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Skill learning: repetition or variation?

by Brambilla Antonello Sport Science – GK Coach Uefa A

The idea to write this article comes from the luck i have ha in recent years of being able to meet or

listen to many goalkeeping coaches from different countries around the World. May of them claim

that their goalkeeper always finds the right technique to resolve the situation by knowing multiple

ways to do it based on the scenario. For example, the goalkeeper knows how to attack the ball but

also understands when the best solution is to block. In the learning path that leads to the

knowledge of both movements what happen is what I call “motor confusion”. If the classic method

for teaching a technique involves the use of numerous repetitions, the mastery of Tech1 and Tech

2 should be practiced in an equivalent number of them. So, if a goalkeeper with good Tech1 of no

younger age would like to learn Tech2 he would inexorably go through a period of “motor

confusion” where the motor response it could be a middle way between the two techniques.

This period may not be necessary for those who have already learned both techniques at a young

age but the problem of choosing Tech1 and Tech2 could result from not recognizing the game,

predicting the scenario and consequently experiencing “decisional confusion”. Usually when you

see these goalkeepers you don’t find technical excellence in both solutions, but speed in choosing

which motor program to use.

In 1987 Mechling stated that a skill is an element of conscious activity performed largely

automatically that develops through practice. Meinel argued that skills are actions that are

consolidated mainly through repeated practice and that are carried out, in part, automatically, that

is, without attention being intentionally concentrated on it. Having read this, one might say that if

a goalkeeper knows a technique perfectly, without even paying much attention, he should resolvethe situation with a good result (motor skills). Unfortunately, this does not always happen, because

what to do is more important than how to do it (cognitive ability).

With this theory it was stated that the generalized motor commands responsible for centrally

coordinating the execution of movements were thus stored in the brain. It is believed that each

generalized motor command contains motor commands that define the deep structure common to

an entire class of movements while the superficial characteristics of each time through a

parameterization process. For example, the dive is a class of movements, the dive program starts

which during the course will adjust the parameters for example to perform the catch or deflect the

ball. Others cab be high balls, boxing the ball etc. Two elements are part of the same class if the

duration of the individual functional phases is the same (movement, push, jump, etc.) the same

relative force is used, means the acceleration imparted in each phase of the movement and the

order is the same as the order of the muscle contractions. By executing multiple movements

belonging to the same class of shares in diversified form, example kicking the ball in will vary in

execution time, direction and amplitude the parameterization process is exercised.

If we want to learn increasingly complex motor gestures and optimize the parameterization,

exercises will be used to reduce the variability of the execution to a minimum. So, we will

theoretically move towards the perfection of technical execution.

Examples are partial exercise, randomized exercise and varied exercise. Complex movements such

as the high balls in deviation can be simplified by dividing the execution pieces, reducing the

execution speed or modifying the demand for executive precision. For example, the work of the

upper body can be divided up from that the lower body and then recombined them (horizontal

cut). If the interaction between the two parts is low, this cut does not alter the deep structure of

the program and facilitates the total learning of the movement, otherwise, in the case which the

movement of the lower body is essential to guarantee the stability of the motor partner of the

upper body, fractionation is not a suitable teaching technique. Instead, the different segments

(vertical cut), starting position, movement, jump, extension of the arms, possible twisting the

chest, direction of deviation, return to the ground can be performed separately. As before, if the

interaction between the phases is high it is difficult to segment. Reducing speed and requiring a

certain precision (kick in a certain area of the field or inside a small goal, deviating towards a

certain side or inside a small goal) can be effective as long as you don’t get into imprecision.

Randomized practice involves performing several different motor tasks in no specific order. If they

use them in the correct way, so using real technical chains (example after catch the ball there’s

transition, after goal there’s not a second ball, after deflection the second ball come from one

certain side, after catch high ball is impossible arrive second shot etc.) this technique enhances

learning for two reasons: it allow the goalkeeper to better perceive the different peculiarities of

the individual tasks and because it forces the goalkeeper to select the motor program, which is not

necessary if the repetitions of the same task are performed consecutively, in block, before moving

on the next variant.

The varied exercise (for example dive and catch, dive and deflection, use of the hand below, use of

the hand above, low ball, bouncing, medium, high etc.) consists in having several movements

belonging to the same class performed, mean several execution variations of the same generalized

motor program. This exercise technique enhances learning probably because it allows the

goalkeeper to practice the parameterization of generalized motor program.

Meinel also describes the process by which new skills are learned by diving it into phase: mental

representation and formation of the motor program based on the subject’s abilities; rough

coordination: rough coordination: the movement appears to be structurally rough but free of

errors; fine coordination: the movement performed is technically correct but repeatable only in

standard conditions; variable availability: the skill appears to be automated to the point it has greatavailability: the skill appears to be automated to the point that it has great availability and

variability thanks to the past experiences.

