Expertise refers to the underlying qualities and skills that distinguish highly accomplished people, referred to as experts, from lesser skilled people. Experts are people who are exceptionally skilled in a particular task or domain and their expertise is typically evident across numerous aspects of human performance, including perception, cognition, and motor execution. Interestingly, despite the clarity by which we can identify an expert, definitional inconsistencies of what constitutes an expert are common in the literature. One of the defining features of experts is the amount of practice and effort they have devoted to achieve this status. A number of models detailing the development of expertise have been suggested, creating some confusion for practitioners in the field. Expertise research is conducted in a wide variety of domains, as diverse as sport, medicine, education, the performing arts, and the military.
Why Study Expertise?
There are clear scientific reasons to study expertise. First, discovering the mechanisms underpinning an expert’s superior performance in a particular domain, such as sport, provides a broader understanding of the factors that may limit a non-expert’s quest to become more skilled. Over time, the collective efforts of expertise researchers have allowed the development of more robust and generalizable theories of expertise and its acquisition (see later section “How Is Expertise Acquired”?). A second key reason to study expertise is to understand what type and volume of practice is critical for the acquisition of skill, and ultimately expertise. Importantly, this information cannot be obtained from the study of non-experts even when trained to perform thousands of practice repetitions in a controlled skill-acquisition experiment.
The scientific study of expertise can assist in providing recommendations to practitioners in the field, such as coaches, teachers, and skill acquisition providers, to assist in the refinement of practice conditions to enhance performance. Similarly, as a higher premium is placed on the identification and subsequent development of talent, testing protocols can be implemented that focus on the domain-specific elements of performance known to be required to achieve expertise.
A Brief History of Sport Expertise Research
While humankind’s fascination with expert sport performance can be traced back to at least the time of the first Olympics, quite surprisingly an identifiable program of research investigating sport expertise is only a few decades old. Seminal work investigating chess masters in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s proved to be the stimulus for the current interest in sport expertise research. The common experimental paradigm adopted in most studies has involved an expert–novice comparison where a group of experts or highly skilled performers complete a particular task thought to be representative of that completed in the performance setting and their results are compared to those of a lesser skilled group. It is assumed that the performance variables that reliably distinguish the experts from the lesser skilled are elements important to expertise (see later section “Common Features of Expertise”).
In 1965, Adriaan De Groot investigated the perceptual attributes of chess players. He found that after providing chess masters with only a brief view of the chess pieces on a chessboard, they were able to reconstruct the locations of those pieces better than lesser skilled players. These early findings were proven to be robust by subsequent researchers and led to William Chase and Herb Simon’s 1973 theory of expertise. A key finding central to this theory was that expertise was only evident when the pieces were structurally arranged such that they were in similar positions to those encountered in normal game play. When the same pieces were arranged in completely random configurations, the chess masters lost their reconstruction advantage over lesser skilled players. This finding suggested that expert chess performance was not the result of an enhanced memory capacity but rather of a capacity to overcome the short-term memory limitation of 7 ± 2 pieces (chunks) of information. While the notion of chunking continues to be revised, the superior performance of experts from many domains is grounded in their capability to process larger amounts of task-relevant perceptual information and then use this information to prepare an appropriate movement response.
In addition to the memory-processing explanation of expertise, domain-specific knowledge has also been considered an important underlying mechanism. Declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge have been proposed as the primary cognitive structures underlying skilled performance. Declarative knowledge has been defined as the knowledge of factual information, whereas procedural knowledge has been defined as the knowledge of how to do things. A declarative knowledge base has been suggested to provide the foundation for the development of the more complex structures present in procedural knowledge. Compared to non-experts, sports experts possess structured knowledge at a more sophisticated level consisting of highly structured offensive and defensive sport concepts, which in turn are thought to facilitate their decision-making processes. However, particularly in sport, the possession of a strong declarative knowledge base does not guarantee equivalent levels of procedural knowledge. For example, players may possess a substantial declarative knowledge about their sport but possess a lower level of procedural knowledge that acts to limit their overall performance capability.
Cognitive approaches to the study of expert performance have been especially influential in the study of experts in sport. However, sport expertise clearly demands not only enhanced cognitive functioning but also well-timed and accurate motor execution. Accounting for the central role of motor skill within sport expertise has been a consistent challenge for researchers, particularly in relation to creating representative tasks that are sufficiently well controlled to permit the underlying components of expertise to be accurately and reliably recorded. However, technological progress in the measurement tools available to researchers has seen a recent shift from laboratory to field based measurement with a concomitant increase in the use of more representative tasks; this, in turn, has helped build a more complete understanding of sport expertise.
