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Most of my research for this article involved me spending a lot of the summer falling off a windsurfer. My goal was to teach myself a new skill - how to windsurf. It is quite rare as adults we take on the challenge of a mastering a new skill from scratch. When was the last time you learnt a skill from scratch? Sometimes we tend to avoid it due to the fear of looking silly or the time it would take to learn.
The study of learning new skills in sports has given rise to the field of Skill Acquisition. It is now an increasingly important part of sports science in elite sports.
To acquire any new skill the individual goes through three stages:
1. Cognitive Stage
Here the learner faces a problem and the main priority for them is to understand the task then organize a solution. This is the most important cognitive or mental stage. The learner thinks extensively about the behaviour/ movements needed to master the task. Errors occur frequently.
2. Associative Stage
As the learner practices the movements more they are able to think about it less. The emphasis here is on practice – the emphasis here is on the physical. The errors reduce in number and are smaller. The learner starts to gain confidence and more at ease with the task.
3. Autonomous Stage
Here the skill is almost in inherent or with vey little thought or mental effort. Learners would describe the skill as almost automatic and instinctive. Their movements would be described as smooth and efficient. Most important they can divert their attention to other cues while performing the skill or task.
The improvement in any skill is always rapid at first then the gains get smaller due to the law of diminishing returns – further and further practice results in reducing gains.
What is the best way to learn a new skill? Studies have shown that the optimal way to learn a new skill is to practice it daily but only for 1 hour per day. The spaced practice of motor skills produces better performance and faster learning than say two sessions of 4 hours per week. This is due to:
• Allowing the brain to process the information gained each day (this happens while sleeping)
• Reduces the effect of fatigue
• Maintains motivation
• Keeps attention high over the practice session
Not all of us can devote an hour each day to sail so I dedicated 1 hour 4 days per week to windsurf. (Easy with daylight saving after work) I can happily say the gains with this type of spaced frequent practice have been noticeable!
I can now windsurf!
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