Skill Acquisition and Proficiency > Sports Psychology > Article

To facilitate the development of a novice into an expert, we should understand the psychological components that characterize skilled performers from unskilled performers.

Guthrie (1952) defines a skill as the ability to bring about some end result with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy or of time and energy. A novice could conceivably execute a flawless motor skill, yet not be able to perform it consistently, or with as little effort relative to an expert performer.

Since an individual is limited to perform one complex task at a time (Boutcher 1992), an individual may have to divert all of their attentional capacity toward a new task. As individuals practice a particular motor skill, they eventually learn to eliminate extraneous movement and to effectively coordinate muscles to act as a single functional unit. As skills become automatic, considerably less thought is necessary to effectively complete the task. This allows skilled performers to attend to other relevant cues in the environment instead of the particular movement.

Skilled Verses Novice Performers

Skill Acquisition and ProficiencyA novice performer has to manage more information when learning a new motor skill and consequently, possesses less attentional capacity. Novices are more likely to experience anxiety during unfamiliar situations. Emotional arousal can narrow the attentional field and decrease the ability to respond to peripheral stimuli (Boutcher 1992). Expert performers are more likely able to perform optimally at a higher arousal level than novice performers (Abernethy, 1993).

When novice performers are in competitive situations, they attempt to consciously monitor the process of performance. Unfortunately, consciousness (control processing) does not contain the necessary information for optimal muscular coordination essential for effective performance (Boutcher 1992).

Skilled performers are better able to correct for extraneous influences on motor skill. For example, compared to a novice, an experienced athlete may have a greater chance to deliver an object to a target while enduring a bodily strike or crowd noise. Novices may more easily attend to distracting irrelevant cues. Skilled performers can isolate relevant cues (channel search). They specifically know what information to attend to and are better able to focus in on these cues. Interestingly, expert performers are better able to detect false cues as compared to novice performers (Abernethy, 1993).

Skilled performers may wait until the last possible moment in anticipation for a stimulus that may provide better information. Expert performer's subjective estimates of event probabilities may more accurately predict actual event probabilities than the estimates novices utilize for their selective attention and decision making (Abernethy, 1993). An elite quarterback may be a good example of a skilled athlete who will choose to wait until the last possible moment to react.

Behavioral Prospective

A behavioral prospective suggests we can facilitate the development of performance by changing the environment. This may be accomplished by applying a particular stimulus in a systematic manner such as social reinforcement, praise or disapproval. A strong association of the skill with the associated stimulus is desired. Proficiency is monitored by observation within the behavioral prospective.

Cognitive/Behavioral Prospective

The cognitive/behavioral approach may improve performance by altering the individual thoughts, or cognition. This theory recognizes the individual's beliefs, memories, and biases may also influence the development of proficient skill. Educating the individual to focus on particular cues in performing motor skill may be an important issue in the cognitive/behavioral approach.

Proficiency is monitored by self-report within the cognitive/behavioral approach. Interestingly, experienced performers know what it feels like to perform their particular motor skill, yet often have difficulty in articulating their actions and perceptions verbally. Information is thought to be lost when explaining skill, or tacit knowledge. Furthermore, automatic processing of a motor skill appears to be free of conscience monitoring (Boutcher, 1992).

Ecological Prospective

Skill Acquisition and ProficiencyIn the ecological prospective, the individual, environment, and the individual's behavior in the environment all interact and change throughout time. Control is distributed throughout all three of these components. The individual attends to certain information in the environment depending on their interpretation, or perception of what is important. As the individual becomes more experienced, they will change what they attend to in the environment. In essence, the individual can restructure their experience in their environment as they draw upon new associations and control their behavior.

Kugler & Turvey (1987) explain that information in the ecological approach to and action is interpreted as the mean by which the learner channels the mapping of information and movement dynamics in the perceptual-motor workspace congruent with the demand of the task (Newell, 1991). Invariant properties of the environment act as information to guide the exploratory activity of the learner (Newell, 1991). Behavior can facilitate the gaining of knowledge in certain environments. Some behaviors may offer a greater potential for the acquisition of knowledge. Over time, they learn how to turn this information into knowledge. People will have different ways to gain knowledge. As skills become automatic; considerably less thought is necessary to effectively complete the task. This allows skilled performers to attend to other relevant cues in the environment instead of the particular movement.

Characteristics of Elite Athletes

Elite athletes are reported to have distinct characteristics relative to their less accomplished peers (Mahoney & Gabriel, 1987). They include:

    1. Experienced fewer problems with anxiety
    2. Were more successful at deploying their concentration
    3. Were more self-confident
    4. Relied more on internally referenced and kinesthetic mental preparations
    5. Were more focused on their own performance than that of their team
    6. Were more highly motivated to do well in their sport

Other investigators have noted other characteristics:

    1. Morgan demonstrated that successful athletes possess more positive mood states than their less successful counterparts (Vealey, 1992).
    2. Morgan & Pollack (1977) have shown that elite runners were less likely to use dissociative strategies when running as compared to non elite runners (Boutcher, 1992).
    3. Elite shooters exhibit different patterns of left and right-brain cortical activity than do less elite shooters (Boutcher, 1992).


A particular training program and styles of training may elicit different effects among athletes due to individual differences. These differences include genetic predispositions, anthropometric dimensions, fitness levels, emotional state, personality, and past experiences. Therefore, attempts to duplicate the techniques and performance styles of world class athletes have proven useless or even harmful to many athletes. For example, many attempts by novice divers in the 1980's to mimic Greg Louganis' diving style resulted in significant deterioration of their own styles and overall performance. Likewise, attempts to copy the best Chinese divers' fast somersaulting techniques and clean entry had proven to be devastating in the mid 2000s (Slobounov SM 2008).

Usain Bolt's (known as the 'fastest man alive') criticism by 'experts' citing his faulty running technique (eg: "Too much wasted side to side movement", "Usain's head and arms are all over the place", "Slow starter") is one example of how an elite athlete's practices may even contradict conventional wisdom. (Lauresu 2012,; McCarthy 2011,

Nevertheless, acquisition of fundamental skill and coordination patterns are essential regardless of individual differences (Slobounov SM 2008). Variations beyond standardized (average) methods and techniques may only be realized after years of training.

Only average athletes, those who are far from excellent, prepare with average methods. A champion is not average, but exceptional.

Zatsiorsky 1995

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