Struggling with skill

ACP 2-3-19 LA edit Team Drills
Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan


I alluded to this a few weeks back, and promised I was going to get back to it — which is what I’ll do today: talk about speed, why we should treat it with the respect it deserves, and how — through understanding one simple rule — you can better teach it.  

So first, the rule: speed is both a simple part of a complex system and a complex system in and of itself.


Well, maybe it’s not that simple.  

To understand what I mean by this rule, let’s first define a complex system as it relates to sport. 

In sport, complex systems (athletes, teams, games, etc.) “consist of structurally and functionally heterogeneous components which interact … with varying intensities and spanning different spatio-temporal scales.”

… so basically, similar things that interact in space and time to serve the purpose of the system.  

But what things, and what purpose?

Think ‘players on a football team with the purpose of scoring more than their opponents’, ‘muscles, fascia, ligaments, and tendons of a body with the purpose of helping us to move’, or ‘actin, myosin, and sarcomeres of a myofribril within a muscle fiber, with the purpose of enabling the muscle to contract’. 

Now — what jumps out to you with these examples?

Well — each example exists within the one preceding it; the ‘muscle system’ existing within the ‘movement system’, existing within the ‘game system’.  

Like Russian dolls, they ‘nest’ within each other.  

So getting back to understanding the one simple rule that guarantees to help you better coach speed: 

Speed is both a component-part (along with strength, endurance, mobility, for example) — nesting within a larger system, and a system in and of itself — with component-parts (such as stride-length and stride-rate) existing within it.  In fact—other systems nest within it, which is where the true complexity arises!

I go into this in a little more detail in a freed downloadable pdf called the ALTIS GAME-SPEED MODEL & PLAYBOOK, and I promise it will help you better understand the role of speed in team sport, and thus improve the speed of the players and teams you work with.  

Download the ALTIS GAME-SPEED MODEL & PLAYBOOK —> Click Here

Perhaps my favorite part about writing the Need for Speed Course was doing a deep dive into defining what we mean by speed to begin with— at least how it relates to team sport.  

This journey began with one simple question: is speed an ability or a skill?

But — as it is so often — this just leads you to more questions, right?  Like — what do we mean by the terms ability and skill — are they well-defined?

Well — no.  No, they’re not.  

I’d encourage you now to take some time, and think about how you define these terms?  Do they differ?  In what way?  Can you name a few examples of abilities and skills?  

They’re kinda like the famous “I know it when I see it” quote of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart describing his ‘threshold test’ for obscenity back in 1964: it is challenging to properly define them, but we kinda know what they are … right?  

Hmm – maybe / maybe not.

So I did some digging — into the history of where these terms came from.  

And while there are many definitions of abilities and skills, most refer to a hierarchical relationship – where a motor ability underpins, or supports, a movement skill.   

For example, you may say that the physical motor ability of strength underpins the movement skill required by performing a power clean, and the perceptual motor ability of reaction time underpins the movement skill required by reacting to the snap of the ball in American football.

BTW — I think it may be that these hierarchical relationships (or at least looking at them this way) are the foundation of much of the confusion about the transference of ability to skill — something Dan wrote about a couple of weeks back in a Between the Lines email.  

So, I know I haven’t defined ability and skill – I’ll leave that until next week, but for now I’ll leave you with that question once again: is speed an ability, or a skill? (If you’ve been paying attention, you may already know!)

So — a reminder of the question I left you with last week: is speed an ability, or a skill?

What do you think?

How do you define these two terms, and what information do you use to come up with your defitnins?  I encourage you to pause here, and think about this.  Write them down even.  And then refer back these definitions later on, and also next Thursday, after next week’s Outside the Lines. 

Second – why does it even matter? 

Isn’t it just semantics anyway?  

Well, no.  No, it’s not.  There’s a very important distinction between an ability and a skill that changes everything about how you coach them.

And so – it’s crucial you understand the difference.  

So, let’s start there – with defining what we mean by these terms.

Let’s begin with ABILITY.

