What does it mean to learn the skill?

What does it mean to master the skill?

We might say that a swimmer has learned the skill when they can execute it every time, consistently, on demand. Then we might say that a swimmer has mastered the skill when they can execute it every time, consistently, without having to pay any attention to making it happen.

In the realm of motor learning (a.k.a. learning complex movement skills and improving athletic performance) the ultimate need or goal of the athlete determines when learning or mastery has actually been achieved.

In a ‘stable environment, under very easy conditions, in a relatively short amount of time we can teach someone to swim with a particular stroke style and they can be successful for the simple test swims set for them. But if that swimmer needs to use this stroke in competition, or in serious open water, they have not yet done the work to master that skill for the unstable environment.

A stable environment is where all the challenges the athlete will face are invariable and predictable, where the skills don’t need to be very flexibility. Swimming alone in a pool lane, with no competitive pressure, with the aquatic environment completely controlled is a very stable environment.

An unstable environment is where the challenge the athlete will face are quite variable and unpredictable, where the skills need to be applied with great flexibility. Swimming next to a serious opponent in competition adds some external pressure to the environment. Swimming in rough wild water adds a lot more instability to the environment. There is external pressure to perform presented by the opponent and by the context of being in a timed race. Wild open water and the weather present infinite variations and unpredictability to each swim, to each stroke even.

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The conditions in which a person is practicing matters a great deal to how strong and flexible their skillfulness becomes. To get an initial grasp a difficult skill the athlete might need to first practice in a stable environment, under very easy conditions, to reduce the complexity down to a level they can manage at the start. But if these are not the conditions in which the swimmer will ultimately need to use those skills in, we have to lead them on a path that gradually moves them from practice in stable environmental conditions into practice in unstable environmental conditions of their objective.

When we are assessing the swimmer’s level of skill in test conditions that are unlike those that will be present in their ultimate objective then we call this ‘in-practice’ testing. When we are assessing their level of skill in test conditions of their ultimate objective then we call this ‘in-performance’ testing.

On some easy level we might see that they have ‘learned’ or even ‘mastered’ the skills, but true learning, true mastery has occurred only when the swimmer is able to execute those skills under the full stress of the unstable environmental conditions they intend to perform in.

Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Human Kinetics.

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