Skill Acquisition in Sport

This article attempts to provide simplistic insight into the concept of Skill Acquisition in sport, and specifically what actions coaches and teachers need to be conscious of to help ensure their athletes are presented with the best possible chance of achieving excellence.

In an effort to effectively develop talent and impart learning, coaches need to be aware of the proposition offered by Sports scientists that denotes the journey any young performer passes through on their route to expertise, consists of three distinct stages. Simplistically, these are referred to as the Cognitive Stage, Associative Stage and Autonomous Stage of Skill Acquisition. Skill Acquisition is the science that underpins movement learning and execution and is more commonly termed motor learning and control (Williams & Ford, 2009). Each stage embodies unique characteristics relative to an athlete’s level of performance of a skill or activity. All of which, are affected by a range of environmental constraints that can include factors such as: level of instruction, quality and frequency of feedback, opportunity to make decisions, type and frequency of practice, exposure to other sports, organismic factors and socio-economic/cultural limitations (Ericsson & Lehman, 1996; Fairbrother, 2010; Magill, 2009; Newell, 1986 & Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2004).

Cognitive Stage

The Cognitive stage is affiliated with a performer’s introduction to a skillset or activity and as such; awkwardness, errors and confusion/disorientation are to be expected. Beyond this, however, it is important for practitioners to recognize what types of exercises and coaching behaviors are most conducive to providing athletes’ with the best possible foundation for growth whilst embedded in this stage. Continuous feedback that is both informative and positive in nature is essential in facilitating both confidence in and an understanding of, a task (Magill,1998, Schemmp, McCullick and Mason, 2006). Furthermore, tasks should be structured to ensure that a high degree of early success is witnessed ensuring a performer’s feelings of their own inherent competence grows (Mitchell,1996). To supplement this, coaches must be cognizant of the benefit that appropriate demonstrations can bring within this stage of development. Painting the correct picture of how a skill or task is to be completed, whilst not overwhelming the child is an integral coaching/teaching tool within this phase (Bailey, 2001, Stafford, 2011).

Lastly, when discussing a performer’s ability to graduate out of this stage there is perhaps no greater focus point than ensuring a platform of functional movement skills is appropriately provided. This can be achieved through engagement with a range of: tasks, sports, games and exercises. Functional Movement Skills (Locomotor, Non Locomotor & Manipulative) provide the base from which Sport Specific movements later grow and therefore, their importance cannot be underestimated. This is specifically critical for coaches and teachers of those from less socially fortunate backgrounds to understand, considering Newell’s (1986) claim that Environmental factors have the ability to significantly impact a person’s ability to acquire physical literacy skills considering their lack of exposure to practice opportunities.

Borrowing from the work of a range of researchers who have sought to understand how elite athletes are grown and developed – such actions equate to those suggested in the: Sampling Years (Cote & Hay 2002), the Fundamental Movement Skills of Gallahue and Ozman (1995) and the FUNdamental stage of Balyi and Hamilton’s (2004) Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model. Steel, Harris, Baxter and King (2013) summarize the importance of such an introduction to sport by suggesting that multidisciplinary backgrounds provide for a more resilient and effective performer.

The duration for which a performer stays embedded within the Cognitive Stage is dependent upon a multitude of factors. Some may simply never graduate from it. What is acknowledged however, is that when a performer seems to be displaying an understanding and execution of a skill void from conscious mechanical thought their journey to the Associative Stage of learning has begun.

Associative Stage

Embodied by an emphasis on practice, the Associative Stage of Skill Acquisition is the second step on the journey to expertise. The learner having acquired an understanding of what the skill is needs to repeat the movement to enhance the synchronization of their mind and muscles. This concept of myelination is fast becoming the most commonly associated difference between those that excel and those that do not.

Each time the brain completes a skill an impulse/message is sent between the brain and the functioning body part. The more purposeful this action and the more times it is repeated the thicker the layer of insulation (Myelin Sheath) surrounding the message is. The thicker the Myelin Sheath is – the faster an impulse travels from the brain to the moving muscle thus increasing the efficiency  and accuracy of the action and reducing the time taken for the skill to be completed (Coyle, 2009).

