Sports skill Graphic

How skill in sport really works

by Matthew Leitch, 17 February 2002

This page is for ordinary people who enjoy a sport but would enjoy it more if they had more skill. I argue that many of us hold wrong beliefs about skill that are holding us back. Although these beliefs are easily shown to be wrong, they are so commonplace, and so often reinforced by language and coaching, that we are unaware of them and the damage they do.

This is sports psychology, but as far as I know there's nothing like it on the net. This is very, very different from the usual stuff about confidence and mental practice.

I've titled the myths with well known cliches that reinforce them.

‘In the groove’


This misconception is as follows. A sport like tennis or cricket involves learning a set of strokes. Each stroke is a single, set movement to be repeated as consistently as possible. The more perfectly we can repeat the exact motion in the coaching book on every occasion the better. When you succeed it's because you're ‘in the groove’. The shot is ‘grooved’.

Watch people enjoying a game of tennis at their local public tennis courts any summer and you'll see the effects of this belief. As the ball approaches, a player (mentally Agassi) winds up, racket back, shoulders pumping, racket moves forward for a terrific top spin winner – but wait! Suddenly the player checks, adjusts, lunges, and dinks the ball back at the net. Once again the ball was not in the right place for the shot he was longing to play. Perhaps the next ball will be a bit higher and a bit faster.

How skill really works

In reality ‘shot selection’ is much more than a selection between a small number of very different alternatives such as forehand topspin, forehand loop, hook shot, sweep, and so on. Every shot situation, and every shot is unique. Here's an illustration of just one dimension of variation.

Smooth curve

Even once the initial decision has been made the movement has many variable parameters whose values need to be determined (e.g. how high to start the hand, how fast to move, how bent the knees should be, where to be when playing the shot. These won't all be decided at the same time. Sometimes a value will be chosen, then modified as the judgement is improved with more time and information.

In learning such a skill we need to become aware of the things that differ in the situations where the movement is needed and which drive our choice of parameters for the movement.

We need to learn our movements as ‘families of curves’ whose shapes vary smoothly with variables of the situation. Those variations should be smooth and easy, without sudden structural changes as far as possible.

It's true that it's usually easier, in tennis for example, to hit the ball in a certain zone, and that it's worth trying to get your body in a position where the ball is in the area you can hit it best, but there is still a need to produce a unique stroke every time to cope with the variation that still exists.

Sometimes we need to design our movements so that they can be started before the ending has been decided. This is more often the case in sports where speed is vital such as table tennis and martial arts.

Here are some examples to explain what I mean without mathematics:

Example: Snooker. Having thought ahead to decide what ball to aim for, what pocket perhaps, and where to put the cue ball, the player has to ‘compute’ by judgement where to hit the object ball, and how hard, and with what spin and how much, then decide where and how hard to hit the cue ball. To hit the cue ball in the chosen way requires adjusting stance, bridge, and cue action to the ball and the height of the strike, and its speed. If an electronic computer were programmed to do this it would be given all sorts of equations to calculate parameter values and more equations to generate actual movements from the parameters. The human brain builds the equivalent by much practice and observation of examples.

If you are aware of this process and pay attention to variations in the situation of the shot and in your own movements, the skill will develop faster and with less frustration for you.

In practice sessions you could try hitting lots of balls in a similar way, but varying in one respect e.g. hit several of gradually increasing, then decreasing speed, then spin, and feel how your action should vary to achieve the variations.

Example: Swimming. At first glance, sports like swimming, cycling, and running seem to be exceptions to this approach. Not so. The variations may be subtle, but they are still needed and you still need to master them. For a given swimming stroke – front crawl for example – the instructions your brain sends to your muscles still have to vary according to such things as how fast you're going, how fast you're trying to accelerate (if at all), how fast you are decelerating (e.g. after a dive), and how tired you are.

Example: Martial arts. Opponents will vary in height, speed, strength, and in the technique and angle of their attack. No two situations will be exactly the same so it's obvious that the skill you acquire must be families of movements whose parameters of variation allow you to cope with different situations.

How the misconception affects us

Believing there is a perfect stroke/shot/kick etc to be repeated exactly, ‘in the groove’ blocks us from being aware of the variations we need to learn. Learning is slowed or non-existent. We fail when an opponent gives us a situation outside the tiny range we can deal with, and don't understand why.

And, even though top players successfully master variation in situation and movements, when they turn to coaching they focus again on movements in isolation from situations, and without a study of variations. Just look at almost any coaching book.

A better belief

A skill is the ability to generate movements appropriate to the situation, in a systematic and reliable way. See and feel the variations and design them well.

If you want to know more, search the net for Schmidt's Schema theory.

‘Keep your eyes on the ball’


What your eyes track and focus on (e.g. the ball, the opponent's eyes) is also what your attention should focus on.

How skill really works

What your eyes focus on and track isn't necessarily where you'll find all – or even most – of the information you need to perform skillfully. What you focus on becomes the stationary centre point of your vision (even though our brains create the impression of its movement to match the reality).

