Retention of Sport Skills

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.

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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.


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  6. Martens, R. (2003). Successful coaching (3rd ed.).Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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