If you are a performance or sports medicine professional with an internet connection, you may have noticed that the practice of prescribing drills is somewhat under attack. The underlying suggestion during these drill critiques is effectively that movement skill cannot be cultivated by practicing the components of a complex task. Coaches who employ “drills” are sometimes derided as simpletons in various social media echo chambers.
This practice speaks to the increasingly pervasive tactic whereby we characterize those with whom we disagree ideologically as extremists. Coaches who see value in drills must only do drills, while coaches who utilize something like small-sided games just let athletes play to the exclusion of everything else. The “drills” conversation is really a proxy for larger discussions about things like part/whole training, generalism/specialization, and reductionism/complexity. As with most trendy topics, the actual conversation isn’t really novel.
Systems and Interventions
In a complex system, the whole is not the sum of its parts. The interactions between the components of a system produce meaningful effects that can’t always be objectively quantified or measured. The relationship between generalism and specialization also helps to inform complex systems. The closer or more specifically training mimics the competitive environment, the greater the degree to which the whole is reflected relative to a component part.
Regardless, most coaches would concede that some degree of general ability is necessary to actualize specific performance. Sometimes, however, specific words evoke emotional responses that stifle productive discussion. “Drills” might be one of those words. If we replaced “drills” with something like “general abilities,” perhaps the idea of doing drills wouldn’t be so contentious.If we say ‘general abilities’ instead of ‘drills,’ maybe the idea of drills won’t be so contentious. Click To Tweet
General training is not a substitute for specific training but a supportive element that raises the specific or “whole” ceiling. The whole is not the sum of the parts but working on the parts can improve the whole. Training provides both local and systemic inputs to a system. Some local inputs influence systemic behavior or output more profoundly than others, but no intervention (like a drill) is ever purely local in nature. In other words, looking at a few trees can inform us about the forest’s overall beauty. We just don’t want to stare at the same trees for too long.
The question is not whether we should do part or whole training (e.g., drill or not drill), but how we can seamlessly integrate the two. This interplay is the essence of coaching.The question isn’t whether to do part or whole training, but how to seamlessly integrate the two. Click To Tweet
In any complex system, extremes are maladaptive. Asystole (absence of electrical activity) and ventricular fibrillation (completely disorganized electrical activity) are both lethal heart rhythms. The extreme political left and right can’t operate outside their respective ideological fortresses. Doing only drills is tantamount to rigidity, while only scrimmaging or formally competing is closer to chaos.
While reductionism cannot explain the behavior of a complex system, neither does proceeding as if the system operates with no boundaries. In any conversation (training, political, ethical), determining what constitutes reasonable boundaries is the difficult—and interesting—part. Unfortunately, social media doesn’t incentivize the nuance required to continually refine these boundaries.
From this point on, I’ll cease to use track and field or sport-specific analogies because the audience here might already have preconceived notions or prejudices about the utility of drills as they pertain to something like running. Again, drilling in the context of track and field or sport preparation is not a unique phenomenon. Regardless of the subject, it’s difficult to have a conversation without defining what it is that we’re discussing. For purposes here, a drill is “an intervention that minimizes the degrees of freedom to bias a specific behavioral output.”
“Drills” are sometimes necessary to reduce the potential of being overwhelmed by all the variables that influence behavior. A drill constrains the parameters affecting the behavior of the system to minimize potential influences. To be clear, even actual sport games have constraints or rules governing behavior, but a drill, by definition, is always more restrictive than the actual game or competitive environment.By definition, a drill is always more restrictive than the actual game or competitive environment. Click To Tweet
Designers of randomized controlled trials utilize a similar rationale. These trials are “controlled” because they systematically mitigate the potential for confounding variables to influence outcomes, albeit imperfectly. Hence, the reason an experimental and control group should be as identical as possible, except for the variable or intervention under investigation. Again, drilling is just a proxy for the timeless conversation about the balance between chaos and rigidity.
Of course, drilling alone does not simulate competitive environments, but how many coaches do drills at the exclusion of everything else? The drilling/no drilling dichotomy we see on social media platforms is straw man fodder. The “debates” that occur on social media often poorly reflect reality. Coaches in both internet camps likely do similar things from a programming standpoint, even if their emotional allegiances suggest otherwise.