The expert performance approach was first described by Anders Ericsson and Jacqui Smith in 1991. Three stages were proposed within this approach. The first stage involves capturing expert performance or, put alternatively, identifying the domain-specific situations where the expert excels and then developing representative tasks that allow this superior performance to be re-created in experimentally controlled conditions. The second stage aims to assess the underlying mechanisms that account for superior performance on the representative tasks. The identification of processing differences between expert and non-expert performers can be obtained through a variety of experimental techniques, such as gaze tracking, verbal reports, and occlusion techniques. The third and final stage involves examining how the identified expertise was developed through experience and practice, again by using a variety of experimental methods. While the expert performance approach has not been adopted universally, it does provide a logical framework from which to consider some of the common features of expertise that have emerged from research.
Common Features of Expertise
The collective efforts of expertise researchers to understand the nature of the expert advantage have revealed a number of common features of expertise that systematically emerge across sport and other domains. These are summarized below.
Expertise Is Specific
Expertise is not transferable between domains (or across sports) and will only appear when the usual context of the sport task of interest is identical or sufficiently representative of the performance setting. For instance, generalized measures that lack sport specificity, such as a reaction time task where the performer is required to react to a flashing light rather than a sport-specific situation requiring a fast reaction (hitting a baseball), consistently fail to distinguish experts from lesser skilled individuals. Recently, the extent of expertise specificity has been challenged. An intuitive view is that talented performers from one sport have some common skills that transfer across sports or even to other domains. While there is some limited empirical evidence to suggest that some elements (anticipation and decision making) transfer from one related sport to another, much more research is needed before a definitive position can be reached.
The chunking capabilities of chess masters described earlier are also consistently found in the team-sport domain with expert players recognizing and recalling structured game patterns more completely than lesser skilled players. It has been suggested this capacity is central to the advanced decision-making skills demanded in time-stressed situations common in such sports as basketball or football. One matter of current debate is whether pattern recall tasks require individuals to use processes they may not otherwise have used, at least explicitly, during a typical game. Accordingly, some researchers have suggested pattern recall is a good example of a task that is not sufficiently representative to elicit true expertise differences in a sport domain despite the demonstration of some expert–novice differences on these types of task.
Experts Possess Knowledge Superior to That of Lesser Skilled Individuals
Not only do experts tend to possess more declarative knowledge or facts about their specific sport, but importantly, experts also appear to know how to navigate an effective course of action in competition (procedural knowledge). Expertise researchers have systematically explored the various connections between different types of knowledge and observable skilled performance to better understand the relative contribution of knowledge to sport expertise. This aspect of sport expertise has been characterized by some innovative research designs where sports experts are compared with expert coaches or spectators who may share similar levels of declarative knowledge but differ in their motor skill proficiency.
Experts Anticipate Their Opponent’s Behavior More Effectively Than Non-Experts
In time-stressed tasks, such as returning a tennis serve, an expert player is able to alleviate some of the time stress and in turn allow more definitive response preparation through the reliable anticipation of advance information. The expert performer has been found to pick up two forms of advance information more selectively than lesser skilled performers—situational probability information and opponent movement characteristics. Situational probability information consists of generic information available to a performer before the opponent commences their skill execution. The information typically arises from pregame knowledge of player strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, as well as court or field position, and event probability information. The source of the expert performer’s attunement to their opponent’s movement pattern is argued to stem from a direct link between their perceptual expertise and the pickup of invariant and predictive kinematic information within their opponent’s action.
Expert Motor Performance Is More Efficient and Subconsciously Controlled
Expert motor performance has been associated with the ability to produce coordinated movements that are both efficient and effective in terms of meeting the environmental demands of the task or game. The expert’s movement coordination superiority over non-experts stems from a range of factors, including the superior recruitment of force, increased fatigue resistance, and the capacity to more effectively control multiple degrees of freedom (limb, joint, and muscle combinations). In contrast to experts, novices tend to approach skills with rigid movements and lock bodily segments at the joints, freezing the degrees of freedom. In a nice illustration of the multidimensional nature of expertise, experts are also able to direct their attention to the external environment to a greater extent than their lesser skilled counterparts as evidenced by their capacity to perform two tasks simultaneously, for example dribbling a basketball while scanning for a passing option). Experts are thought to automate their movement production in that they not have to consciously think about skill execution because of extensive practice relative to lesser skilled individuals. Interestingly, experts can experience skill performance decrements in conditions that force them to process their skills in a more conscious or novice-like manner, leading to what is colloquially referred to as paralysis by analysis.
