Skill acquisition

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Brief – “Skill is learned; knowledge of how learning occurs is important to coaches and teachers in order to modify a performer’s behaviour and produce the desired response. Investigate the proposed theories of learning and how they are used in the practical environment.”

“Learning can be considered a more or less permanent change in performance associated with experiences but excluding changes which occur through maturation and degeneration or through alternations in the receptor of Effector organs”

I am now going to give the main points of the different learning theories, and explain the differences between them, using examples from sport to describe how each of the theories can be used in a teaching or coaching action.

Connectionist or Association Theories.

These theories rely on the learner linking a stimulus from the environment with a movement. This stimulus may take the form of a problem. For example in a water polo match the centre forward might be ball side of the centre back. In response to this the ball will get played in to the centre forward. The player defending at the top of the arc on position 3 would drop back to help. If this was found successful then this response becomes connected/ associated with the stimulus and stored in the long term memory. This type of connection is called a learning bond and can be recalled and repeated at any time if a similar situation should occur.

To learn like this a coach should

1. Structure the situation in training, setting up an ark and telling the players exactly what the need to do.

2. Apply reinforcement.

3. Shape behaviour in small parts of steps.

4. Use trial and error learning.

Strengths and weaknesses in this theory.

One of the weaknesses of this theory is that water polo is a game where the surroundings are constantly changing. If a coach dictates exactly what the team must do then in a match if the situation is not exactly the same the team will not feel confident doing it. However if the situation is not set up in training when it comes to a match the team will have no idea at all what to do. This theory also states that you should use trial and error learning as well. This would encourage learning more than setting up the positions and the coach dictating exactly what to do because the learners have to think about exactly what they are doing. Another strength of this theory is that you need to apply reinforcement and positive feedback if the skill is performed well. This encourages the skill to be performed again.

Cognitive theories of learning.

A group of psychologists (Koehler, Koffka, Lewin) Known as the Gestaltists proposed 2 principals.

1. Learning can be accelerated by using insight or intuition to solve a problem. For example a water polo team may decide to play a 3, 3 man up attack. The defenders will experiment with different ways of defending this (trial and error) then they will suddenly come up with a solution – a moment of insight.

2. “Learning is most effective when a problem is seen as a whole or when the whole pattern of the movement can be practiced. This enables the performer to understand all the issues and relationships which need to be considered.” (class notes) For example learners should practice eggbeater with the sculling arms as well and not break it down in to 2 different things, the eggbeater leg kick and the sculling arms.

This gestaltian view presents that learning is most effective when a whole problem is given to the learner who searches for an effective solution.

Strengths and weaknesses of this theory.

A strength of this theory is it allows the learners to experiment and use there own intuition and knowledge to solve a problem they face. However if the learner has absolutely no idea what they are doing they will not improve or learn the skill until the coach tells / shows them exactly what they need to do. Another strength of this theory is that a learner should learn as whole and not just smaller parts of skills. This encourages the co-ordination needed do carry out the movement. However if a learner can not do a certain part of a skill it might need to get broken down it to smaller chunks so that the performer can concentrate on getting a set piece right.

Social (observational) learning Theory.

This learning theory is based on how other people influence behaviour based on watching and copying them.

Bandura suggests there are for process in observational learning.

Attention – “coaches demand that players attend instructions or provide cues about how best to perform” (class notes) for example don’t watch were the ball lands just watch my technique and how my arm is bent.

Retention – This is remembering the model behaviour. Repetition helps this to happen. Coaches encourage a mental imaging of a skill and by catch phrases for 90 degrees (bent arm), legs (kicking), look (where your throwing the ball).

Motor production – This is the attempt that the learner has. It is important the coach demonstrates correctly to allow the learner to get a correct mental image.

Motivation – People tend to imitate what they are interested in and be motivated to achieve. The use of reinforcement enhances motivation and increase likely hood of achievement.


Strengths and weaknesses of this theory.

A weakness of this type of learning is that coaches can not always control what players are learning. They may pick up bad habits from there roll models not just the good techniques. Another Weakness is that the learner would not be able to pick up every little movement that the expert performer carries out; therefore the skill would be missing bits. However a strength of this type of learning is that the learner stays more motivated because they can see what they want to become eventually and how aesthetically pleasing the skill looks when it is performed well. Motivation is the key to success.

Conclusion of learning theories.

All of these theories are better suited for different level of performers. Social/ observation is suitable for athletes in the early / cognitive stages of learning because they can watch there heroes doing what they want to achieve. It would motivate them to keep attending the training sessions. For example watching the advanced player performing a jump half turn. When the beginner saw the advanced player doing it would make them want to be able to do it so that they are one step closer to being as good as there heroes. The Cognitive learning theory would be perfect for intermediate or association level performers because they have the basic knowledge of skill to practice them as whole skills and the basic knowledge to use there intuition to solve problems.

For example when a player is one on nil with the goal keeper and the trailing defender is close enough to give away a penalty but not stop the player from shooting. The defending player is faced with the problem of what to do. This is when the player has to decide using there own intuition what they need to do. Finally the Connectionist or Association Theories are best suited for advanced or autonomous players that have the basic tactical and skill knowledge and have been in the sport for a while and can adapt to different situations.

For example when teaching them to set up a zone defence, because the coach can structure it and tell them the basics of what they need to do and then leave the players to discover it them selves. This type of learning would also be available for early or cognitive learners that have never played before because you can tell them exactly what they need to do. For example when learning to throw a ball. If the wrong technique is carried out injury could occur. So the coach can tell them exactly what they need to do to prevent injury.

Similarities and Differences between each learning theory.

The 3 learning theories that I have written about above have different views on how learning occurs. Connectionist or association theory is that learning occurs from a stimulus in the environment with a movement. Where as the cognitive learning theory is that a learner learns by using there intuition to solve a problem. And that the problem needs to be seen as a whole and not broken down in to parts. Differently again the social learning theory states that “other people influence behaviour.” Learners will copy an advanced player and try to do exactly what they see.

A similarity of all 3 of these learning theories is that learners need to be motivated and have positive feedback to perform a skill correctly. Similarities between Cognitive and connectionist or association theories are that they both allow trial and error / experimental time for the learner while they are learning the skill. However in the connectionist or association theory the coach has slightly more control over what the learner is doing.

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