I had the pleasure of spending some time in the company of Phil Kearney when I guested as a speaker at the Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland (@MSAIreland) conference in Cork City Ireland in early April. The opportunities for interactions between speakers and delegates facilitated by Phil and his partners at Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland, Ed Coughlan, Olly Logan and Alan Dunton made it one of the most professionally rewarding and enjoyable conferences I have been involved in.
I was very happy that Phil accepted my invitation to write a guest article for Footblogball, especially as it connects nicely with my last blog piece Coaching, Interactions and The Workmanship of Risk
Phil Kearney is Teaching Assistant in Sport & Exercise Sciences at the University of Limerick. He is passionate about skill acquisition, and inspiring the next generation of sport scientists and coaches to apply the core principles of skill acquisition in the development of athletes. A Fellow of the Higher Education Authority, Phil committed to excellence and innovation in teaching. His research focuses on developing coaches and athletes, to enhances his practice as a sport scientist and the quality of his teaching. Phil Kearney is Co-founder of Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland (@MSAIreland).
What is skill acquisition?
Alongside strength & conditioning, nutrition, or performance analysis, the term skill acquisition (in the UK or Australasia) or motor behaviour (in North America) refers to a sub-discipline of the sport & exercise sciences. In offering the following definition, I am drawing heavily on an excellent article by Mark Williams and Paul Ford (1), which is my first recommendation to all those looking to better understand this discipline. So, what is skill acquisition:
Skill acquisition refers to the study of the development, performance, and refinement of skilful interactions over short (e.g., one coaching session), medium (e.g., one season), and long (e.g., duration of a talent development pathway) timescales, focusing on (a) what the athlete does (e.g., self-regulation), (b) coach-athlete interactions (e.g., provision of feedback), (c) the meso-environment (e.g., club organization/policy, such as delayed streaming), and (d) the socio-cultural macro environment (e.g., place of birth effect).
Perhaps the phrase I changed most when writing this definition was the central objective: “skilful interactions”. Terms such as movement, technique, or perceptual motor skill, have a long history of being debated by academics and coaches/teachers/instructors. The term interactions (2) was initially defined specifically in relation to football (soccer). However, I believe that its application beyond invasion games would be useful to many coaches and athletes. The term “interactions” refers to how a mover coordinates his/her behaviour within the performance context (i.e., game, race, ascent, etc) in relation to that environment, on the basis of not only the immediate physical and informational (i.e., situational) demands, but also on the basis of historical and cultural factors. Within my own context of track and field, conceiving of a hurdler as “interacting” with not only the track surface, wind, hurdles, relative position of other athletes, and consequences of earlier movements to solve the movement problem that he/she is currently facing emphasises the complexity and emergent nature of movement. Such an emphasis shifts the coaching narrative away from guiding the learner towards a predetermined optimal technique that he/she can reproduce at will, towards developing an adaptive performer. Thus, following from Newell (3), skilful interactions are sufficiently optimal solutions to the movement problem faced in terms of safety, efficiency and/or effectiveness for that individual at that moment in time.
Performance refers to both the process by which a movement emerges (often referred to as motor control) as well as the process by which a movement is produced when it matters: in the performance context. Such performance contexts may be a sporting competition, or the descent of rapid on a river miles from aid. The work of a skill acquisition specialist focuses on the nature of the practice activities that, in the long term, prepare an athlete for those contexts. Thus, the skill acquisition specialist may work with a coach to promote implicit learning (4), or to create training situations that mimic the arousal and anxiety of competition (5). In terms of refinement, the work of Howie Carson and Dave Collins (6) suggests that when players develop well-learned habits, the process by which further development is made is subtly but importantly different from the process by which skills are initially developed. Carson and Collins’ Five-A Model provides a useful stimulus for reflection for coaches who deal with such problems.
An alternative way of categorising the questions that a skill acquisition specialist investigates is to consider the level of analysis. I suggest that there are four key levels at which a skill acquisition specialist works:
- What the athlete (learner) does: Although scanning through the contents page of most skill acquisition texts will reveal a heavy emphasis on what the coach/teacher/instructor does (e.g., instruction, practice design, feedback, etc), I am in agreement with Donald Finkel (7) who argued forcefully that the key to learning lies in what the instructor can incite the learner to do. Research has consistently revealed that experts practice differently (e.g., 8), and this finding holds whether we are discussing expert sportspeople, musicians, writers, or university students (9). Thus, the skill acquisition specialist can work to enhance the individual learner’s use of key strategies (termed self-regulation) which have been consistently associated with effective learning such as goal setting, use of task strategies, imagery, self-instruction, time management, help seeking, environment structuring, self-evaluation, and self-consequences. Such strategies have consistently proved effective when explicitly taught to athletes (10).
- Coach-athlete interactions: As mentioned above, textbooks on skill acquisition are often dominated by what the coach does. There is much valuable research and guidance on the optimal design of instruction, practice organization, and provision of feedback. A useful “golden thread” to understand the beneficial and interacting effects of these different coach behaviours is the Challenge Point Framework (11). One crucial lesson from Challenge Point is that two coaches may apply very different behaviours (e.g., simple activity and low feedback v complex activity and high feedback) to produce the same beneficial thought processes in their learners, resulting in equally effective outcomes. Consequently, it is more important to analyse why coaches are doing what they are doing than to simply examine their behaviours (12). An intriguing development in this area is the use of “Think Aloud” protocols (13).
- Sustained effective coaching is rarely the result of an individual coach acting in isolation, but the development of a community that interacts to create a rich environment for developing athletes. Thus it is vitally important that skill acquisition specialists research and intervene at the level of the club/school. Borrowing from Bonfrenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, this level is described as the meso-environment of the developing person. Research has provided rich guidance as to what effective youth development environments should look like (14), including factors such as encouraging a philosophy of deliberate play within and beyond organized sport, delaying streaming of athletes by current performance level, promoting interaction between different age groups, the primacy of team competitions for a track and field/swimming/golf team, avoiding early positional specialisation, etc. Case studies of effective youth development organizations (e.g., 15) are providing valuable guidance as to how such communities may be developed.
- Finally, broader socio-cultural constraints (the macro-environment) have an important influence on the developing athlete. Examples of where the influence of such broad constraints is seen include:
- The Relative Age Effect (16): the national organization of competition structure results in biases in favour of individuals born at certain times of the year which may have a long lasting impact on performance and participation.
- The Place of Birth Effect (17): The characteristics of where you spend your developing years can shape your development in a significant way.
Understanding such effects are important as they provide valuable guidance on how to shape the meso-environment (e.g., through club structures/policies).
In summary, the skill acquisition specialist works at a variety of levels (individual athlete, coach-athlete interaction, club structure, broader socio-cultural constraints) and on a variety of timescales (a session, a season, a career), to develop individuals capable of skilful interactions.