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Skill Development

When we choose to move, the conscious brain is controlled using a collection of learned movements. For the movement to progress successfully, the athlete requires information feedback.

Types of skill

There are several different types of skills:

  • Cognitive - or intellectual skills that require thought processes
  • Perceptual - interpretation of presented information
  • Motor - movement and muscle control
  • Perceptual-motor - involve the thought, interpretation and movement skills

How do we teach a new skill?

Various methods can achieve the teaching of a new skill:

  • Verbal instructions
  • Demonstration
  • Video
  • Diagrams
  • Photo sequences

The Learning Phases - Fitts & Posner

Fitts and Posner (1967)[3] suggested that the learning process is sequential and that we move through specific phases as we learn. There are three stages to learning a new skill:

  • Cognitive phase - Identification and development of the parts of the skill - involves the formation of a mental picture of the skill
  • Associative phase - Linking the parts into a smooth action - involves practicing the skill and using feedback to perfect the skill
  • Autonomous phase - Developing the learned skill so that it becomes automatic - involves little or no conscious thought or attention while performing the skill - not all performers reach this stage

Learning of physical skills requires the relevant movements to be assembled, component by component, using feedback to shape and polish them into a smooth action. Rehearsal of the skill must be done regularly and correctly.

Schmidt's Schema Theory

Schmidt's theory (Schmidt 1975)[2] was based on the view that actions are not stored; rather, we refer to abstract relationships or rules about movement. Schmidt's schema is based on the theory that every time a movement is conducted, four pieces of information are gathered:

  • the initial conditions - the starting point
  • certain aspects of the motor action - how fast, how high
  • the results of the action - success or failure
  • the sensory consequences of the action - how it felt

Relationships between these information items construct a recall and recognition schema. The Recall schema is based on initial conditions and the results and is used to generate a motor program to address a new goal. The recognition schema is based on sensory actions and the outcome.

Adam's Closed Loop Theory

Adam's theory (Adams 1971)[1] has two elements:

  • Perceptual trace - a reference model acquired through practice
  • Memory trace - responsible for initiating the movement

The key feature of this theory is the role of feedback.

  • Analyse the reference model actions, the result of those actions and the desired goals
  • Refine the reference model to produce the required actions to achieve the desired goals

Bandura's Social Learning Theory

There are three core concepts of social learning theory

  1. people can learn through observation
  2. mental states are an essential part of this process
  3. it will not necessarily result in a change of behaviour

Bandura et al. (1961)[4] studied children who observed an adult acting aggressively toward a doll. When the children were later allowed to play with the doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they had previously observed.

Bandura identified three basic models of observational learning:

  • A live model involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behaviour
  • A verbal instructional model involves descriptions and explanations of a behaviour
  • A symbolic model involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviours in books, films, television programs, or online media

Kolb's Learning Cycle

Kolb (1984)[5] developed an experiential learning theory that can give us a valuable model to build our knowledge. The model comprises four stages:

  • Concrete Experience - doing or having an experience
  • Reflective Observation - reviewing & reflecting on the experience
  • Abstract Conceptualisation - concluding & learning from the experience
  • Active Experimentation - planning & trying out what you have learned

Whitmore Learning Cycle

Whitmore (1984)[6] identified that our learning cycle generally takes us through four stages:

  • Unconscious incompetence - no understanding
  • Conscious incompetence - low performance, recognition of flaws and weak areas
  • Conscious competence - improved performance, conscious effort
  • Unconscious competence - higher performance, natural automatic effort

Transfer of learning

Galligan (2000)[7] suggests that the transfer of learning can take place in the following ways:

  • Skill to skill
    • is where a skill developed in one sport influences another sport's skill. If the influence is on a new skill being developed, then this is said to be proactive, and if the influence is on a previously learned skill, then this is said to be retroactive.
  • Theory to practice
    • the transfer of theoretical skills into practice.
  • Training to competition
    • the transfer of skills developed in training into the competition situation.

Effects of transfer of learning

Galligan (2000)[7] suggests that the effects of transfer can be:

  • Negative
    • Where a skill developed in one sport hinders the performance of skill in another sport
  • Zero
    • Where a skill in one sport has no impact on the learning of a new sport
  • Positive
    • Where a skill developed in one sport helps the performance of skill in another sport
  • Direct
    • Where a skill can be taken directly from sport to another
  • Bilateral
    • Transfer of skill from the side of the body to the other - use left and right
  • Unequal
    • A skill developed in one sport helps another sport more than the reverse

How do we assess skill performance?

Compare visual feedback from the athlete's movement with the technical model. Athletes should be encouraged to evaluate their performance. In assessing the performance of an athlete, consider the following points:

  • Are the basics correct?
  • Is the direction of the movement correct?
  • Is the rhythm correct?

Ask athletes to remember how it felt when correct examples of movement are demonstrated (kinaesthetic feedback).

Appropriate checklists/notes can be used to assist the coach in assessing an athlete's technique. The following are some examples:

How are faults caused?

Having assessed the performance and identified that there is a fault, you need to determine why it is happening. Faults can be caused by:

  • Incorrect understanding of the movement by the athlete
  • Poor physical abilities
  • Poor coordination of movement
  • Incorrect application of power
  • Lack of concentration
  • Inappropriate clothing or footwear
  • External factors, e.g. weather conditions

Strategies and Tactics

Strategies are the plans we prepare before a competition, which we hope will place an individual or team in a winning position. Tactics are how we put these strategies into action. Athletes in the associative phase of learning will not be able to cope with strategies, but the athlete in the autonomous phase should apply strategies and tactics.

To develop strategies and tactics, we need to know:

  • the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition
  • our strengths and weaknesses
  • environmental factors


Practice makes permanent, but not necessarily perfect.


  1. ADAMS, J.A. (1971) A closed-loop theory of motor learning. Journal of Motor Behavior, 3 (2), p. 111-150
  2. SCHMIDT, R.A. (1975) A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological Review, 82 (4), p. 225-260
  3. FITTS, P.M. and POSNER, M.I. (1967) Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks and Cole
  4. BANDURA, A., ROSS, D. and ROSS, S. A. (1961) Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, p. 575-582.
  5. KOLB, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning experience as a source of learning and development. New Jersey, Prentice Hall
  6. WHITMORE, J. (1996) Coaching for Performance. London, Nicholas Brealey
  7. GALLIGAN, F. et al. (2000) Acquiring Skill In: GALLIGAN, F. et al., Advanced PE for Edexcel. 1st ed. Bath: Bath Press, p. 126-127

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (1997) Skill Development [WWW] Available from: [Accessed