Brazilian Journal of Motor Behavior
Special issue:
The role of practice in motor skill acquisition
105 of 111
Editorial: The Role of Practice in Motor Skill Acquisition: New Issues, the Same Question
CIFI2D, Faculty of Sport, University of Porto, Portugal.
Correspondence to: Matheus M. Pacheco.
email: [email protected]
Received 23 05 2022
Accepted 30 05 2022
Published 01 06 2022
Practice is necessary but not sufficient for learning. Why is that the case? In this editorial, I invite the readers to
consider what is the role of practice in motor skill acquisition and to read the contributions of well-known
researchers in the area to this special issue. Through a summary of the diverse offered opinions, I provide a
potential heuristic view that demonstrate what are the new venues on the theme. As it seems, the question
remains unanswered and challenges to answer it abound. This special issue sets the starting point for a needed
research agenda on the theme.
KEYWORDS: Motor learning | Theory development | Methodology | Motor performance
Practice makes perfectis an adage commonly heard in many walks of life, and in
none more so than the sporting world. Although few performers would deny the necessity
of practice for the learning and performance of motor skills, by the same token, few would
wholeheartedly uphold this familiar saying by arguing that practice is a sufficient condition
in itself” (p. 195)
Interestingly, the “agreement” found by Prof. Karl Newell in the 70s can be easily
replicated in the present years. Despite no data on the issue, current discussions in the
area demonstrate that, indeed, practice is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for one
to get “perfect.” Indeed, the forecited statement comes from a text discussing how, when
and how much knowledge of results should be provided to optimize or induce practice
effects in motor learning a discussion that has reoccurred over the years
More interesting, maybe, is the disagreement that we can find when asking why
Newell’s statement is true: why practice is necessary but not sufficient? The answer lies in
the theoretical understanding of the role of practice in motor learning. This has been the
“correlated” question of my line of research: I study how individuals change over time
considering their own history of practice (i.e., motor repertoire; tendencies in perception
and action) and their current interaction with task and environment during practice. What
makes learners go to one or another “route” of change, how instances or manipulations of
practice favor or repels given solutions, and all related aspects
It was thinking in this interest and the potential disagreement that the question
that the editors of Brazilian Journal of Motor Behavior invited me to be the guest
editor of this special issue. Lucky or not, I asked several specialists in the area to share
I am assuming that the interest is related to me and the disagreement to the literature, but it can clearly be the
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their views, ideas, experiments in any of the many levels of analysis that motor learning
touches with the following intentions. First, it is always good to remember us that the
issue of practice is still an open question one of the most basic in the area of motor
learning. Having a special issue highlights that. Second, the special issue will shed light on
the diversity in opinions and approaches to the problem of practice. In fact, the diversity
highlights the difficulty in answering the question. Third, and final, it might be that only
through this diversity that a potential solution can be found.
To my surprise, the expected diversity was surpassed by far. While I thought that
two to three views would be introduced through different papers, the authors (and their
different views) showed that the question of practice might not even be the question to be
answered at the moment. Ranganathan, Lee and Krishnan
point out that motor learning
as a phenomenon is key to many academic disciplines which, despite increased effort in
understanding the phenomenon, leads to variety of approaches to the same problem.
Such diversity might threaten common understanding as different methods, concepts and
definitions lead to a babelic situation.
To remediate the situation, Ranganathan, Lee and Krishnan
provide a set of
guidelines that would help researchers to solve the problem and raise awareness to the
incompatibility of “approaches” to motor learning. These guidelines range from
methodological decisions (e.g., task selection, measurement decisions) to open science
directions (e.g., pre-registration, code availability). It is of primary importance that the first
step (or “stage 0”) is “Defining what motor learning is”, in the sense that not even this has
been solved. Would be intuitive to say, therefore, that the question “what is the role of
practice in motor learning?” should await further agreement in the motor learning area first.
A second approach to my invitation was to postulate new views on the process of
motor learning which might solve the aforementioned issues and provide an answer to
the role of practice. A first view was the hierarchical system’s view to motor learning,
discussed by Corrêa et al.
