Why Study Motor Skills?
Because skills make up such a large part of human life, scientists and educators have been trying for centuries to understand the determinants of skills and the factors that affect their performance. The knowledge gained is applicable to numerous aspects of life. Important points apply to the instruction of skills, where methods for efficient teaching and effective carryover to life situations are primary concerns. There is also considerable applicability for improving high-level performances, such as sport, music, and surgical skills. Of course, much of what coaches and music and physical education teachers do during their professional activities involves, in one way or another, skills instruction. The practitioners who understand these skill-related processes most effectively undoubtedly have an advantage when their “subjects” begin their trained-for activities.
Other application areas can be emphasized as well. There are many applications in training skills for industry, where effective job skills can mean success in the workplace and can be major determinants of satisfaction both with the job and with life in general. Teaching job skills most effectively, and determining which of a large number of individuals are best suited to particular occupations, are common situations in which knowledge about skills can be useful in industry. Usually these applications are considered within human factors (ergonomics).The principles also apply to physical therapy and occupational therapy settings as well, where the concern is for the (re)learning and production of movements that have been lost through head or spinal cord injury, stroke, birth defects, and the like. Although all these areas may be different and the physical capabilities of the learners may vary widely, the principles that lead to successful application are generally the same.
As widely represented and diverse as skills are, it is difficult to define them in a way that applies to all cases. Guthrie (1952) provided a definition that captures most of the critical features of skills that we emphasize here. He defined skill as “the ability to bring about some end result with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy, or of time and energy” (p. 136). Next, we consider some of the important components (or features) of this definition.
First, performing skills implies some desired environmental goal, such as holding a handstand in gymnastics or being able to walk again after a stroke. Skills are usually thought of as different from movements, which do not necessarily have any particular environmental goal, such as idly wiggling one’s little finger. Of course, skills consist of movements because the performer could not achieve an environmental goal without making at least one movement.
Second, to be skilled implies meeting this performance goal, this “end result,” with maximum certainty. For example, while playing darts a player makes a bull’s-eye. But this by itself does not ensure that he is a skilled darts player, because this result was achieved without very much certainty. Such an outcome could have been the result of one lucky throw in the midst of hundreds of others that were not so lucky. To be considered “skilled” requires that a person produce the skill reliably, on demand, without luck playing a very large role. This is one reason why people value so greatly the champion athlete who, with but one chance and only seconds remaining at the end of a game, makes the goal that allows the team to win.
Third, a major feature in many skills is the minimization, and thus conservation, of the energy required for performance. For some skills this is clearly not the goal, as in the shot put, where the only goal is to throw the maximum distance. But for many other skills the minimization of energy expenditure is critical, allowing the marathon runner to hold an efficient pace or allowing the wrestler to save strength for the last few minutes of the match. We evolved to walk as we do, in part, because our walking style minimizes energy expenditure for walking a given distance. This minimum-energy notion applies not only to the physiological energy costs but also to the psychological, or mental, energy required for performance. Many skills have been learned so well that the performers hardly have to pay attention to them, freeing their cognitive processes for other features of the activity, such as strategy in basketball or expressiveness in dance. A major contributor to the efficiency of skilled performance is, of course, practice, with learning and experience leading to the relatively effortless performances so admired in highly skilled people.
Finally, another feature of many skills is for highly proficient performers to achieve their goals in minimum time. Many skills have this as the only goal, such as a swimming race. Minimizing time can interact with the other skill features mentioned, however. Surgeons who conduct invasive surgery need to work quickly to minimize the opportunity for infections to enter the body. Yet surgeons obviously need to work carefully, too. Speeding up performance often results in imprecise movements that have less certainty in terms of achieving their environmental goals. Also, increased speed generates movements for which the energy costs are sometimes higher. Thus, understanding skills involves optimizing and balancing several skill aspects that are important to different extents in different settings. In sum, skills generally involve achieving some well-defined environmental goal by
▶ maximizing the certainty of goal achievement,
▶ minimizing the physical- and mental-energy costs of performance, and
▶ minimizing the time used.