• Introduction
  • What are motor skills?
  • Motor skills can also be divided into gross motor skills and fine motor skills
  • Motor skill development starts from the brain
  • Practice makes perfect
  • The cognitive phase
  • The associative phase
  • The autonomous phase
  • Motor skill development can vary according to different factors
  • Motor skills depend on the situation and your surrounding
  • Some motor skills develop before others
  • Fundamental motor skills pave the way for more advanced skills
  • Use sensitivity periods when training for more advanced motor skills
  • Common issues with motor skill development

Introduction

You’ve probably heard of motor skills at some point in your life, right? Well, whether you’re familiar with the definition or not, motor skills form the basis of everything humans physically do. For example, crawling, walking, running etc. are all considered motor skills in their most basic form.

Having a better understanding of what these skills are and how to learn and even teach them, you’ll be able to plan your training more efficiently. Also, motor development has a very strong connection with the cognitive development of a child. Thus, there’s simply no downside to learning motor skills early on. 

That’s why we’ve created the most extensive article possible about what motor skills are and how they can be developed most effectively. We’ve even made a list that shows what age certain skills are the easiest to learn. So all you athletes out there, make sure you check it out before heading back to your practice.

What are motor skills?

Motor skills are physical actions that involve the coordination between different muscles to complete a specific task such as pointing a finger, for example. As you get more comfortable in using these skills, you’ll be able to perform them with better precision and less effort. This makes every movement more efficient in the long run and you’ll eventually be able to move on to more sports-specific and challenging tasks. Basic motor skills include;

Locomotor Skills


WalkingRunningJumpingSkippingGallopingMarchingSlidingClimbingLeaping

Manipulative Skills


ThrowingCatchingKickingPunchingStrikingBouncingRolling

Stability/Balance Skills


StandingTurningStretchingBendingSpinningRollingBalancingSwingingStoppingDodging

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Motor skills can also be divided into gross motor skills and fine motor skills

Gross motor skills consist of larger movements of the human body such as crawling, walking, running, throwing, catching, jumping, kicking and punching. These physical tasks are relatively simple, which also makes them easier to learn. They are also the first motor skills you learn and thus create a foundation for fine motor skill development.

Fine motor skill, or dexterity, requires smaller and more refined movements to complete a more complex task. Basically, it describes your ability to produce small movements with great accuracy. In a way, fine motor skills are built on gross motor skills and rely on the communication between the brain and your body. These skills include writing, picking up objects and even blinking.

While gross motor skills remain relatively unchanged even after not using them for a while, fine motor skills require constant use to maintain precision and efficiency. On the other hand, it is important to remember that both gross and fine motor skills form the basis for developing more advanced sport skills.

"Both gross and fine motor skills form the basis for developing more advanced sport skills."

Motor skill development starts from the brain

Learning a new physical skill is also known as motor learning. At the beginning of learning any new skill, physical or not, your brain forms a neural pattern that makes completing the skill possible. This pattern is also known as a schema. As you practice the same skill more, this neural connection becomes more efficient, making the skill easier to perform. 

In a way, you are slowly building a motor skill according to previously learned traits and the challenges that you face at the current moment. Therefore you are the one who guides the learning process and decides what’s important for completing the task. The same principle can be used in any sort of learning as well. What you need to know is that motor skill learning;

  • Varies individually from person to person 
  • Builds upon previous skills
  • Follows a certain hierarchy – some skills are learned before others
  • Are directional – skills develop from head-to-toe or from the center of your body towards extremities
  • Relies on quality – the better the movement is, the better the result is
  • Depends on numerous factors (more on that below)

If you want to learn more about motor learning, we suggest you read more here.

As you practice, every movement becomes more efficient and eventually, you'll be able to move on to more sports-specific and challenging tasks.

Practice makes perfect

Motor skill learning is a change in performance that’s a result of continuous practice. Often this positive effect can be seen as increased accuracy and improved efficiency in simple as well as complex tasks. Additionally, since you have to constantly adapt and respond to your environment and the challenges you face, motor learning is a relatively permanent skill. 

Motor learning can be divided into three phases; cognitive phase, associative phase and autonomous phase. 

The Cognitive Phase

Cognitive phase, or understanding phase, challenges the learner with a new task. During this trial-and-error phase, you are trying to figure out what needs to be done in order to be successful with a task. For example, how to place your feet or position yourself on the pitch. Hence the name cognitive phase – you have to use your old noggin’ to determine the best strategy to perform that specific task.

Your repetitions might be inconsistent with a low success rate, but as you get more repetitions you tend to improve the best strategies and discard the bad ones. Therefore, your performance can improve significantly in a very short amount of time and learn new skills rather quickly. Additionally, the cognitive phase relies on external feedback from your coach or training partner for the best results. 