This phase can still embody some of the error strewn characteristics of the Cognitive stage however, these instances are now less frequent and importantly the value of feedback, reflection and adjustment should now be inherently apparent. The constant attention to detail and correction required to complete the skill efficiently and effectively is being learned and as such, the value of such specificity cannot be overlooked. In his research into the Development of Expertise, researcher Anders Ericsson offered the contention that it would take an athlete 10,000 hours of Deliberate Practice to achieve Excellence. The deliberate practice framework developed by Ericsson and colleagues suggested that it is not sufficient to simply practice skills. Engagement must also be characterized by effort and attention with the aim of improving performance rather than gaining immediate social gains, i.e., practice should be work-like (Farrow, Baker, & MacMahon, 2008). Note here, the link to the growth and development of Myelin referred to earlier. We want the body to fire very specific impulses and messages when attempting to complete a skill. As a result, the depth and detail of the feedback provided by coaches and the technical nature of the practices they put forth are essential.

Autonomous Stage

In order for a skill to be autonomous the performer must have correctly refined all of the inherent sub routines and building blocks required for efficient execution. From a physical literacy perspective, athletes must be able to now combine the simple movements learned in the Cognitive stage into sport specific, complex sequences in aesthetically pleasing fluency. The highly specific technical points within a skill such as striking a soccer ball now must be unconsciously attended too. The transition to automaticity means that the performer is now able to effectively and efficiently execute the type of skill or action in a context and environment that now demands decisions to be proactively made (e.g. a game). As a result, one’s focus and attention is now on a range of visual cues that will influence said decision. Here is where the transition to Expert and Elite is found.

Naturally, the types of activities an athlete is engaged in, and exposed to at this level differ significantly from those offered at the introductory levels. It is expected that an athlete’s investment in their chosen sport is now significant and as such the specificity of practice is essential.

Stratton, Ward and Smeeton (2003) provided the diagram below to demonstrate the changing nature of skills as performers pass through respective development models.

Model Pyramid

Cote and Hay

Gallahue and   Ozmun

Balyi and   Hamilton


Regardless of the Development Model followed, what is evident is that the nature of practices evolves as the level of investment in a sport evolves and as the skillset of the performer evolves. This evolving nature of practice is what ensures skill and performance levels continue to develop. As discussed earlier, it is here the value of deliberate practice, deep practice and the subsequent production of myelin become important.

In his book The Talent Code, Dan Coyle discusses the concept of Deep Practice as the first of his three pillars towards achieving skilled performance. In order to both achieve and remain in the autonomous stage performers must be consistently challenged by coaches. Once the early success and understanding of a skill is achieved a paradigm shift is unleashed that almost sees the effortless completion of a skill and demonstration of talent as a negative thing. “Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes-makes you smarter. We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn” (Coyle, 2009 pg. 18). Conventional wisdom suggests the longer one practices the better they will become. However, if that practice is not purposeful, not challenging, not laden with precise and ever evolving decisions to make a performer will not develop. They will not reach autonomous execution.


To conclude, the journey a performer passes through in order to achieve the level of skill acquisition required for expert performance is an arduous one influenced by an abundance of factors. Those factors however, must be purposefully planned for in order to generate the foundation upon which skilled performance can be displayed.

Coaches must attend to the need for athletes to develop the physical literacy required for multiple sport specific actions. Subsequently, exposure to a range of games, sports and activities is suggested in their early years. Beyond this, see their progression as you would a practice session. Activities should begin simple with a high degree of success and proficiency and build to ones more complex in nature. Instruction and feedback should be detailed and informative and facilitate an understanding of the intricacies required for the successful performance of a skill. As skilled performance becomes more common and less conscious, the athlete/s should be guided to invest in the concept of constant reflection and adjustment in the hope of further understanding what it feels like to perform optimally. When this is achieved the coach furthers the challenge presented by requesting that practice performances are now performed under the constraints of continual decision making ensuring the athlete has to attend to environmental cues before choosing how or when to perform a skill or technique. The key is simply to keep practice purposeful and learning deep.

Many performers never reach the autonomous stage of skill acquisition. Can you be a coach that helps your athletes get there?