RECOGNIZING & RESPECTING THE STAGES OF SKILL DEVELOPMENT
THE STAGES OF SKILL DEVELOPMENT
Think of any basic motor skill that you’ve mastered. It’s likely you advanced through a series of predictable stages.
Because so many of us can ride a bike, let’s take a closer look at the stages of learning we encountered on our quest to two-wheeled mastery.
Our journey starts by seeing someone else ride. That looks fun! We’re motivated to learn and we get a clear picture of what the skill looks like and how the bike actually functions. Then, with the aid of training wheels, we get on the bike and learn the basic movements within a very stable and safe environment. After enough reps, the training wheels come off and the slightly more difficult process of trial and error begins with the help of a trusted instructor hanging on, helping us stay upright. Then, all of a sudden, we’ve mastered the basic movements and we no longer require assistance.
We are off and running, ready to explore new environments, refining our skills and even developing our own personal style.
Most of us stay at this level of bike riding— we can perform unconsciously, but we limit our environment to the safety of sidewalks and driveways. The more daring souls will seek increasingly complex environments to further challenge their skills in an effort to meet the most demanding of cycling tasks.
Because so many of us have learned the skill, a well-defined blueprint for learning has been passed along to new riders. For a variety of reasons, the same can’t be said for golf. Not only is it a more complex motor skill, but learners are rarely presented with the same skill-appropriate pathway of development.
As the bike riding example so clearly illustrates, understanding where your student is on the skill development continuum is critically important to maintain motivation and facilitate reasonable progress. Too much instability or the wrong method of feedback could spell disaster in the early stages of learning. Similarly, the more advanced performer won’t be able to advance their skills if the learning environment doesn’t present appropriate challenges or variability. If we fail to cater to the cognitive understanding and physical capabilities of our students, our coaching will never yield the performance improvements that we seek.
Fortunately, our friends north of the border at Sport Canada are well ahead of us. They’ve provided coaches with a breakdown of the various stages of skill development and recommended steps that will optimize our time with the learner. You can read their material in more detail here. Below, we have broken down the steps, synthesized the information from the perspective of a golf coach and applied the concepts to a common golf problem. We want to answer the following questions for golf coaches:
- What traits do players typically exhibit in the various stages?
- What should the coach’s objective be for each stage?
- How should the coach deliver information?
- When does the learner progress to the next stage?
To further demonstrate the concept, let’s use a golf specific example. We’ve included how we would approach a slicer during each stage of development.
STAGE 1 BEGINNER
PLAYER TRAITS Completely unaware of the requirements of the skill, even the most basic concepts and motions.
OBJECTIVES Illustrate a clear picture of what the skill should look like and communicate a basic understanding of the fundamentals.
HOW TO DELIVER Create a safe learning environment, free of judgment, wherein the learner feels safe to engage in physical practice and use a lot of demonstration. The learner needs to have a mental image of what a good golf swing, putting stroke, chip, or pitch looks like, as well as a basic understanding of the fundamentals required to hit a functional shot.
SIGNS TO ADVANCE When the performer has established an understanding of basic concepts and at least some level of comfort with the fundamental motions. To accelerate this process, promote at least some feeling of competency by having the student perform simplified versions of the skill.
SLICER EXAMPLE It’s a little far-fetched to assume a golfer at the level will achieve solid contact often enough to have a predictable pattern, but for the sake of the example– illustrating the basic concept for how and why a ball curves, along with some demonstration of different flights would be an effective method to advance past the Initiation Stage.
PLAYER TRAITS Can perform a crude version of the skill. You’ll notice that their actions are neither well-coordinated, nor particularly fluid. Outcomes will be wildly inconsistent from trial to trial.
OBJECTIVES Of utmost importance is that the learner has a crystal clear concept of what they are required to do and are given the opportunity to practice under stable conditions.
HOW TO DELIVER Learners at this stage are using a tremendous amount of cognitive effort to control the movements. Blocked practice exercises with some augmented feedback will support the learning process by engaging an athlete’s problem solving abilities and helping establish a bandwidth of experience for self-awareness/error correction.
SIGNS TO ADVANCE Through a combination of trial and error and feedback, the player has gained a good understanding for how to produce desirable results. They don’t always execute perfectly, but movements are more synchronized and under control.
