How skills are learned and refined through practice

If you have never considered how skills are actually learned, and developed or refined over time then you are simply hoping that your training is resulting in learning, rather than making sure it does.

The way the body learns and refines skills, whether they be simple or more complex movements involving a ball or any other piece of sporting equipment, is one of trial and error involving the control and timing of the body’s limbs in relation to the environment. Every little variation in joint position or timing both in relation to your own self (limbs/joints/ball) and your self in relation to your environment (opposition/team-mates) will allow you to execute skills slightly better or worse. Every time you execute the skill, you are provided feedback which helps provide information for your next attempt. It’s your ability to coordinate your body, in the appropriate time-frame, having made the correct decision, that determines the likelihood of a successful performance in sports. It’s your ability to learn from each of these moments that determines how quickly you learn, develop and improve your skills.

Refining a skill is much the same as looking for your missing wallet in a room. Every time you check somewhere, such as the desk, only to find that the wallet is not there, you have not wasted time or failed, but have eliminated one possibility of where the wallet could be, bringing you one step closer to finding it when you look somewhere else. Each failure brings you one step closer to finding the wallet, or in the case of sports, mastering a skill.

This of course is true as long as you have a very clear goal for whatever task you are undertaking, in this case trying to find a missing wallet. This means it is vital that you know clearly what your intent or primary objective for each drill or training moment is. Only then can you be sure that your body is self-learning and refining it’s coordination and decision making in a way that will bring it closer to achieving that goal more often or more efficiently. The way many drills in sports are set up doesnt always make this easy, very often the exact goal is ambiguous or even lacks specific transfer to the game itself, instead simply getting the athlete better at performing inside that drills specific constraints. Ideally drills are set up with a clear goal in mind so that athletes simply have to focus on ‘winning the drill’ and the exact construct of the drill will result in the learning effect occurring, rather than athletes having to overthink and focus on the technical elements such as their body position, which has been proven time and time again to improve training performance, but have a negative transfer to pressure situations in games (the way shooting is taught in basketball is particularly notorious for this style of teaching).

Different people will happen to find the wallet (or refine a skill) at different rates, perhaps given pure chance of where they look first (luck), or how often they are able to look (training frequency), or how well they look (training quality). But to get frustrated at each error is an incorrect response and fails to acknowledge that an error is not a lack of learning, it is learning what does not work, which is vital to learning what does work. There can be no light without darkness.

If you do not value errors, you are less likely to learn from them. Consider the wallet scenario again. If you get increasingly frustrated with not finding the wallet at each location, then you are more likely to get flustered and either not look as thoroughly at each location perhaps not seeing the wallet (missing the opportunity to see the correct ‘read’ or learning opportunity you’ve been waiting for during training) or look in the same place twice (repeating the same mistake repeatedly without learning). This frustration or flustered look is apparent in players who repeatedly make mistakes and see them as negative events rather than positive ones. This attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to so speak as their response to the error does in fact make them a negative event. But a player in this headspace will never be an efficient learner and will find their development restricted.