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Assessing Skill Acquisition in Sport

This is an excerpt from Essential Guide for Mental Performance Consultants (Digital Resource), The by Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP).

Since learning cannot be directly observed, it must be inferred based on the observable performance (Schmidt et al., 2018). This limitation is important for all practitioners to note, because a single performance may be far from the true capability of the performer. For example, a basketball player whose shots from the free throw line have a 90 percent success rate may make an attempt that results in an air ball. This single attempt does not indicate that the player is a poor free throw shooter; it more likely indicates that there was an additional performance variable (or constraint) that affected the performance. Magill and Anderson (2014) define performance as “the execution of a skill at a specific time and in a specific situation” (p. 257). Therefore, motor learning is a relatively permanent change in performance due to practice or experience.

So how can motor learning be inferred based on observable performances? The first thing that a practitioner should do to infer skill learning is look at performance over a series of trials to minimize the influence of any outlying performances (Schmidt et al., 2018). During skill acquisition, learners should show improvement, become more consistent with their performance, and adapt to changing performance demands (Magill & Anderson, 2014). Improvement indicators include moving accurately, performing in the correct movement time, and reducing reaction time. Consistency is the ability to perform a skill at a similar level of proficiency on sequential trials, while adaptability is the ability to perform a skill under various contexts or skill variations. As an example, a young baseball player learning to pitch should increase his throwing velocity over time as a function of practice (i.e., improvement), throw the ball in the strike zone more frequently (i.e., consistency), and be capable of performing the skill from the windup or out of the stretch (i.e., adaptability).

Practitioners should also assess performance trials through the use of various tests or methods that help quantify skill acquisition. The most commonly used tests are retention and transfer tests (Adams, 1987). A retention test is used to assess the permanence of the motor skill; more specifically, it determines how much information has been retained following practice. Within a typical motor learning study, an individual will practice a novel motor skill for a given period under a specific context. During retention testing, the individual will perform the same task again in the same context (or a very similar context) after a period of time (e.g., an hour, day, week).

Transfer tests assess the degree to which the skill is adaptable to differing performance contexts (Adams, 1987). The goal of skill acquisition is rarely to have individuals perform well under a single context or with a single task variation. The goal is to have individuals take what they learned in training and apply that skill to a variety of novel performance situations. For example, a college basketball player may spend significant time working to improve her jump shot in an isolated gym. The primary goal of this practice is not that the player shoot well in an empty gym, but that she be able to produce a consistent performance with a jump shot while being guarded by a variety of opponents or shooting from a variety of different distances. These contexts are very different, and skill acquisition should take into account the goal performance situation when structuring practice.

Transfer tests assess adaptability in a number of ways. These tests may include the modification of characteristics of the environment, the task, or the individual performing the task (Adams, 1987). Transfer to a new environment may take the form of a novel physical environment or some change to the sensory information available (e.g., lighting or sounds). There are many circumstances that would require a player to have environmental adaptability; for instance, a team may practice all week in their indoor facility where lighting, sounds, and weather remain constant and then perform at an opponent’s outdoor stadium, where the same factors are unpredictable. An example of transfer that involves the skill or task is when a softball batter practices hitting fastballs and then has to hit a curveball. An example of a change to the individual is a participant practicing a task with his dominant arm and then transferring the performance to the nondominant arm. Also, the mental performance consultant must not neglect the internal state of a performer. Athletes must still play at a high level when they are not at their best because of jet lag, lack of sleep, or poor nutrition. It can be advantageous to practice with a variety of internal constraints (e.g., fatigue, enhanced anxiety) so they are better prepared if those conditions arise during a competition.

When considering retention and transfer tests, it should be recognized that both offer valuable information to practitioners about skill acquisition. Retention tests assess the permanence of the skill; if athletes are struggling to perform well in retention tests, more deliberate practice is likely needed to strengthen the generalized motor program for the skill. If athletes struggle to perform well on transfer tests, practitioners might consider how practice can be varied to prepare the athlete for performing well under a variety of conditions. Competition itself is often considered a transfer test of sorts (with inherent changes to contexts, anxiety levels, and/or required task variations), but well-designed transfer tests can also be implemented in practice to assess preparedness for the competitive environment. By incorporating such tests, athletes and coaches can identify potential weaknesses prior to competition and consider how changes to practice might improve the ability of athletes to perform in other challenging environments.

More Excerpts From Essential Guide for Mental Performance Consultants (Digital Resource)