The learner receives new information

Forms an idea of what needs to be done to be successful in a task

The Associative Phase

Associative phase, or the verbal motor phase of motor skill learning, happens after you’ve found the most efficient way of performing a task. It is the process of refining the same skill by making small adjustments to your performance for more consistency. In a way, it reinforces relevant information regarding the skill while getting rid of unwanted ones.

This practice phase also lasts a long time and improvement won’t be as fast as at the beginning of learning the skill. As you get more repetitions of the same performance, the skill will become more consistent, efficient, fluent, aesthetically pleasing and easier to perform. This also allows you to focus on more challenging tasks because you won’t need to concentrate on simple parts of the task. Open skills (where the conditions are constantly changing) will also become easier to perform during the associative phase of motor skills.

Trial-and-error phase

Learner compares new skill with old information

Learner changes methods according to their own thought-process and feedback from others

The Autonomous Phase

Autonomous phase, also known as the motor phase, is the final stage of learning motor skills and can take years to reach. There’s a reason why people say that it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a specific task. The name ”autonomous” comes from the word automatic, which describes your ability to perform the same task very effectively and efficiently without even thinking about it. In a nutshell, the skill becomes second nature to you. This also gives room to fully focus on tactics and your competitors.

Autonomous motor skills are also learned through-and-through and stored in long-term memory. Meaning that you’ll also be able to maintain a good level of performance even after some time off. However, for the ultimate performance, you need to constantly practice to maintain your skill level.

Seamless interaction between muscles and the mind

Ability to combine different skills

Learner has had a lasting impact on learning that motor skill

Skill is learned through motivation, observation, exercise, learning & remembering

No matter what kind of motor skill tasks your performance needs, the most efficient way to train is to stay within the needs of your own sport- be sports-specific!

Motor skill development can vary according to different factors

There are a number of factors that can influence how well and how fast you can learn different motor skills. For example, your gender can be used as an indicator of how well you can master a specific task. You see, girls often show great fine motor skills and dexterity earlier on. Boys, on the other hand, show more skill in gross motor skills and object manipulation tasks, such as kicking, throwing and catching. However, this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed if you want to focus on a specific where the other gender shows more promise. Every single motor skill can be improved through consistent and smart training.

Gender is not the only thing that affects motor skill development. You see, it is a combination of different factors that happen due to physical maturation. While motor learning is largely determined by genetics, your environment and the stimuli it offers can still have a tremendous effect on motor skill development. Even access to training facilities can impact on how well you can learn new motor skills 

”Every single motor skill can be improved through consistent and smart training!”

Motor learning also requires motivation and focus on the task at hand. In more technical terms, your arousal and stress levels must be in balance. This means that you must be focused but not overly stressed.

Experiencing too much stress in a learning situation may result in fatigue, which can appear in reduced awareness, hindered performance and even frustration. This can happen if an adult or a coach pushes the child too hard and too soon. On the other hand, if your arousal level, or focus, is not on point, you probably won’t be able to give your full effort during fine motor skill tasks. Thus, the athlete must want to learn the skill in the first place as well. 

Yes, there are tons of factors that can influence motor learning. But first and foremost, it is important to remember that everyone learns at their individual pace. And, if you want to always keep improving your performance, you must observe the progress of each skill and adjust training methods accordingly.

Motor skill development is determined by genetics, environment, stimuli, and even access to training facilities.

Motor skills depend on the situation and your surrounding

Since our actions are almost always related to the environment that we face, our motor skills must also reflect that. In sports science, these are called open tasks, which means that the athlete has to quickly react to changing situations to be successful in it. For example, a football player has to respond to the movement and speed of the opposing team and try to find an opening. Thus, reaction time and fast decision-making become vital factors in athletic success. In fact, pretty much all ball-sports rely on open task motor skills.

Closed tasks, on the other hand, don’t require the same focus on external influences like an opponent or another team. These skills rely on your ability to perform the same task repeatedly as efficiently and accurately as possible. These skills include throwing darts or even a free throw in basketball.

It is important to note that both open and closed tasks can occur in several sports and in different ways. You might have a continuous task like endurance running, that has seemingly no end or even a serial task that requires a skill to be done back-to-back. A floor routine in gymnastics is only one example of this. On the other hand, some sports also need discrete tasks that have a clear start and finish, like pitching a baseball, for example.

No matter what kind of motor skill tasks your performance needs, the most efficient way to train is to stay within the needs of your own sport – be sports-specific!

Some motor skills develop before others

As we stated earlier, some motor skills are learned before others. For example, you need to learn how to walk before you can start running. But the interesting thing is that there are specific times in your developing years when certain skills are easier to learn. Of course, any future athlete should also try to use these times effectively.

For a normally developing child, motor learning can be divided into five distinct stages. However, there is no exact red line that separates one stage from another – you can still develop each skill as you grow and practice more.

