Whole & Part Practice: Answer For Coaches & Athletes

The way you train can play a key role in how quickly you learn a skill. Here we explain whole and part practice, before diving into what the research says about the best methods to use in order to optimise your skill development.

What is whole practice?

Whole practice is when a skill/movement is taught all in one piece, without it being broken down into smaller chunks. This is commonly used in coaching for teaching discrete, continuous and serial skills.  

Examples of whole practice include asking a performer to sprint, swim, kick a ball, all in one movement.

What is part practice?

Part practice is when a skill/movement is broken down into component parts or phases. This is also commonly used in coaching, and tends to be used to teach complex movements, or when a performer needs to re-learn or adapt part of their technique.

Examples of part practice include practicing your ball toss for a tennis serve separate from your serving racket action. Or practicing a golf backswing and pausing before swinging down and hitting the golf ball.

In these two examples you can start to see there are different types of part practice – this is not normally discussed in the literature, but part practice could slice an action in either space or time. For example, you could practice a phase of the movement (like a golf backswing), or practice part of the action (like the throwing arm in a tennis serve). This is an advanced consideration for coaches to consider, you are unlikely to need this as a student.

What is the whole-part-whole method of coaching?

As the name suggests, whole-part-whole practice is when you ask an athlete to perform the movement in one movement, break it down and coach parts of the movement, before you bring the movement together as one action.

In reality, this approach just means blending your coaching/training with some forms of part practice and some whole practice – the precise sequencing doesn’t matter, it should be aimed to get the benefits of both part and whole practice.

​​Is whole or part practice better?

Despite ~40 published studies within this area, there is limited consensus on whole or part practice being globally superior. Instead, we are left with general guidelines on which is best to use in different scenarios depending on: 

  1. The level of the performer
  2. The complexity and organisation* of the skill being taught.
  3. The desired outcome for the session.

* Organisation in this context means we should consider whether there is one movement (dart throwing), or a sequence of movements (triple jump). 

Below are some core guidelines.

When should I use whole practice?

Whole practice is best used when the movements are relatively simple for the performer to learn and/or there is more of a demand on timing and sequencing, rather than precise positions.

With more elite level performers whole practice is best when trying to refine temporal aspects of the movement – for example the sequencing of pelvis, thorax and arm movements when hitting a golf ball or baseball. Or the timing of the triple extension in olympic lifts. 

When should I use part practice?

Part practice is best employed when the movement is highly complex, relative to the level of the performer. Examples include teaching a beginner: a serve in tennis, a full golf swing or technical lifts such as a power clean.

Part practice can also be used with more elite performers when the aim is to make spatial adaptations to technique. This may include changing the position of their arms when catching an olympic barbell, or the range of motion in the knee and hip during sprinting mechanics. 

Studies suggest part-practice results in improved accuracy in the precision of movements (both in body positions and reducing endpoint error*). Part practice also appears to transfer this learned ability to when the movement is performed as a whole again. 

* endpoint error refers to the position of a golf club, hockey stick relative to its target, or in lab-based clinical studies drawing and pointing accuracy tasks.

When to apply each type of practice & coaching?

If you are trying to improve a specific movement/technique it makes sense to use part practice until the athlete can achieve the movement correctly 8/10 times. At this point you can begin to use more whole practice to improve the sequencing and help the new technique transfer into competitive situations. 

However, always put the performer first. Many athletes will have a preferred learning style that could have a knock on effect for their self efficacy and motivation during practice.  

If you teach or coach children you will be interested to know there is some evidence to suggest part-practice helps younger children learn complex movements such as juggling and throwing. We consider these movements complex for younger children that are still going through stages of motor development. For more on this topic, check out our article on LTAD. 

Why is part or whole practice better?

The mechanisms underpinning these different forms of practice are not well understood. An EEG study has shown reduced activation (alpha waves) after part-practice in the occipital and central brain regions. 

The functions of these two brain regions include visuospatial processing and wider sensory processing, amongst other functions, suggesting part and whole practice may manipulate the way we process perceptual information when performing a skill.

More research is needed to better understand the mechanisms behind these practice types.

More on practice structures

Summary

You should now understand the difference between part practice and whole practice. You should also have an understanding of the situations where it might be best to adopt one practice structure over the other.

If you are keen to learn more around practice structures check out the blocked vs random practice article listed above.

Further reading

Fontana et al. (2009) Whole and Part Practice: A Meta-Analysis

Chan et al. (2015) Children’s age modulates the effect of part and whole practice in motor learning

Kiefer et al. (2014) Train the Brain: Novel Electroencephalography Data Indicate Links between Motor Learning and Brain Adaptations

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Golf Insider UK | Website | + posts

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.