Sport Expertise

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.

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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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  2. Abernethy, B., Thomas, K. T., & Thomas, J. T. (1993). Strategies for improving understanding of motor expertise (or mistakes we have made and things we have learned!!). In J. L. Starkes & F. Allard (Eds.), Cognitive issues in motor expertise (pp. 317–356). Amsterdam: North Holland.
  3. Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballantine.
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  7. Farrow, D., Baker, J., & MacMahon, C. (Eds.). (2008). Developing sport expertise: Researchers and coaches put theory into practice. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
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  9. Williams, A. M., & Ericsson, K. A. (2005). Perceptualcognitive expertise in sport: Some considerations when applying the expert performance approach. Human Movement Science, 24, 283–307.

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