top of page

The role of a skill acquisition specialist - coach development

Maybe others have figured this out, but my thoughts are continually developing, I last wrote about this topic in August 2023, read here. This post will be more focused on the role of skill acquisition within coach development. A question I have recently asked myself:

What if the role of a skill acquisition specialist is not to simplify coaching and skill acquisition but to support coaches in dealing with the inherent complexity?

To successfully deal with complexity (however one defines success) means accepting that simple and straightforward solutions do not exist. Skill acquisition is complex, and applied skill acquisition exists within the larger, more complex world of coaching.

Complexity of coaching

(Abraham & Collins, 2011)

Coaching, considered as a decision-making process (Abraham, 2015), requires coaches to consider a range of factors when making their decisions. Looking at the coaching schematic above, coaches need to understand their sport (technical and tactical nuances), their athlete(s) and their unique characteristics (e.g. physiology, biomechanics, psychology), and pedagogy and skill acquisition (Abraham & Collins, 2011). There are numerous contextual factors that inform a coach's practices. This is something I have touched on previously, when discussing a pragmatic approach to skill acquisition:

further research has identified the cognitive challenges that coaches face (J. Taylor et al., 2023). These challenges include making sense of the individual context, planning for priorities, stress management for the athlete, when to push or pull, and managing the coach-athlete relationship. There are also additional practical considerations for coaches, such as training venues, equipment and technology suitability and relying on external support to ensure that a session runs smoothly (S. Taylor et al., 2023). When viewing skill acquisition from a wider coaching lens, clearly there is much more to designing a suitable training/practice environment than considering how representative it is. A pragmatic approach to skill acquisition support will ensure that the scientist will take necessary steps to understand the context they are supporting.”

The decision-making process requires the coach “to use their many types of knowledge in combination with one another, to identify problems and develop solutions that would very rarely require the use of a single knowledge base (Abraham et al., 2006; Nash & Collins, 2006).” (Waters, 2020). Essentially, coaches need a wide range of conditional knowledge to deal with a wide range of dynamic problems (see Collins et al, 2022).

Complexity of skill acquisition

Regarding skill acquisition, which is part of one component of the coaching schematic above, being informed by multiple theoretical stances is healthy, in my view. It helps to protect against cognitive bias (see below). I also covered this in the aforementioned post on the pragmatic skill acquisition specialist. And I could have quoted the whole Nevo and Slonim-Nevo paper, but:

“No theory guides practice unilaterally. Rather, to guide practice, theory has to come into equilibrium with it, as well as with its other components and factors.” (Nevo & Slonim-Nevo, 2011)

A theory can help practitioners make sense of the problems they face. However, insights or principles derived from any theory must be applied in a critical manner. Empirical evidence is just one component that can inform the practice of coaches, that “enters into an equilibrium with a host of other claims and considerations” (Nevo & Slonim-Nevo, 2011). There is no algorithm for practice, no “if, then” rules. Individuals may have heuristics, but an over-reliance on, or an uncritical adoption of heuristics may lead to cognitive bias.

A lot of recent metascience work in skill acquisition has cast a lot of uncertainty within the discipline (Fransen, 2022; Inns et al., 2023; Marvin et al., 2022; McCalman et al., 2022; McKay, Bacelar, et al., 2023; McKay, Corson, et al., 2023; McKay et al., 2022; McKay et al., 2021; Petancevski et al., 2022; Sheehan et al., 2022; St Germain et al., 2023). What do I know? What does anyone know? Is what I have said to previous coaches true? For me it has really changed my perspective on how skill acquisition specialists work with coaches – how do they support coaches in navigating the complexities I speak about?

I have written before about the STEP framework for practice design, environmental design principles, and coaching behaviours. These frameworks may be valuable, but if coaches cannot apply them critically, then it just becomes a different form of poor practice. As a skill acquisition specialist, if I introduce a novel concept to a coach (like the STEP framework), am I responsible for the coach acquiring knowledge of it critically (what is the purpose, what are the benefits, what are the risks), and for the coach to apply the concept in a critical fashion (being able to identify when it is appropriate, when it may not be)? Or, how can I encourage the critical acquisition and application of knowledge? I am not saying that I need to know everything about a concept, but I have to be willing to go on a developmental journey with the coach. This is something I need do better moving forward.