In tennis, for example, the image of the ball once fixed on the centre of the eye and held there by the tracking of the eyes, provides only some weak information about spin and approach speed. The spin information is only available if the spin is slow enough for the lines to be seen. The rate of growth of the image of the ball on your retina is proportional to the time before the ball reaches you (approximately) but is hard to pick out for such a small object.

The information you really need most is about how the ball is moving through space relative to you and the court and that is in the movement of ‘background’ images across the rest of your visual field. This movement is sometimes called ‘visual flux’.

To get that information properly you need to attend to it. Fortunately, it's easy to direct your awareness to things other than the place your eyes are pointing, and to attune yourself to movements in the periphery of your vision.

Here are some examples:

Example: Driving. If you fix your eyes on a point far ahead on the road, and tune into the visual flux around it you will soon feel the strong flow of the roadside and be aware of how your steering moves that flux of the roadside.

Example: Balancing. If you have to balance in your sport (e.g. skateboarding, ice skating, gymnastics in particular) you'll find that you can balance better when you are tuned into the visual flux, and if your eye movements are controlled (e.g. by fixing your gaze on one point) so that the flux is easier for your brain to interpret.

Example: Golf. One problem in golf is that you can't see the target and the ball clearly at the same time – except perhaps for the shortest putts. But as your eyes move backwards and forwards between target and ball the resulting flux during the movements is full of data your brain needs. Furthermore, the fact that your target may be in your peripheral vision is also important as it allows you to put your attention on it, even as you look down at the ball.

I am not suggesting that you should try to develop a greater awareness of peripheral vision per se. The point is to learn to pick out the specific information you need, not just more. Trying to get a generally greater awareness of peripheral vision is not likely to make much difference although it may be helpful.

A better belief

It's important to learn where to look and, separately, what to attend to. Very often the visual flux around your point of focus is more useful in a sport skill.

‘Watch the ball right onto the bat’


When people take their eyes off the ball before hitting it they're likely to miss. You should keep looking at the ball so you can see where it is and, therefore, hit it.

How skill really works

The simple misconception at work here is to forget about reaction time. The fastest a person can react to something they see is about 0.25 seconds – sometimes nearer 0.2 seconds for very quick people. This is how long it takes to make the tiny movement needed to press a button, so a bigger movement, such as a parry in fencing, will take longer. Furthermore, the more alternative actions to choose from the longer it takes to choose one and start making it. In most sports you have to choose your action so you need more than 0.25 seconds to even begin to react.

Videos of top cricket batsmen facing fast bowling have shown that the batsman's shot is committed, and cannot even be adjusted, at around the time the ball is leaving the bowler's hand! Facing a fast tennis serve presents similar problems. In martial arts, at close range the person who moves first will strike.

(OK. You may be thinking ‘I know what you mean about reaction times, but I'm sure if I take my eyes off the ball I miss more often.’ This could be because you took your eye off the ball far more than 0.25 seconds before contact, or perhaps because the unusual movement of your head disrupted your swing.)

Designing skills with reaction times in mind

In sports where speed counts it is very useful to take reaction time into consideration when designing your skill. Firstly, consider your opponent's reaction time.

Example: Tennis. In the 1980s I saw a stunning demonstration of this in two matches of tennis. The competition was indoor, men's singles, from the USA. In one match, two players known at the time for their speed and power, Roscoe Tanner and Johann Kriek, entertained everyone with an unbelievable display of tennis. They ran, leapt, dived, smashed, and retrieved impossible balls at a speed that left the crowd breathless. They were supermen. The winner (I can't remember who is was because they were such similar players) went on to face John MacEnroe in the next round. How could MacEnroe stand up to such awesome play, I thought.

In fact MacEnroe won easily in straight sets. His opponent showed none of the athleticism of his previous match. Again and again he stood, flat footed, as MacEnroe's passing shots came past. He simply didn't know which way the ball was going until it was too late to react.

Brain crushed brawn. MacEnroe's deadly weapons included a bizarre service action where he turned his back on his opponent in order to hide his racket (I don't know if it worked, but it must have been hard for opponents to get used to), a serve into the wide corner that hardly bounced and curved away from the receiver, and a range of ground strokes and volleys that looked the same to the opponent regardless of where John was aiming to put the ball. Wicked.

When designing a skill for a fast sport with an opponent, try to polish your actions so that you don't telegraph your intentions. You could also try working out some movements that seem to telegraph one thing but actually end with another. This is harder to do but a feint can be very useful.

Try to present opponents with difficult choices they have to make at speed such as by hitting the ball straight at their body, or bowling a cricket ball in the ‘channel of uncertainty’ where it is not clear if the ball can safely be left or not.

A less obvious point is to take account of your own reaction time by:

Example: Combat sports. Early warning signs might include the opponent's overall movement, shoulder shifts, and foot movements. The first part of a reactive movement might be to do with your own overall body movement (e.g. forward, back, down, sideways). Defensive and counter-attacking techniques will tend to be simpler, and less varied than attacks you initiate. Obviously, the natural ‘ready’ position will allow short defensive movements (e.g. boxers keep their hands up near their heads with their elbows helping to protect their bodies, which also limits possible attacks). Bruce Lee advised that counter-attacks were normally best in response to attacks that had been induced by offering what appeared to be a weakness. In other words, Bruce wasn't reacting to an unexpected attack but to one he had triggered deliberately.

