For Coaches
Three stages of athletic skill development

Three stages of athletic skill development


By Ken Mannie, Director of Strength & Conditioning

Michigan State University

The following is a chapter excerpt from the new book: Total Athlete Development: 70 Competition Tested Ways to get Mentally Tougher, Physically More Dominant, and Be the Best Leader for Your TeamExcerpt by permission of Championship Performance Publishers.

Skill development remains the most critical physical element in successful athletic performance.  A strong, well-conditioned athlete with a poor skill level is akin to a high-performance race car with flat tires.

While all coaches would concur with that observation, a consensus on the process needed to achieve optimal skill development would be more difficult to obtain. Much of the confusion in this area is due to a lack of understanding regarding the different classifications of skills and the steps involved in their teaching progression.

Any athletic skill is actually a motor skill, which can be defined as an act or task that has a goal to achieve and requires voluntary body or limb movement to be properly performed. Many times -- and wrongly so -- the terms skill and ability are used interchangeably.

Motor abilities (e.g., static and dynamic balance, visual acuity, response time, speed of limb movement, eye hand/foot coordination, etc.) can be viewed as the foundational components of motor skill development, but are not skills by definition. Most motor behavior researchers maintain that abilities are more genetically than experience determined. Skills are learned over time in very specific stages.

The learning and development of any athletic skill occurs in three progressive stages:

1) The cognitive stage. This is the beginning stage of skill learning -- one in which the learner has many unanswered questions. What stance should I use? What are my steps on a lead, trap, or pass block? What position should my hands be in when catching the ball at various heights?  What are my techniques when in man to man pass coverage? As you can see, this is marked by numerous errors, variability in performance, and a great deal of needed quality repetition. 

During this stage, the learner needs specific information to assist him in making correct adjustments. You will know that the athlete is still in this stage when he makes a mistake and is aware of “doing something wrong,” but has no idea how to correct it.

2) The associative stage. As the athlete enters this stage, many of the basic fundamentals and mechanics of the skill have been learned. The mistakes are fewer, less serious and, more importantly, the athlete is capable of recognizing many of his errors and is aware of how to take the proper steps to correct them. The goal now is to refine the skill.

It is paramount that the coach continues to provide the athlete with useful, specific information and constructive feedback throughout this stage.

3) The autonomous stage. This final stage of learning is realized only after much practice, quality repetition, and experience with the specific task. The skill has now become habitual or automatic. Obviously, this stage is not achieved overnight. Depending on the complexity of the skill, it may take years. 

In this final phase of development, the athlete is able to recognize his errors and is cognizant of the process needed to correct them. Optimal performance is impossible until the athlete is operating in the autonomous mode.

Mistakes will still be made, even when this level of learning has been achieved. However, the individual will be able to tell the coach what he did wrong, why he did it, what should have been done, and describe the proper techniques for doing it.

As a coach, the only way to truly know if the athlete has accrued this higher level of learning is to quiz him rather than lecture him. Questions like, “What did you see?” will give the coach a better handle on where the player is in the learning progression. It also motivates the player to learn by challenging his recall capabilities.

Development Performance Strength

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