Maybe a more appropriate practice for a skill acquisition specialist is to consider the evidence (from multiple, sometimes contradictory theoretical perspectives, which can be challenging in itself), the needs and perspectives of their athletes (and possibly other support staff and key stakeholders), the appropriate goal, and not least their (professional) judgement and decision-making? Coaching is similar, on a broader scale. A well-informed coach will have multiple bases of declarative knowledge (the ‘ologies, technical/tactical, pedagogy, see schematic above), will be responsive to the individual and contextual variabilities that every situation brings, and will have a process to guide their decision making and judgement (an example of which is PJDM (Collins et al., 2016; Crowther et al., 2018). In other cases, some lesser-informed coaches may not possess the in-depth pedagogical declarative or procedural knowledge to deal with the inherent complexity, and that’s where skill acquisition specialists may be able to support.

One question I have been reflecting on lately, specifically referring to skill acquisition specialists working with coaches: does a skill acquisition specialist do much more than a good coach? Coaches already have to navigate complexity. While a coach may not be a skill acquisition specialist, a good coach may be a skill acquisition generalist, along with possessing general knowledge about all sub-disciplines, is there much value in a good coach working with a skill acquisition specialist? One for me to reflect on in the coming months.

Navigating the nuance

As discussed, coaching and skill acquisition is complex, but just highlighting the complexity of coaching and skill acquisition can be problematic: 

"around the time the decision to really engage in critical thinking (i.e., progress from multiplicity to relativism) occurs, so too does a drop in confidence in one’s ability to do ‘the job’ since they become more aware of the uncertainty in their practice." (Collins et al., 2012).

In other words - you don't know what you don't know! And when a coach (or any practitioner) discovers a range of things that they don’t know, it can send them into an existential crisis (similar to the position I have found myself in for a while). But if one doesn’t discover the world outside of what they know, they are susceptible to cognitive bias, like the Dunning Kruger effect. Pick your poison: lack of confidence or overconfidence (it is of course more complex than this, and both overconfidence and a lack of confidence are both a part of every practitioner's journey). Therefore, it is important that coaches are supported throughout their inevitably challenging developmental journey to deal with the newly discovered complexity. Having critical friends, mentors, and communities of practice to lean on during confusing times is important, to help coaches in navigating the stormy seas.

This is where (I believe) a skill acquisition scientist (but really any performance support discipline) may be able to support through two steps:

  1. identifying a coach's need(s), and

  2. servicing those needs, all the while acknowledging the dynamic nature of a coach's needs (they are always changing).

Identifying the need

With a lack of declarative knowledge, coaches may be limited in their practice. This is something I have been trying to train myself to understand and empathise with. A coach delivering a “poor” session or asking “weak” questions (however one defines poor or weak) probably has their heart in the right place, but perhaps they are just uneducated in one or multiple areas - they may not know what better looks like. My job is then to support them to become more knowledgeable and critical in their practice. One recent example:

  • During a rugby session a coach got his team in for a huddle to discuss how their strike-plays have been going. He asked the question to the group, “What are we not doing well?” One player responded, “We are not getting deep enough.” The coach said, “Good”, and moved on. What presented was a great opportunity to help players develop further game understanding or an opportunity for players to correct their error, but the coach moved on.

Some reading may argue that this is perfect, that it set the opportunity players to learn how to solve the problem themselves (discovery learning). And maybe it did. But also, it is important to consider the playing standards of the group (lower grade) – do all players possess adequate knowledge about the game to be able to fix it without guidance (not necessarily instruction)? Maybe some players needed further support (scaffolding) to enable them to solve the problem? There are a range of possible solutions that really depend on what the coach was aiming to do and what the players needed. But this highlights the importance of any behavioural observation (formal or casual) should be preceded by a clear session plan and aim from the coach, which can then guide the post-session reflection. For more on this - see espoused theories versus theories-in-use (Ashford et al, 2022).

