Focusing on one skill or mixed skill practice — which is better?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about interleaving, a learning strategy that involves mixing things up to improve learning a new skill or subject. Most schools typically focus on learning one subject or skill at a time and encourage rote memorization or practicing the same thing over and over again. However, with interleaving, a student might instead practice a bunch of different(though usually related) things at the same time instead of repeating the same exact thing until they are proficient.

This appears to be helpful for both academic learning and for athletic skills: Variation is key to deeper learning

There’s growing scientific evidence that this method helps students and athletes learn faster:

I think while we all know that occasionally switching equipment can help us master different unicycle skills, interleaving goes beyond this. Does anyone use interleaving for learning new unicycle skills? Do you find it’s more helpful if the skills are closely related than if they’re not related?

Focusing on one skill or mixed skill practice — which is better?

Thanks for starting this thread, Acrorebel. As a teacher, I am interested in discussions about learning. The most recent unicycling skill I’ve been practicing is wheel walking. I’ve been a really slow learner, but that has given me the opportunity to experiment in my practice. My answer to your question, above, is a hybrid between one skill and mixed skill practice. Regarding wheel walking, several other skills acted as scaffolds for learning to wheel walk. For example, I found I was more successful mounting into-- or transitioning from a one-foot idle-- into the WW, compared to transitioning from riding into WW.

For the transition from idling to WW, practicing one-footed idling helped. Once I could calm the idling down to where I was not pivoting so much, I was ready to make the transition to WW. I practiced sticking my free foot out front, into the air. Sticking my free foot forward forced me to compensate by reclining more with my back, which is necessary for WW. As a general rule, the more stable I was during the transition to WW, the better I’d perform on the WW. I also spent a lot of time practicing the transition to WW holding onto the seat with one or both hands. That increased the stability during the transition to the WW. Once I started shuffling my feet, I could hold my hands out for balance.

My greatest success practicing WW happened when I mounted directly into a WW. My technique was to mount into a one-footed still stand, then slowly bring my other foot forward onto the top of the tire. In order to get the one foot pushing back on the pedal near the 9:00 position, I had to hold the seat firmly during the mount, bend my body forward and look down and over the front edge of the tire. In this position, I was able to watch my feet on the tire during the beginning of the WW. Not very elegant, but I made huge progress practicing in this way. WW has put me back in touch with the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” I felt as a beginner unicyclist.

So, long story short, while practicing WW, I was blocking, because I was focusing on the WW, and I was interleaving, because I used other skills to help me transition into the WW.

I have read a few dismissive comments on this forum regarding practicing on a 20". For example…That’s not the kind of riding I’m interested in. Whenever I have learned a new skill, it has helped my riding in general, and it has sometimes caused a new skill to pop up without any practice. I don’t know if that’s an argument for interleaving.

Now, an argument for blocking. After I got my 20", I got interested in learning new mounts. On quite a few occasions, I would practice a new mount 50-100 times, unsuccessfully, until I finally succeeded in landing it once. The next day, I went out and landed it on the first try. So, yeah, I think there’s some value to focusing on one thing until you get it.

I am way past the stage of learning specific skills on a unicycle. I can mount, ride, turn, idle, and dismount and that is enough for my purposes. I learned a few skills such as idling one footed way back when.

However, I have been working hard on playing a musical instrument for many years, and I have usually found the best approach to be:

  1. Is something you can do well
  2. Is something you a do reasonably well but need to improve.
  3. Is something you’re still learning to do.
  4. Is experimenting to find the next (3)

My typical practice session is:

  • Warm up with (1) and gradually convert "do well" to "do really well".
  • Work on (3) while still fresh.
  • Take a break and do some more (1) to regain confidence and flow.
  • Do some (2)
  • Maybe do a minute or two of (4) to use a different part of the brain.
  • Finish off with some (1) to end the practice on a high. [/LIST]

    Each individual skill (in the case of music, each tune or exercise) gradually gets promoted from 4 to 3 to 2 to 1.

    I suppose this is a form of “interleaving” but I think of the “stuff I can do well” as a palate cleansing sorbet between the more strongly flavoured courses.

    Not every session follows this pattern. If I have only a few minutes, I may simply work on some (3) or (4) or simply play some (1).

