Definition: Skill acquisition is the interdisciplinary science specific to the knowledge of and about voluntary control over body segments and joint movements to solve a motor skill. Referred to as motor learning and control, it also deals in calibration, action, perception, and intention of the environment-performer relationship.
Why is skill acquisition important?
Motor Learning and control is about how the neurological and behavioral variables have an impact on the central nervous system in response to the learning of a motor skill.
It is an all-inclusive approach that is important because it helps to understand the movement that is not subjected to biochemical interventions. It directly engages experts in fields like
The concept of skill education and skill acquisition is essential as it has become an avenue to understand how the neuromuscular system functions to coordinate as well as activate the limbs and muscles that are involved directly in the motor skill performance
In the paper “What Exactly Is Acquired During Skill Acquisition,” its writer Araujo and Davids wrote the following-
Skill Acquisition is defined as a teleonomic process that involves continual adjustment. The reason for it was because the process is adapted to the environment.
3 Stages of skill acquisition model
Many skill acquisition theories are floating across the world, and amongst them, the motor learning theory by Fitts and Posner is considered the best.
The truth of the matter is that it has evolved and is now described as an interpretation of the brain-behavior relationship. Memory and thinking have been linked with motor learning and control and performances. Especially early learning is about a genuine attempt by the learner to understand the basic pattern of coordination and movement. The learner has to use verbal and cognitive processes to solve problems and achieve desired goals.
The motor learning theory by Fitts and Posner is a three-stage theory that was released in the late 1900s. This is a simple paradigm that has proved extremely useful in understanding, accelerating, and improving the process of motor learning and skill acquisition.
The various stages of motor learning and their implications in the field of effective coaching are described below-
Stage 1: Cognitive Stage
The first stage of Fitts and Posner’s three-stage theory is known as the cognitive stage. Here the learner will put his focus on things that need to be done.
Questions like what to do are essential in this stage; for example, a lawn tennis player will ask what should be the length of my serves to maintain that perfect length. To accomplish his purpose, the player will pay attention to what his coach has to say.
In the cognitive stage, the learner tries to learn a skill by receiving verbal or visual knowledge. The feedback matters and that is why he will be paying close attention to his instructions that include information related to errors he has been making and his lack of consistency.
This stage of motor learning and control is also known as the verbal motor stage, as verbal feedback plays an essential role in achieving desired results. The cognitive stage begins by understanding what to do and is all about processing the related information. It involves verbal conveyance and acquisition or cognition of new information.
In the example mentioned above, the coach is the key to achieve large gains as he tries to make the feedback look like a cognitive task and not mechanical intervention.
The player could have discovered how to perform his services, but it would have taken him long hours of practice before he would be able to get a grip on it. The trial and error, experimentations, and creative learning, along with problem-solving skills, would have proved helpful, but it would have been a long-drawn-out process.
On the other hand, the feedback by the coach is merely acquiring information from an expert and doing things accordingly to save time and achieve goals. This is why the cognitive stage is essential because, in this stage, an individual tries to process information to cognitively understand the parameters, needs, and requirements of motor movement.
For example, let’s assume some children visited a tennis academy for tennis lessons. They arrived early and saw a match between two players. This is how they received visual information about the game. Now the instructor explained to them the intricacies involved in the actions.
This is how they also gained verbal instructions about the game. Both the verbal and visual instructions will help them to connect with the game and play accordingly. The learner gets the information and organizes it into a meaningful manner that will lead to a motor program.
The cognitive stage results to achieve considerable gains in performances. Coaching techniques, feedback, video analysis, slow-motion drills, guidance, and instructions are essential parts of this stage, proving useful for the learner. In this stage, it becomes imperative that the learner is given the necessary information, guidance, and time to create sound movement.
Stage 2: Associative Stage
The second stage of Fitts and Posner’s three-stage theory is the associative stage.
Essential characteristics of this stage are less information in the verbal format, conscious performance, little gains in the performance graph, awkward movement, making adjustments, and taking a long time to complete tasks.
This is the stage where the learner starts improving his performances after lots of practice. He associates specific cues with the motor problems he faces and tries to act accordingly to solve them. The fundamental has already been established, and now is the time for improvements and refinement. In the associative stage, the learner puts lots of conscious effort into body movements to decrease performance variability.
The name Motor stage also knows the associative stage because the issue is about learning how to perform the skill. The learner puts his onus on making adjustments in his movements and skills.
If you look from the cognitive perspective, the learner has now shifted his focus from what to do to how to do and is making constructive attempts to transfer the declarative information into procedural knowledge.
None of the athletes in the world will be able to perform a perfect ten score every time they play. It is an undisputed claim that there is always room for improvement even when you are at your best. This is applicable for every type of sport; for example, a tennis player will try to improve his serves for an ace, a basketball player can improve his shooting technique, a softball player can enhance his pitching style, and a swimmer can improve his stroke, etc.