‘The learning curve’


Through coaching and practice we gradually get better. The curve looks like this:

Smooth curve

How skill really works

Learning is not so gradual. The familiar, smooth curve is the result of psychologists averaging the results of groups. If you look at an individual's learning very often you see this, for each skill:

Stepped curve

Learning periodically slows down, sometimes seems to reverse, and then races ahead again. It seems that the skill restructures in a significant way, causing an initial drop in performance, but then other details are adjusted and performance rapidly improves. This has been called the ‘moat effect’ because the dip tends to prevent us from changing what we do. It is a barrier.

Example: Swimming. Some of the muscles used to swim front crawl with a good technique tend not to be well developed in non-swimmers. Initially, people sometimes find they swim faster with poor technique that lets them use other muscles. However, once the muscles needed for good technique are better developed the best performance is with good technique.

Smooth curve

Practical implications

The practical implications are important:

‘Put some effort into it’


The more effort you make the more force you can apply, more power you can generate, and the faster you can go.

How skill really works

The relationship between effort and performance is complex and effort is rarely helpful. The force generated can be increased by relaxing opposing muscles (a mental focus that also tends to diminish awareness of tension elsewhere), reducing the risk of injury (and the fear of injury that results), and getting a better body posture, angle, etc to make best use of muscular contractions.

Relaxing opposing muscles

When you use muscles to apply force (perhaps to move yourself) your muscles mostly fall into three groups: (1) agonists – that pull in the direction you want, (2) stabilizers – that steady your joints but are neutral in their effect, and (3) antagonists – that pull against the direction you want and should be as relaxed as you can make them.

As you learn a physical skill you normally start off with quite a lot of muscular tension, some of it with muscles opposing each other and simply compressing your joints to no effect. As your skill grows, fewer muscles are used and you become more efficient.

If you focus on relaxing antagonists instead of tensing agonists you may be able to accelerate this learning and you will certainly experience less feelings of effort. You may be surprised at how hard your muscles will work without bullying.

Example: Aikido. Aikido is learned with a lot of emphasis on relaxation, and learning to let go of the tension that is normally felt in a fight. The traditions of Aikido revolve around the belief in a mystical energy known as ki that is all around us, but flows from the body's centre out through the limbs like water through a hose. It provides strength without exertion. I doubt if ki really exists and suspect that what is really happening is a shift of attention from tensing agonists to relaxing antagonists combined with a reduction in antagonist tension. Expert Aikido is impressive so whatever it is, it works.

Reducing the risk of injury

The risk of injury may have a powerful role in what we normally refer to as ‘confidence’, ‘belief’, or ‘motivation’. It's obvious that when players lose hope of winning a particular game or match they put less energy into playing and their performance falls. This is a particular problem if there actually was a worthwhile chance of winning.

Why does this happen? Most commentators and sports psychologists concentrate on the ‘self belief’ angle and question whether the player really, deep down, believes he/she can win.

There may be some truth in this, but most of the time I suspect the real reasons are quite rational:

If you take sensible steps to reduce the risk of injury you can afford to keep on playing at full throttle even when your real chances of winning are slim. The main steps are:

Improved biomechanics

This is a matter of physics rather than psychology so outside my expertise. I do know that the best techniques are not always obvious. It's helpful to copy good players and take coaching advice, but even this is no guarantee of success.

Example: Swimming. Until the late 1970s the standard advice on arm and hand movements was to pull straight through. Then Dr James E Counsilman noticed something odd about his best swimmer, Mark Spitz (yes, the Mark Spitz): when Spitz swam faster his stroke rate dropped. Think about it! The Doc (already author of ‘The science of swimming’ so with a reputation to keep up) attached lights to swimmers' hands and had them swim over underwater cameras in the dark. The results, and Counsilman's analysis, changed swimming coaching at the top level forever, and were published in his 1981 blockbuster ‘Competitive Swimming’. Pulling straight through is bad technique because it accelerates a small amount of water, which soon gets hard to chase. Good technique is for the hand to move sideways during the pull so it moves into still water and a larger amount of water is accelerated over a much shorter distance.

Another popular swimming myth concerns the breast stroke kick. It was thought that squeezing the legs together at the end helped push the swimmer forward by a kind of jet propulsion. Measurements have now shown that this was fantasy.

The moat effect I explained in connection with ‘the learning curve’ is another reason finding strong technique can be tricky. There is no shortage of technical advice though, especially in golf.


The advice on these pages is the result of my long interest in the applied psychology of learning. In academic terms I'm talking about ‘perceptual-motor skills’ but you won't need to wade through dozens of research references to get the points I make!

Apply all the advice from the pages above and start to build skills that:

You'll get better at building and re-building skills that perform well.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all those who have read this page and commented. I consider every point carefully and often make improvements as a result. I would also like to thank my son Hector for the picture.

About the author: Matthew Leitch has been studying the applied psychology of learning and memory since about 1979 and holds a BSc in psychology from University College London.