There are many definitions — but the ones that make the most sense to me include the following: 

  1. A trait, which 
  2. characterizes and differentiate individuals, and 
  3. underpins the potential for the performance of specific skills.

That’s pretty clear to me — but it’s always easier when we can identify some examples — but to do that, we need to burrow in a little deeper. 

To help us further differentiate these abilities, various taxonomies (classification schemes) have been proposed — some with the goal of identifying the most-relevant abilities in sport.  

While we tend to focus on the big 5 now,

  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Endurance
  • Coordination
  • Flexibility 

it is important to note that these five have their genesis in more detailed taxonomies.  50 years ago, in an attempt to identify the fewest possible categories that describe performance in the widest variety of tasks, Edwin A. Fleishman (1972)​ — in a comprehensive work studying hundreds of tasks — identified 20 motor abilities, further classifying them as either physical or perceptual. 

The 9 physical proficiency abilities identified by Fleishman are as follows: 

  • Static Strength
  • Dynamic strength
  • Explosive strength
  • Trunk strength
  • Extent flexibility
  • Dynamic flexibility
  • Gross body coordination
  • Gross body equilibrium
  • Stamina

In addition, he identified the following 11 perceptual motor abilities:

  • Multilimb coordination
  • Control precision
  • Response orientation
  • Reaction time
  • Speed of arm movement
  • Rate control
  • Manual dexterity
  • Finger dexterity
  • Arm-hand steadiness
  • Wrist and finger speed
  • Aiming

While speed – as a general trait – didn’t make Fleishman’s list, notice that speed is involved in so many: explosive strength, control precision, response orientation, reaction time, speed of arm movement, rate control, manual dexterity, wrist and finger speed, and aiming all involve moving at speed (notice also, that all of these, except explosive strength, were defined by their perceptual ability, rather than their physical ability— more on this next week!).  

So, we’ve got a pretty good definition of ability, some really good examples, and a way to classify these examples — but what about skill? 

Once again, I encourage you to write down your own definition of skill.  Has it changed at all after reading the above notes about the definition of an ability?  Remember — there is a hierarchical relationship, where its potential for performance is underpinned by ability.

Give it some real, serious thought — what does it mean to you for an athlete to be skillful?  Then build your definition around that. 

Come back next week, and I’ll expand upon this further — I’ll let you know the traditional definition of skill, where I think it falls apart, and what is a more appropriate way of looking at it.  

Over the last couple of weeks, I have challenged you to do some thinking about your definition of speed – whether it is an ability or a skill.

Of course, before we do that, we need to clear up what we mean by these two terms as well – as ability and skill are not well-defined, and often even used interchangeably.  

This isn’t just a semantic exercise – as how we define these two terms, and thus how we define speed – is key to understanding how we coach them!

So let’s crack on —>

Last week, we talked about ability, and today, I want to talk about skill.

Skill is a tough one — when you read through the literature, the definition is generally even more obtuse than it is for ability.  

That said — most of the definitions you see will be along the lines of that offered by Richard Magill and David Anderson in their excellent 2016 text, Motor Learning and Control — Concepts and Applications, where they define skill as “activities or tasks that require voluntary control over movements of the joints and body segments to achieve a goal.”

So that’s it?

An ability is the stuff you need to dunk a basketball (such as jumping ability), and the skill is the actual dunking of the basketball.  


Well, no – I don’t think so.

At least, not entirely.

Something’s missing.

I ran this definition by my buddy Shawn Myszka, and this is what he had to say— “in my opinion, it’s too organism and biomechanic-centric; it lacks any respect for context.”

I agree.  

While an ability is our capacity to move, a skill is the degree to which we interact with the stuff that surrounds us.  

As Magill and Anderson reveal expand:

“People must perform skills in an “open” environment. This means that to perform the skill successfully, a person must adapt certain aspects of his or her movements to changing characteristics in the performance environment.”

And this is key to our definition of skill.

Skill is not a single static thing— like dunking a basketball; it is the dynamic interaction of the athlete, the task, and the environment in which it occurs.  

Yes — it is dunking a basketball.

