Training vs. Practicing

The term training commonly refers to the process of performance improvement in almost all sports disciplines, e.g. in running, cycling, swimming and rowing. The term practicing on the other hand is often used to describe this process in arts like painting, singing or instrument playing, in the different kind of crafts and partially in sports like acrobatics, gymnastics and other sports in which movement skill development is considered to be a crucial factor for performance. Noticeably there is an area of overlap where the distinction between the two terms becomes a bit blurry, namely in activities which require a high level of “physical conditioning” as well as highly development movement skills, like soccer, tennis or gymnastics.

Both terms – training and practicing – describe the process of progressing systematically from A to B. In the following we will argue that they are in essence the same thing with at best gradual differences. Even further, we think that it is beneficial to understand every athletic development process as practicing rather than training.

To make a somewhat oversimplified distinction, in classical terms practicing could be described as aiming at the improvement of coordination and movement patterns. Training on the other hand often refers primarily to the development of energy supply mechanisms or muscular capacity. However, improvement of these physiological parameters is the response to stress which in turn is created by recruiting movement patterns, i.e. initiating movement. Improving physiological qualities like muscular strength or endurance can never occur without practice, i.e. the repeated execution of certain movement patterns. On the other hand everybody who ever engaged in the intensive practice of e.g. playing an instrument knows, that this process does not only improve movement skills but also brings about some sort of “physical conditioning” needed for the specific tasks.

Depending on the task practiced/trained the functional system engaged differs, and therefore the load placed on various sub-systems and their adaptational responses differ as well. But this is merely a difference of degree and not of kind. The real difference between the processes of practicing and training, or the people who engage in one of them, is the mindset with which this process is approached. Practicing implies that the task itself is in the focus, the instantaneous action and the care devoted to it are at the core of the process. People who practice are usually not concerned with the physical details of adaptational responses which may or may not occur as a consequence of their practice. And they don’t have to, because adaptational responses are task specific. They improve by focusing on the task itself and its gradual progression.

Training processes on the other hand are often understood and perceived as means to another end, namely improvements of certain motor qualities or physiological parameters. Lots of training sessions are not executed with great care to the actual task in order to get better in exactly this task, but as something that has to be done in order to improve muscular strength, maximal oxygen uptake, lactate threshold or fat metabolism to name just a few examples. The actual task becomes a means to the improvement of another end, which in turn shall improve the performance in the goal task.

It is Aprendo’s opinion that executing and perceiving activities in training as means to another end, mostly some kind of physiological parameter, is a flawed approach from a theoretical and an inefficient one from a practical perspective. From a theoretical point of view it is hard to argue that single physiological variables are key to the performance of an athlete: the multitude of influencing factors on performance and the nature of complex adaptive systems make such a statement overly simplistic. Moreover it is not necessary to make these oversimplifications. From a more global perspective we see that the adaptational responses of complex systems are specific to the stimuli put upon the system. This principle can be used, as it is done successfully, although mostly implicitly, by people engaging in practicing.

From a practical perspective perceiving the training as merely a means to another end detaches the athlete from the actual task and thus the improvement of this task. It eliminates direct feedback since the ends of the training session cannot be constantly monitored, and even if they could, they would say little about the actual performance. We see in practice that many athletes could improve much more efficiently (see efficiency in training) if they would approach the planning and execution of their training process with the mindset of practicing rather than training.

Florian Kugler, January 20th, 2011

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