Specifically in this situation, the coach’s behaviour may have been due to a lack of pedagogical knowledge, not knowing how to ask the right question to stimulate further insights, or a lack of sport-specific knowledge and not knowing what to look for. Either way, a lack of declarative knowledge (in whatever area) can be the reason for poor coaching. Alternatively, the coach may possess an in-depth bank of declarative knowledge but is struggling to apply it in a critical fashion. Where the deficiency lies can be uncovered in a post-session reflection, which can then inform an individual development plan.

Servicing the need

What coaches know determines what they see (Kirschner, 2021). What they see may influences what they do. Coaches may need support in either or both areas: the acquisition of new knowledge, and the application of that or pre-existing knowledge. Both the acquisition and application of knowledge must be done critically:

"the need for practitioners to apply a level of criticality in their acquisition of knowledge (Stoszkowski et al., 2020) and for different knowledge bases to be applied flexibly (Grecic and Collins, 2013; Crowther et al., 2018)." (J. Taylor et al., 2023)

For example, a novice coach observing an expert coach can form part of their coach development plan, but it is only a suitable strategy if the novice coach is critical about their subsequent practice (critical reflection on what they have witnessed followed by critical application). Copy and paste is not suitable, for players or coaches (O’Sullivan et al., 2023).

Criticality breeds criticality.

Skill acquisition specialists can support the critical acquisition of knowledge in motor learning (provided they are critical practitioners themselves) and support the critical application of knowledge (provided they are cognisant of the other contextual and individual variabilities that also inform practice). Some genuine questions I have (and I am keen to explore):

  • What are principles that all skill acquisition specialists agree on? What can we be sure about? How robust is the skill acquisition bank of declarative knowledge?

  • What is the value of a short-term or sporadic engagement with a coach or a program? How can a skill acquisition specialist support a coach or a program without being immersed in the environment? Would this lead to an uncritical application of knowledge?

  • What is the need for a long-term engagement with a coach or a program? Should a skill acquisition specialist work to make themselves redundant?

  • What does support regarding the acquisition of knowledge look like? Is this very different to support on the application of knowledge?

  • How can skill acquisition specialists recognise the needs of a coach? Could an individual profile of a coach be created based on the diagram above? Could this inform an individual development plan for the coach? For example:

    • A teacher-turned-coach may have a decent understanding of pedagogy, but a poor understanding of physiology – perhaps a skill acquisition specialist is not best placed for working with that coach.

    • A former athlete may possess elite sport-specific knowledge, but struggles to communicate that knowledge across, perhaps a skill acquisition specialist can add value by educating the coach on some key coaching behaviours and applying them in practice.

Skill acquisition as a means of supporting coaches is something I am curious about. It has been the focus of a lot of my work and research over the past 18 months, and hopefully I will continue to explore it in future. Broadly speaking, this can happen in a variety of ways: formal (governing body education, university education), informal (in-situ observations (like the rugby example above), communities of practice), and non-formal (conferences, workshops, seminars) learning opportunities (Cushion et al., 2010; Mallett et al., 2009). I am keen to explore more of this over the coming months and would welcome an opportunity to speak with people who are thinking along similar, or even contrasting lines. Grateful for the great conversations I have had over the last six months.


Abraham, A. (2015). Understanding Coaching as a Judgement and Decision Making Process: Implications for Coach Development Practice University of Central Lancashire].

Abraham, A., & Collins, D. (2011). 15 - Effective skill development: how should athletes' skills be developed? In D. Collins, A. Button, & H. Richards (Eds.), Performance Psychology (pp. 207-229). Churchill Livingstone.

Ashford, M., Cope, E., Abraham, A., & Poolton, J. (2022). Coaching player decision making in rugby union: exploring coaches espoused theories and theories in use as an indicator of effective coaching practice. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 1-22.

Collins, D., Abraham, A., & Collins, R. (2012). On Vampires and Wolves -Exposing and Exploring Reasons for the Differential Impact of Coach Education. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 43, 255-271.

