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Skill acquisition

When working with an athlete we’re trying to enable them to maximise their sporting performance. That’s the goal. There are a number of ways as a strength and conditioning coach that we can do that. Increasing mass, strength, rate of force production, flexibility etc. can be used in different forms and combinations, with every sport, to better performance. Improving each area requires an athlete to learn certain techniques be it a type of lift, a agility drill or a jump. They are all movements the athlete has to learn, that we have to coach to the athlete.

How do we know if the athlete is learning the skill? We have to measure performance. There are 4 areas of performance when learning a skill:

  1. Improvement – the athlete is performing the skill at some later time than at a previous time.
  2. Consistency – the athlete is performing the skill with similarity from attempt to attempt.
  3. Persistence – the athlete’s improved performance lasts over an increasing amount of time.
  4. Adaptability – the athlete can perform the skill in a variety of scenarios

We can measure persistence by using retention tests that test the skill after a period of time without practice. A transfer test can be used for adaptability by putting the skill into a new context for example by removing feedback, changing the environment or by altering the pressure the test taker is under. Another form of transfer test is achieved by changing the skill being tested by perhaps introducing a change in speed at which the movement is performed or by performing the skill under fatigue.

Using a movement screen means that a score can be kept and tracked over time to give a measure of performance that can be used for feedback and comparison and provide feedback on improvement and consistency. This will also help in communication between the athlete support staff and is a useful tool during rehab. The tests don’t always have to be formal though, they can be used during training. Revisiting basic movements during the warm up to test retention and altering or removing feedback while we coach are very effective tools for seeing how well athlete’s are acquiring the skill.

Neil Welch

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