The Military as a Model
Military training may provide insight into the relationship between part and whole training or between reductionism and complexity. Video 1 below depicts highlights of an Air Force Pararescue team conducting a training mission or “scrimmage.” The team reaches the objective area via fixed wing freefall parachute insertion, patrols to the survivor under night vision goggles, and medically stabilizes and packages the survivor prior to exfiltrating him via rotary wing hoist.
Video 1. Military training may provide insight into the relationship between part and whole training or between reductionism and complexity. Even in training, a mission can take anywhere from 10-36 hours to plan, rehearse, and execute—the closest thing the military has to a scrimmage.
Even in training, this type of scenario may take anywhere from 10-36 hours to plan, rehearse, and execute. These types of full mission profiles, or FMPs, are the closest things the military has to a full dress rehearsal. FMPs are to the military what scrimmaging or special physical preparation is to sport.
In the weeks preceding a deployment—effectively the military’s “preseason”—they conduct a series of FMPs covering a variety of contingencies in an effort to “peak” for the real thing. The concept of periodization or planning is not unique to sport. FMPs are highly time- and resource-intensive, however. Moreover, FMPs are a reflection of requisite skills and disciplines (parachuting, medicine, shooting, small unit tactics, etc.), but they don’t necessarily develop them.
That’s where part training or drills come in. During an FMP, a Pararescueman might not fire his weapon or treat a single patient even when one of his teammates does. The scenarios aren’t so contrived/constrained that they ensure each participating member will encounter identical opportunities to perform various tasks. Instead, they are designed to be realistic.
FMPs aren’t conducive to skill development because there is insufficient repetition of the constituent performance elements. Hence the popularity in sport preparation of concepts like block training. Militaries have recognized the utility of block training for thousands of years. Block training deliberately targets specific qualities at the expense of others because the adaptive process is finite.
The military prioritizes different qualities or skills throughout various developmental cycles. Prioritization exists on a continuum. Seldom does a military training block, of which drills are a component, address a single quality and nothing else. The devil, however, is in the details.
Similarly, most sport coaches are not so extreme that they adhere to a pure block periodization type of model. The most effective training models are usually hybrid solutions because extremes are maladaptive. Sometimes, drills are necessary to further hone in on specific skills and to provide a frame of reference from which greater complexity can be derived at a future time.The most effective training models are usually hybrid solutions because extremes are maladaptive. Click To Tweet
Drilling is a means of providing variability to a system. Variability allows a system to better self-organize under stress. Without variability, behavior emerges out of necessity, not out of “choice.” Video 2 is an example of a drill or part training that a Pararescue team might utilize to prepare for the dynamic environment in which they typically operate.
Video 2. Freefall simulation is an example of a drill or part training that a Pararescue team uses to prepare for the dynamic environment in which they typically operate. Sometimes, drills are necessary to further hone in on specific skills and to provide a frame of reference from which greater complexity can be derived at a future time.
Finding the Right Balance
As frustrating as it may be, there is likely no ideal ratio of part to whole training or between drills and more complex movements. It is probably safe to say, however, that embracing specificity or whole training to the extreme is akin to preparing for a mixed martial arts fight solely via sparring. Thankfully, high-level MMA fighters do more than spar, otherwise during title fights on pay-per-view, we’d watch what amounts to bar fights minus the beer bottles and chairs. Actually, watching bar fighting in a ring minus the improvised weaponry might be fun, but the skill level wouldn’t be very high. Similarly, hitting pads or a heavy bag does not constitute adequate preparation for a competitive fight in itself.Embracing specificity to the extreme is like preparing for an MMA fight solely by sparring. Click To Tweet
Be wary of studies or people who misinterpret studies that “prove” drills are not effective at improving performance or skill acquisition. Drills work much differently in practice than they do in research protocols. During the latter, everybody performs the exact same protocol regardless of his/her technique and/or performance limitations. During the former, a coach identifies something that warrants an intervention, prescribes a specific “drill” to address this limitation, and alternates between drilling and the complete movement until the athlete achieves the desired performance or aesthetic outcome.
Research protocols are necessarily rigid and unyielding. However, coaching is the continual act of tinkering and trial and error. It’s about embracing and managing uncertainty until you get it “right,” despite not always knowing what “right” really is.