Answering this question will provide direction for every coach and sport psychologist. For me this is simple: to improve the athlete’s technique, skills, tactics and self-development. Athletes will spend hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks even years and years working on techniques, skills and tactics. Therefore our job as sport psychologists is to enhance the athlete’s performance (Burton et al, 2008; Tenenbaum & Eklund. 2007).

However there are many examples of ‘drills’ being used, which do not reflect these values and lack the match conditions. A classic example is catching practice where athletes throw a ball to their partner and visa versa. However on match day the ball comes off a bat, at various speeds and trajectories. Now after the athlete has spent hours of throwing to their partner are they going to recognise the correct stimuli?

This is why ALL training needs to replicate match stimuli, including practicing on the pitch (surroundings), using a batsman and hitting catches (stimuli) towards the athletes. The athletes should be standing in fielding positions (surroundings and stimuli), this will enable them to recognise the correct stimuli quicker. This in turn creates time for the athlete to execute the skill of catching (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2008).

After all once we have a basic motor programme for a skill (Fitts & Posner, 1967), we need to identify when to execute this motor programme (Schmidt, 1975). Therefore we need to be exposed to the correct stimuli, from the match day surroundings and match day speeds. As the following points highlight if we fail to recognise the correct stimuli then the skill execution will not be correct. This is how it happens:

Stimuli Identification is a constant feed of information (Short Term Sensory Memory)

  •  Pattern Recognition where the stimuli identification feed gets collected. Allowing us to track the stimuli via this feed and store in the Short Term Memory
  • This information (Pattern Recognition) then gets matched in the Long Term Memory with previously experienced patterns. This information is linked to a motor programme, which will be executed

Schmidt’s Schema Theory (1975)

A great example of the importance of identifying the correct stimuli is walking. When we are walking towards a road crossing we would identify the road and the crossing, cars, direction of the cars, speed of the cars and a host of other things. Then we make a decision based on this information and matching that information with an appropriate action. If the road is clear then we walk across, if not we stop, which is running the correct motor programme for the decision.

In sport we face a variety of stimuli some of which is relevant some irrelevant. It is important to identify the relevant stimuli (correct), which is why we should practice using the match conditions. Anything else is a compromise and if you compromise then your compromising success on game day.

This is why professional athletes can play against 100+mph pitchers, 140+mph serves, throw the ball to a running back 60-70 meters away. Non-professionals will have the same motor programme but would struggle to identify the correct stimuli. The professional identifies the correct stimuli and selects the correct response quicker and effectively than the non-professional. The non-professional may miss relevant stimuli or select irrelevant stimulus (Ericsson, 1996; Williams et al, 2004).

Take the walking example again, but this time you are in a country where they drive on the other side of the road. We might step out on to the road as a car is coming down the road, because we were looking in the wrong direction and did not identify stimuli (the car). Or we take longer to cross the road because we check both ways repeatedly, ensuring that we do not make a mistake, therefore performing the skill of crossing the road slower.

This highlights the importance of recognising the correct stimuli, because without recognising the correct stimuli (the car) we perform slower or make mistakes. By applying this and the purpose of training to all practice sessions the athlete will improve.

The purpose of training is to improve skill execution by recognising the correct stimuli.