But the relatively simple act of dunking a basketball doesn’t differentiate between levels of skill, does it?  

Skill — as a construct — has to be more than that, right? 

It requires context:  i.e. execution during the playing of the game.

Or does it?   


I was 80% of the way through writing this email, and I’ll be honest – I was beginning to doubt what I was writing somewhat.  

So I spent a few days really meditating on what I was thinking.  I did some more research, and some reading – and tried to zoom out again.  I thought perhaps I was a little too deep in the weeds, and I was having trouble seeing the big picture.  

I emailed Shawn again, and explained my thoughts, and why I was questioning things – and guess what?  I managed to change his mind!

I’ll leave it here for this week:  I think my initial instinct was wrong. 

I think many in the community who are defining skill as requiring the interaction with an environment – i.e. perception-action coupling – are wrong.

At least partly. 

I’ll explain what I mean next week!

In the first paragraph of each email, I try to let you know what the point is of reading my rambling thoughts for the next few minutes – but I’ll be honest, I can’t give you a clear reason this week. 

Because this week, we are going to explore the complexity a little bit – and maybe that’s the point.

So if you like it when things get complex, read on. 

Apologies in advance …

In Duarte Araújo and Keith Davids’ 2011 paper What exactly is acquired during skill acquisition?, the authors define skill as a process, rather than an outcome, and in turn reframe skill acquisition as skill adaptation: 

“… skill acquisition should not be considered as the acquisition of an internal state comprised of different movement invariants and parameters (e.g. acquiring a triple salto in ice skating). Rather it might be characterised as the refinement of adaptation processes, achieved by perceiving the key properties of the surrounding layout of the performance environment in the scale of an individual’s body and action capabilities.” 

This is counter to more cognitive science theories that believe that skill acquisition leads to the development of motor programs to control movements, and tend to neglect any relationship with the environment. 

I really don’t want to get stuck in the weeds here (too late though, right!?), and I’m no scientist myself – just let me say that I tend to agree with Araújo and Davids, but this potentially leads to some increased confusion, doesn’t it?

Which is where I left you last week – this confusion.  

Which I am going to clear up this week.  


Firstly, did you listen to the podcast I shared last week from Javier Miller-Estrada, where he shared some audio clips from a few of his past podcast guests?

If you remember, these guests offered their definitions of skill, and it was easy to see where their biases lie – i.e. in a definition that includes not only what I outlined last week – i.e. a task and an intention – but also this on-going relationship with a dynamic environment.  

Consider our friend Rob Gray (professor of motor learning from Arizona State University, and the excellent Perception-Action podcast), who offers the following definition:

“The ability to use information to find and execute a movement solution to realize an affordance that will achieve one’s goal.”

And perhaps the best explanation of this ‘updated’ (ecological) definition of skill comes from Karl Newell, who wrote all the way back in 1991:

“Skill is a reflection of a dynamic exploratory activity, not the stereotypic reproduction of a static representation of action.” 

I like that.

So skill isn’t some ‘thing’ to develop, or acquire – but an emergent interaction with an ever-changing environment.  

Not an act, or an action – but an interaction. 

But – and here is part one of my counter:  shouldn’t a good definition follow Occam’s Razor — i.e. be “as simple as possible, but not simpler”?

The most-simple type of definition specifies the “necessary and sufficient” set of features that are shared by everything to which it applies. 

It can be broken down (roughly) into two parts: 

Genus (category of concept) + differentia (differentiating characteristics)

So, as it relates to skill:

Category: “activity or task”

Differentiator: “that requires voluntary (intentional may be a better word here) control over movements of the joints and body segments to achieve a goal.”

The question is: is “intentional control over movements of the joints and body segments to achieve a goal” ‘necessary and sufficient’, or does it also require context – i.e. “emergent interaction with an ever-changing environment”?


What do you think?

I’ll leave that with you to ponder for the week.  Please come back next Thursday, where I’ll expand on my answer to this question – as well as offer a couple more thoughts on why I think the original definition may be sufficient.  

I’ll try to bring this part of our conversation home – I promise.  


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