Rereading the phases of the process you will notice how “the movement performed is technically

correct but repeatable only in standard conditions”. What are the standard conditions? In the role

of goalkeeper, are the conditions that arise always standard or do you live on variability?

To explain the persistence of a certain degree of executive variability even after numerous

repetitions, it is necessary to shift the perspective from the central programming of movements to

the variety of constraints imposed by motor coordination of the periphery and the environment.

This ecological approach is characterized by the complex interaction between individual and


Nikolai A. Bernstein (texts known thanks to Fabian Otte) in the 70s was among the first scientists to

understand how much the environment and the context could influence motor learning. According

to Bernstein’s theory practice does not consist in repeating the means of solving a problem several

times but in the process of solving this problem again and again with techniques that we have

changed and perfected from repetition to repetition (theory of repetition without repetition).

Optimal motor solutions to appropriate problems must be sought. With the ecological system we

try to find better solutions from time to time, the executive variant is not seen as a limiting factor.

Dexterity (Bernstein 1996) is characterized by the ability to solve any emerging movement

problem, in any situation and under any conditions. Therefore, our practice environments must

provide opportunities for our goalies to solve problems that they will be expected to solve in a

wide range of situations. Instead, coaches often propose highly predictable and highly non-

representative problems. How can we expect our goalkeepers to solve dynamic problems if we do

not offer them opportunities to use this research process in training? The variability of the

trajectories played, the speed of the ball, the conditions of visibility of the ball, the changing

number of opponents, distance of the shot, the conditions of the pitch, the stress conditions, the

minute of play, the result of that moment, etc. they become very important constraints that can

be used to create environments where the goalkeeper can continually find solutions.

The discovery of mirror neurons by the neuroscientist Rizzolatti and his team then accelerated and

changed the way of seeing the training methodology for many (but not for all). The discovery

allowed us to know that there are neurons with visuo-motor properties, that is, which are

activated both when a movement is performed and when I see and is performed by others

provided that it is present even partially in its motor heritage.

It has also been discovered that they are also activated when one imagines performing that motor

action. Mirror neurons are considered fundamental for imitative processes but also in the

processes of recognition, understanding of other people’s actions and consequently the

recognition of intentions. Imitative learning has gained value, the mirror system being activated

when an action is performed in the same way as an observed action, allows us to understand the

actions of others and also accelerate the learning process. There are classes of neurons used to

encode the space around us and to position us in relation to the goal, the area, the distance of the

ball and the presence of opponents or teammates. These neurons that understand the

environment and dictate specific types of actions, specific ways of performing them and specific

times allow us to reiterate how important it is to propose exercises in training performed with the

same spatial organization found in the match. It is also interesting to use videos to study

opponents, their individual and departmental movements to achieve their goals to be repeated in

sessions on the pitch and the use of videos of “model” goalkeepers to understand their

movements. Actions are codified in terms of purposes and not on the basis of the movements we

perform to carry them out. The same action can be accomplished with different movements.Experience is another factor that allows us to read intentions even better. The more I have

experienced that moment, the more times I have seen or imagined that action, the more precise

my ability to read the opponent’s intentions and anticipate their actions will be solution. The

mirror system is also responsible for empathy, it manages to make us understand the emotions of

others. Who better than the goalkeeping coach knows how to understand his student’s state of

mind? The topic of the mirror system should be explored even more deeply than in a small article

like this because it could lead coaches to partially review their methodology based on these “new”


In conclusion, which method is the best? It’s important to know how to use both approaches,

increasingly discovering the charm of learning. There is no rule on which to use before or after, it’s

necessary to explore all the theories and integrate them. The process of storing motor processes is

often long, the environment can help you find quicker solutions to ever-changing racing situations.

During the learning process I can also notice that my goalkeeper has some gaps, we ca open a

window and work on those micro-movements, on that technical part that perhaps he hasn’t

understood and then go back to working and that we must know how to use at intervals.

The solution is not the same for everyone, the qualities of basic skills, physical structure,

experience, educational path, etc. change. Thanks to our goalkeepers we will also evolve our ability

to teach, to coach, to lead, I’m open to experimenting without rigidity. Often goalkeeper coaches

base their certainties on just one method, always bringing the solutions in that direction even if

there is something wrong, that they don’t know, they push reality to make it work rather than

saying that there’s something that doesn’t work. He thinks that doing what he has always done is

fine, often blaming the goalkeeper if he doesn’t improve, if he doesn’t learn. Sometimes you need

to change perspective.


Meinel, Teoria del movimento

Bernstein Nikolai Aleksandrovich, Fisiologia del movimento

Rizzolatti Giacomo, Sinigaglia Corrado, So quel che fai. Il cervello che agisce e i neuroni specchio

Articoli di Capanna Riccardo, Albertini Claudio e Fabian Otte

Brambilla Antonello, Papere e Miracoli

Umberto Ruggiero, Allenare giocando, So come giochi

Caterina Pesce Sds n.55

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