The sign of a successful player and his coach is that both of them are always on the look-out for making further improvements and getting better.
A learner will always revisit the cognitive stage and the associative stage of motor learning and control as it is an essential part of the relearning process. All the experts in the world have put their emphasis on revisiting the first and second stages of motor acquisition at regular intervals, no matter how accomplished or successful you become.
This is also applicable if an athlete hits a snag and his performance starts going downhill. An important reason for this scenario is that he is making mistakes at fundamental levels, and the lack of progress is because he is in dire need of remedial work. The best approach for a coach will be to explain that the player will have to make considerable changes to improve his performance. This can only happen if he can let go of his old habits and learn new basics by revisiting the stages of motor learning and control once again. The relearning process means acquiring further information through the cognitive stage and practicing and learning through the associative stage.
Indeed, convincing the players for relearning is not easy. It is a downright challenge, especially if the player is a successful one because his mindset will be why I need to change. It is just a bad phase that will go away.
The new movements feel awkward and uncomfortable and require an additional effort that most players do not want to undertake willingly. The verbal information about the latest techniques and the motor learning process helps to establish a learning plan and offers a clear perspective for undertaking and persevering the change. The coach then works with the player in the simplest of forms until the relevant skill is mastered and integrated to become a spontaneous and automatic part of the mind and body.
Stage 3: Autonomous Stage
The third stage of Fitts and Posner’s three-stage theory is the autonomous stage.
This is the stage where the player has gained information and practicing diligently has become automatic. The learner can accomplish it without any conscious thought as it has become ingrained in his movements.
This stage of the motor learning paradigm takes years of hard work and training. It is reserved exclusively for elite players whose motor performance has become habitual and whose cognitive process is minimal. In this stage, a player is capable of attending and processing information at the same time. The phase where thinking things is less and response is automatic and looks like just a state of natural flow without any undue effort.
Self-learning plays an integral part in the autonomous stage as skilled performers can identify errors and make adjustments accordingly by themselves. It is a fact that not many players reach the third stage. It is the instructions, practice structure, and the task variables that help to determine whether a player will be able to achieve the autonomous stage or not.
There are both good and bad case scenarios and outcomes associated with an autonomous stage.
The good about this phase is that it requires less cognitive demands, less effort, and less attention, and thus the player is mentally free to pursue another task at the same time without losing concentration. For example, a mathematician will continue to solve a high-end problem while listening to music without a negative impact on either of the activities.
The bad about this phase is that as actions are generally automatic because of fewer cognitive demands, there is enough room for distracting and irrelevant thoughts. For instance, a tennis player thinking of winning the tournament fails to grasp the importance of winning the current match. A simple mistake and he is out of the game, match, and the tournament. This happens because rather than focus on the task at hand, the player starts thinking of outcomes. Another bad associated with the autonomous stage is that the incorrect movement is reinforced because of automatic performance. The players fail to grasp an essential point that just because they are good at a specific action, and it has become an automatic action, it does not mean that the action is correct. A player can keep on doing an incorrect action automatically again and again.
Applying skill acquisition stages in coaching athletes
A coach has to address the needs of a player if he is interested in coaching them to their optimal levels. It is essential to provide detailed and correct information at the onset to start practicing correctly from an early stage of learning.
The coach should be an expert in his field and must know what he is talking about. His instructions should be clear and concise so that the athlete can grasp the meaning and understand it correctly. If there is any miscommunication or the coach cannot deliver clear instructions, the athlete will start with an incorrect action that will be reinforced in all the later stages and eventually prove detrimental in his success.
It is the responsibility of the coach to communicate clearly to the athletes in a language they can understand. When the athlete grasps the concept, only then will he act suitably.
Explain all the three stages of motor learning and learning to the athlete, along with the relearning process. Ensure the athlete knows at which stage he is and what he should do to pass the steps successfully.
Remind the athletes that relearning is a difficult stage, and they should be fully committed to the process to come out of it successfully. There are no shortcuts in the motor learning process, and the athlete has to integrate all the movements diligently until they become automatic and part of his performance.
Be patient with the athletes and make sure they are practicing correctly from the onset; otherwise, relearning will prove more difficult. The confidence, diligence, and patience showed by the coach will motivate the athlete and facilitate the process of learning
Skill acquisition theory is all about filling the gaps between coaching, rehabilitation, and recovery. It is a practical approach to understand the connection between the brain and behavior.
The matter is that a player must pass through the three stages of the skill acquisition model to become an expert performer. The journey is undoubtedly influenced by several factors that have to be planned diligently to lay the framework for skilled performance.