Over the past few years, skill acquisition has become a prominent objective for coaches. Coaches want athletes to retain and transfer their skills from practice to the game. Thus, the push for coaches to learn more about skill acquisition is at an all-time high.
However, what if thinking about skill acquisition might be the wrong idea?
The potentially problematic word is acquisition. Webster’s defines ‘acquisition’ as, “to come into possession or ownership of.” This is problematic because it portrays that a skill can be acquired; that athletes can permanently own or master a skill. Acquisition infers there is an end-goal of mastery, and then we can move on to a new skill.
The issue is skilled movement is NOT something athletes actually ever acquire; rather, skilled movement is a process that truly never ends and is continually adapting.
Araujo and Davids suggested that athletes don’t actually ever acquire anything; rather athletes gain experience of skills that lead to the emergence of an adaptive, functional relationship between the athlete, specific task, and environment. The authors suggested a better term may actually be ‘skill adaptation’ or ‘skill attunement’ rather than skill acquisition (Araujo & Davids, 2011).
This might seem like semantics, but I believe it is important to distinguish. As stated above, a term like acquisition insinuates there is an end-goal and thus we should expect to see results in a predictable and permanent manner. This is the wrong approach and instead we need to accept that learning is continuous and evolving minute-to-minute, day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to-year.
This also means athletes do not follow some predictable model and skill doesn’t evolve in a linear progression. This has been very difficult for me as a coach because I had been taught progressions/regressions; an athlete needs to start with A before going to B, then on to C. Athletes need to go from slow to fast, easy to hard, simple to complex. Unfortunately, that’s a far too simplified approach that doesn’t hold true.
Adaptive, skilled movement takes time – differing amounts for each athlete. All athletes don’t need to start at the same place, nor do they progress at the same rate.
Another important point is the athlete is only part of the skilled movement equation. We have to respect the environment the athlete is performing in and the various and varying task and environment constraints that come with it.
How can skill be truly acquired when we know sporting contexts are truly never the same?! Contextual factors such as the opponent, weather, time, fatigue, injuries, crowd, location and playing surface are different performance to performance – therefore skilled movement is always adapting.
If we agree that skilled movement emerges from an athlete’s unique, evolving individual constraints, that are interacting with the ever-changing environmental and task constraints, then skilled behavior should be understood as something that cannot be permanently acquired (Araújo et al., 2006).
This is all very important because it changes how you coach. When you are on a journey of skill adaptation, athletes are continually growing and evolving their skilled behavior, not seeking one permanent, “acquired” solution. Coaching then becomes about finding ways to help athletes search and create adaptable movement behavior and moving away from the thought that skill is permanently acquired or mastered.
To learn more about how we view skill adaptation and ways you as a coach can create environments that will enhance this process, be sure to check out our Practitioner’s Bundle. In this bundle, we unpack the theory that underpins why we view skill the way we do, and then provide ways that you can practically apply the theory to your warm-up, the weight room, and your speed/agility work.
Araujo, D., Davids, K., & Hristovski, R. (2006). The ecological dynamics of decision making in sport. Psychology of sport and exercise, 7(6), 653-676.
Araújo, D., & Davids, K. (2011). What exactly is acquired during skill acquisition?. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18(3-4), 7-23.
Michael is the Education Manager at Emergence. In addition to developing and delivering education through our social media and online platforms, Michael also owns and operates his own performance facility called Building Better Athletes in Dubuque, IA. His facility serves athletes ranging from area youth all the way to professionals.