Learning vs Performance: Which one do you emphasize?

Ask yourself… if you had to learn a new skill or movement, how would you go about it? And how would you monitor the progress of acquiring that skill or movement?

Repeating without repeating is a mantra many movement educators ascribe to. Today I am going to review the concept of what it means to repeat without repeating, or more specifically learning during repetition.

As teachers, instructors, mentors, etc. … our role is to equip the learner with the knowledge and or skills that will be durable and flexible over time. If what you learn is durable, it means that you can access this knowledge or skill overtime when it has been not been used for some time (i.e. recall or relearn). Also, if what you learn is flexible, this would imply that knowledge and or skill is accessible across a variety of conditions or scenarios that goes beyond the original condition by which the knowledge or skill was taught (classroom or at practice).   Here I am referring to learning or skill acquisition, not performance of how well you learned or execute the skill.   Here is the reality:

“You can learn and not demonstrate result in performance; but you can see great gains in performance and not exhibit much learning”

For the minimalist, who like to cut corners and just have a tendency to do as little as possible…the short term success in performance is your bread and butter! But be forewarned that this may come back to haunt you when you get hurt and are side-lined to rehabilitate the injury or you move up in competitive ranks and now play with the “elite of the elite”.   Great coaches and therapists see this all the time. An athlete gets hurt and struggles to get back to pre-injury status and continue play, or elevate play to an even higher level. The other scenario, the athlete graduates or is promoted to the next level and struggles to keep up with the tempo of play, keep up with the level of game IQ, or even keep up physically. This comes down to, in part, to an athlete’s inability to learn the necessary knowledge and skills to complement the performance necessary to compete.  

Remember, learning is not performance and performance is not learning. Far too often athletes view the short term success in performance (performing faster, stronger, more accurately, personal best times, etc.…) as learning, but to sustain athletic ability, adapt to competition, and augment the injury management process, you have to view learning as the focus of training.   Performance should never be about just being durable, possessing tissue tolerability, acquiring mobility, and developing strength, endurance, power, and agility.   But unfortunately, it has and continues to be so. To be great a great athlete requires time and dedication to time to learn.

Let’s review for a moment:

Learning – The primary objective is to resist forgetting how to execute a skill efficiently and consistently. Another objective is possessing an accelerate rate to relearn a skill when it has not been used for some time (i.e. returning from offseason not playing your sport and entering training camp needing to re-acquire the skill to prepare for the next competitive season).   The ability to retain a skill, in this case movement, the athlete must possess a relatively permanent behaviour to support the learning effect.

You cannot retain a skill that was never learned!!!

Keep in mind that dedicating to learning a skill or movement will compromise performance in the short term but profit the long term success.   Learning by in large occurs during practice or training. With this said, there are a few guidelines to learning that need to be considered:

