching Instinct. In it she describes her realization that teaching sailing is largely about teaching feel and instinct. And that the way to achieve this is to set up structured situations -- such as starts or leeward mark roundings -- and to repeat them a lot of times so that her student's ability to handle these situations becomes automatic. Drills in other words.

I am sure she is right. There is only so much sailing knowledge you can impart by classroom teaching methods. We only learn to handle situations on the water correctly by practicing them and repeating them over and over again in practice.

But what kind of repetition is most effective?

I was reminded of a thread discussing this subject on Scuttlebutt last year. Richard Schmidt in an article entitled Some Principles of Practice for Sailboat Racers presented some fascinating research on what kind of practice produced the best performance in a test conducted later. After all what's important is not how well you can perform a task in a practice session; what really matters is whether you can do it well in the regatta next weekend. He contrasted "block practice" -- for example doing 100 tacks in a row; with "random practice" -- say doing a jibe, a mark rounding, a tack, 30 seconds of speed sailing and so on.

His claim is that ...

Much research since the late-1970s has shown that, during practice, blocked performance is far superior to random performance, which is not surprising. But what was surprising was the discovery that, for performance on a test given on the next day (e.g., next weekend'’s regatta), random practice was better than blocked. That is, a condition that made performance worse in practice (random practice) increased learning as measured on a retention test. Sometimes this effect is small, but sometimes it is huge--and always in favor of random practice.

In other words, a great way to practice sailboat racing is to set up a very small triangle of buoys and sail round and round that triangle. Every few seconds you are shifting from straight line speed upwind, judge the layline, tack, upwind sailing, round a windward mark, reach, jibe, reach, round a leeward mark. And so on. And so on. According to Schmidt this kind of random practice is superior to concentrated blocks of practice of a single skill such as downwind sailing.

I'm not sure that Schmidt's conclusion is accepted by many top sailing coaches and sailing champions. But perhaps this skipper is using the random practice technique to train his crew?

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