‘Chaos often breeds life, while order breeds habit.’
I remember reading this quote a long time ago (yes, high school was a long time ago for me, don’t remind Becky or she’ll get depressed), and my initial thought was something like ‘What’s so wrong with order?’. It was probably the future engineer in me peeking through a bit, but I definitely felt even then that structure and routine were important aspects of any ongoing process, let alone life. But it did make me think, what do we miss out on when there is too much order?
Evan did a great job of thoroughly discussing the need for exposure to chaos in his blog post Gaining Strength Through Disorder, and how the fundamental relationship of stress/recovery should be balanced inside of a focused strength program. What I’d like to do with this article is discuss the value of chaos and variability inside of a program designed for an athlete competing in the sport of fitness. While I still find comfort in linear progressions and deliberate practice, I’ve also come a long way in terms of appreciating what a good dose of chaos can do, and I believe that the two can co-exist inside of a design to get the best of both worlds.
Blocked vs random practice
When practicing to improve sport specific performance, we often organize our training sessions around a few important skills that have been identified as fundamental for overall development. When laying out the daily session, we have a choice when it comes to how to sequence the independent skills over the course of the practice. The two main approaches to this sequencing would be either blocked practice or random practice.
In blocked practice, each skill would be isolated, and all repetitions or trials of the first skill would be completed before moving to the next skill. Soccer players would have one portion of their practice dedicated to passing, another to trapping, and another to dribbling. Volleyball players would do all passes, then all sets, then all hits. Basketball players would shoot 20 jump shots in a row from the same spot with the same pass before moving to the next. You get the picture. Blocked practice has been shown to be a very effective approach for beginners to build a requisite level of a skill (faster acquisition), and it has the added benefit of allowing for a high level of organization and simple linear progressions inside of a training program. As a coach, you want to feel like your training is being effective, and a blocked approach allows you to isolate and control the necessary variables and get immediate feedback if they are improving from week to week. The issue becomes that blocked practice offers the most improvement only at the early stages of training, and even then these improvements seem to have very little transfer over to game-day scenarios.
In a random practice session, our goal is to introduce variance, to combine different skills in different ways to encourage the athlete to explore and discover new solutions. In this environment, the athlete is faced with higher levels of contextual interference, or an overlapping of several skills inside of the same session. This approach is often characterized by slower acquisition of new skills, more mistakes in training, and a level of uncertainty around what is driving any observed progress. Chaos. But what we end up seeing in time is a higher level of skill retention, and more transferability of that skill to novel situations. Or to use Evan’s description, the skill has taken on a level of antifragility due to the nature of how it was practiced.
Earning your Chaos
From the above definitions, you can see that both approaches have their pros and cons. While random practice has been shown to have a clear advantage in long term retention and transferability, blocked practice is superior when it comes to speedy acquisition of a new skill. So how do we know when to implement which approach? As with most questions, it depends. Some contributing factors would be the developmental level of the athlete, the adaptability of the athlete, the sport they are competing in, the skill you are pursuing, where in the competitive season you currently are, etc. Newer athletes in predictable sports would see more value from blocked practice, while experienced athletes involved in field sports where no two plays are exactly the same would need to have some level of chaos in their training to continue to mature their skill set. But I think the takeaway here should be that we don’t have to assume that blocked and random training are mutually exclusive. Blocked practice early in the offseason that slowly blends into random practice as the season approaches, with perhaps a few infrequent touches on some chaos along the way, would be a solid starting framework for a yearly training template.
A word of advice from my own experience - when working with athletes who require a blocked approach to their training, it becomes very important to clearly communicate the ‘why’ behind the approach. Blocked training is, by definition, very ordered and somewhat rigid, and can often be perceived as “boring” by the athlete. Setting expectations for these necessary training blocks ahead of time will go a long way towards increasing the athlete’s buy-in for the program and directly impact the long term sustainability and success. There are also various ways that you could build some variance into a program for such an athlete to improve the day to day experience, such as working off of multi-week templates instead of a standard 7 day design, or building in 1 self-directed day for them to write up themselves (with certain boundaries).
An example multi-week template for a fitness athlete that progresses from strength to sport specific work week to week. Credit - Kyle Ruth.
Applying to the fitness athlete
In a sport that was built on the unknown and unknowable, random training has always been a staple, with the original dot com workouts being a prime example. My experience with the sport as an athlete, and my biases as a coach, have both taken long winding paths to take me where I am today. From pure randomness, to extreme levels of order and structure, to a healthy blend of the two with adjustments as needed. The sport has progressed to the point now that random training simply isn’t good enough to achieve any reasonable success, while overly structuring the approach can cause the athlete to lose their ability to adapt on the fly to novel tasks or challenges. Finding an appropriate balance between the two requires an individualized approach, but I’ll discuss briefly how I like to structure things and how they might progress from there.
Specific skill limitation
An initial thorough assessment of the athlete allows us to highlight a set of training qualities that we see as being deficient when compared to their peers, or those they expect to be competing against. We can further organize this set by priority based off of the level of the deficit that exists or the likelihood that it will be tested, arranging the qualities into primary and secondary priorities. The primary focuses make the backbone of the template, and are spread out sufficiently so as to ensure that when they come up in training, they can be attacked with full energy and focus. It is often these primary focuses that will benefit the most from a blocked approach, so at least 1 session a week will be designed along such a progression. But because training qualities are so rarely isolated in our sport, I also ensure that each primary priority is also touched in a sport specific setting with a level of chaos associated with it. Pre-fatigued lifts, different equipment, altered setups, and constantly varying combinations are good starting points for building random sessions.
An example comparison of a blocked vs random session where the training focuses might be snatch improvement, overhead mechanics/positioning, and VO2 adaptations. This example illustrates the skill/experience levels that serve as necessary prerequisites to the varied approach.
Competing as a skill
Given a requisite level of skill across the board in the individual movements, the limitation for many athletes then becomes their ability to optimize their performance on gameday. In addition to leveraging the emotional tips I wrote about before for competing, there are some great twists that can be introduced into training that will help athletes improve their ‘skill’ of competing.
Planning - Before undergoing a novel workout, have the athlete write down in as much detail as possible what their approach is going to be for the workout. Expected limitations, ways to mitigate them, what the rep breakdowns will be, what pacing they expect to hold, when they will drop the hammer. This thought exercise is designed specifically to mature their
Varied order chippers - inside of some sport specific interval work, varying the order of the movements from set to set allows the athlete to see how the different combinations affect pacing and limitations
Progressive pacing models and forced rep schemes - Asking an athlete to get 3-5% faster with each set forces them to develop a better feel for their engine and what it takes to coax a little more out of it with each set. With forced rep schemes, especially towards the end of a workout, we can simulate the feeling of having to chase down a competitor who has been leading up that point
Introduce the unexpected - Random no-rep calls, equipment malfunctions, timer malfunctions, and other distractions are all fair game at a competition, and something that must be taken in stride if and when they do come up. Having a coach or training partner who is sadistic enough to subject the athlete to events like this in training could help them become more resilient as a result.
Chaos has a place. With the right timing and the proper dose, it can impose a unique stress to the system, and the resulting adaptation is likely to have a higher level of antifragility as a result. In the sport of fitness, finding an appropriate balance between order and chaos is vital for long term success. Instead of following random programming, learn how and when to add a dose of randomness to your programming without losing focus on what’s important.