I've been wanting to make this thread for a while since it's something that plenty of people don't really seem to 'get'.
Although I'll mostly be using 3x3 and CFOP as my basis for examples, I'll try to keep each rule or guide as generalisable as possible to other methods and puzzles.
In general, practice should take into account several areas:
- Method - how you solve the puzzle.
- Technique - how your hands move the puzzle.
- Recognition/Look-ahead - what pieces you need to look for, how fast you can recognise them, and your familiarity with how they move.
Valuable practice is:
- Goal-oriented - what you want to achieve; both short and long-term aims.
- Structured - start with A, move on to B, concentrate on C, go back to A.
- Reflective - "x, y, z was weak last solve/session, try not to repeat the mistakes next solve/session/time I get that case".
It's often said that it is the perfectionists in any competitive sport that represent the best. If you don't naturally possess that attitude, adopt it.
Throughout each session, you should be constantly questioning all of your standards. If you can see nothing wrong with your solves then you probably see nothing wrong with being at your current speed. Change that attitude.
To expand on each point:
- Your familiarity with the intuitive parts of solves.
- Your understanding of the reasoning behind steps and algorithms.
- Knowledge and familiarity with the method you use as a whole - how steps and sub-steps interact (this is extremely important for overall fluidity in solves).
This particular area can often be improved simply by playing around with your puzzle/method casually and untimed. Try to find shortcuts or new approaches or optimisations. Working out different ways of recognising cases or visualising pieces is important to increase your understanding of the puzzle. Learn how commutators work, read up on cube theory, ask questions on the forum and search for answers.
Try and invent new and intuitive ways of solving the puzzle. Learn the methods used to solve the puzzle blindfolded. Play with other speedsolving methods. In order to really understand your method and how it works, you need a context which can only be gained through reading about and using other methods. If you're sub 20 with Fridrich then you can be sub 20 with ZZ, Petrus and Roux, no doubt.
Thinking about the 'interaction' of steps and sub-steps helped my f2l in CFOP immensely. Once you realise that the purpose of many of these substeps is to make things easier for your brain you know you can surpass them. Who needs a cross when you can build an x-cross? Who needs one algorithm for the last slot and leave the number of oriented edges to chance when you can force EO skips and even OLL skips?
A method is just making a puzzle digestible. Getting used to a method involves expanding your brain, so you should be able to take on larger chunks...
This is something that really, really gets left out in the general community consciousness. When you look across other disciplines that require a certain level of technique, almost all of them have technical exercises and drills. However, that isn't explicit in cubing at all since it's such a new sport; there is no comprehensive 'standard' set of fingertricks one must learn.
Right now, you have to figure out optimal turning-style yourself. Yes, you can watch videos of the fastest people and attempt to adopt their style, or learn solving off the big youtube names and copy their turning, but it's very important to keep in mind that if you don't properly explore turning technique yourself you won't be able to really see when you make mistakes; unnecessary hand, wrist and finger movements are a waste of energy and just impede your own potential.
Something that has always irritated me is when people say 'I can't do x,y,z style of turn, it just doesn't work for me'.
Yes, some people's hands will be just too small to execute certain things properly, or some people's hands will be a little too big, and some are naturally more dextrous than others...
But just look at musical instruments. A massive variety of people with different sized hands and levels of natural dexterity can all learn to use standard technique and adopt it, no matter how uncomfortable it is at the start. Trust me, barre chords feel like dirt to begin with.
The lesson I'm trying to get at is that even though a fingertrick may seem uncomfortable and feel like it 'doesn't fit', you have to push through it. If someone who has been cubing 5 years can adopt new fingertricks (hi Breandan), then someone who has been cubing 5 months definitely can.
Another thing that seems an obvious problem for many new and old cubers is that they don't consider what's going to happen 'after' the algorithm they're currently performing. If your way of solving f2l pairs/an OLL case leaves your hand in a bad position, or requires a regrip, or is 'tiring' or too explosive, then you should reconsider how to approach it. While you may not find a more optimal execution (some cases are just bad), you may find new angles or ways of avoiding that particular case that are a better approach. Practice your transitions between f2l cases or OLL and PLL cases.
