If you are going to invest time practising or coaching a skill you may as well try to find the optimum way to structure practice. Here we look at massed and distributed practice, where research suggests the breaks or lack of breaks, in between repetitions can influence our rate of learning
Let us look at some key terms before we get into the research and findings.
What is massed practice?
Massed practice provides little or no rest between trials, we can think of it as large, continuous chunks of practice. Massed practice has also been defined as practice sessions where the time performing a skill is greater than the rest time.
Example of massed practice
An example of massed practice might be hitting 5 minutes of tennis forehand shots with little or no rest between shots, using a hitting partner in a rally or ball machine.
What is distributed practice?
Distributed practice is a practice structure where more breaks are given in between the repetitions. It has also been defined as a structure where the rest time is greater than the time performing a skill.
Example of distributed practice
An example of distributed practice would include hitting 5 minutes of tennis forehands with a 30-second rest given after every 3 attempts. Or coaching a 30-minute session where you have 5 minutes of practice followed by 5-minutes rest.
Issues with defining massed and distributed practice
You will notice from the loose definitions we have outlined above that we currently lack clarity in how massed and distributed practice are defined in the literature.
One of the key issues is how we attempt to standardise these concepts for different skills. Training sessions in tennis, weightlifting and endurance running are all going to look very different, but we need to explore this concept in all sporting domains. Therefore, research tends to compare two groups where one group has far more breaks in practice (distributed practice) compared to the other (massed practice).
It is important to note, the researchers ensure the same amount of repetitions are completed by both groups. Meaning completing the same volume of practice in a distributed structure will take longer due to the added breaks.
What the science says about massed vs distributed practice and effective learning
There is an established body of literature showing positive effects of distributed practice when learning words and languages. However, findings in the sporting domain are less clear cut.
For simple, discrete skills there is no difference between coaching a skill in a massed versus distributed fashion. However, when skills become more complex, and we are coaching beginners there appears to be a slight benefit for using more distributed forms of practice.
What are the mechanisms behind this effect?
The variance in proposed mechanisms are similar to the varied definitions we see in this area of research. Some researchers have cited boredom and fatigue as two reasons behind the advantages seen in distributed practice over massed practice.
Most researchers suggest the spacing effect could play a key role in the advantages observed during distributed practice. This theory states that distinct and more enduring memories are formed when skills are spaced out rather than practised in a continuous manner.
This sits well within current findings, whereby more complex motor skills (likely requiring more cognitive capacity when learning) appear to benefit most from distributed practice.
Despite the robust findings for enhanced learning with distributed practice when learning words, there is still research needed in sport. Studies incorporating electroencephalogram (EEG) and/or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) would give a clearer picture of the neurological mechanisms that separate these practices.
Advantages of massed practice
It is important to note all research compares the same number of repetitions for massed and distributed practice, consequently, completing the same number of repetitions will take a shorter time period compared to distributed practice. There is also little difference in learning between distributed and massed practice when the skills being taught are simple, or the learners are passed a beginner stage.
Advantages of distributed practice
Distributed practice may provide a small increase in motor performance and motor learning when teaching beginners complex skills. The exact definitions of complex skills and what you would call distributed practice are open to interpretation, but the structure of practice is worth considering for coaches and athletes looking to find small gains.
Summarising massed and distributed practice
Based on research there appears to be a small advantage of using distributed practice when teaching beginners more complex motor skills – examples include weightlifting movements, serving in tennis and a full swing in golf. However, such an advantage is not clear when skills are less complex or performers are more advanced.
Some significant short-term effects have been found (increased learning within 2 weeks), but that does not mean there is a large or even meaningful effect in the longer-term development of athletes.
Nevertheless, this is one small part of practice structure that coaches and athletes should be aware of. You may also wish to read up on practice variability, whole and part practice and types of feedback to further optimise skill acquisition.
T. Dail (2004) Distribution of practice and metacognition in learning and long-term retention of a discrete motor task
C. Smith (2017) Spacing Repetitions Over Long Timescales: A Review and a Reconsolidation Explanation
If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:
- Shaw, W. (2021) Distributed Practice vs Massed Practice. Available from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/massed-vs-distributed-practice/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy]
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Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.