  • I often wonder about that myself. Should I stick with just one wheel size and feel 100% comfortable or should I keep riding all my wheel sizes every month. Also for unicycling I noticed that various skills strengthen each other. Like idling and riding backwards are related. But also riding distance, so saddle time, when practising my mounts and my mounting felt easier when I got better at hopping.
    On the other hand I can see from peeps who only stick to their 36 inch are much more one with it than I ever will be when I keep mixing my unis.

    Most important is to find out what you want with unicycling. Personally I don’t need to ride backwards 50 metres or ride 100 miles or do trials onto high objects. My aim is to make riding a uni as “easy” as riding a bike and I have some ways to go. I still don’t mount my unis like I do a bike, meaning I pause to have my feet positioned correctly before hopping on, whereas with a bike, I hop on right away.

    Interesting approach that you call “scaffolding”. This does seem similar to interleaving. I kind of do this to learn juggling 3 balls while one-footed idling. First I mount into an idle, idle for a few seconds, then start juggling, then I stop juggling, start idling with one foot for a few seconds then I start juggling(I can’t transition while juggling to one-footed yet). Can only get a few catches and throws before a UPD. I can usually juggle while idling with both feet on the pedals for several minutes without a drop or UPD.

    I still don’t know how to wheelwalk or ride one-footed, but my one-footed idling is pretty solid. At first I considered learning one-footed riding after mastering juggling one-footed idling but I may learn them together in an interleaving pattern. I think 5 minute intervals(or maybe 10) should work. Or intervals involving backwards juggling as well.

    I think you’re right about how learning many different skills(especially idling and backwards) helping give a boost to your general unicycling ability. Just forward riding feels like nothing these days, it’s like going for a walk. Always appreciate your posts since you always have this thing for deep learning when it comes to unicycling skills.

    I appreciate you saying that. I think my overly analytical approach comes primarily from necessity. I don’t have the natural talent to just “go for it”. As a middle aged rider, I prefer not to suffer the consequences of falling a lot while learning things. For example, I practice wheel walking on grass. It’s nicer to fall on, and the wheel is less prone to go shooting out away from me.

    While I’m advocating for trying different skills, I have also avoided a lot of stuff. For example, the basic, beginning flatland trick, push-mush. I can’t do it, and neither have I really put it the time to learn it. Duh! And drops over one-foot. I am not very graceful, and I would probably injure myself performing big drops. So, I’m ignoring that aspect of unicycling. I’ve adapted my riding to a high seat, and I’ve avoided practicing seat-in-lower what I can already do seat-out-higher. I guess this makes me a bit of a hypocrite.

    I’m contemplating how interleaving vs. blocking applies to the teaching of beginning violin to 4th and 5th graders (my day job). A lot of teaching methods are focused on sequence, almost to a fault. For example, don’t introduce B until you’ve mastered A. I don’t disagree that this applies in many ways to learning; however, the subject matter can come across as pretty “dry” when approached in this way.

    Learning is such a complex subject that it could spawn endless interesting threads. Not only are different things often learned different ways, but there are different types of learners – visual, auditory, readers, tactile, etc. Each might respond very differently to similar stimuli and do best with different types of lessons. Teaching can be a fairly deep skill, if you really intend to do it well and reach everyone, not just the students who “click” with your style and emphasis.

    As far as learning complex skills in small increments goes, I’ve heard and read countless times that anything but doing an exact replication of the skill you want to attain is a waste of time, as it has little or no overlap with getting better at that particular skill. This has always seemed to me an exaggeration at best.

    An example is when I learned to do a spinning back kick. Not only does your balance and heading continuously change, but you have to do it quickly and if you don’t do it with good speed and/or timing, it’s pretty much a suicide move because you’re likely to get caught with your back to your opponent … just about the worst possible place to be in a fight, right? All those things have to come together as smoothly as anything else you’ll ever do, if not smoother, because it’s a large, easily telegraphed movement. You can’t half-arse it.

    But I benefited a lot by breaking it into pieces when learning. I concentrated on the initial turn, getting my back hip spun forward with strong momentum without having the rest of my legs and body flopping around loose, and without moving much off my initial start point, to keep the movement tight and less telegraphic. I never saw anyone else doing that, but I practiced it a lot. Even while walking back and forth in the yard doing chores, or across the kitchen floor.

    After a while I had such good control of the initial momentum, balance, and positioning that learning how the rest of the kick works as you unfold your legs to full extension was pretty easy. The latter turned out to be trivial compared to the former, which is where your power and control really come from. Your deceptiveness too.

