How “deliberate” are we being in improving motor competency?

Physical activity and motor competency (both perceived and actual) have a reciprocal relationship. That means children with higher levels of perceived and actual motor competence are more likely to engage in further physical activity, which, in turn, may lead to further skill development and increased perceived and actual motor competence. The reverse then is also true for children with low levels of motor competence, therefore being a limiting factor to physical activity. So how do we as PE Teachers ensure we can use the limited time we have with our students to help improve their motor competency?

1. Deliberate Practice

Karl Anders Ericsson, a Swedish Psychologist, has studied and researched expertise for most of his career. Through his research he realised that no matter what the field of expertise, the most effective approach to improving performance all follow a set of general principles of practice. He named this approach deliberate practice.  Here are the essential components of deliberate practice:

Develops skills that others have already figured out to do and for what effective training techniques have been established.
Always takes place outside of one’s comfort zones, asking questions that are just beyond current abilities.
Is well designed, with specific goals, often asking improvement in a defined aspect of performance.
It requires the particpants full attention throughout the practice.
Involves feedback and modifcation of efforts in response to that feedback.
For the particpant to have a clear mental represntation of what they are trying to achieve.
Involves building on or modifying existing skills, leading to a step by step improvement.

Therefore any practice must be intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for our students current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious. Using these as guidelines for designing effective practice for helping our students may develop their motor competency.

2. Deliberate Play

Brooke Macnamara and colleagues, in a recent meta-analysis of the relationship between deliberate practice and athletic achievement and found that practice can, on average, account for 18% of the difference in athletic success. Whilst Anders Ericsson has responded to the conclusions of the research, specifically about what is counted as ‘deliberate practice’, Macnamara did raise some legitimate concerns for me. In addition to deliberate practice, other forms of experience may contribute to individual differences in performance (and therefore develop of motor competency), including competition experience and play activities.

Jean Côté has put forward the idea of deliberate play as a way of skill acquisition and developing motor competency. Côté defines deliberate play as “activities such as backyard soccer or street basketball that are regulated by age-adapted rules and are set up and monitored by the children or adults engaged in the activity. These activities are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.” Therefore this is seen as different from the physical play activities of infancy and the more game designed specifically to improve performance in a sport. Deliberate play is a way for children to explore their physical capacities in various game related contexts. By designing specific games, that have a clear learning outcome for different aspects of movement and co-ordination students can not only develop their motor competence, there is more of a chance they will develop intrinsically motivated reasons to continue and pursue other forms of physical activity beyond the classroom.

The difference between deliberate practice and deliberate play:

Deliberate Practice  Deliberate Play
No the most enjoyable Enjoyable
Explicit Rules Flexible
Focus on outcomes Focus on behaviour
Specialist involvement required Specialist invovement not required
Occurs in specialist facilities Occurs in various settings


3. Deliberate Preparation
I’m naturally drawn to play as a way of developing motor competency and have begun to advocate for its place more and more within my school’s PE curriculum. However Áine MacNamara and colleagues offer a few words of warning with regards to play within the PE Curriculum. Just Let Them Play? questions whether the play approach will naturally develop motor competency as a consequence of age, maturation, general movement experiences and self-discovery. MacNamara states “that allowing children to play without appropriate feedback, instruction or organization is unlikely to result in the learning (i.e., actual and perceived competence) required to ensure prolonged engagement; children need to be supported, guided, and encouraged through a range of developmentally appropriate tasks to facilitate acquisition of, and confidence in, the skills needed for proactive and enthusiastic participation.” Whilst implicit learning can occur through play, we PE Teachers have a responsibility to also explicitly prepare our students for a lifetime of purposeful physical activity.

The way to do that is through the teaching and learning of Essential Movement Skills (EMS). These skills aren’t just the actual competence to perform physical skills but also the psychological and behavioral skills to engage in physical activity. The case for the teaching of affective elements; such as distraction control, self regulation and realistic self assessment for example within the PE curriculum, to help alongside the physical development is one that make sense to me. However I am always concerned this may take away from the practical element of our subject. A balance is require.

Deliberate practice, play or preparation. A PE curriculum that focuses solely on one is potentially a limiting factor. The idea that practice alone rather than in combination of other activities may limit development. The idea that play may be enough to develop the motor competency required for a lifetime of health and physical activity may be flawed. A focus on preparation may take away the elements of self-exploration and enjoyment may diminish the motivation of the student to take further part in physical activity. A combination of all three may give our students the improvement to motor competency needed to allow the best chance at taking on responsibility for a purposeful physical activity in their lives. In fact a recent piece of research that looked at an enhanced PE curriculum, one which combined deliberate play and preparation suggests this to be more effective at developing motor competency.  Perhaps the key then is to observe the child who is in front of us and make a deliberate choice which would be the best suited at that moment, with the information we have at our disposal.

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