September 7, 2020


A Brief Take On Skill Adaptation

If you’ve spent much time working with athletes, then you know they interact with countless movement problems in their sport. Have you ever asked yourself, how are they successful game after game, season after season, and year after year? Their skillset is something we all admire, but how do they ‘acquire’ these skills? In my opinion, skill is an ongoing process, rather than one that has an endpoint. Skills are continuously adapted as athletes search the information available to guide their movement in sports (for more on ‘information,’ please read our March 23rd, 2020 blog post). Acknowledging that skills are continuously adapted places great emphasis on problem-solving, where the search process allows athletes to solve problems in creative and authentic ways. It gives them ownership and allows their perception to be the driver of their movement. In 2007, Jacobs and Michaels stated that “searching is the process of learning to attend to informational variables of a task and modifying actions to these informational variables.” In nearly 15 years as a coach, working with hundreds of athletes, I can tell you first hand that athletes better be solving contextual problems in practice, where they attune to information-rich areas of the performance landscape, so functional movement behaviors emerge in the game. Let’s look at skill ‘acquisition’ a little deeper. 

The two definitions you often see for skill ‘acquisition’ are as follows: 

Skill acquisition: the establishment and subsequent enrichment of internal representations that bring about relatively permanent changes in a learner’s movement capabilities (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2004). 

Skill adaptation: the establishment of a reciprocal, functional relationship between an individual and the environment (Araujo et al., 2004).

Now, I don’t know about you, but in my years as a coach, I haven’t seen anything that even slightly resembles ‘permanent’ when it comes to the athlete’s movement capabilities. Now, the ‘relationship’ part you see defined in the second definition is something I can get behind. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to spend time arguing over which definition sounds better. Rather, how you view the skill ‘acquisition’ process informs the way you design practice activities for your athletes. The way athletes interact with practice activities is what truly matters, so let’s take a moment and ask ourselves a few questions. 

Should I:

  1. Assign actions to every drill I design for my athletes?
  2. Give them feedback during and after every repetition?
  3. Expect them to rely on me in order to play their sport?

Or should I: 

  1. Analyze their movement behavior in context, and co-design movement problems that allow them to search, which encourages them to pick up information to guide their ability to perform skillfully? 
  2. Ask questions in a way that encourages them to search different areas of the perceptual-motor workspace?
  3. View myself as part of a learning system and actively engage the athlete in the practice design process?

Hopefully, the questions are a bit eye-opening and encourage you to investigate your own practice design in greater depth. In my opinion, if you view yourself as the bearer of all truth (reflected in the first three questions), it will have harmful effects on the athlete’s on-field performance. If you’re interested in learning more, then I suggest you read “What Exactly is Acquired During Skill Acquisition?” I also encourage you to pick up the Sport Movement Skill Conference 2020 presentations, where a handful of the presenters discussed the ideas of skill adaptation. 

Tyler Yearby

Co-Director of Education

For more reading:

  1. Araújo, D., Davids, K., Bennett, S., et al. (2004) Emergence of sport skills under constraints, inWilliams, A.M. & Hodges, N.J. (eds.) Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice, pp. 409–433, London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.
  2. Araújo, D, and Davids, K. What Exactly is Acquired During Skill Acquisition? Journal of Consciousness Studies, (2011).
  3. Jacobs, D. M., and Michaels, C. F. (2007). Direct learning. Ecol. Psychol., 19, 321–349. doi: 10.1080/10407410701432337
  4. Schmidt, R.A. & Wrisberg, C.A. (2004) Motor Learning and Performance (3rd ed.), Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  5. Underpinnings: Concepts that live and breathe within an ecological dynamics framework. Emergence, 2019.