Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
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Important Course Pages
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Deliberate practice refers to the execution of specific and intentional tasks for the sole purpose of improving performance or acquiring skills. Deliberate practice is accomplished only when the following conditions are met: the learner makes a conscious effort to improve, feedback is provided and utilized, areas of weakness are targeted, the task is repeated, and the task has a defined goal (Ericsson Krampe, Tesch-Romer, 1993). Practice in this manner is widely considered to be the most effective form of practice in terms of skill improvement and development of expertise (Ford et al., 2009; Duckworth et al., 2011). Deliberate practice has been established by researchers as an effective way to achieve mastery in a wide variety of pursuits within the fields of sports, music and academia (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer, 1993).



K. Anders Ericsson pioneered the study of deliberate practice. Prior to Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer’s 1993 publication, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, researchers who studied expert achievement and mastery of skills focused primarily on two determinants of performance; genetic predisposition and amount of practice. At the time that Ericsson and colleagues introduced their work, the popular view of expert skill acquisition was greatly influenced by Sir Francis Galton. Galton’s theory was that in order to achieve “eminence” an individual must inherit the right genetic makeup, which provides them with the physiological, motivational, and psychological capacity to master a given skill (1883). Another misconception that Ericsson and colleagues sought to address was the idea that the amount of accumulated practice was the primary predictor of success: “maximal level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not achieved automatically as a function of extended experience” (Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Romer, 1993). Ericsson and colleagues used what has been coined the “Expert Performance Approach” to present evidence for a new theory that stressed the quality of practice in achieving mastery, more so than innate ability and accumulated length of practice.

Theoretical Basis:

In 1993 Ericsson and his colleagues developed a theoretical framework for understanding the underlying processes behind achieving expertise. Expertise in this context is defined as: “consistently superior performance on a specified set of representative tasks for the domain that can be administered to any subject” (Ericsson and Charness, 1994).

Expert-Performance Approach

The expert-performance approach was presented by Ericsson and Smith in 1991. The expert-performance approach is used in a variety of fields including music, education, medicine and sport (Ford, Coughlan, & Williams, 2009). Its’ purpose is to discover the methods and actions that are common to expert performers in a given domain. In other words, the approach is designed to find out how experts become experts. The expert performance approach allowed Ericsson to systematically analyze expert performers and performances, and thereby develop his theory on the “role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” (Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer, 1993). The approach uses three stages: “Capture Expert Performance”, “Identify Underlying Mechanisms”, and “Examine how expertise developed” (Ford, Coughlan, & Williams, 2009). In the first stage, expert performance is examined in the true performance environment (Ford, Coughlan, & Williams, 2009). For example, observing an elite swimmer in a competition. Next, the characteristics that distinguish an expert are identified (Ford, Coughlan, and Williams, 2009). For example, identifying the in-race cognitive processes that occur, which allow the swimmer to be successful. The third stage involves finding out how the performer developed the distinguishing characteristics. Practice routines are examined and interviews and tracking studies are used, along with other techniques to determine how exactly an expert attained their skills.

Motor Learning

The purpose of deliberate practice is to maximize skill acquisition. In a physical activity context it is important to consider the mechanisms underlying the acquisition of motor skills. The process of acquiring motor skills refers to motor learning. The term motor learning is defined as “a relatively permanent change in the performance of a motor skill, also resulting from practice or experience” (Gabbard, 2012). Those in the field of motor learning have developed theories that are useful for understanding why deliberate practice is the effective. Three stages of motor learning that are commonly accepted are the cognitive stage, associative stage and autonomous stage (Ericsson, Ford and Williams, 2009). The cognitive phase represents the process of learning the objective of the movement and how to produce it. In this phase movements are performed with great consideration and consciousness. The associative stage of learning involves figuring out how to improve upon the basic movement learned in the cognitive stage. Intuitively this is the stage that would be most useful for those seeking to increase skill acquisition. In the autonomous stage habits are formed and movements are performed with little though or awareness. For the purpose of skill acquisition, this stage is harmful: “In the automated phase of learning, performance reaches a stable plateau, and no further improvements are observed (Ericsson, Ford and Williams, 2009). As we discuss the practical applications of deliberate practice theory for children in a physical activity context it is important to remember that learning occurs not in the autonomous stage, but in the cognitive and associative stages.

Characteristics of Deliberate Practice from a Motor Learning Perspective

Ericsson and his associates identified characteristics that distinguish deliberate practice from other activities such as play and performance (2009). When considering deliberate practice in a motor learning context the goal of practice become maximal motor skill acquisition. Deliberate practice involves the following characteristics:

Tasks have a well defined goal (Ericsson, 2008):

In order for deliberate practice to take place it is important that the performer knows the exact movement that they are trying to produce. For example, when teaching children to throw, using a target would promote optimal skill development as opposed to simply aiming in a general direction. In many ways this is intuitive because providing a target forces the children to be consciously aware of the results of their movements. It also causes them to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful attempts and ideally increases the ability to reproduce the successful trials. To practice throwing in a general direction would promote skill development to an extent, but because there is no criteria by which to evaluate one’s success, maximal improvements would not be made.

Tasks concentrate on an area of weakness (Ericsson, 2008):

In order to for motor performance to improve weaknesses must be addressed, and ideally turned into natural habits. Greatest improvements are seen when “individuals concentrate on actively trying to go beyond their current abilities” (Ericsson 2006). When coaching kids’ soccer there is no use in practicing stationary right foot passes if all participants are already highly proficient at that skill. Instead, practicing skills that are uncomfortable to the participants would allow for optimal skill development if done in conjunction with the other characteristics of deliberate practice.