  1. Do not be afraid to make mistakes or errors – research demonstrates that errors made when learning or mastering a skill hinders performance in the short term, but in the long term may be needed to retain and apply the skill efficiently. The caveat is that the athlete understands and appreciates the value the error has on the learning process in order to make changes. Nobody wants to make the same mistake twice!
  2. Active participation and minimal intervention – early physical assistance to demonstrate or create an awareness of what needs to happen (i.e. coach placing a golfer’s club through the correct plane of motion in the back swing). However, this should be done sparingly by coaches. Research consistently concludes that retaining the information is low when too much guidance is given.   The athlete needs to actively explore “how to” move on their own.   This process will enhance long term retention within the parameters of what the athletes own perceptions of his/her ability.
  3. Learning of new or revisiting old skills – regardless of the skill in this situation, it requires cueing to elicit if learning has occurred. Meaning, has the athlete retained what needs to be acquired to execute a skill or can they relearn at an accelerated rate to achieve previously acquired skill?   You cannot use performance to demonstrate learning in these two scenarios. The athlete needs prompting to execute the skill in a contextual manner. Learning a skill or movement without purpose is not retained.
  4. Testing is key to assessing if a skill is being learned I already stated that depending on the skill, performance is not an ideal tool to evaluate whether a skill is learned. Performance is used to assess the acquisition of a skill in a contextual manner (i.e. throwing a curveball for a strike on a 0-2 count) if the process has been completed and testing demonstrates adequate knowledge and understanding to be consistent and efficient.   However, for the skills that are in the process of being acquired (being learned) then testing is the most appropriate tool to assess the progress. Testing can be performed in a number of methods:
    1. Reproduce the skill to be learned – coach requests “throw me a curveball!” – Athlete should throw a ball that has a trajectory that loops or curves and in the strike zone as requested. This is a physical competency – can the athlete physical throw a curveball?
    2. Retrieve the skill – the athlete must select when the most appropriate moment to throw a curveball is in the context of a game situation. This is not so much as physical as it is mental, implying a decision making process that involves understanding the application of the skill in the context of the game. This evaluates the athlete’s understanding of the use or application of the physical skill and be able to physically execute the skill based on this decision making process.  Retrieval can also imply the athlete exploring options about how to generate a movement as opposed to a selected movement instructed by the coach or instructor.
    3. Present the skill without reproducing it – requesting the athlete to explain (verbally) how to throw a curveball, what the most common errors with executing a curveball are, and when to throw a curveball. This will assess the athletes understanding and interpretation of the skill needed to be learned.   This method is commonly neglected and replaced with reproduction or retrieval assessments.

You cannot learn what you do not understand.

  1. Having some difficulty in the learning process is good! –confronting and resolving challenges in the acquisition of a skill is important. This allows the athlete to effectively link new information with existing information or understanding. This enhances the long term retention of a skill or movement, but more so exposes the athlete to understand and recognize the nuances of the skill or movement.   Knowing the “in’s and out’s” is critical making the necessary changes in real time when in competition when errors arise.   Just being efficient and consistent is not enough. If I can quote one of the best lines I have ever heard:

The difference between elite and playing at the highest level is that my B-game has to be better than most A-games to be successful!”

Now that is one smart athlete! But it is true. Athletes… you will never have your best performance every moment of every game of every season.   Performance fluctuates too much. It is volatile in many respects.   There are too many variables that influence the outcomes (weather, team, tactics of sport, emotions, and officiating). The only consistency is your ability to train with intent and focus.

Performance – temporary fluctuations in behaviour or knowledge that is observable and or measurable during or immediately after acquiring the behaviour or knowledge.  It is about putting the newly acquired skill or existing movement or knowledge to the ultimate test (competition) which will determine how well you performed (how much weight lifted, how fast you threw, how far you jumped, etc. …).   Because performance and competition are never the same experience, team, or condition, what you did not learn and the ability not to recall will hinder future performances. To stand the test of time and continue to improve in the quest to be a better athlete, learn first, perform second, and do not cut corners!

Ask yourself in the next practice or training session, what are you doing?   Are you going through the motions or are you attempting to learn or extract something that can make future athletic endeavours better?   Are you the person that just stacks weight on a bar and pounds out 5×5 because that is the program? Are you throwing in the bullpen at 75% velocity because you are told to?   Are you doing mobility work to increase range in only one particular way? What is your practice or training session really preparing you for?   Better yet, what are you using to monitor that your acquisition of a skill or movement is being achieved?

I am harsh, but a realist. Far too often I treat and train athletes that are afraid to make errors or are training to avoid these errors. The reality is that those errors are more important than performing well sometimes. Errors are rich with information about how and why you do what you need to do. What does performance tell you? A lot!!!! You make an abundance of mistakes and errors during an actual game or competition. Those that perform well recover from those errors and make the necessary changes and corrections.