Age

Skill


0-2 Years

Reflexes & Rudimentary Skills


2-6 Years

Basic Motor Skills


6-10 Years

Advanced Motor Skills


10-14 Years

Sports-Specific Skills


>14 Years

Advanced Sports-Specific Skills


Since the window for skill development is quite small, you should incorporate all of these motor skills when training a growing athlete - as long as you still remember the physical limitations that a developing child might have.

Fundamental motor skills pave the way for more advanced skills

If you want to be good at multiple sports and build a solid foundation for future specialization, you need to make sure that your fundamental sports skills are well-trained. For example, enhanced balance skills and body awareness will make quick changes in direction more successful and efficient even in tight situations. This will not only give you an edge in multiple different sports but also make more challenging motor skills easier to learn. 

These fundamental sport skills include walking, running, jumps, throws, catching, falling down, pushing and pulling. If you want to improve these skills at their prime developmental time, we suggest you train these motor skills between ages 1-6. Only after you’ve learned the basic motor skills you can move on to more challenging and sports-specific tasks. 

Use sensitivity periods when training for more advanced motor skills

Alright, now we’re cooking! You might have thought that motor skill development stays the same throughout your whole lifetime, but that’s not exactly the case. You see, some skills are easier and faster to learn if you train them at the right time of your physical development. 

In fact, different motor skills tend to have distinctive times in which they can be learned most efficiently. These are called sensitivity periods, and they play a crucial part when planning a season-long practice routine for younger athletes. Note that while these recommendations work on a bigger population, you still need to take individual physical maturation into account when forming a training routine. 

If you want a sneak peek when to practice a specific motor skill, we’ve created these tabs just for you. Just click through and enjoy!

Skills

When talking about the sensitivity periods in athletic training, it is important to divide different skills into fundamental sports skills and sportsspecific skills. Aforementioned being the ability to control physical movements that occur in multiple sports, while the latter being your ability to utilize sport-specific technique and adapt it in any given situation. 

Fundamental Sports Skills

Fundamental sports skills describe your ability to control and learn a variety of athletic skills that can be used in multiple sports. For example, balance, running and changing direction at high speed are all important factors for nearly any sport. The best age to train for fundamental sports skills is from 1-6 years of age. If you want to focus on balance, the best time to develop it is between 6-8 years of age.

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Sports-specific skills 

Sports-specific skills describes your ability to use a certain skill and adapt it according to the situation that the you face. For example, football players have to be both technically sound with the ball but also move according to other players on the field. The best time for reinforcing old skills and developing new sports-specific motor skills is around 7-12 years of age. So, get out there and practice when it is most efficient!

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Flexibility

Flexibility exercises should be incorporated into sports-specific training from the very start. You see, flexibility follows a certain general rule: ”use it or lose it”. 

In fact, puberty is an especially rewarding time for flexibility training. This is due to the fact that sometimes your muscles can’t grow at the same rate as your bones, which can cause stiffness in the muscles. This, on the other hand, can cause lowered performance as well as different kinds of injuries. 

That is why you should aim to gradually increase passive flexibility at age 11-14 when maximum flexibility is the easiest to attain. If you are able to maintain your flexibility through puberty, you’ll also be able to refine it towards more sports-specific active flexibility. Not only that, but you can also stay flexible a lot easier if you remember to stretch during puberty!

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Strength

Strength is a combination of two different factors; the size of muscle mass available for contraction (hypertrophic strength) and how well you can recruit these muscles through your central nervous system (muscular strength). Since most strength exercises such as heavy lifting are not suited before physical maturation, younger athletes should concentrate on technique, coordination and bodyweight exercises to build a foundation for future strength training.

Different ballistic (accelerating throws) and plyometric exercises (explosive jumps and leaps) are very effective for earlier strength development. These training methods also enhance neuromuscular connection which makes strength training more effective once the athlete is physically mature.

Young athletes should also focus on endurance during their developing years. Being physically well-rounded can increase your performance, enhance recovery as well as lower your risk of injury. Lighter weight and bodyweight training during childhood help strengthen vital muscles, such as the core and legs, for a healthier and more successful athletic performance. A good basic strength also creates a solid foundation for upcoming strength training. 

Once the athlete is physically mature, you can put more focus on strength training. The most effective time for strength training is around 16-19 years of age.

Neuromuscular strength

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Hypertrophic strength

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Ages >18

Endurance

You can think of a developing child’s physical attributes as a blank canvas – there is little skill but an incredible amount of potential. Compared to adults, younger athletes are able to adjust to different kinds of physical challenges much more easily. This is especially apparent in endurance training. More importantly, childhood endurance training transfers very effectively all the way until adulthood. And, the best time to train for basic endurance is around 12 years of age and onwards. 

