As coaches, we can all get in a rut sometimes where our practice structure gets repetitive. We have a similar warmup every day, we do similar drills for turns and jumps. We work on choreography, run it a few times full out and then rinse and repeat the next day. Sometimes routine is comforting, but if you get stuck in a rut, you can actually make it harder for your dancers to compete. There is a concept called practice variability in motor learning that focuses on how we can change up the way we practice a motor skill in order to improve how well we learn that skill. Bonus: it also improves our ability to perform that skill at a competition. So not only is it important to change things up sometimes so practice isn’t boring, it’s actually going to help your dancers learn the skills they’re working on and ensure they can perform them when it counts.
The introduction of a variety of movement and context characteristics during practice that provides an increased capability to adapt performance to novel conditions.
What does that mean for dancers?
It’s a way of practicing skills in a variety of contexts (physical and mental) in order to be able to adapt to whatever environment you are in. Take college dance teams for example. Many of them practice over and over in their school facility and then take the stage at the national championships in a completely different context than they have ever experienced before. If you can’t recreate that venue at home (like the bandshell for NDA nationals for example) then you have to use practice variability in order to learn how to adapt. This is also key for all of your new dancers who haven’t competed at all before. (Or at least not in that context.) If you can’t recreate the exact context – and we rarely can – then you need to incorporate practice variability into your rehearsals. That way when you’re in a new context at a competition, isn’t going to throw off the dancers.
Implementing practice variability:
Step 1: Determine future situations in which the dancer will be performing the skill
- Physical characteristics of the competition: What are the physical characteristics that the person will face when they use the skill outside of practice? Are they going to perform on grass or turf? Are they on marley or hardwood? Allow them to practice on that surface. Will they have sun glare or stage lights? Will they be elevated above the judges or are the judges elevated above them? Consider all physical characteristics of the performance space and recreate as much as you can.
- Skill characteristics: Determine what skills you will be competing and if they are linked together, practice them linked together. For example, if you have a turn sequence that ends on the floor, drill the turns including the next 8 count after so that the dancers don’t collapse or try to cognitively reset once they get to the ground.
- Another consideration in dance is what shoes they are practicing and performing in. We all understand how shoes can influence a dancer’s performance. So if they will perform on turf in tennis shoes or boots, then don’t practice exclusively in jazz shoes at the studio. Ensure it’s as similar as possible to the performance situation.
- Bottom line – expose them to as many situations as possible and change it up! Practice the ability to adapt. For skills, will the dancer have to link skills together in future situations? If so then make sure you work those multi-task performance opportunities into practice. And don’t end the drill on the same count all the time…vary that too!
Step 2: Vary practice contexts
- As dancers, we understand that performing in front of other people influences our performance. While performance in the presence of others does not directly influence the movement pattern it is a factor that can influence performance. So practice with other people watching, crowd noise, anything that might impact your dancers.
- Will the amount of time that they have to get ready to perform be shorter than you have at practice? Then set up practice in a way that will give them the same amount of time as they have in future performance settings. For example, if they will have 45 minutes once they reach a venue to take the warmup floor and compete, then do that at practice. Don’t make every practice a two-hour practice while running it for “real” at the end and then come competition day they only have 45 minutes. Try to make it as similar as possible. Even better, create a pre-competition ritual that you use in practice. You can download the free worksheet and I’ll walk you through how to set it up!
- When we perform or compete, we also often have heightened heart rates and arousal. We have that feeling of being “pumped up” before taking the floor. I’m sure you’ve seen the dancers who take the floor and you can see how jittery they look. It can be hard to control. It’s important to practice inducing that jittery feeling and learning to control it when it’s time to perform. You can do that by performing in front of people, video recording, or just increasing your heart rate before you start.
- Things that should not affect the actual movement like noise, time, evaluation of others actually do impact how a dancer competes. So, during practice, use practice variability to your advantage and change it up!
You Can Compete Anywhere!
The best way to ensure effective transfer from practice to competition is to consider the similarities. Look for similarities between skill, context, and mental/emotional characteristics of both the practice and competition situations. Then use your practice time to cover as many of those as you can. Vary things about how you practice the skill itself, your physical environment, and your emotional environment. The more you can introduce these variances into practice and get comfortable with adapting, your dancers will adapt to any competition environment even if they’ve never been there before. Because adapting becomes the norm.