Developmental Psychology and How it Affects Skill

Understanding how your gymnast learns.

Developmental psychology is the scientific approach to explaining growth and change throughout a lifespan. It mostly looks at how people think, feel and behave – and how this changes – in a lifetime.

Most of the focus of this area of psychology is in childhood and the early years. This is because that’s when we do the most growing and changing. The goals of this discipline are to describe, explain and promote development in the most efficient way possible.

There are typical pathways for development, and though there is some scope for variation – most people follow this route. However, it’s also worth noting that no two children will be exactly alike.

When we’re growing, we’re not only learning all about the world around us but we’re learning about how we work too. We’re learning that we have control over our own bodies, and we can make our body do things we didn’t know possible. This is where the development of skills comes in, and it’s one of the most important skills we’ll ever learn.

There are several different types of skill to learn:

  • Cognitive: These are intellectual skills that require a higher level of thinking.

  • Perceptual: This is how we interpret information that’s presented to us.

  • Motor: Movement and muscle control.

  • Perceptual-motor: This skill involves all of the above combined. It is the last skill to be learnt during this development stage.

According to researchers Fitts and Posner (1967) there are three phases of development. First is the cognitive phase, which is learning the skill and being able to identify it. Secondly is the associative phase, this involves practicing the skill until it becomes more natural. Lastly, the autonomous phase where the skill is learned so well that it is practiced with little to no thought.

When it comes to teaching children sporting skills, we have learnt that the best way to teach is to break it down into smaller chunks - gymnastics specific progressions, in this instance. Each progression is broken down and worked until the child is confident in doing it on their own. Then, when each progression is learnt well enough, we combine them into one fluid motion - the full skill. Regular practice of the skill is essential to keeping it active and developing.

There is another theory – Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, of which there are three core concepts. There are:

  • People learn through observation.

  • Mental states are crucial to this

  • It won’t necessarily result in a change of behaviour.

From this theory, we have learnt that children learn a lot from watching others do things, so observation of the skill is crucial in eventually learning it. There are three main ways that children learn:

  • Kinetic learning: learn by doing.

  • Visual learning: learn by seeing.

  • Audio learning: learn by hearing.

Using a combination of all three of these techniques is the best approach to teaching a child a new skill. Furthermore, children will learn best through different methods. Say one child is a visual learner, and the other learns by doing. If you demonstrate, explain, and get the child to practice this skill, you are covering more bases and have a higher chance of more of the children picking up the skill.

Further research into skill development posits the theory that actions aren’t stored in our brain, but we recall an abstract rule about movement. This theory by Schmidt (1975) considers that every time a movement is conducted, there are four pieces of information learned. These are:

  • Initial conditions.

  • Aspects of the motor action.

  • The result of said action.

  • How it felt to complete this action.

All these pieces of information work together to make two schemas. These are the recall and recognition schemas which help a child to learn that performing certain things will lead to certain actions. Take, for example, a child who is being taught to run. You show the child how to begin running – put one foot in front of the other, kick off with the foot furthest back etc. You then move on to showing them how to move their legs to actually start running. The child experiences running for the first time (either a success or a failure). They can then verbalise and understand how it felt to run.

The recall and recognition schema kick in during this time, and then when the occasion calls for the child to run again – the child remembers the process and can perform the action. That’s why taking the time to teach a child how to perform a certain action is key.

Many of the theories that surround development in children are based on the idea that demonstration and practice are two crucial components in teaching a new skill. There are also theories that children, because their development is more rapid than an adult, learn faster and better. There have been studies which show that 17-year-olds who are learning to drive are more likely to pass first, or with fewer faults, than an adult in the same position.

Once a child has been taught one skill, this can be used to facilitate the learning of a number of other skills. Skills can be transferred a number of ways:

  • Skill to skill transfer, where the development of a skill in one sport can help with skill in another.

  • Theory to practice, which is the most common type of skill transfer in children. This is the transferral of theory in practical.

  • Training to competition, often not developed until later in life, this is the transfer of skills in training to a competitive situation.

The effects of these transfers can result in:

  • negative – one skill hinders the performance in another sport.

  • Zero – there is no impact.

  • Positive – one skill helps another.

  • Direct – a skill which can be taken directly from one sport to another.

  • Bilateral – transferring a skill from the left to the right side of the body, for example.

  • Unequal – a learned skill helps more in another sport, than the one initially learned.

Skill transference is essential in developing better and better motor skills. This is why encouraging a child to participate in as many sports as possible and try as much as they want is essential for their skill development.

It’s normal for a lot of children to feel anxiety when learning a new skill. This is because they are unsure of what the outcome will be. And it’s totally normal for a child to fail when learning a new skill or developing their sporting skill. But this failure results in the child associating a negative feeling about that action. And when a negative emotion is felt once, the recall schema will remember it the next time that action is expected or performed.

Reassurance, patience, and practice are core components of teaching a child a new skill. Encouraging a child, even when they fail, is so important, arguably more important than learning the skill itself. When a negative emotion is associated with certain sports, the child will be more and more reluctant to continue learning. Keep them positive, and point out the things they have done right, and they will pick it up in no time.

Aaron Sheehan

Gymnastics Guru

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