How Is Expertise Acquired?
A long-standing debate within the expertise field concerns determining the most effective pathway to the acquisition of expertise. The most common approach to this question has been to retrospectively examine the practice histories of expert relative to non-expert performers via interviews, training diaries, and questionnaires. Two dominant positions have emerged in regard to the best approach to the development of expertise, that is, a practice-focused approach referred to as the theory of deliberate practice and a play-before-specific-practice approach, referred to as the developmental model of sports participation (DMSP). In practical terms, these two approaches can also be aligned to the debate on the relative merits of early (deliberate practice) versus late (DMSP) specialization into a sport.
In 1993, Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer proposed that expertise is primarily a matter of practice rather than reliance on innate talent, albeit acknowledging that height and body size are clearly important to success in many sports. Deliberate practice is considered to have occurred when a well-defined task, set at an appropriate difficulty level for the learner, is completed with access to feedback and opportunities for practice repetition and correction of errors. Such practice requires effort, generates no immediate rewards, is motivated by the goal of improving performance rather than inherent enjoyment, and consequently occurs over an extended period of time (usually in excess of 10 years, referred to as the 10-year rule). Practicing deliberately is argued to incrementally develop the underlying mechanisms that lead to expertise. The key tenets of the deliberate practice framework were originally formulated based on the practice histories of expert-level musicians and research highlighting the plasticity of cognitive skills to the effects of practice. The importance of deliberate practice has been substantiated in some sport settings, albeit with a number of qualifications suggested by those working within the sport domain. For instance, in contrast to the original definition, it has been found that deliberate practice activities can be both highly enjoyable and high in concentration in the sport setting. In addition, squad or team practice, rather than practice alone (or individually with a teacher), has been identified as being most predictive of skill level in team environments.
In contrast to the notions of deliberate practice, others have advocated a more diversified and playful commencement as desirable for the lengthy journey toward expertise. Jean Côté, Joseph Baker, and Bruce Abernethy building on the work of Benjamin Bloom, formulated the DMSP and suggested three chronological stages of sport participation from early childhood to late adolescence. The sampling years (ages 6–13) emphasize fun and excitement through participation in a large number of sport activities. Voluntary participation of the child in activities that are intrinsically motivating, pleasurable, and provide immediate gratification are key attributes of this stage. These characteristics are typical of pick-up, backyard, or neighborhood-style games that are self-initiated by children with the sole determinant of having fun (commonly referred to as deliberate play). In the specializing years (ages 13–15), involvement in other activities gradually decreases and the focus shifts toward only one or two specific sports. Positive experiences with coaches, encouragement from siblings and friends, and the simple enjoyment of the activity influence the child’s decision to gravitate toward a specialized sport or sports. Sport-specific skill development is an important feature of the specializing years and marks a transition toward a more deliberate practice approach. The investment years (15 years and older) suggest the intent of an athlete to pursue expertise in a single sport. The sampling and deliberate play activities reported in the previous stages are replaced by large volumes of intense, sport-specific practice (similar to deliberate practice).
While the DMSP has been supported by a number of subsequent investigations in sport, it has also been challenged. In particular, a key issue is whether expertise requires a more focused approach to deliberate play whereby children are encouraged to engage in playful activity primarily related to their preferred sport of interest rather than diversifying or sampling too many sports. It is argued that such an approach may meet the needs of specialization while simultaneously providing sufficient diversification. It has also been suggested that the relative importance of early versus late specialization may be largely sport and culture-specific.
Research into the development of expertise and expert performance focuses on the identification and understanding of the mechanisms that distinguish experts from lesser skilled performers. Expertise is domain specific and requires the development of representative tasks if it is to be reliably demonstrated and examined in an experimental setting. A number of common features of expertise have been demonstrated in perceptual, cognitive, and motor components of performance. The development of expertise is perhaps the most debated aspect of this research field with two competing approaches being suggested. This debate has important practical implications in regard to whether it is advantageous to specialize early in a sporting task or diversify across a number of sports to reach expert status. There are many fertile areas for future research before a complete understanding of expertise will be gained.
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