For example, pre-teens are able to double their maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) in under a minute whereas fully grown adults can raise it by only 30%. This means that children are quicker to adapt to changes in exercise intensity. That is why children also have different suggestions for the average amount of exercise a day (30-60mins).

Another reason why endurance, especially cardiovascular endurance, exercises are so important during childhood is that their lactate-producing anaerobic (without oxygen) energy production system is not fully developed yet. Thus, you simply can’t focus on improving lactate buffering ability since the body isn’t able to produce it yet.

That’s why you’d be better off improving other areas instead especially before puberty. Otherwise, you might be wasting valuable sensitivity time learning other skills. 

On the other hand, there’s no reason to be afraid of more intense exercises during your developing years. For example, you can still improve your speed endurance with somewhat shorter exercises that last under 10 seconds. As long as you are not fully focusing on maximizing lactate production during exercise, you’re golden! 

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Speed

As a physical attribute, speed is highly dependent on your genetics. However, other factors include neuromuscular efficiency, skill as well as strength level. Speed can be trained and improved if you start developing it in early childhood and utilizing the right sensitivity period. 

Before puberty, every athlete should focus on versatile exercise methods that incorporate reactivity, coordination, rhythm and fast stride rate in a number of different ways. For example, short and intense bodyweight exercises and spurts are great at improving your speed skills safely and effectively. Additionally, it will improve your core control and strength which are vital for future training and injury prevention. 

The reason why speed skills should be trained before puberty is that these attributes can be very difficult or next to impossible to improve afterwards. On the other hand, a well-balanced speed training background provides a solid foundation for athletic performance as you can move on to strength training rather quickly. This will make your fast stride rate even more effective since your every step is stronger than before. 

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Speed Endurance 

Before we get too deep into the sensitivity periods in speed endurance training, it is important to remember that it can be divided into aerobic endurance (produces energy with oxygen) and anaerobic endurance (produces energy without oxygen). The downside of anaerobic energy production is that it also forms lactate as a side effect which is one of the main causes of physical fatigue. 

But that’s not all! As we stated in the endurance section – a developing athlete’s body is not mature enough to produce lactate, which means that you can’t exactly train them to work well in high intensities. That is why younger athletes should concentrate on preparing for longer cardiovascular exercises that help create a foundation for maximum endurance ability. 

Anaerobic Endurance

Intense speed endurance exercises are not well suited for under 10-year-olds. On the other hand, this is also an important time for preparing the body for future speed endurance training. So, you must stay constantly active! Different games and other sports-related activities are great at providing a good level of endurance even at an early age. 

During puberty, the athlete should slowly increase the workload to ensure proper athletic development. However, it is crucial not to go overboard with the intensity because the most important factor between ages 12-15 is improving technique and enhancing efficiency. 

As the athlete matures, the workload and intensity can be significantly increased. Although, this also requires more focus on the training program, especially rest periods between sets. 

The best time for high-intensity speed endurance training is between 16-18 years of age. This is the time when your lactate production system is fully developed but your body is still learning how to work in high-lactate conditions. It is also important to note that speed endurance training can be extremely challenging both physically and mentally. That is why coaches must remember to motivate the athletes and slowly provide them with more challenging tasks to maintain athletic development. 

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Pro tip: if you want to develop speed endurance and technique simultaneously, perform sports-specific exercises with higher intensity. Different small games and variations are great at improving both of them!

Versatile exercise builds a strong foundation for different motor skills.

Common issues with motor skill development

Sometimes a significant delay in motor skill development can indicate some sort of motor skill challenge or an issue with physical development. For example, if a child has a problem with crawling or raising its head at age two or shows other signs of clumsiness later on, we suggest you seek guidance from a medical professional. 

If you are interested in knowing more about when specific basic motor skills are learned, check out this chart:

1-3 months

Instinctively grabs things


3 months

Voluntarily holds things in hand


4 months

Brings hands together, holds & shakes a rattle


5 months

Grabs objects with intent


6 months

Grabs feet


7 months

Switches objects from one hand to the other, objects tend to find their way to a baby’s mouth


9 months

Uses fingers to grab things


10 months

Baby points at things


11 months

Baby grabs things on request


12 months

Can roll a ball on the ground, first drawings


15 months

Baby starts stacking objects and throwing things


18 months

Stacking skill increases, baby can turn a pages in a book


2 years

Can turn a single page, opens doors & boxes, can somewhat use utensils, washes and dries hands


2-3 years

Can hold a pen the right way


3 years

Can put on socks and shoes, can button up


4 years

Can dress themselves, can cut with scissors


5 years

Can dress themselves without help, knows how to tie shoes

Note that these are just general guidelines for motor skill development and they can vary greatly between person to person. If you have any questions about motor development, seek out your local medical professionals.

Did you learn anything new about motor skills? Let us know in the comments below!

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