Random practice variability is more useful when learning “open skills”. Both juggling and speed cup stacking are considered “closed skills”, and, therefore, requires blocked practice. With open skills, the environmental features determine when to begin the action. In basketball, for instance, when dribbling the ball toward the basket while opponents are trying to steal the ball. This is an example of “open skill” since the features of the environment are not predictable. On the other hand, the free-throw shooting in basketball is considered a “closed skill”. The features of the environment are predictable and the player decides when to initiate the action.
Principle #3: Learning Occurs in Three Distinct Stages
Motor learning is complex and consists of three distinct stages. The cognitive stage is when the learner creates a mental picture of the skill to be executed along with processing the visual, kinesthetic, and auditory cues needed for the skill. Performance during this initial stage is full of questions and errors as the learner attempts to get an idea of how to do the skill. During the second stage, called the associative stage, the learner begins to understand how to do the skill and “associates” the movement with environmental cues. This stage is sometimes called the refining stage since learners begin to narrow the motor response and identify and correct errors on their own. The final stage of motor learning is termed the autonomous stage since the performance of the skill is now automatic. At this stage the learned skill is now a habit, requiring little attention. In order to reach this highest level, many years of practice are needed, and not all performers will achieve this final stage. For coaches, it is important to identify which stage a player is present since different stages require different coaching skills. During the initial cognitive stage, appropriate and timely feedback is needed to help the novice performer understand how to do the skill and how to correct errors. The coach is providing lots of encouragement along with appropriate feedback during the cognitive stage. During the associative stage, the coach’s role shifts towards refining techniques. During this stage, the coach waits and allows the player to identify his or her own performance errors and correction. While the emphasis is on refinement, there are ample opportunities for practice to develop the consistency of the skill performance. Working with athletes in the final autonomous stage, the role of the coach again is different. Now the emphasis is on developing strategies and tactics for using the skill in a variety of game situations.
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