Tasks are repeated and adaptations are made by the performer in order to improve (Ericsson, 2008):

Anyone who played sports as a child recognizes that repetition is a key part to any practice. However, it is sometimes forgotten that with every repetition performed, a learner must consciously seek to adapt characteristics of their movements, based on past repetitions of the task, with the goal of improving the movement. For example, if young tennis player wants to perfect the backhand shot they must not only try the shot numerous times, and also make conscious adjustments to their technique with each attempt; changing their racquet grip, footwork, or degree of body rotation for example.

Feedback is provided and utilized (Ericsson, 2008):

Feedback is what allows a learner to make evidence based adjustments to their movements for a given task (Schmidt & Lee, 1988). Feedback that comes from a coach or other external source is called augmented feedback (Schmidt & Lee, 1988). While augmented feedback is useful for improving specific aspects of technique, it is not required for deliberate practice. Learners can receive feedback from their surroundings and then make adjustments based upon those results. For example, a young basketball player sees that he scored indicating that the goal of the task was achieved. The visual feedback of scoring gives the player an indication that the movement selected was the correct one and that they should attempt to replicate that movement as consistently as possible.

Performer is focused solely upon the task and makes a conscious effort to improve (Ericsson, 2008):

In order for deliberate practice to occur the performer must participate in practice for the sole purpose of improving their skill (Ericsson, 2008). As discussed in the Motor Learning section, if no conscious effort is made then learners will likely slip into the autonomous stage of learning and produce inattentive and mindless movements. For example, if an eight year old can easily hit a base ball off of a tee, they will do so with a low awareness of the movements that they are making, meaning that they will be unable to make refinements to the movement. Practice without conscious effort to improve will severely hinder motor learning.

Implications for Children, Sports, and Physical Activity:

Early Sport Specialization

Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer note that individuals who reach an elite level in any particular field tend to start deliberate practice at a very early age:"an individual starting at an earlier age [accumulates] more deliberate practice and thus [acquires] a higher level of performance"(1993). Increased opportunity for practice leads to increased performance which in turn leads to greater support and access to important resources, making attainment of expertise in any particular field a more reachable goal. This is similar to the relative age effect that has been observed, where children who are born in earlier months of the year, gain access to greater opportunities because of their comparatively greater physiological maturity. These both result in greater likelihood of children achieving expertise as they grow up. Baker, Cote, and Abernethy’s 2010 study, Sport-Specific Practice and the Development of Expert Decision-Making in Team Ball Sports, examines the effect of deliberate practice on sport skills and development of expertise. In the study they labelled learners ages 5-12 years as being in the “sampling stage”, referring to the fact that participants of this age often participate in a wide variety of sports (Baker, Cote & Abernethy, 2010). One purpose of the study was to find whether participation in multiple sports during the sampling stage is related to sport-specific expertise in the later years. The study found “a significant negative correlation … between the number of prior sporting activities experienced by the expert decision-makers and the number of hours of sport-specific practice required before national team selection upon the development of expertise (Baker, Cote & Abernethy, 2010). This implies that deliberate practice done in a single domain or sports may be transferable to another domain and. Also, it supports the idea that deliberate practice in multiple sports increases the development of so-called “expert decision making skills” and thereby increases an individual’s likelihood of attaining mastery in a single sport later in life (Baker, Cote & Abernethy, 2010). This finding supports the argument against the idea of early sport specialization, because it shows that those who participate in a greater variety of skills during the ages of 5-12 are more likely to achieve expertise in a single sport at older ages.

Lifespan Physical Activity

Thus far, deliberate practice has been discussed as an essential quality to attain expertise. We recognize that this is not a reality for a majority of the population; however, deliberate practice should also be used to promote the long term participation of individuals in sport. In a 1985 study, Dishman, Sallis, & Orenstein determined several factors related to long term participation in physical activity and sport. Among these factors were past participation and perceived ability (Dishman, Sallis & Orenstei, 1985). These factors would be increased through participation in deliberate practice during childhood. This means that deliberate practise is a useful tool, even for those who have no interest in achieving expertise. If deliberate practice opportunities are facilitated during childhood, it will not only solidify fundamental motor skills, but will also lay the framework for an active lifestyle; children will have sufficient experience in physical activity settings and higher levels of perceived ability.

Alternative Theories

A theory which challenges the tenets of the Deliberate Practice Model is the Developmental Model of Sport Participation, formulated by Cote & Hay (2002). Researchers endorsing this model highlight the importance of early play, which is defined as participation in non-structured activities. Proponents believe that activities, classified as "deliberate play", stimulate exploration and enjoyment of sport participation (Baker et al., 2009). In addition to engagement in deliberate play, Baker et al. (2009) and Hayman et al. (2011) highlight the importance of diversification into other sports activities; for instance, Baker et al. note a positive correlation between expertise in any one area and sampling of various sporting activities during early years. The researchers further propose that aspiring athletes should only enter into a deliberate practice regime in their later years of development, suggesting an age mark of around 16 - 20 years (Baker et al., 2009)[5]; as they point out, "expertise triathlon has been associated with late specialization (i.e., 16–20 years of age)".


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