    Turns out I had been doing what is so often recommended to athletes: Master the basics, and no matter how good and fancy you get later, keep up on them.

    I saw a PBS special on Ted Williams, traditionally considered the greatest baseball hitter of all time. He practiced the basics endlessly, with fiendish concentration. Bruce Lee did the same thing with the fencing lunge, which is why people say one of his primary skills was that he could cover ground with astonishing quickness.

    If you can do the basics, everything else can come from them. And everything else is bettered by a good command of them. But if you can’t, new skills you don’t have a lucky knack for can stump you even as people who are not as good as you master them quickly.

    So I don’t mind working on building up mastery one small piece at a time. It doesn’t mean you’ll never get to a natural flow later. It means you’re building a foundation to work from. And if you don’t have that, I find that skill acquisition can be difficult, anything from random to impossible, hard to keep up, and easy to forget.

    I really like your approach, and it does closely resemble interleaving. Lots of similarities between playing a musical instrument and unicycling(except that it’s harder to isolate certain aspects of unicycling). I sometimes do what you do without actually planning to in advance. My original plans are usually to do a block practice of one skill for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, but this often gets cut down to 10 or 15 minutes per skill after either frustration, boredom, tiredness, or lack of time. Then after one block, I usually do or plan another 20 minute block. It seems I would sometimes interleave without knowing it, and often made great progress.

    Today I experimented with interleaving and practiced skill A for 10 minutes, skill B for 10 minutes, then repeated A and then B for 10 minutes each. Also some skill C(basic stuff) toward the end. Although it’s probably too soon to tell, noticed some improvement with skill A(juggling one-footed idling). Could be a fluke, but I’ll keep doing this. On the other hand it felt like my skill B(backwards juggling) ability deteriorated, but this could be due to the extreme heat and tired legs(did a run in the morning).

    This doesn’t mean block practice can’t be helpful at times. It depends on the skill and where you’re at. It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out which learning strategy works best, but now science shows too much repetition for a long period of time often isn’t the best way to learn.

    Your two comments, above, do not reflect my personal experience learning to unicycle. For me, struggling to learn a harder skill improved my mastery of the easier skill. Some of the tools necessary to really master the basic skill did not become evident until I practiced the harder skill. Some riders have commented on the forum that improvement comes from “more saddle time”. My belief is that “more saddle time” only produces improvement to the extent that we are challenging ourselves to do things we haven’t mastered. Instead of the harder skill flowing organically from the easier one, my sense is that for unicycling the opposite applies: The tools for the basic skill exist within the harder skill. This attitude doesn’t apply to all types of learning, but my own sense is that it applies to unicycling.

    I think I’m on the Dingfelder side for muni.

    I say learn to ride and learn to ride well. (this may take years)
    Once you can mount and ride slowly, uphill, downhill, bumpy, drops, slick roots, etc… then try your advanced stuff.

    It will come easier.

    I don’t want to say anything specific about unicycling, as I’ve never ridden one in my life! Mine’s not coming till Monday! I’m coming to you guys for knowledge about that. I was speaking about learning things generally, and a bit about what’s sometimes referred to as emphasizing principle over technique.

    I don’t think that’s entirely in contradiction to what you’re saying, but it’s all wound together in complicated ways that are hard to separate out.

    I also want to propose something else. It is easy to think one is not progressing when practicing the basics, but that is sometimes not true. I would suggest one may need to do a movement many times to build up the neural pathways necessary to do it well. Do those movements wrong and you’ll build up the wrong neural pathways and not improve much if at all; you may even get worse. Do them right and with concentration and you will probably be headed toward success. I don’t believe the learning process, building that “muscle memory” or intuitive feel and understanding, is always transparent to the learner.

    What I’m saying is, you may have perceived you were making little progress at times when you were indeed making important progress invisible to you. Perhaps you were slowly racking up the successful level of muscle recruitment and nervous system training needed to make the difference you finally noticed coming out elsewhere. I don’t believe progress is always visible until time goes by … even that one’s own progress is sometimes visible only to others.

    I know I’ve felt like I haven’t improved in some martial arts ability in a long time only to wow people who haven’t seen me in a while, or be told by people who trained with me often that there had been a very noticeable improvement. Looking back, I could see they must be correct. It just didn’t feel like it because I was too close to the subject (me!) and had lost all perspective. Sometimes I thought they were pulling my leg.

