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Technique vs Skill or Technique and Skill?

An article entitled “Distinguishing skill from technique in football” (1) was published recently and it has gained a lot of attention (and rightly so). With the attention has come a lot of people sharing their perspectives. Since no one asked, I will share my own.


Definitions

Each construct is well defined in the article (1).

  • Technique: “Any coordination pattern (i.e. the way the nervous system organises the different elements of the body together to move) applied to the performance of a specific motor action.”

  • Skill: “The adaptation of one’s technique to produce functional and beneficial outcomes in contexts that require them.”

Technique can support a practitioner’s planning process. Assessing the technique of an athlete can provide key information around the recurrence of an injury (a complex process in itself) or why an athlete always chooses a particular movement solution. This can guide coaching interventions to optimise performance (however performance is defined). Skill, on the other hand is harder to assess, and harder to track because it is reliant on the information present within an athlete’s environment. As mentioned, this is always changing, and because of this, repetition of the exact same movement pattern is highly unlikely. Therefore, athletes need to adapt their coordination pattern to produce “function and beneficial outcomes” in the competitive environment.


To illustrate the differences looking at the following video, one I have shared before:



Here, we can see (Luis Suarez) a skillful athlete (adapting their coordination pattern to their environment) displaying good technique.


We can see that the player displayed good technique i.e. the player organised different elements of their body achieve their goal throughout. But the player also displayed great skill, i.e. they adapted their technique to produce a “functional and beneficial outcome” (1). And this is the beginning of the key point that I took from the article – it is not one or the other (technique OR skill), and they are not competing entities (technique VERSUS skill). They are different things, and both are useful for athlete development. And I think the article does a good job of not creating this false dichotomy, but it outlines the benefits of each (1).


A common argument is that it’s pointless training an “ideal” technique, every repetition is different. I agree with the second part of that argument – every repetition is different. But it’s never completely new either. See the following, from 1932 (thanks to Phil Kearney for sharing this on Twitter):



To support this (Kelso in Complex Systems in Sport (2)):



To summarise: repetitions are never exactly the same, nor are they completely different.


What is causing the friction between technique and skill?

When we look at skilled behaviour in sport, we can define it as a functional fit between a performer and their environment (3). There are arguably three components here – the performer, the environment, and relationship between both. All three components require a suitable allocation of training time (note a suitable allocation, not necessarily an equal one). The issue comes when a practitioner unnecessarily biases one aspect over the other – like an over-emphasis on training technique (performer biased) or an over emphasis on representative learning design (environment bias) (again note an unnecessary bias – bias is inevitable depending on the context, unnecessary bias is not). Something that the article addresses is the over emphasis on training technique, when time should be balanced with developing skill, and that training technique ≠ skill (1).


The technique-skill debate has commonalities with the information processing versus ecological dynamics debate. Training for technique would align with a theoretical approach supporting mental representation, part of the information processing theory of skill acquisition theory of skill acquisition, whereas training for skill aligns more with a self-organisation approach of complexity theory the ecological dynamics theory of skill acquisition (4, 5). And these theories have almost been competing (as I discussed here). However, in my opinion, this is not either-or. Both can work. This false dichotomy has been countered previously, and I will highlight two examples, both tied together by complexity science. First - athletes can be viewed as complex adaptive systems, as part of a wider complex adaptive system (a team), within a complex adaptive system (a game) (6). Complexity permeates the sporting environment. An environment that is always changing (adaptive). For complex systems to cope with these changes, the system (in this case the athlete) must have two qualities (from 1998) (7):

  1. They must be able to store information for future use i.e. process information (Cilliers goes on to discuss this as a process of representation).

  2. They must be able to adapt its coordination pattern when necessary (Cilliers discusses this as a process of self-organisation).


Within complex adaptive systems (i.e., athletes), both representation and self-organisation are key components. It’s not one or the other, it’s both, each at appropriate times. In a second example, this is backed up by Kelso in his chapter (from 2014; Chapter 2 – Coordination dynamics and cognition) in “Complex Systems in Sport” (2). He refers to a duality or coexistence of the two concepts (representation and self-organisation) that “go together like bread and cheese” (p.19). And he concludes with this sentence (p. 35):

“Representation and dynamics are complementary: two sides of the same coin.”

In other words: technique and skill are complementary: two sides of the same coin.


Regarding point 1 – a decontextualized, isolated environment, one that might exist when training technique, may be a fantastic setting for an athlete to store information (learn) for future use (remember). (This idea first came to me through a Twitter conversation with Jon Mackey). Perhaps an athlete might need more explicit instruction from their coach to appropriately store this information. Of course, this learning process might even take place in a rich and contextualized training environment that is fully representative of competition either, depending on the athlete or group of athletes. A coach may be required to start with a decontextualized environment, progress to a contextualized one, regress severely, and progress again in smaller steps. The constant iteration, based on numerous factors (8, 9), in and out of a coach’s control (a point that cannot be understated), is the coaching process - there are no simple solutions or blanket statements.


To illustrate with a Gaelic football example (skip if not interested):

  • After a warm-up, the coach plays a 10v10 end zone game (handpassing only). They notice two players, who are athletically very strong runners, ALWAYS running diagonally (always to the right) with the ball. The players are pulled aside after and asked if they are aware of the behaviour pattern, and why? The players response was that they wanted to ensure when they were soloing to the right because it was a way for them to ensure that they were soloing with their outside foot relative to the defender in front of them (arguably skilled behaviour, a positive). However, this also cuts them off from a large portion of the field when playing, as they are only interested in moving in one way. The coach spent 2 minutes coaching them (in an isolated fashion) to solo on their left foot, with their right and their left hand, and challenged the players to spend 5 minutes before every session for the next 2 weeks practicing these things.