SLICER EXAMPLE For a slicer in the Acquisition Stage, we would provide feedback that enhances the learner’s awareness of the face’s relationship to the path. Diagnostic tools like Trackman are great for this because they provide objective Knowledge of Results after each trial. Equipped with a greater understanding of which trials cause the biggest unintended curve, the learner can start to explore solutions that create a different, albeit not always desirable, ball flight.
STAGE 2 INTERMEDIATE
PLAYER TRAITS Performance has become more fluid, better sequenced, and more consistent– but severe degradation occurs whenever instability arises. This player often complains of not being able to take their new skills from the range to the course.
OBJECTIVES Help the golfer apply their newly developed skill and precision to a variety of conditions that are representative of what they would encounter on the course.
HOW TO DELIVER Assist them in structuring their practice in a way that reinforces technical correctness while producing functional outcomes from a variety of situations. It is at this phase where the effective management of the task-environment-learner constraints systems becomes of critical importance to the learning process, as this fosters a more unstable environment in which the learner can explore the boundaries of their capabilities.
SIGNS TO ADVANCE As the disparity in shot quality decreases, you’ll notice the athlete develop a heightened sense of self-awareness and the ability to self-coach at a very high level. Ultimately, the goal is to help the performer consolidate their actions to the point that they can bridge the gap in performance between stable and unstable environments, and (as always) help them better understand their individual tendencies.
SLICER EXAMPLE Because the golfer now has achieved greater control of the club and their movements, we would challenge them to attempt to produce a variety of ball flights. They are equipped with an understanding of how and why the ball slices, so we would help them produce a variety of start lines and curves. Their ability to consistently produce a variety of shots and effectively reflect on unsuccessful trials signals the progression to the advanced stage of skill development.
STAGE 3 ADVANCED
PLAYER TRAITS Athletes at the advanced stages of learning can execute with a high degree of precision and consistency in both unstable and stable environments.
OBJECTIVES Although minor technical tweaks may be required from time to time, the advanced performer is best served by focusing more on how the environment influences performance and execution. This type of training will equip them with the ability to solve problems as they arise during the course of play. Work to enhance tactical skills, performance state, and perceptual aptitude.
HOW TO DELIVER Now you can focus less on technical proficiency and more on problem solving and skill refinement. Providing the opportunity to engage in highly contextual, situation-based practice is paramount to this process.
SLICER EXAMPLE Even the advanced player could exhibit a tendency to produce an ‘over-curve’ at inopportune times. Rather than overhaul the motion, we would start by exploring small technique modifications that allow the golfer to maintain their well-developed ‘fingerprint’. It may be more effective to manipulate a few task constraints on the course under simulated pressure, allowing for a functional solution to emerge on it’s own. We could establish penalties for any tee shots curving right. We could also create boundaries for certain shots, creating a ‘range of acceptability’ as it relates to curve, shrinking the ‘good-enough bandwidth’ as shots improve.
As a disclaimer we should remind you– progression doesn’t occur in a linear fashion and a performer might even occupy multiple stages at the same time. They may be in Consolidation around the green while in Refinement off the tee. There are no motor milestones that every player will satisfy within a recommended time frame, just predictable stages of learning.
Based on the learners unique experiences and traits, they will interact with the task and environments in their own way, progressing along the continuum of development at their own rate.
The stages just provide a starting point. A basic takeaway could be this– depending on a player’s stage of development; a sliding scale of technical, tactical, and performance coaching should be employed.
Scroll back up and review the Acquisition Stage. What percentage of lessons disregard the stages and never leave this setting?
The slice fix for your first lesson of the day may not be appropriate for your second. If you’re like us, you’ll have plenty of anecdotal evidence of this. We can think of plenty of times we’ve delivered what seemed to be quality information, but experienced lackluster results due to mis-identifying or ignoring these stages. That’s why we have to stay diligent in planning sessions and following the developmental clues that inform our ability to provide maximum impact.
Thanks to Sport Canada for continuing to produce such quality coaching research and education. We hope you’ll benefit from their work along with our take on how it can be applied to golf. Feel free to share your thoughts on the topic in the comments below.
– Corey Lundberg & Matt Wilson
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