To demonstrate the reasoning: we all know that executing "U, U" sucks while you are searching for pieces or recognising OLL. It makes much more sense to tech in a fingertrick that works when you aren't already expecting to do a U2. Adding the LH index finger push on LBU, although it feels weird, definitely makes sense after a while, especially once you use it a few times in f2l. It means you can make a turn while allowing your RH to 'reset' and prepare for the most likely RH dominant alg you're about to perform, rather than keeping it used and making it marginally more tired and less quick. This is what is meant by 'hand balance'.
I've found that something useful to keep in mind is that your fingers really do 'tire' somewhat. Just do U turns repeatedly and watch your finger get tired. Then do U turns with a little break in between and see that if you allow your finger muscles some time to recover slightly you get less of a drop in speed between each repeat. The U flick is one of the most 'tiring' moves because it is so explosive and your finger covers a reasonable distance. Compare this to a finger push and you'll see that it's far less explosive, your finger joint bends less and the finger travels less far and thus has less far to return to normal position. However, it is slower. The trick to using the two effectively is knowing where one will fit where the other would be less smooth or less consistent or more tiring.
Take algorithms that look like they will suck using normal fingertricks. Experiment, play around, adopt maybe some OH style turning for some occasions, look at videos of PLLs and OLLs from as many different cubers as possible and emulate or improve them, try to reduce regrips, stick in a few index pushes, maintain hand balance during f2l, learn to U2' doubleflick...
Recognition & Lookahead
What is important to keep in mind (and this is a generalisable maxim across puzzles), is that CFOP is not a 7-step method, it's a 1-step method: solve the cube.
It doesn't take long to become familiar with CFOP, perhaps 6 months to a year of decent practice. Beyond that, each step of a method (and thinking in 'steps') just becomes a hindrance. You want to solve as much as possible with as few pauses as possible while turning just fast enough to keep your brain pushed.
In regards to lookahead, it's important to keep your mind empty and relaxed. The pieces are right in front of you, there is little need to frantically search. Once you allow yourself to see more of the cube rather than just 'gotta find that green/red edge!!!' you'll realise that CFOP is very flexible. Speedcubing is about taking a complex process and reducing it to a simple process and finally an unconscious process. This can happen a lot faster than you think, but often doesn't, ironically because we 'think' too much.
Something I found that helped my understanding of pieces (and thus knowing where they would end up) was not just experience but also working on visualising them in different ways. For example, I was originally taught f2l as 'hiding' edges and corners, but I soon forgot that after concentrating more on other sources. Once I remembered this prior learning I realised something quite important. During f2l, one move can be both 'hiding' one piece and 'showing' another. What's the point of doing the two separately? Combining f2l cases and 'multi-slotting' became much easier after I saw the parallels between f2l pairs and how many cases are practically the same, save a couple of moves.
It's hard to explain recognition and lookahead without too much waffle so I'll just go right ahead and say - after a certain point solving becomes automatic. Once you get to that stage, use what you've learnt from it and leave it. Try to predict what's going to happen much further away than you would normally think possible. Try to solve the cube in 4 or 5 looks. Don't forget however, that self-expression is important. If you can create your own effective ways to practice x technique then it means you really understand what x technique requires.
You should be constantly questioning your methods, your technique, your turning speed and style, your own abilities, why you are at certain levels and not others... You should be re-inventing ways of looking at pieces, trying to understand how they relate, working on smooth algorithms, learning new ones, blending steps, looking at different types of pieces while you solve others... You could even try to look for parallels in other mind sports and see how they practice and deal with problems, but the key thing is making what used to be hard work as unconscious as possible.
Zarxrax posted a thread a while ago with an article about memory as a mind-sport and explains some elements of practice much more comprehensively than I can - anyone who has got this far should read that too. In there is an important quote from Bruce Lee that any serious speedcuber should take to heart:
“There are no limits. There are plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”
I'll be sure to edit this with any corrections or improvements. As soon as I can I'm going to make some videos, I just really wanted to get my ideas down here first. I'll try to answer any questions, hopefully this can become a useful sticky.
(tl;dr: don't be a nub)