Classical definitions of retention emphasize the degree to which people are able to remember (or perform) some previously practiced material (or skill) after an elapsed period of time. Thus, retention likely depends on an individual’s memory of the material or skill in question. Not surprisingly, most definitions of memory sound similar to those of retention. For example, one definition of motor memory (i.e., memory of how to produce a motor skill) characterizes memory as the persistence of the acquired capability for performance. The notion of persistence implies that a person’s memory for a particular skill is capable of being assessed (i.e., with some form of retention test) at a later time (i.e., from days to years). Retention tests are a common phenomenon in most formal educational settings. Teachers assume, rightly or wrongly, that students’ performance on tests represents a valid estimate of students’ memory of the material or skill in question. In the motor learning and control literature characterizations of memory have ranged from an internal representation of the rules for producing the skill to the persistence of an intrinsic coordination pattern. Regardless of how one conceptualizes memory, however, some form of retention test must be given to obtain an inference of its persistence.
Retention and Transfer
Another concept that is quite similar to retention is that of transfer. While retention pertains to the persistence of performance under the same conditions as those experienced during practice, transfer deals with performance persistence demonstrated under conditions that differ in some respects from practice. Practically speaking, transfer can be considered a special case of retention and, in some sport settings, is the more valid test of the persistence of athletes’ skills. For example, open sports requiring rapid and accurate responses to challenges presented by the opponent (e.g., basketball, football, soccer, tennis, volleyball) would likely involve competition experiences that are different in some fashion from those encountered during practice. The extent of the differences between practice and competition experiences would, however, be minimal in closed sports (e.g., gymnastics, swimming, golf, track and field) where the environmental demands are relatively similar. For simplicity sake, the term retention will be used throughout the remainder of this entry to refer to any performance assessment that occurs following some period of practice or that is interspersed between organized practice sessions.
Assessing the Retention of Sport Skills
There are several categories of sport skills that represent candidates for retention assessments. These include technical skills, tactical skills, and mental skills. Technical skills refer to the physical tasks and movement patterns athletes must be able to produce in order to perform effectively in competition. Examples would include the serve and volley in tennis, blocking and tackling in American football, and the floor exercise in gymnastics. Tactical skills pertain to the strategies and decisions athletes must make in order to enhance the prospects of achieving desired performance outcomes. Examples would be maintaining a balanced positioning of players on the field or ice in soccer and ice hockey, respectively; throwing to the correct base in baseball or softball; and varying the target location of serves in tennis or volleyball. Mental skills are important for handling the cognitive and emotional demands of performance, particularly when they occur under pressure. Two mental skills that are essential for optimal performance are focus (i.e., attention control) and composure (i.e., emotional control).
In order to assess athletes’ retention of each of the preceding skill categories a coach must be able to identify the desired target behaviors and then come up with some way of measuring them. Typical indicators of performance proficiency include the consistency, accuracy, or frequency with which a desired behavior occurs. One technique many coaches use to assess athletes’ capabilities is video analysis. With this approach, the coach obtains a video recording of the athlete’s behavior or performance and then reviews the recording in order to determine the extent to the desired behavior or performance is executed effectively. For example, a basketball coach might evaluate a player’s execution of proper rebounding technique (i.e., technical skill) by dividing the number of times the player performed the skill of correctly blocking out the opponent by the total number of rebound attempts. In the case of tactical or mental skills, the coach might record the relative accuracy of an athlete’s decisions during a particular phase of competition (e.g., deciding when to maintain possession of the ball and when to pass it to a team mate during the last two minutes of a close game) or the frequency of negative emotional outbursts in response to adversity (e.g., vigorously disputing an official’s decision), respectively. By obtaining periodic measures of athletes’ behavior and performance during practices and competitions, coaches can evaluate the extent to which the skills athletes are developing and refining in practice are being retained (i.e., produced effectively) in competition.
When conducting retention assessments, coaches also need to be aware of spurious factors that can influence athletes’ behavior or performance. Such factors would include improper warm-up, fatigue, illness, medication, weather conditions, or a loss of motivation. For example, an athlete who is recovering from a minor injury might demonstrate less effective skill execution during a competition than she would if she had not been injured. In this instance, the athlete’s retention performance would likely not be an accurate reflection of the skill she had developed in practice. Thus, it is important for coaches to “consider the circumstances” when assessing retention and resist the conclusion that athletes’ performance in games is always a valid indicator of what they have learned in practices.
Variables Shown to Influence Retention
Historically, laboratory studies have consistently revealed several variables that can have an impact on participants’ retention of simple motor skills. These variables include the amount of original practice, the length of time elapsing between skill acquisition and the retention test, and the existence of interfering material or experiences between acquisition and retention. Put simply, research findings have shown that the greater the amount of skill practice, the shorter the time between acquisition and retention, and the fewer the interfering items, the higher retention performance tends to be. It should be noted however that these results have been obtained under highly controlled conditions using very simple motor skills (e.g., blindfolded limb positioning movements). Thus, it is important to consider the potential relevance of these findings to real world sport situations.
