If you are delivering a pitch to someone (for example, a coach or a director) about what you do and how you could benefit them, it is important to have clarity on those questions. Then the coach or director you are pitching to can make an informed decision on whether to invest in your services. This post is around defining the role of a skill acquisition (SA) specialist and the value they can potentially add to a sports team, sports club, or school. A SA, or motor learning specialist can form part of a sports science support team, and work with coaches and athletes to develop learning environments to prepare athletes for competition.
A SA specialist can be defined as a sports scientist who examines the theories, principles and processes of learning movement and perceptual-cognitive skills (1). While they have more commonly been employed at the highest level of sport, they can also have a major impact at grassroots and development level - for an example of this, see the work of O’Sullivan and colleagues (2). Perceptual-cognitive skills underpin an athlete’s anticipation and decision making in competition (3). This research can impact a coach’s practice design, instructional methods, and feedback strategies to athletes. SA specialists can have impact over varying timescales. In the short-term, SA specialists can work with coaches, athletes, and practitioners to shape how practice is designed and appropriate coaching behaviours during practice. Over the long-term, SA specialists can work with administrators to guide talent development systems and structures for athlete development. This can occur with national governing bodies, professional clubs, community clubs and schools.
To further clarify the role of a SA specialist, it is important to identify what skill is, and detailing subtle differences in definitions. SA (learning) can be defined as performance changes in the absence of external perturbations (4). Such performance changes can look like reduced variability or a change in the speed-accuracy trade-off. For example, a novice golfer begins to have a more consistent swing after 20 minutes, in comparison to their first 5 shots. On the other hand, skill adaptation involves modification of the motor output to account for external perturbations to ensure that their performance does not decrease, in other words – the ability to adapt goal-directed behaviour to the surrounding constraints. In the case of a golfer playing in a stiff breeze, the wind forces the golfer to make subtle changes to their swing to ensure their performance remains the same. For more, read part of my MSc thesis on skill acquisition vs skill adaptation. This indicates that SA need to be adaptable to their environment to ensure an appropriate intervention is implemented with any group (5). This post will look further into possible ways that a skill acquisition specialist can impact practitioners and athletes in the short-term and have a wider impact in talent development over the long-term.
When working in an applied coaching setting, SA will work with both coaches and athletes to maximise the impact of training. I have discussed previously learning design principles (case study 5) that coaches could consider incorporating into their practice, the modified STEP model that a coach can use manipulate a task within their session, the PEAQ coaching framework to guide a coach through their training session, and several other considerations for coaches during practice (see my blog page for further insights). To highlight the impact of SA specialists in the training environment, I will detail some of my experiences through 3 mini case-studies below. There are numerous other examples in the literature of how skill acquisition specialists can impact the training environment, including AFL (6), rugby union (7), basketball (8), soccer (9) in strength and conditioning (10) and the return to play process (11).
Case study 1: developing acceleration through rugby union gameplay.
By incorporating 3 skill acquisition principles (information-movement coupling, representative learning design, and optimal challenge point) into practice, we (backroom team) wanted to expose players to maximum effort accelerations. As we had a short preparation period until the start of competitive games, we had to make training time as efficient as possible. Our approach was to carefully manipulate the constraints of our sport training to try and elicit the relevant physical exposure we wanted. In this case, the physical quality we wanted to develop on this day was acceleration, and we designed sessions targeting this.
There were numerous considerations for the support team over each session (3 sessions in total). These included an appropriate work:rest ratio, suitable task difficulty (which included equipping coaches with the tools to scale up or scale down the difficulty), designing contextually relevant tasks, a suitable warm-up for players, and considering atypical scenarios that players find themselves in. For a more detailed reflection, read here.
Case study 2: a culture of problem-solving in cricket.
For any coach with any task or session, the first step is to have a clear intention. Is the focus of training to maintain skill levels, to learn, or to transfer to competition (12). With practice to learn, forcing players to adapt is key, and this means incorporating variability. In an ideal world, the variability presented would come from representative information, but this does not always have to be the case.
