Developing a new or higher level skill is not an easy process, especially if trying to override an existing skill/pattern with a new pattern.  Playing more games is not the answer for skill improvement.  That’s a cold, hard truth that seems to be counter to mainstream thought and action, however what we know about the motor learning process makes that very clear.

What is skill and how is it developed? Schmidt and Wrisberg, 2004, defined motor skill acquisition as the internal processes that brings about relatively permanent changes in the learner’s movement capabilities. In other words, the athlete first has to demonstrate the skill in isolation and then consistently in a competitive environment before it can be defined as a skill for them.

In the book, Dynamics of Skill Acquisition, A Constraints-Led Approach, Davids et al explain the process of skill acquisition as being vastly different than execution of the skill. Developing the skill (acquiring) happens gradually over time and eventually results in a skill that is much less susceptible to factors such as fatigue, spectators, and anxiety.

In my experience, this is the process that is often rushed.  If athletes can’t perform a skill  a very high % of time in an isolated practice setting and in gradually more difficult practice situations; then playing more games isn’t going to bring that about quicker.  In fact, it will do the opposite.  Lack of success (expression of the skill) can lead to lack of confidence, frustration and even reverting back to a less efficient, but more comfortable, skill set just to get through the game, “safely.”

What’s the best way for an athlete to learn a new skill? Because in some cases, it’s actually the drills/instructions given to the athlete that may be hindering skill development.

Davids et al., suggest that some learning, especially more complex skills, may be better learned through random variability or utilizing the whole movement.  Whereas, early in learning, becoming competent in one aspect of the skill before moving on to the next aspect may be more appropriate.  In other words; a young softball pitcher who is just learning how to pitch may need to learn simple arm swing mechanics in isolation before worrying about how to sync that up with her lower body.  However, for a more proficient athlete trying to make some changes to arm swing mechanics it may be better to utilize drills that involve the full delivery.

What about cues? Is there a better way to give verbal instructions?

Wulf et al advise learners may respond better to external cues vs internal cues.  An external cue is essentially a cue that directs the focus away from the athlete’s body.  While an internal cue directs the focus to the athlete and what their body is doing. For example when teaching acceleration mechanics for sprinting,  we may use a cue for an athlete to push the ground away rather than telling them to focus on extending their hip.  We need hip extension during acceleration and we need it in the proper direction, but often times less experienced athletes will respond better an external cue such as pushing the ground away.  It’s an easy visual for them to process and understand.  Whereas, a highly proficient (high level sprinter) may need to understand what we want their hip to do and they can develop their own cue to make that happen.

Perhaps skill development and skill acquisition is likely best viewed the through the lens of the Dynamic Systems Theory as defined by Clarke and Crossland, 1985: “In a highly complex system like the human mind or human body all the parts affect each other in an intricate way, and studying them individually often disrupts their usual interactions so much that an isolated unit may behave quite differently from the way it would behave in its normal context.”

Likewise, the Dynamic Systems Theory also suggests that while there will be certain stable aspects of a skill that will be present from person to person, there is also a unique amount of movement variability that will be present from person to person.  Thus expecting every athlete to perform a skill such as pitching, the exact same way, is not ideal and may impact performance negatively.

As you can see, motor learning is complex and not nearly as simple as, “just throw strikes,” or any other often repeated phrase we here at athletic competitions.  Sometimes, an athlete just needs to be given time to step back and learn, or relearn, a better pattern or new skill that will help their performance on the court or field improve.  Adding the pressure of games, in addition to the performance expectations of parents/coaches only serves to slow down or worst case, prevent skill acquisition.

The more we (collectively) learn about and appreciate the motor learning process, the more we will be able to help the development of our athletes/kids.

1. Clarke, D., & Crossland, J. (1985). Action Systems: An introduction to the analysis of complex behaviour. London: Methuen

2. Davids, K., Button, C., & Bennett., S. (2008). Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics

3. Schmidt, R.A., & Wrisberg, C.A. (2004) Motor learning and performance (3rd ed.). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics

4. Wulf, G., Hoess, M., & Prinz, W. (1998). Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention. Journal of Motor Behavior, 30, 169-179