Understanding Skills


There are many facets to the coaching process but one of the main concerns for any coach is improving the sporting skills of the athletes they work with. In order to optimally achieve this it is necessary to have solid base of understanding of what skills actually are and how they can vary in nature and application.

I have attended various coaching courses and continuous professional development events but not once have skills been defined or categorised. There has been much research by people such as Richard Schmidt in to this area so it is amazing that the National Governing Bodies and coaching organisations that I have come into contact with fail to present this to their coaches.

Schmidt suggests that skill can be conceived as either an act, for example a backhand stroke in tennis, or it can be viewed as the characteristics that separate high skilled performers from low skilled ones.

In the respect of the latter, a skilled performance as defined by psychologist ER Guthrie in 1952 is:

The capability of producing a performance result with maximum certainty, minimum energy or minimum time

Sporting skills rely on abilities such as strength, balance, co-ordination etc. While there are numerous skills, abilities are few in number and their potential for improvement is constrained by genetic potential.

Schmidt uses the analogy of the cards dealt in a poker game to explain ability – the better the cards (abilities) dealt to you, the higher your chances of winning are but holding good cards doesn’t guarantee success – you need skill to play them well.

There are various ways to classify skills and each acts as a continuum as there are generally 2 extremes with most skills lying somewhere between the two.

Task Based Continuum


  • Discrete skills have an identifiable start and end such as kicking or throwing a ball
  • Serial skills are several discrete skills linked together such as a triple jump or a gymnastics routine
  • Continuous skills are cyclical skills with no defined start or end such as running, swimming or cycling

Cognitive Based Continuum


  • Motor skills are based mainly on the quality of the movement such as a high jumper who only has to jump as high as possible with little need for much thought as to the strategy needed
  • Cognitive skills are highly dependent on strategy such as a move in chess where the quality or speed of movement is inconsequential but which piece to move and where to is the key

Environment Based Continuum


  • Closed skills are performed in a predictable stable environment such as a shot put
  • Open skills are performed in unstable environments with many unpredictable factors such as playing rugby

Movement Based Continuum


  • Gross skills are those that require a large muscular involvement and are not precise such as a deadlift
  • Fine skills require a high degree of precision such as a darts throw

Pacing Based Continuum

Self Paced————————————-Externally paced

  • Self paced skills are initiated and regulated by the athlete at their own will e.g. a golf swing
  • Externally paced skills have to be initiated according to the demands of the environment or opponents such as passing or shooting in football


These distinctions are important as they allow the coach to more easily assess and understand the constitution of the skills they are trying to progress in order to improve the performance of their athletes.

A coach may decide to attempt to quantify skills e.g. as ratios – 80%:20% Motor:Cognitive,  70%:30% Closed:Open etc. Once identified practices can be constructed and manipulated to target these qualities accordingly.

In addition Physical Preparation Coaches can look to maximise the important underlying abilities of particular skills so that the athlete is playing with their best possible “cards in their hand”.

The classifications also highlight the factors that the coach has control of in training in order to ensure that activities are appropriate for the developmental stage of the athlete. Gentile’s Two Dimensional Classification of the action requirements and environmental demands is potentially useful here.

Open skills that are externally paced and therefore a complex proposition for a novice can be introduced as closed, stationary, stable practices and as these are mastered can be progressed through to open skills, in motion with lots of variability.

The classifications can also be used within athlete profiling to assess the athletes competence at different skills within their sport.

A hooker in rugby may be very good at self paced, closed skills such as throwing the ball in to the lineout but poor at open skills such as passing the ball in a pressured 2 on 1 situation. The coach can then use the continuums to develop practices that will allow the player to regress skills until they are proficient at them before progressing to more open, externally paced environments.


Skills are an integral part of our every day life and fundamental to sporting success yet many coaches are haphazard in their approach to developing skills in their athletes. This is because they are unaware of the important factors that make up skilled performance. Understanding these factors will help coaches to assess their athletes and plan optimal practices in order to acheive skilled performance in the dynamic and often pressured environment of their sport.

Simon Nainby is an Accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach and Tutor, Sports Massage Therapist, RFU Level II coach and an Assistant Athletics Coach. He has worked for a number of professional and semi-professional teams and he currently acts as a coaching consultant through Underground Athletics to a wide range of athletes from rugby players to Olympic Lifters. He provides physical preparation training and support in order to maximise sports performance. This consists of strength, speed and power training combined with recovery support to create a periodised programme which is essential for athletes to perform to their potential.

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