Individual Differences in Motor Abilities in Sport

One of the challenges that coaches face is that individual differences among athletes make each of them unique in their ability to succeed in sports. Height, body type, muscle fiber composition, motivational level, and learning styles are among the many factors that affect the rate at which athletes will become proficient.

Because of the uniqueness of athletes, instructional and coaching strategies will not be equally effective. Analyzing motor abilities can help coaches optimize each athlete's genetic potential.

Abilities vs. Skills

Motor abilities are inherited, relatively stable traits of athletes that are prerequisites for performing various sport skills. These abilities are predictors of sport performance in the same way that intelligence is a predictor of academic performance.

Many specific abilities have been identified and grouped. Examples include: multi-limb coordination, control precision, aiming, explosive strength, dynamic flexibility, speed of limb movement, movement rate, and force control.

While motor abilities are innate traits of athletes, motor skills refer to the capability of performing with maximum certainty, minimum energy, or minimum time. Skills are developed through practice.

Coaches can analyze sport skills by identifying the motor abilities necessary for sport performance. Using a sport skill task analysis can help in teaching sport skills, aid in problem solving, and predict future performance. 

For example, if we were to analyze a volleyball spike we might break it down into the (a) starting position, (b) approach, (c) jump, (d) arm strike, and (d) follow-through.  The question is, what underlying abilities does it take to perform this skill? 

Using Fleishman's taxonomy, which includes both perceptual and physical components, we would identify: (a) control precision, (b) multi-limb coordination, (c) rate control, (d) aiming, (e) explosive strength, (f) trunk strength, and (g) dynamic flexibility as underlying motor abilities required to perform the volleyball spike.

These abilities are what coaches often refer to as part of the "demands of the sport". This information from this task analysis allows the coach to better determine try out assessments, practice activities, instructional strategies, and even strength and conditioning activities.

Individual Differences: Coaching Tips

1. Conduct tests of motor abilities inherent in specific sport skills and include them in try outs.

2. Avoid making conclusive predictions about future performance based on initial practice, especially for beginners. Some who do well early in learning may not do well later.

3. Design skill learning experiences that capitalize on each athlete's stronger abilities and compensate for weaker ones.

4. Use motor ability grouping when designing sport fitness training activities to better match conditioning and strengthening activities with sport skill demands.

5. Be cautious about recruiting the "all-around" athlete. The notion of an athlete possessing general motor abilities for athletic success is not supported by research.

6. Individualize sports training programs that account for differences in motor abilities, as well as for gender, attitudes, motivational level, medical history, previous experience, and other factors that affect performance.

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