When working with cricket coaches, we wanted to create a culture of problem-solving. Players always faced challenges which forced them to adapt their skills to achieve a given task. During the warm-up, one way we challenged the players was through small-sided games, and by using tennis balls (see differential learning). The focus skills in the games were fielding and throwing – two critical skills in cricket. The small-sided games did not necessarily represent the challenge that players faced in competition, but it meant they had to adapt their movement to catch and throw the ball to teammates and to score. By including these alternative training tasks in a session, players were challenge to adapt their skills, not to mention the enjoyment aspect of a games-based approach (13).
Case study 3: transforming drill-based training to game-based play in basketball.
As with many sports, basketball coaches often have a biased towards action rather than skill. Coaches use drills to train common game actions like passing, dribbling, shooting. Task decomposition is used to ensure athletes are getting repetition. Again, this may be suitable at times, but rather than just focusing on quantity of practice (number of repetitions), it is also important to focus on quality (representativeness).
Working with a basketball coach, we were able to adapt decomposed tasks to include some key information to make them more representative of competition. The starting point was a basic truck and trailer drill, which we adapted to a 4v3 half court, where the attacking team was required to find the free player. Depending on the skill level of the group, the one player advantage may be appropriate, it may be too challenging, or it may be too easy, so coaches should be adaptable to the needs of their athletes. For more on task design, see the modified STEP model above.
As briefly mentioned, most (if not all) applied SA specialists are employed at elite-level sport, but there is a massive scope for SA specialists to have a big impact at the development level (e.g., youth sports, school sport, sport development programs). Many sporting organisations put more resources into their elite players to ensure they are adequately prepared, and this is very understandable. But by placing more emphasis on development programs, sporting organisations can ensure there is a conveyor belt of talent coming through for the elite programs and secure the future performances of their flagship teams. This thought process can be applied to both athlete and coach development.
Case study 4: bringing parents on the talent development journey.
“Another reason why coaches may choose not to adopt ED approaches could be associated with the expectations from parents and others around, especially for paid programmes.” (14)
As the above quote states, coaches can be influenced by the expectations of parents when delivering training sessions. If parents are only aware of a drill-based model of training to improve performance, then they will likely treat any different coaching approach with scepticism. Therefore, it is important that parents are brought on the same educational journey that coaches are brought on.
As junior development coordinator in a rugby club, I was responsible for the development of coaches. All coaches were volunteers, many of whom were parents who just wanted to provide their son a platform to play sport with their friends. These coaches don’t have time to dive deep into pedagogical approaches and plan sessions based on contemporary skill acquisition principles. My role was to support these coaches and provide “bite sized” pieces of information that they can go and apply. Some of it challenged traditional practice (like action-focussed training discussed in case study 4) and presented arguments to challenge young players more through games-based play. Throughout the year, as I shared this information with coaches, I also shared with parents so they could better understand the coach’s perspective when planning and implementing training sessions. By educating parents, this reduces the pressure on coaches to implement a certain style of training with their team.
Case study 5: incorporating learning design principles into a school coach development program.
As mentioned, coaches in school settings are often inexperienced. To best support inexperienced practitioners in a school across a range of sports, four learning design principles were developed to guide coaches towards high quality training design and implementation. The four learning design principles are:
These four principles were used as a guiding light for coaches when designing and adapting training, and as a framework when coaches were receiving feedback on their session from a skill acquisition specialist.
Two examples of how SA specialists can impact the youth sporting environment to ensure junior game formats better align with, and prepare junior athletes for senior competition include manipulation of task constraints (15), and equipment scaling (16). For a more detailed explanation of these examples, see the work of Pinder et al (17).
SA specialists are sports scientists who specialise in the theory underpinning learning movement and perceptual-cognitive skills. They are more frequently employed in high-performance sport to support elite athletes but can also have a major impact at the developmental level. This impact can occur of short- or long-term timescales. Examples of ways that a SA specialist can support programs have been shared throughout.
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