What is skill in sport? For me, I would describe it as the ability to adapt. The ability to adapt movements and behaviours to suit the constraints present in any given moment. There is something very different to scoring a goal on an empty soccer pitch (where the only constraints are individual and the physical environment) and scoring one in a game against opposition. The difference lies in the ability to adapt to the constraints present in a given moment. For example, reduced time as there is a defender closing down from behind. Smaller target to aim at as the goalkeeper has rushed off the line to pressure the striker. The game maybe into injury time and this is the opportunity to get a winner. The test of a player is to be able to adapt to all of these constraints and still achieve the aim.
The most skillful players are the most adaptable. In order to be adaptable, they need 2 things:
1) A wide range of actions capacities
2) Ability to identify affordances (opportunities for action)
The simplest way to illustrate the benefit of having a wide range of action capacities is to look at bilateraly skilled players versus unilaterally skilled players. Bilaterally skilled players (Shane Walsh in Gaelic football, Kevin de Bruyne in soccer) literally have twice as many options available to them as they can use both feet. Their affordance landscape is wider than players who are one-foot dominant. As their affordance landscape is wider, they also have more decisions to make. This makes these players much harder to defend against.
Affordances within an affordance landscape
The other crucial piece of the puzzle is around what information the player can see. With every passing moment, a player's affordance landscape changes. Some affordances are maintained, some disappear, and some emerge. Gaps between defenders can increase or decrease. Teammates can be open to receive a pass, but then they can be marked. A crucial aspect of skilled performance is to be comfortable in this chaos. Some affordances are nested, meaning that by acting on one affordance, other affordances open up. A great example of this is the video below (credit to Val Andrews on Twitter for sharing this):
Here the attacker collects the ball and is within shooting distance for a point. When he receives the ball, he takes a couple of steps away from the defender to create space for the shot, and he shapes up as if he was shooting for a point. This causes the defender to race in to close the distance to execute a block. The attacker deceives the defender, steps inside and finishes for a goal. This example highlights a crucial third component of skilled movement - not just being attuned to the information in the environment, but proactively manipulating it. This is a great example of an attacker acting to manipulate the defender, to alter the affordance landscape. Beautiful display of skill.
Another example is this goal from Aimee Mackin, Armagh LGFA:
This is one of my favourite Gaelic football goals of all time. There are two distinct displays of skilled intentionality in this video. The first occurs when Mackin (number 12 orange) deceives her marker to create space to receive the ball. She takes 2 side shuffle steps towards the ball, which draws the defender in, and then rapidly changes direction and speed into the space vacated by the defender. When she receives the ball, there are 2 defenders infront of her. She shapes up to shoot, the defender dives into block and she executes a bounce dummy. As the steps inside, the has space to move back on to her left foot the shoot for goal. Another great example of an attacker manipulating the information around her to create an affordance to exploit.
The challenge for the defender (on both of these occassions) is that if they do not make an attempt to block, then the attacker has a free shot at goal. In hindsight, yes it is better for an attacker to score a point than a goal (three points). But that is the beauty of skilled performers. Attackers disguise their intentions to deceive the opponent into thinking that they will do one thing, and pivot to do something else.
Skilled intentions in football codes
“footballers embody skilled intentions when they deceive and unbalance opponents with fakes and feints”
The above quote was taken from a paper written about football (soccer), but it is applicable to any football code. Coordinating a technical feint with an agility manouvre is my favourite thing to watch in sport. Seeing an attacker sell a "dummy", or some "candy", or deceive a defender through deception is one of the most exciting things to watch in my opinion. The whole idea around deceiving or unbalancing opponents lies within nested affordances. Attackers sometimes act, not to move the ball forward, or shoot, or pass, but to spark a reaction from the defender. Skilled performers are able to sit in a moment where they have multiple options and wait until the optimal option emerges. Below are a collection of players displaying skilled intention in AFL:
This same concept also applies to feints in MMA/Boxing. Often commentators and pundits talk about combat sport athletes "feeling each other out". This can be classed as exploration, which "involves information-generating behaviors, and action involves using the information obtained." (Adolph, 2019). Israel Adesanya (UFC) goes into depth in this video around what he is looking to do in the early stages of a fight with feints.
A crucial part of skilled movement is picking up relevant information from the environment to appropriately regulate actions. Relvevant information is individual to each player based on their action capabilities. Bilateral versus unilateral, left foot dominant versus right foot dominant, explosive versus endurance based player are all examples of trade offs that will influence the affordance landscape for each player. However, picking up relevant information is not the only component to skilled movement. As we have seen throughout the examples in this post, acting to influence the information in the environment is also a vital part to skilled performance. Enticing a defender to move in for a block, luring a defender to close off one gap, thereby opening another.
Training to enhance skilled intentionality
"Practice is about progressively deepening the knowledge of the environment (Gibson & Carmichael, 1966). Such knowledge is expressed through actions, perceptions, and skilled intentionality (Button et al, 2020).
While the purpose of this post is not to detail the training processes of highly skilled or elite performers, it is useful to consider the components of skilled intentions and clearly show that a mixed methods approach to training is likely to work best. Skilled performance requires a wide range of action capacities AND the ability to pick up information from the environment AND the ability to influence the information. As I have detailed previously, it is important that coaches are able to move along the repetition-representative continuum, depending on the needs of their players. A fully representative game contains a lot of contextual interference, and therefore is not the ideal setting to amass large volumes of practice on a particular skill, like weak foot kick-passing in Gaelic games. Therefore, to develop action capacities, it may be necessary to include some non-representative practice. However, to enhance a player's ability to 1) pick up relevant information from the competition environment, and 2) influence the information within the competition environment, players must engage in representative tasks.
An Ecological Approach to Leaning in (not and) Development - Karen Adolph (2019) https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/503823
Football, Culture, Skill Development and Sport Coaching: Extending Ecological Approaches in Athlete Development Using the Skilled Intentionality Framework - Vaughan et al (2021)