Expert Performance in Sport – Notes From a USOC Seminar

On November 13, 2008, the United States Olympic Committee held a two-day seminar entitled Development, Enhancement and Sustainability of Expert Performance in Sport.  Presenting were five world-renowned leaders in the field: K. Anders Ericsson, Richard A. Schmidt, Mark Williams, Dr. Peter Vint, and Jim Bauman.

 The following are my notes from the report on the seminar available from the Winter 2009 edition of the USOC Olympic Coach Newsletter.  I made these notes with reference to two outstanding books I read on expert performance, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

 First, some preliminary information.  Expert performance is predicated upon a type of practice called Deliberate Practice.  It is defined in various references, including the two books cited above.  Here is another definition, along with Deliberate play, taken from an article from the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology (2008, 30, 685-708) entitled The Contribution of Structured Activity and Deliberate Play to the Development of Expert Perceptual and Decision-Making Skill (downloadable the English FA website).

 Deliberate Practice:

Deliberate practice [is] defined as highly structured practice undertaken with the specific purpose of improving performance in the domain of specialization. In addition, deliberate practice [is] characterized as requiring sustained cognitive and/or physical effort, being solely directed toward positive skill development and error correction, and being not necessarily inherently enjoyable. (pg. 686)

 Deliberate Play:

Deliberate play activity typically occurs during the sampling years of sport participation (ages 6–13 years), before specialization (approx. ages 13–16 years) and investment (approx. ages 17+ years), and encapsulates developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment. Deliberate play activity includes the classic neighborhood pickup games, such as park football and street basketball, that are usually played with small-sided teams and flexible peer-defined rules. In contrast to deliberate practice, these deliberate play activities are not partaken with the specific intent of improving performance; however, they nevertheless may become important in influencing whether expertise ultimately appears (Côté, 1999; Côté et al., 2003). (pg. 687)

 Elements of Deliberate Practice (Ericksson)

(Note:  Deliberate practice is a special kind of practice which is required for development of experts in any sport.  It is the type of practice coaches want their athletes to be engaged in.)

  • Practice with goals and expectations
  • The practice must be monitored by a coach
  • Practice involves repetition and successive refinement
  • Athletes must have full concentration
  • The critical aspect is time spent in deliberate practice.

 Skill Development (Shmidt)

  • Blocked” Practice – repetition of a single skill with no auxiliary components
  • Random” Practice – training of skills is randomly ordered in cycles, e.g. skill 1, skill 2, skill 3, skill 2, skill 3, skill 1, skill 3, etc.
  • Blocked” Practice good for performance of skill
  • Random” Practice good for competition skills.  Best suited to the development of soccer skills as they must be used in a competitive environment.

 Feedback – Single most important factor for learning a skill

  • Types of feedback:
    • Augmented Feedback – feedback about outcome or quality of action
    • Summary Feedback – feedback after 5, 10, or 15 performances of a skill.  Feedback after 10-15 reps appears optimal
    • Instantaneous Feedback – most common and LEAST beneficial
    • Continuous & Concurrent Feedback – less effective for retention
    • Bandwidth Feedback – coach establishes high and low level of acceptable performance and makes comments only when performance is outside of high-low bands.

 Practice and Instruction in Sport (Williams)

  • Athletes in soccer academy inEnglandspend 18 hours per week in practice (Note:  Ages not reported)
    • 4 hours of team practice (22.2%)
    • 5 hours individual practice (27.8%)
    • 9 hours deliberate play (50%)
    • For effective learning coach should only demonstrate when necessary.
      • Only after initial practice on task
      • Have variable and randomness in practice
      • Provide least amount of feedback
      • Demonstrations are less effective when refining an existing movement pattern.

 Based on the above information the implications for coaching, therefore, are clear.  Coaches should strive to create an environment of deliberate practice at training.  This means the athletes must be focused at the task at hand; coaches must provide sufficient and correct feedback in the correct dosage and in the correct manner, avoiding instantaneous feedback; and random practice is best for soccer-specific skills.  This means vary the technical drills such as passing, finishing, often.


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