Collins, L., Carson, H., & Collins, D. (2016). Metacognition and Professional Judgment and Decision Making in Coaching: Importance, Application and Evaluation. International Sport Coaching Journal, 3, 355-361.

Collins, D., Taylor, J., Ashford, M., & Collins, L. (2022). It depends coaching – The most fundamental, simple and complex principle or a mere copout? Sports Coaching Review, 1-21.

Crowther, M., Collins, D., & Holder, T. (2018). What you think – What you do – What you get? Exploring the link between Epistemology and PJDM in Cricket coaches. Sports Coaching Review, 7(1), 63-81.

Cushion, C., Nelson, L., Armour, K., Lyle, J., Jones, R., Sandford, R., & O’Callaghan, C. (2010). Coach learning and development: A review of literature.

Fransen, J. (2022). There is no evidence for a far transfer of cognitive training to sport performance.

Inns, J., Petancevski, E. L., Novak, A. R., & Fransen, J. (2023). Decision-making assessments in youth team invasion game athletes: A systematic scoping review. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 0(0), 17479541231185779.

Kirschner, P. (2021). Epistemology or Pedagogy - That is the Question. In.

Mallett, C. J., Trudel, P., Lyle, J., & Rynne, S. B. (2009). Formal vs. Informal Coach Education. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 4(3), 325-364.

Marvin, L. A., Read, P., McLean, B., Palmer, S., & Fransen, J. (2022). The efficacy of training interventions for improving deceleration performance in invasion sports athletes: A systematic review & meta-analysis. SportRχiv.

McCalman, W., Crowley-McHattan, Z. J., Fransen, J., & Bennett, K. J. M. (2022). Skill assessments in youth soccer: A scoping review. Journal of Sports Sciences, 40(6), 667-695.

McKay, B., Bacelar, M. F. B., Parma, J. O., Miller, M. W., & Carter, M. J. (2023). The combination of reporting bias and underpowered study designs has substantially exaggerated the motor learning benefits of self-controlled practice and enhanced expectancies: a meta-analysis. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-21.

McKay, B., Corson, A., Seedu, J., Faveri, C., Hasan, H., Arnold, K., & Carter, M. (2023). Reporting bias, not external focus: A robust Bayesian meta-analysis of the attentional focus literature.

McKay, B., Hussien, J., Vinh, M.-A., Mir-Orefice, A., Brooks, H., & Ste-Marie, D. M. (2022). Meta-analysis of the reduced relative feedback frequency effect on motor learning and performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 61, 102165.

McKay, B., Yantha, Z., Hussien, J., Carter, M., & Ste-Marie, D. (2021). Meta-Analytic Findings in the Self-Controlled Motor Learning Literature: Underpowered, Biased, and Lacking Evidential Value.

Nevo, I., & Slonim-Nevo, V. (2011). The Myth of Evidence-Based Practice: Towards Evidence-Informed Practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 41(6), 1176-1197.

O’Sullivan, M., Vaughan, J., Woods, C. T., & Davids, K. (2023). There is no copy and paste, but there is resonation and inhabitation: Integrating a contemporary player development framework in football from a complexity sciences perspective. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-10.

Petancevski, E. L., Inns, J., Fransen, J., & Impellizzeri, F. M. (2022). 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, 63, 102277.

Sheehan, W., Tribolet, R., Watsford, M., & Fransen, J. (2022). The forest through the trees: Making sense of an ecological dynamics approach to measuring and developing collective behaviour in football. 

St Germain, L., McKay, B., Poskus, A., Williams, A., Leshchyshen, O., Feldman, S., Cashaback, J. G. A., & Carter, M. J. (2023). Exercising choice over feedback schedules during practice is not advantageous for motor learning. Psychon Bull Rev, 30(2), 621-633.

Taylor, J., Ashford, M., & Jefferson, M. (2023). High performance coach cognition in the wild: using applied cognitive task analysis for practical insights–cognitive challenges and curriculum knowledge [Original Research]. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.

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

Waters, A. (2020). The Art of Coaching vs. The Science of Movement: Integrating Experiential Knowledge and Scientific Evidence into Coaching Practices Victoria University].



bottom of page