Clearly, the amount of practice would be expected to contribute to athletes’ retention regardless of the skill being learned. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that at least 10,000 hours of practice may be necessary to ensure expertise for any given skill. However, it is less likely that the length of the retention interval or other activities and experiences intervening between practice and retention would exert much influence on retention performance—at least with respect to skills that have been practiced for a considerable length of time. Another variable more likely to exert an affect on skill retention is the similarity between the conditions of practice and those of retention, sometimes referred to as contextual similarity or practice-test similarity. Several studies have shown that the more similar the circumstances and demands of practice to those of the retention test the higher retention performance tends to be. These results suggest that coaches should try to make practices as much like competition as possible if they want their athletes to perform as well as competition as they do in practice. Consistent with this notion, the author of a recent book on sport coaching strongly advocates a “games approach” to practice. The logic for this approach is that by designing practice sessions that place a strong emphasis on developing skills under game like conditions, coaches are more likely to see their athletes produce those skills in the desired way in competition (i.e., on the “retention test”).
A growing body of recent research in motor learning has revealed yet another variable that can have a positive impact on skill retention. Referred to as “self-control” or “self-regulation,” this variable concerns the degree to which learners are given the opportunity to control some aspect of the practice environment. A number of studies have shown superior retention performance for participants given the freedom to control how often they receive extrinsic feedback or observe a model of correct performance compared with that of participants given no such control. Plausible explanations for enhanced retention by self-control participants include a more active involvement in the learning process (rather than passively responding to the dictates of the researcher) and a more challenging learning experience (due to the learner’s own sense of the optimal challenge at any point in time). Suggested outcomes of self-controlled learning that might be expected to produce superior retention performance include a greater attention to relevant environmental information, a heightened sensitivity to sensory feedback emanating from practice attempts, and an enhanced ability to evaluate and correct one’s own mistakes.
The findings of self-control studies would appear to have important implications for enhancing skill retention in sport competition. If nothing else, they suggest that giving athletes the opportunity to take some control of their skill development and decision making (DM) during practices would enable them to execute their skills more effectively and make decisions more spontaneously during competition. Encouraging such freedom would appear to be particularly important in competition when the coach is prevented by the rules from exerting complete control. Put another way, by allowing athletes to take some ownership of their technical, tactical, and mental skill development during practices (e.g., allowing athletes to do more problem solving on their own and request feedback only when they need it), coaches would be decreasing athletes’ dependency on them in competition. In some sense, the self-control variable is similar to the contextual similarity variable in that it speaks to the importance of making the conditions of practice as similar to those of competition in order to enhance retention (i.e., performance in games).
Potential Benefits of Retention Assessments for Skill Practitioners
Taken together, the existing research and scholarship suggests several variables that are particularly important for enhancing skill retention. Thus, it would appear that practitioners who consider these variables when designing practice experiences could possibly facilitate participants’ skill development and, as importantly, equip participants for effective skill execution in the retention context— competition. Perhaps the most important questions coaches and other skill practitioners might ask themselves when attempting to maximize the retention benefits of practice are What skills do my athletes or participants need to learn? and Under what conditions (i.e., retention) do they need to be able to perform those skills? After achieving possible answers to those questions, practitioners are in a position to create practice experiences that lead to enhanced retention. By periodically conducting retention assessments, coaches can then evaluate the effectiveness of their practices. For example, evaluations of athletes’ performance in competition could help the coach discern whether drills currently being used in practices for adequately developing athletes’ technical, tactical, and/or mental skills. If retention performance is found to be consistently lower than practice performance, the coach might consider revising or perhaps eliminating some of the drills and replacing them with others that simulate more closely the demands and expectations of competition.
Consistent with the notion of practicing for retention is the teaching philosophy of former Princeton University basketball coach Pete Carril. In his book, The Smart Take From the Strong, Carril stated the following:
One of my most fundamental points is that we (his team) will not do one single thing in practice that doesn’t show up in a game. Everything we do in practice must show itself somewhere in the game, or else we don’t do it.
By practicing the technical, tactical, and mental skills they needed under the conditions they were required to perform the skills in competition (i.e., retention), Carril’s teams amassed an impressive record over the course of his coaching career.
- Carril, P. (1997). The smart take from the strong. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice on the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363–406.
- Janelle, C. M., Barba, D. A., Frehlich, S. G., Tennant, L. K.,& Cauraugh, J. H. (1997). Maximizing performance feedback effectiveness through videotape replay and a self-controlled learning environment. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 68, 269–279.
- Komaki, J., & Barnett, F. T. (1977). A behavioral approach to coaching football: Improving play execution of an offensive backfield on a youth football team. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 657–664.
- Magill, R. A. (2011). Motor learning and control (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Martens, R. (2003). Successful coaching (3rd ed.).Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Wrisberg, C. A. (2007). Sport skill instruction for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.