  • Could this be done in other ways? Of course – the coach could implement a rule or a reward in the game to encourage weak-foot soloing. However, and this is the essence of pragmatism – who knows which solution is more suitable in any specific context? How can anyone tell? It really is anyone’s best guess as to what is suitable or not, appropriate or not. But looking at the bigger picture, the coach is not suggesting or prescribing hours and hours of isolated and decontextualised practice to develop their left-foot solo. Instead, small, consistent bouts of isolated technical practice, alongside their regular team training (which is mostly of a coadaptive, representative nature) is sufficient. With every repetition, even in such an impoverished setting, the players are learning the coordination pattern that is required for successful performance. As players become more and more aware of and comfortable in their behaviour and coordination patterns, and more and more confident in their own abilities, their affordance landscape will widen.


Moving to point 2 and self-organisation. This requires an environment containing variability which forces athlete to adapt or regulate their actions to the surrounding information, to achieve a task goal (for more on skill adaptability, see here; for more on variability read here). Coaches can progress or regress the information within a training environment (read here), and they can increase or decrease the difficulty of a representative task through a range of coaching behaviours, like questioning, delivering feedback, and instructions, all at appropriate times and in the appropriate manner (10-14).


Final thoughts

There are no good or bad training methods, just appropriate or inappropriate. The challenge that exists for coaches is determining what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, a never-ending concern. When to prioritise technical development, and when to prioritise a more representative environment, or when to do both? It is important to acknowledge the benefits and accept the limitations of training for technique and training for skill. And this is something that is also done well in the article that I first opened with (1).


In my view, the training of technique is not necessarily wrong per se, because as I mentioned in the opening statement, an action of an athlete is never completely new. Instead, the issue lies with the inappropriate devotion of time towards this kind of practice. The “organismic asymmetry" problem so often cited is this exactly this – a heavy fixation to improving the athlete (technique, strength, speed), rather than having a suitable balance between individual and task/environment constraints. On the flip side, the development of skill in a representative environment (i.e. representative learning design) is also not wrong (no one has ever said it was, even the information processing “camp”). As I mentioned in the opening statement, any action of an athlete is never exactly the same. But it also should not be presented as the sole solution. Something that is not representative, like video-based feedback and instruction (15), can enhance athletes’ coordination patterns. Learning in the game or game-like environments is clearly an important part of a player’s learning and development journey, but other factors are just as important. The appropriate solution very much depends on the overarching aim of a task or a session and resources, among many other contextual factors.


Neither approach alone provides a blanket solution. And this is coming from someone who has written (and still values) a lot about representative learning design, especially around strength and conditioning (agility, acceleration, conditioning). But perhaps now I have expanded my tool set, or I have acquired a bigger toolbox to better see all of the tools at my disposal. Here's to 2024!


Repetitions are never exactly the same, nor are they completely different.

Technique and skill are complimentary: two sides of the same coin.


References

1.            Bennett KJM, Fransen J. Distinguishing skill from technique in football. Science and Medicine in Football. 2023:1-4.

2.            Davids K, Hristovski R, Araújo D, Balague Serre N, Button C, Passos P. Complex Systems in Sport. London: Routledge; 2013.

3.            Araújo D, Roquette J, Davids K. Ubiquitous skill opens opportunities for talent and expertise development. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2023;5.

4.            Anson J, Elliott D, Davids K. Information Processing and Constraints-based Views of Skill Acquisition: Divergent or Complementary? Motor control. 2005;9:217-41.

5.            Gray R. Comparing the constraints led approach, differential learning and prescriptive instruction for training opposite-field hitting in baseball. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2020;51:101797.

6.            Button C, Seifert L, Chow JY, Araujo D, Davids K. Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: An Ecological Dynamics Approach2021.

7.            Cilliers P. Approaching Complexity.  Complexity and Postmodernism: Routledge; 1998.

8.            Taylor J, Ashford M, Jefferson M. High performance coach cognition in the wild: using applied cognitive task analysis for practical insights–cognitive challenges and curriculum knowledge. Frontiers in Psychology. 2023;14.

9.            Taylor S, Renshaw I, Pinder R, Polman R, Russell S. Coaches’ Use of Remote Coaching: Experiences From Paralympic Sport. International Sport Coaching Journal. 2023:1-12.

10.         Harvey S, Light R. Questioning for learning in game-based approaches to teaching and coaching. Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education. 2015;6:1-16.

11.         Petancevski EL, Inns J, Fransen J, Impellizzeri FM. The effect of augmented feedback on the performance and learning of gross motor and sport-specific skills: A systematic review. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2022;63:102277.

12.         Corbett R, Partington M, Ryan L, Cope E. A systematic review of coach augmented verbal feedback during practice and competition in team sports. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 2023;0(0):17479541231218665.

13.         Taylor J, Ashford M, Collins D. The Role of Challenge in Talent Development: Understanding Impact in Response to Emotional Disturbance. Psych. 2022;4(4):668-94.

14.         Taylor J, Collins D. Navigating the winds of change on the smooth sea - The interaction of feedback and emotional disruption on the talent pathway. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 2022;34(4):886-912.

15.         Davidow D, Watson M, Lambert M, Jones B, Smith M, Kraak W, et al. Video-based technical feedback and instruction improves tackling technique of community rugby union players. Eur J Sport Sci. 2023;23(7):1121-30.

 


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