If you train what is ideal and comfortable and predictable (PERFORM) AND not learn how to make adjustments in real time and correct errors or mistakes when encountering unknown variables or uncertain events (LEARNING), then how is it you expect to make adjustments during competition? Competition is to a large extent about unknown and not necessarily predictable events. You cannot learn and adapt to something you have not exposed yourself to first! To retain a skill or knowledge or be able to transfer this same skill or knowledge to an unknown condition or event requires that learning or the acquisition occur regardless of performance success.

Learn to explore the potential boundaries of your skills and knowledge. Take and obtain valuable information about how to become better when errors occur. The structure of practice or training influences the learning effect as well. Here are some considerations:

  1. Random or Distribute Practice/Training – let me just state for the record, there are two forms of practice BLOCK and RANDOM. Block practice is repeating the same thing over and over; which is great for short term recognition and familiarization of the skill or knowledge. Block practice is shown to have poor long term retention. To enhance the long term retention, random practice is suggested. Random practice implies that the order that the skill/knowledge is executed or learned be distributed in an order that fluctuates (randomization). Distributing means that if there are a number or skills (i.e. tennis forehand, backhand, serve, drop shot, etc.…) then allocating time in the same practice to practicing each is beneficial to the learning process in the long term. Yes, performance for each is reduced, but the key is to retrain and apply the skill under any circumstance not performing it well in the short term.

When you practice, the repetition should be about gaining experience or information about how and when to control the tools (motor control, strength, coordination, power, speed, etc. …) to produce movement or a sports specific skill in the context of the goal or training objective.

  1. Space practice out – take time between practice sessions, also known as Spacing Effect. This rest between sessions allows for resistance to forgetting and long term retention of the skill or information. Research demonstrates that massing or chunking large blocks of time to practice improves short term retention and initial performance gains but long term retention and forgetfulness is high. So do not spend countless repetitions repeating the same skill over and over, every day! Rest enhances the learning!


  1. Learning will impair performance so commit to the process of acquiring the skill and knowledge.   Research continues to demonstrate that before you get better (perform) learning trumps all and you will struggle to execute efficiently. Success is about the long term and not always about here, now, and today. Check the ego and let go of the instant gratifications.   Work hard to develop and learn your sport skills and the associated knowledge to be able to call on them later on under any circumstance, known or unknown.


Bottom line, if you want to perform well across time and sustain such efforts then remember that learning requires you to practice with intent and conducive to the process.

The table below summarizes the key practice or training variables that influence learning and impact on performance.

Practice-Training Variable Benefit to Learning Process Consequence to Performance
Reinforcement (physical assistance)





Used early in learning process to familiarize the athlete.

Reduces error production

Increases confidence

Enhances short term performance

Enhance long term retention of skill and or knowledge

Long term use impedes retention and increases forgetfulness
Block Training – repeating the same skill over and over Used to familiarize the athlete to enhance confidence and awareness

Increases short term performance

Poor retention and lowers rate of relearning in the long term

Long term performance is limited

Random Training Enhances long term retention, at expense of short term performance struggles High error rate during short term performance
Space practice out – recovery or rest between sessions Allows information and skill to consolidate (“sink in”) that promotes retention and transfer Poor retention and lowers rate of relearning in the long term

Long term performance is limited

Interleaving or distributed order Performing multiple to be learned skills or implementing multiple parameters for execution permits enhances retention and retrieval. Causes Contextual Interference – conditions or parameters that interfere with the acquisition of the to-be-learned-skill with other skills that depress performance in the short term.
Testing                    Identifies either physical competency (execution) or cognitive competency (understanding) or both to understanding the skill Athlete focuses on performance rather than the process of error production and correction of such errors.

At first, practice to learn, once learning has been achieved practice to master your skill and knowledge.



Lee T, Swanson L, Hall A. 1990. What is repeated in a repetition? Effects of practice conditions on motor skill acquisition. Phys Ther. 71:150-156.

Soderstrom N, Bjork R. 2015. Learning vs. Performance: An Integrated review. Assoc Psycho Sci. Vol 10(2): 176-199.


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