    Here’s another way of looking at it. When talking about learning spin kicks, like I was, by your approach I might have been better off trying to focus on the harder stuff, like whipping the striking leg to full extension and controlling its momentum, all while aiming for the target. This might be more useful than simply working the basics some more, and a better goad to skill improvement.

    The thing is, though … it only appears that the “hard” parts talked about there are the hard parts. Actually they are trivial compared to establishing proper position, correctly starting the kick, and beginning to pick up speed and transfer power up from the ground through the supporting leg and on into the kicking leg. You don’t just kick with the kicking leg; you kick with the whole body, and it’s got to be in the right place. It might not seem intuitively true or look like it to the outsider, but the better you are at the kick, the less your kicking leg matters. It’s almost a passenger along for the ride.

    What really makes things work can be all but invisible to outsiders and even ourselves, and so can progress toward making things work.

    Again, it would be inappropriate for me to say I know anything about unicycle riding, and I’m not saying that here. I know it applies to a lot of skill acquisition, even strength training.

    Not done mindlessly, though. If anything, I’m most of all a big proponent of “grease the groove” high-focus training for both physical and “book” learning, as well as strength training.

    I cannot argue with Canoeheadted, since my impression is he is an accelerated learner and is rocking it off-road. Ted, get your butt down to SoCal and I’ll show you some good muni trails!

    There is a dirt hill across from the local high school. The students call it “the wall.” When I first encountered it while muni-ing, I wondered if riding up it was even possible. I succeeded in riding up it about a year later, and I’ve been able to ride up it ever since. I would have never learned the techniques and posture necessary to make it up that hill…without having endured the Sisyphean struggle of failing so many times.

    Long story short, I improved faster sucking at the hard stuff … than by nailing the easy stuff. More specifically, sucking at the hard stuff today is going to help me nail the easy stuff tomorrow. If I “spun” a hill today that last week I “slogged”, it is because I “slogged” an even harder hill yesterday.

    Another example: Figure eights. I can ride pretty smooth 8s … to a limit. As the 8s get tighter, my riding starts getting choppier. Same applies to the same sized figure 8s on my 20" followed by my 26". I start having trouble on the larger wheel for the same diameter 8. Refining my larger figure 8 is not going to help my smaller figure 8, because I have to pedal faster to perform smaller figure 8s. The practical knowledge of pedaling faster will not necessarily become evident while practicing the larger figure eights.

    I think we improve faster pushing the edge of our technique rather than trying to refine what we already know. Again, I think this applies to unicycling, but not necessarily to other disciplines.

    Perfect is the enemy of good

    Yesterday morning was the first time I tried figure 8s, since I learned to ride. First on the 26" and then on 36". I totally suck at it. And I can definitely ride a smaller circle to the right than to the left. The 36" was simply too big and I only recently learned to ride it again. The KH 26" muni, had a lot of friction on the pavement. From what I see on Youtube, people sit up straight rather than hang forward when turning, so I try that but often end up hanging too much until Im all locked up and eventually UPD. On my uni trips I can occasionally make 90 degree turns though, so I will turn where I want to go, but figure 8s are something else. I also tried to go zigzag through pilons, which turned out to be more diffi than expected as well.

    I really look forward to this kind of practice; it sounds fun to me. And being able to make tight turns sounds extremely useful.

    Good luck with yours! I bet your eventual improvement in that skill will come in handy.

    The friction issue – does it make it much harder? and if so, do you think there might still be peculiar advantages to tight moves on pavement with a Muni tire?

    I suggest you play around with the tire pressure a lot in the beginning stages.

    High tire pressure makes the unicycle more responsive. If you are practicing holding onto a crutch of some sort (wall, fence, chairs, etc.), I think high pressure is good in these situations because the response of the wheel is immediate. Even though you won’t know how to control it, you’ll be getting immediate feedback from the pedals. Everything will feel skittish, but you will be training your muscles to react more quickly.

    Lower tire pressure might be useful for creating some rolling resistance when you are first riding out into the open. A common beginners’ problem is accelerating to the point of UPDing. Combining lower tire pressure with riding up a slight incline, as a beginner, might help. Also, lower tire pressure is going to be super helpful when you start practicing free mounts (without a backstop). It will help steady the unicycle slightly during the mount.

    Once beginners learn to ride 20 feet forward, they typically have no control over turning. Higher tire pressure is going to make the unicycle more skittish, but again, the feedback is going to be more pure. Riders complain about “auto steer” with some lower-pressure, higher volume tires. Auto steer could be your friend in the beginning, assuming it’s keeping you riding in a straight line.

