Stage of skill acquisition – Improving PDHPE
Study Notes

Stages of Skill Acquisition

There are three stages of skill acquisition which detail the progressive steps an individual must go through before they can perform at an elite level.

– Cognitive Stage

The cognitive stage is the beginner’s level of skill acquisition. This stage is appropriately named due to the large focus on mental concentration and thought that is required in order for a beginner to understand and process new information before they even attempt the skill. Something as simple as catching a ball must be clearly explained, broken down and demonstrated before you simply throw the ball at someone and hope they can catch it.

During the cognitive stage, the learner might also rely on prior experience or skill transfer from other sports when learning new skills to help them understand. People at this stage will also make multiple mistakes and will require regular encouragement and feedback to ensure they progress and learn from their mistakes.

It is expected that at this stage the learner’s skill execution will seem uncoordinated, inconsistent, lacking confidence and can find learning a new skill very frustrating. It is important that coaches or trainers give regular positive/constructive feedback when the learner does something correct and this needs to be as specific as possible to help the learner understand what they have done and what they need to try and do. Keep in mind that cognitive learners cannot self-assess what they are doing wrong and need to rely on external feedback to correct errors. At the end of the day, the aim of a cognitive learner is to execute the skill to a basic level and have a rough idea of what they need to do. Depending on the difficulty, some skills will take longer to learn than others.

– Associative Stage:

Only once the learner is able to execute a skill to a basic level and understand what is required of them to perform the skill will they be ready for the associative stage. Once the learner has progressed to this stage, the main focus is on refining the skill through repetition and rehearsal. During this process, errors are still going to occur, although they are not as big or as frequent when compared to the cognitive stage. With increased practice, these errors will become less common. As the associative learner practices, they develop their ability to identify and self-correct errors as they refine their kinaesthetic sense (special awareness of body parts).

When execution of the skill becomes highly successful in a closed environment (where the learner is in full control), coaches and trainers will progress the learner to perform the skill in an open ended environment where the skill will be used in a specific sporting context in the form of drills or gameplay. An example of a skill used in this way could be passing in basketball. Progressing from a closed skill to an open skill can be difficult because instead of being in total control, the learner is in an unpredictable environment and has to focus on many more variables like opposition players, positional play and timing whilst executing the pass accurately. As the learner becomes more confident and successful when performing a skill in an open environment, the difficulty of the training drills need to increase to further challenge and refine the learners skill. On the other hand, if the learner struggles in an open skilled environment. They may need to return back to the cognitive stage to develop confidence before they progress again.

Some learners may take weeks, months or years to progress from the associative stage. Not all athletes will progress to the autonomous stage. Often, the skill is too difficult for the learner or they lack the sufficient time required to practise the skill.

– Autonomous

The autonomous stage is achieved when the learner has mastered all sub parts of the skill and is able to combine them to perform the whole skill sequence automatically with precision. They are now able to perform with full kinaesthetic awareness and identify and correct any errors quickly and independently. They can also easily take on board and adapt external skill execution feedback. A person at the autonomous stage can confidently execute a skill whilst focusing on multiple factors at the same time.

An example of this is a rugby player passing the ball in gameplay. Not only do they have to receive the ball, they need to also be spatially aware of the opposition players trying to tackle them, their own support players and which of them is best to pass to, and still pass the ball with accuracy and perfect timing to ensure the receiver of the pass catches it in the best position for that particular scenario. Not to mention that this scenario could all happen in the space 2-3 seconds. When a sportsperson can make a skill like that look effortless and seem to have all the time they need, they are most likely at the autonomous stage.

While elite athletes at the autonomous stage can perform skills automatically without thinking about them, they still need to practice these skills indirectly. Practice for this stage is usually a real time game based scenario drill that challenges the individual through multi-tasking. If the drill becomes too easy, the coach or trainer can increase the difficulty by adding more opposition players, speed up the drill or get the individual to perform the skills in the drill under greater fatigue.

One potential issue for individuals who have reached the autonomous stage is that it can be very difficult to alter their technique when it occurs automatically. This will require the individual to breakdown the technique adjustment and practice it until it once again becomes autonomous. An example of this is the rule change in professional golf which has forced Adam Scott alter his now banned technique of pressing his long putter against his body for extra support in the putting motion.

