Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Organic Practice vs. Synthetic Practice
By David Barracosa (PSY0001733584)
As readers of the Mental Toughness Digest you would have come across content that has explored the Metuf mental method of “Wanting It” (our version of goal setting), which is designed so it can be applied by both coaches and athletes / performers. Motivated individuals might have taken this to the next level and implemented a number of these strategies in your pursuits for improvement. Now we want to introduce an important element of this process that will assist in the preparation for competition – distinguishing between organic and synthetic practice.
If we start by taking a step back and looking at the definition of performance we will discover that it is the combination of both effort applied during training and competition. When recognised this way it becomes clear that the hope for both athletes and coaches is that by best employing quality training it will result in improvements during competition. From our perspective, this training and preparation can only be deemed high quality when it is designed to not only see technical and physical improvements, but also primes individuals for the mental challenges of competition. One example of these mental challenges is that people tend to see distinct differences in regards to what it takes to train versus what it takes to compete in their respective sports, often ranking competition as the more difficult experience. Establishing both organic and synthetic practice is designed to assist in managing this experience.
Organic practice is best defined as competing as a form of training. In other words, there is no focus on anything specific other than replicating competition and enjoying it, much like the mindset we want athletes and coaches to have come the actual event. Examples of this form of practice could include a 5-on-5 scrimmage to end a basketball training session, a mock 400 metre freestyle event against others in your swim squad, playing 18 holes of golf against others or setting aside time for practice matches in tennis. Comparatively, synthetic practice is all about the details and is comprised of specific drills designed to target particular elements of performance to see physical, technical or tactical improvements. These drills look different to competition because the environment is set up to allow individuals to repeat certain actions or tasks until confidence in them is established. A coach’s creativity is the only limit to what could be synthetic practice, but some common examples could be footballers executing a dribbling drill around cones, basketball lay-up lines, hitting golf balls at the driving range with a focus on a specific club or race start drills for sprinters. Important to note that these drills within synthetic practice do not need to revolve around an athlete’s strengths and/or weaknesses, but instead could more effectively look at what is important for them to perform at their full potential.
Both of these forms of practice play an important role in the development of athletes and coaches, but depending on the level of talent and experience that the individuals have the division of time allocated to these may vary. Based on discussions with coaches as well as the research in skill acquisition, repetition that can be obtained through synthetic practice is especially useful when introducing new technical or tactical elements into performance. Alternatively, if athletes have acquired the skills and the objective of the practice is to see them execute, then introducing organic practice may lead to better opportunities for this. Not only does it ask the athletes to execute as they would in competition (simply because it is imitating competition), but it also asks them to manage the consequences of their actions just as they would in a competition situation. For example, in organic practice if a footballer misplays a pass and it is intercepted they have to recover on defence and fulfil their role on this side of the ball. You can begin to see the links to a competition mindset, as the players are required to deal with the mental barriers just as they would in a match. It challenges them to think efficiently by incorporating the five mental targets of mental toughness training (concentration, communication, confidence, motivation and emotions) to ensure they can maintain high levels of performance. It trains players for competition without them necessarily needing to be in the competition arena, whereas in synthetic practice the drill would simply be stopped and repeated without the focus on what happens next. This is not saying synthetic practice does not have a place, but it is important to establish an understanding as to why are we working through these drills rather then just doing them because that is what training has historically looked like.
As with all our ongoing clients’ weekly effort, we want to ensure that each activity is performed for an appropriate period of time with the highest possible effort. For synthetic practice this quality might be measured by the intensity and diligence with which athletes approach the tasks, while the quality of organic practice may also be attributed to things that would ensure that practice more closely resembled competition. Worth noting, however, is that a lot of the things that go into making a competition are influenceable or uninfluenceable in nature, meaning we cannot guarantee they will happen, e.g. not every member of the team attends training, planned training opponent is injured, or the weather may not allow for outdoor practice on a particular day. In these cases, having back-up options that reflect synthetic practice would be advised because it means that the time spent on improving can still be optimised rather than missed due to unforeseeable circumstances.
For athletes and coaches it is advisable to look at your weekly effort plan and consider whether that time is best utilised to prepare yourself or those you train for upcoming competition. If at this stage your training heavily favours one of the aforementioned forms of practice and neglects the other, it may be worth considering how to better divide and manage your time to ensure you can include both skill development as well as skill execution in competition situations. Working on both better prepares us for challenges of competition and allows us to enjoy ourselves and embrace the opportunities when our abilities are truly put to the test.