    It’s the experimentation that really counts, at least in my experience. You’ve got to experiment to find out what works for you. Particularly, you need to figure out how to be safe in the process. I was concerned after reading about your backward falls. I don’t want you to get psyched out about falling, but you are going to have to consider the reasons why you fell in the first place, then find a way to avoid that.

    I found the transition from clockwise to counterclockwise and visa versa to be the most challenging part of the figure eights. And I’m better turning to the left than to the right. Maybe because I’m more comfortable pedaling faster while turning to the left. It’s easier to be objective when comparing techniques on either side of our body … than it is to assess how good we are, in general, at a particular skill. Figure eights force the rider to use both sides equally, whereas, if left to our own devices, we might too often rely on our strong side.

    I’m not really sure how to think about it, because it’s so brand new to me. I can’t easily cast a critical eye when I am so close to the situation and unfamiliar with it. But perhaps thinking about tire pressure is a start?

    Perhaps I should lower the pressure at first to make the wheel less skittish? I read a rule of thumb that 1 PSI per pound of body weight was good. So at a bit under 220, I took the tire, rated at 15-35 PSI, to 22 PSI. It feels quite firm to the fingers.

    I’ve also wondered if I should lower the seat post some more. I cut like an inch and a half off the seatpost because even when down as far as it could go, the seat was still almost bellybutton high, and that made me have to leap just to get seated. I have seen bellybutton height recommended, but it felt excessively high for a raw beginner.

    Does that make sense?

    Depends on your end goal. If you are learning for fun, and riding for fun, definitely mix up the wheel sizes. Each rides differently. The more you mix them up, the better you will be at making the mental transition from one to the next, until it’s hardly noticeable.

    However, if your goal is to race in a big event on your 36" pretty soon, I’d definitely recommend concentrating on riding just that, and working on the various aspects of things you would need to be successful in that event. Then, after that’s over, you can go back to screwing around on different sizes.
    quote=Setonix]My aim is to make riding a uni as “easy” as riding a bike and I have some ways to go.
    So do it. Don’t expect it to get to a point of being completely equal. It will always be easier to hop on a bike with poor foot positioning. Though I do this on unicycles all the time also, it’s not as easy to correct on bumpy surfaces. It will always be easier to “space out” while riding a bike, and paying a lot less attention. :slight_smile:

    Absolutely. Get a taste of that harder skill. You may need to continue working on that easier skill before you can do the harder skill, but in many cases, one skill reinforces another. Also I believe, if you aren’t in a focused hurry to learn something specific, that mixing things up will make learning unicycle tricks more fun, and presumably easier as well.

    That said, I also agree with the idea of mastering the basics. The better you can do basic things, such as figure 8s, riding slowly, idling without rotating, but better you can apply those skills to more advanced things.

    This has been my experience as well. I am sucky at some advanced things, but all the time I spend being sucky at these advanced skills helps me tremendously with the more basic versions of those advanced skills. One of many examples is how learning to juggle while idling helped my idling while not juggling. While I was “good enough” at idling before I learned how to juggle while doing it, I don’t believe I mastered it(I still used my arms a lot for balance). Now I believe I’ve finally mastered it, and idling is almost as mindless as riding forward now. In fact, after learning how to juggle while idling I learned one-footed idling practically overnight, one of those skills that “pops up” after learning another.

    Also, learning to do backwards figure 8’s has also helped with idling and backwards and my general riding ability, even though I’m pretty sucky at the backwards figure 8s while juggling.

    As far as interleaving goes, maybe it would be helpful to interleave something basic with something slightly more advanced to help master the basic skill. Would also be cool if you experimented with interleaving with your music students.

    I don’t ever see myself ride competitions. They are too stressing. I just like to ride at my own speed exploring the surroundings. Even though I don’t think I will really need to idle, I do think it will make me more in control of the uni, so at some time I will prolly learn.

    Even though riding a bike is easier and will always be easier, I like the feeling of a unicycle much more and if I have the choice, will always take the uni. I also noticed that because I’d been riding my 36" a while again, it made it a lot easier to mount the 29", that I hadn’t touched for me month. That one is still my favourite uni.

    I agree with yous that focusing on a harder skill will make it easier to perfect the easier skills, which then comes more naturally.