Full Written Notes

Critical question 4: How does the acquisition of skill affect performance?
Stages of Skill Acquisition

To understand the different stages of skill acquisition it is necessary to examine the processes involved in learning a new skill, like juggling or throwing with the non-dominant arm.

 

Stages of Skill Acquisition

There are three stages of skill acquisition which detail the progressive steps an individual must go through before they can perform at an elite level.

Cognitive Stage: The cognitive stage is the beginner’s level of skill acquisition. This stage is appropriately named as the focus is on mental concentration and the thought processed involved in understanding and processing new information, before a new skill can even be attempted. Something as simple as catching a ball must be clearly explained, broken down and demonstrated; simply throwing the ball at an individual and hoping they will catch it is not an effective strategy.

During the cognitive stage, an athlete might also rely on their prior experience, transferring their knowledge of other sports to the process of understanding and learning new skills. People at this stage are likely to perform poorly; they require regular encouragement and feedback to ensure they progress and learn from their mistakes.

At this stage the execution of the skill will be uncoordinated and inconsistent. Individuals may lack confidence and many people find learning a new skill to be very frustrating. It is important that coaches or trainers give regular, positive and constructive feedback when the learner does something correctly. Comments must be as specific as possible to help the learner understand what they have done correctly and where they need to improve.

Cognitive learners cannot self-assess what they are doing wrong and rely on external feedback to correct errors. The aim of a cognitive learner is to execute the skill to a basic level and to have a rough idea of the proper technique. Depending on the complexity, some skills will take longer to learn than others.

Associative Stage: Once an individual can execute a skill to a basic level and understand proper technique, instruction can progress to the associative stage. The main focus here is on refining the skill through repetition and rehearsal. During this process, errors will still occur, although they should not be as significant or as frequent as those in the cognitive stage. With increased practice, errors will become less common. When individuals practice they develop their ability to identify and self-correct errors as they refine their kinaesthetic sense (special awareness of body parts).

When execution of the skill becomes highly successful in a closed environment (where the learner is in full control), coaches and trainers will encourage the learner to perform the skill in an open ended environment. This involves applying the skill within a specific sporting context, like a drill or mock game.

Progressing from a closed setting to an open one can be difficult because instead of being in control, the individual is exposed unpredictable environment and must focus on many more variables, like opposition players, positional play and timing whilst also executing the skill accurately. As the individual becomes more confident and successful, the difficulty of the training drills should increase to further challenge and refine the learner’s ability. However, if a learner struggles in an open skilled environment, they may need to go back down to the cognitive stage again before they can progress further.

Some learners may take weeks, months or years to progress from the associative stage. It is not uncommon for individuals to plateau, due to the high difficulty of the skill or the lack of frequency with which they practice.

Autonomous: The autonomous stage is achieved when the learner has mastered all sub parts of a skill and are able to combine them to perform the whole sequence automatically with precision. This means they are able to perform with full kinaesthetic awareness while also identifying and correcting any errors quickly and independently. They can also easily process and adapt to external feedback.

A person at the autonomous stage can confidently execute a skill whilst focusing on multiple factors at the same time. A rugby player passing the ball in gameplay is a prime example. Not only do they have to receive the ball, they need to also be spatially aware of the location of opposition players trying to tackle them, their own support players and decide who to pass to, while still throwing the ball with accuracy, perfect timing and optimal tactical advantage. This scenario may take place in just 2 to 3 seconds. When a sportsperson can execute a skill effortlessly without stress, they are most likely at the autonomous stage.

While elite athletes at the autonomous stage are able to perform skills automatically, they will still need to practice these skills indirectly. Practice during this stage is usually comprises of a real time game based scenario drill which challenges the individual by forcing them to multi-task. If the drill becomes too easy, the coach or trainer can increase the difficulty by adding more opposition players, speeding up the drill or having the individual to perform the skills in the drill under greater fatigue.

One potential issue for individuals who have reached the autonomous stage is that it can be very difficult to alter their technique if it occurs automatically. This will require the individual to breakdown the technique adjustment and practice it until it once again becomes autonomous. For example, the rule change in professional golf has forced Adam Scott to alter his now banned technique of pressing his long putter against his body for extra support in the putting motion.