Dr Phil Kearney is a Lecturer in Motor Skill Acquisition and Coaching and Performance in University of Limerick, Ireland. He is also Course Director of the Masters of Science in Applied Sports Coaching. I have asked Phil to contribute a piece in the area of practice. Below, he explains a well-researched and proven method he uses to introduce athletes to a more purposeful and systematic approach to practicing what are termed closed motor skills.

This essay is an extract from Be the Best You Can Be in Sport- A Book for Irish Youth

Whether playing sport, practicing a musical instrument, learning to drive or studying schoolwork, understanding how to practice most effectively has great potential to accelerate learning and make more efficient use of practice time. However, many athletes and players need help to learn how to make the most out of their practice sessions. For sports skills, the American psychologist Robert Singer introduced a five step strategy that could provide a framework for more effective practice. In particular, this strategy was designed for individuals attempting to learn closed motor skills: skills that are performed in a relatively stable environment where the learner can decide when to initiate the movement. Examples of closed motor skills include: the basketball free throw, the tennis serve, golf strokes, kicking for touch in rugby, a vault in gymnastics, as well as many jumping or throwing events within track and field. So what are the five steps within the strategy?

  • Readying: The goal of the first step is to prepare for a high quality attempt; your body position should be suitably balanced, your mind free from distractions, thinking positively about how you will perform. This step often involves some preparatory action, such as a practice swing in golf, to help tune in to the body. In addition, simple breathing exercises or cue words might be used to control your arousal levels. It is important to stress that the optimal mental state to enhance learning (i.e., how relaxed or fired up you need to be) is likely to depend both on the individual and on the skill being practiced. The specifics of the readying step may be unique to each learner, but the goal is the same: you are ready to deliver a high quality action.
  • Imaging: In the second step, you imagine the desired action and/or outcome. As with readying, there is considerable flexibility within this step for an individual-specific approach. For example, you may use kinaesthetic (i.e., focus on feeling the movement) or visual imagery. If adopting visual imagery, you may rehearse the action from your own perspective (internal imagery), or as though observing yourself performing on television (external imagery). You may view the entire action, or you may pay particular attention to how one particular element of the movement looks or feels. Regardless of how it is achieved, the goal of this step is to have clearly established what you is trying to achieve within the attempt.
  • Focus: During the third step, you focus your attention on one relevant cue, using this intense focus to block out potential distractors. For ball sports, you might concentrate on the seams of the tennis ball, football or basketball. For track and field events, you might focus on the first checkpoint in your run up. As with the preceding steps, different individuals will focus on different elements; what matters most is that you narrow your focus to a relevant cue, thus “closing the door” on potentially disruptive thoughts.
  • Execute: Expert performers can execute skills without conscious thought. Following the preceding steps will have primed you to do likewise. When everything feels right, “just do it”, as the Nike advert advocates, without consciously thinking of or trying to control anything about the act itself or the possible outcome.
  • Evaluation: In the final step, you engage with all available feedback to assess the performance outcome (e.g. did I score the point?) and the movement by which it was achieved (e.g. did I follow through like I was intending?). In addition, you should pay attention to the effectiveness of each step in the routine (Was I ready? Did I obtain a clear image? etc.), adjusting any procedure for the next attempt, if required. Undertaken correctly, the evaluation should be as detailed and mentally taxing as the performance itself.

Researchers have consistently demonstrated the effectiveness of Singer’s Five Step Strategy for enhancing practice quality and thereby accelerating learning. Here are some key points to consider for any athlete/coach implementing this approach:

  1. The Five Step Strategy is intensive; wait until the learner wants to engage in more structured, serious practice before introducing the full strategy.
  2. The Five Step Strategy should not be implemented on every practice session. Sometimes you might be playing around with a technique, exploring creative options. At other times, you might be trying to recreate a competition environment, challenging yourself to perform under specific conditions. In both instances, the Strategy is likely to disrupt your goals for the session.
  3. Most athletes will instinctively follow some of the steps outlined within the strategy. Start by identifying what you already do, and develop your strategy from there.
  4. Although at first glance the strategy may appear to be formal and rigid, there is considerable flexibility within the 5 Step Approach to adapt each step to your needs and experiences while providing a clear framework to promote higher quality practice.
  5. The strategy consists of a number of individual skills (arousal regulation, imagery, concentration), each of which may need to be practiced before being effectively utilised within the strategy.
  6. Learners using this strategy will perform fewer repetitions within a set amount of practice time due to the increased time required to adequately prepare and evaluate; the higher quality of these repetitions will more than compensate for the reduced number.

Best wishes,

Phil Kearney

References:

Ericsson, Anders; Pool, Robert (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0544456235.

Singer, R. N. (1988). Strategies and metastrategies in learning and performing selfpaced athletic skills. The Sport Psychologist, 2, 49–68. Retrieved from: http:///www.humankinetics.com/tsp

Singer, R. N., & Cauraugh, J. H. (1985). The generalizability effect of learning strategies for categories of psychomotor skills. Quest, 37, 103–119. doi:10.1080/00336297.1985.10483824

Copyright Paul Kilgannon 2021
Website by Grafton Digital.