. Under this view, motor learning relates to formation of an
invariant macrostructure directed to consistency and order which constrains a variant
and flexible microstructure. According to the authors, the consideration of these two levels
allows for a hybrid view with representation and emergence (see
for a thorough treatment
of the issue). The authors list several insights that result from applying such approach on
the question of practice schedules.
In a similar vein, Profeta and Ugrinowitsch
compare the Adaptive Process
and Specificity of Practice hypothesis
on the question of extensive practice.
Note that while extending practice would be a source of increased adaptability for the
former, the latter predicts a decreased capability to deal with new contexts (changed
informational resources) as there is an increase in specificity. Following the idea of
hierarchically organized open systems, they provide that studies under the Adaptive
Process approach have challenged the original results explained by the Specificity of
Practice. Under this, they consider how methodological aspects differ and how the same
aspect in practice (extensive practice) can result in different outcomes when using different
Another view, now from an ecological standpoint (ecological dynamics
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Renshaw, Davids and O’Sullivan
challenge the cognitivist view on performance and
learning. The authors pose interesting questions on the current tests of learning (i.e.,
retention and transfer tests) and the issue of “variables that only affect performance”.
Indeed, why one would like to dissociate what is done during practice to a later
performance? Why not always enhance performance in all situations? Renshaw and
, therefore, demonstrate how a shift in perspective might be fruitful for both
practitioners and researchers view of practice, performance, and learning.
The third approach in line to the applications of Corrêa et al.
and Profeta and
was to discuss important aspects of practice. That is, how practice can be
manipulated to favor or hinder changes in the learner’s movement possibilities. Ilha et al.
, for instance, showed that modification of the task demands/ increase of task difficulty
results in increased variability in the system which was considered as a measure of
exploration. This was demonstrated through increased variability in the center of pressure
of a standing individual induced by an increase in reaching distance.
Luz, Santos and Bonuzzi
considered a traditional topic in the literature of motor
learning: how one should organize practice sessions and its intervals over time? The issue
is of primary relevance as during practice a number of processes are influencing the
observed performance (e.g., physical/cognitive fatigue, motivational variability, memory
) and, maybe, the potential learning outcomes of such practice.
These processes have their own time scale and are also largely influenced by the spread
of trials over time (e.g., minutes, days, weeks). In fact, these influences were
demonstrated by Luz, Santos and Bonuzzi
Anderson and Steel
nicely capture another dimension of practice that has
escaped the large bulk of motor learning literature and, more important, add to the diversity
of the present issue. In a provocative title, they state: “it’s not the type of practice that
matters, it’s the attitude”; and argue that, from contemporary literature, it seems that a
playful attitude towards practice seems to be more beneficial for the whole spectrum of
skill acquisition (any age, or stage of learning). Playful practice would enhance exploration,
elicit mindfulness, allow diversity in solutions, and increase generalization.
As observed, we reached the range of issues in practice required for a discussion
about the topic. From initial concepts, specifics of practice to broad reconceptualization,
the invited authors demonstrated the status of the area at the moment and highlighted a
whole set of directions that researchers in the area must consider. In the next section, I
take the chance to provide (what I think it is) a potential integration of views
. Thus, if you
did not read the whole issue, then stop your reading here and take a look on all the
amazing contributions that we had for the present issue. But, if you did read, consider my
humble commentary on them.
After all, what is the role of practice in motor learning? Practice per se can be
considered just to perform repeatedly and in the case of learning, with the goal of
improving performance (in relatively permanent way
. This “dictionary” definition does
Trying to disagree the least that I can from all of them.
See and
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not tell us much how such repeated practice works or helps in learning. Following the
submitted papers to the current issue, those who dared to provide what is happening in
this repeated performance (e.g., Correa et al.
and Anderson and Steel
) brought
Bersntein’s ideas to the table in the form of “repetition without repetition”. Such view is
close to the heart as, in my work, I took seriously the search part of the description: “The
process of practice towards the achievement of new motor habits essentially consists in
the gradual success of a search for optimal motor solutions to the appropriate problems
(p. 362, my emphasis).
