The Wetfoot Blog

Monday, April 22, 2013

Goals and Skill Acquisition

In the last article that I wrote for the Wetfoot I mentioned that we frontload intellectual skill acquisition but rarely frontload physical skill acquisition.  This might end up as a series about frontloading methods and skill evaluation.  It’s important to know these things when working with participants because our participants want to learn skills, they want to know how to go about learning, and they also want to track their improvement.  Anyone could relate to the frustration of not knowing how to go about improving a skill or to tell whether one is getting better at it.

This article is going to focus on one method of frontloading a skill, namely goals.  For an activity there is a set of goals that the learner should acknowledge and internalize to help guide them.  There are multiple criteria for choosing goals that make use of mnemonic devices to help us memorize them, here I will use SMART.
·         S stands for specific
·         M for measurable
·         A for attainable
·         R for relevant
·         T for timely or time-bound

 When picking goals make sure that they are accountable to these criteria, otherwise one might not get motivated for achievement.  For instance, if a goal is not time bound then it won’t matter whether one achieves it next week or seventy years from now even if all practical scenarios for its use are long gone.  Achievements can happen by chance but planned action will make the achievement come faster.
In the field of motor learning there are trio of goals that apply to skill acquisition, each of which can be made SMART.

There are outcome goals, which are goals built around the results of a given performance like winning a bulls eye contest.  Performance goals, that measure success against past achievements like increasing one’s percentage of bull’s eyes from 80% to 90%.   The final type of goal is a process goal which is where a particular aspect of a skill is emphasized to make the whole skill better, like exhaling slowly when taking a shot.  In general one should encourage participants to deemphasize outcome goals because they are often the most out of our control; someone might just be a better shot at competition even if the participant has done everything right.

Think of the three types of goals as Russian dolls; the biggest doll might be victory or some other outcome goal (dependant on the skill).  That outcome wouldn’t be possible without achieving the process goal, which in turn wouldn’t be possible without achieving process goals (unless someone is just lucky).  The goals help the learner conceptualize how minute details will contribute to performance and then realize what must be accomplished during performance.  Think of our archer, upon learning that she must breathe correctly when shooting she can now practice that part of the skill.  Using the SMART criteria she can see how breathe control is specific, measurable (length of breathe or number of breaths), attainable, relevant, and time bound (time spent practicing daily). 

Frontloading skill acquisition with goals is an excellent way to help someone learn.  Practices don’t have to be haphazard, progress can be measured, and the participant can be motivated using those goals.  So remember, the goals relevant to skill acquisition are outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals.  These in turn are determined using SMART criteria.  Now you, the reader, have a new tool and hopefully it’ll be used soon.

Arthur D'Amato is a fitness instructor at Valley Medical Center and staff member of Camp Manito-wish YMCA. If you are interested in writing for The Wetfoot, please email

Photo-Credit: Daniel Peters

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