This search view is intuitive as learning “naturally” encompasses the idea of
finding a new solution a movement that the individual is able to perform provided the
current constraints. Thus, one needs to “search” (find) the solution. The search view is also
interesting as an initial heuristic view of learning provided the idea of practice as a search
process is suitable for (almost) all current approaches to motor learning (also development
and control). I say this as search can be conceptualized to occur at any level of analyses
), be it at the “machine optimizing motor policies (through reinforcement or any
other computational process
, or through direct perception of the task and perceptual-
motor workspace gradients
Despite some development on the process of search and solution finding (see
just finding a solution is not sufficient for learning which takes us back to Newell’s initial
statement. There are two points here. First, the issue that improving during practice does
not naturally leads to better performance later (disregarding, for now, the issue of few trials
in retention and transfer tests as argued by Ranganathan, Lee and Krishnan
). Second,
some “amount” of retention or transfer is not the same as being the maximum amount that
could be retained and transferred.
Thus, in line to all the submissions to the current issue, we are still far from
understanding the search process (practice) that would induce better retention and
transfer. Actually, Renshaw, Davids and O’Sullivan
nicely discussed what is to expect,
manipulate, and even consider in terms of transfer and retention if we are considering, for
instance, competitive scenarios. Another interesting point was made by Profeta and
in that potential theoretical disputes on what can be transferred comes from
the differences from the old to the new situation. Luz, Santos and Bonuzzi
, Ilha et al.
and Anderson and Steel
provided interesting directions on how to optimize the process
of search to, first, approximate the solution found during practice to the “maximum”
potential performance referred above and, second, how to maximize retention and
transfer. In this vein, ideas from Correa et al.
(see also Profeta and Ugrinowitsch
) on
hierarchical systems might provide the theoretical support to understand how (and why)
the discussed practice aspects (e.g., attitude, difficulty, distribution, practice schedules)
when manipulated can provide better gains in motor learning.
To conclude, what have we gained in the present special issue? As it seems,
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despite the largely positive view (that I promoted) on the special issue, we are still
understanding practice and its role for motor learning as if we were in 1976, when Prof.
Karl Newell made the starting statement of this editorial. Truly, we now understand many
more effects in motor learning (e.g., guidance effect of knowledge of results
, task
dependence of the guidance effect
, limits of variability of practice/contextual interference
, focus of attention
and others). However, it is clear that all the work discussed here
which, for me, exemplifies the current literature is still considering the basics of the
area. It might be that issues raised by Ranganathan, Lee and Krishnan
are more general
than what they intended (“early-career researchers who are new to the field”) and the
guidelines should be followed by all.
Interestingly enough, Ranganathan, Lee and Krishnan
speak at a level of
practice that is “above” the special issue: the “researcher’s practice. Reinforcing that
search is related to “any” practice, I believe that the next steps to understand the role of
practice entails constraining our search space (maybe in line to Ranganathan, Lee and
guidelines) to better understand the constraints of the learner’s search in
practice. This might be the path for finally grasping what is in practice that is necessary for
learning and how to constrain it to be sufficient for the best outcome. Or it could be that, as
I postulated earlier, “it might be that only through this diversity that a potential solution can
be found”. This is an issue that only practice will help us solving it.
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Citation: Pacheco MM. (2022). Editorial: The Role of Practice in Motor Skill Acquisition: New Issues, the Same
Question. Brazilian Journal of Motor Behavior, 16(2):105-111.
Editors: Dr Fabio Augusto Barbieri - São Paulo State University (UNESP), Bauru, SP, Brazil; Dr José Angelo Barela -
São Paulo State University (UNESP), Rio Claro, SP, Brazil; Dr Natalia Madalena Rinaldi - Federal University of
Espírito Santo (UFES), Vitória, ES, Brazil.
Guest Editors: Dr Matheus Maia Pacheco, CIFI2D, Faculty of Sport, University of Porto, Portugal.
Copyright:© 2022 Pacheco and BJMB. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-
profit sectors.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.