• Introduction
  • The basics of motor skills
  • Gross motor skills
  • Fine motor skills
  • The three phases of motor skill development
  • The cognitive phase
  • The associative phase
  • The autonomous phase
  • Open and closed tasks
  • Delays in motor skill development
  • Sensitivity periods for motor skill development
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Closed task: A skill performed in a relatively constant environment.
  • Fine motor skills: the coordination between small muscles in movement with the eyes. Often involves the synchronization of hands and fingers.
  • Gross motor skills: full-body movements that require large muscle groups, trunk, arms, legs, etc. simultaneously.
  • Open task: skill performed in an ever-changing environment.
  • Schema: memory representations of movement patterns.

Introduction

Motor skills form the basis of human movement. For example, crawling, walking, running etc. are all considered motor skills in their most basic form. During early childhood, these skills are often inaccurate and inefficient. However, as you age and constantly repeat these skills, they are slowly refined and new movement patterns are developed.

This post explains what motor skills are and how they can be developed most effectively. We have even made a list that shows what age certain skills are the easiest to learn.

The basics of motor skills

Motor skills describe your body’s ability to manage the process of movement. To perform motor skills, your brain, muscles, and nervous system must all work seamlessly together. Thus, your coordination is determined by how well you are able to use these motor functions to perform a desired task.

For example, walking, jumping, and grabbing are all considered fundamental motor skills. With age and repetition, you are able to perform these gross motor skills with better precision and efficiency. On the other hand, skills that require more dexterity are known as fine motor skills. These can be anything from pointing a finger, opening the zipper on your jacket, or even sports-specific skills such as hitting a golf ball.

Learning a new physical skill is also known as motor learning. At the beginning of learning any new skill, your brain forms a neural pattern (schema) that makes completing the skill possible. Practicing the same skill even further strengthens this neural connection, making it more efficient and easier to perform. In a way, you are building on previous skills according to the challenges you face now.

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Motor Skills


Are basic skills humans use in daily life (walking, jumping, grabbing etc.)Follow a certain hierarchy - some skills are learned before othersAre built on previous skillsImprove in accuracy & efficiency with practicePave the way for sport-specific skills

Gross motor skills

Gross motor skills consist of movements that require large muscle groups as well as movement of the entire body. These skills are usually more energetic and broad. They also create the basis for all physical activity.

Gross motor skills also develop in a head-to-toes order. For example, children first learn to control their heads, then their trunk, before standing up or walking.

Generally speaking, gross motor skills can also be divided into three subgroups; locomotor skills, manipulative skills, and stability/balance skills. 

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Skipping
  • Galloping
  • Marching
  • Sliding
  • Climbing
  • Leaping
  • Throwing
  • Catching
  • Kicking
  • Punching
  • Striking
  • Bouncing
  • Rolling
  • Standing
  • Turning
  • Stretching
  • Bending
  • Spinning
  • Rolling
  • Balancing
  • Swinging
  • Stopping
  • Dodging

Because gross motor skills are relatively simple, this also makes them easier to learn. Hence, they are also the first motor skills you learn and they help create a foundation for fine motor skill development. Although gross motor skills are easier to learn than fine motor skills, they still involve a significant amount of co-operation between muscles and the nervous system. Thus, playing an integral part in balance, coordination, body awareness, strength and reaction time. 

Fine motor skills

Fine motor skill, or dexterity, requires smaller and more refined movements to complete a more complex task. Oftentimes fine motor skills also require coordinated movements between your hands and fingers with the eyes. This is known as hand-eye coordination.

In a way, fine motor skills are built on gross motor skills and rely on your ability to produce smaller movements with great accuracy. These include skills such as writing, picking up objects, and tying your shoelaces.

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. It is also important to remember that both gross and fine motor skills form the basis for developing more advanced sport skills.

As you practice, every movement becomes more efficient. Eventually, you can move on to more challenging sports-specific tasks.

The three phases of motor skill development

Motor skill development is defined as a change in performance that is a result of continuous practice. This positive effect can often be seen as increased accuracy and improved efficiency in both simple and complex physical tasks. Since humans have to constantly adapt and respond to the challenges provided by their environment, motor learning is a relatively permanent skill. 

The most well-known theory regarding motor skill development is Fitts and Posner’s (1967) three-stage model of motor learning. It consists of the cognitive phase, the associative phase, and the 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 when serving a tennis ball or where to position yourself on the pitch. Hence the name, cognitive phase – you must use a significant amount of mental processing to determine the best strategy to perform that specific task.

The learner receives new information

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

When trying out a new task, your repetitions are often inconsistent with a low success rate. However, as you keep repeating the task, you also improve the best motor patterns while discarding the bad ones. Therefore, you are able to learn new skills relatively quickly.

Additionally, the cognitive phase relies on external feedback from your coach or training partner for the best results.

The associative phase

Associative phase, also known as the practice phase, occurs when the learner moves from what to do into how to do it. 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.

The associative phase lasts a relatively long time and improvement will not be as fast as at the beginning of learning the skill. With repetition, the skill becomes more consistent, efficient, fluent, aesthetically pleasing, and easier to perform. This also allows you to focus on more challenging tasks because there is less 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

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.

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.

In the autonomous phase, the movement becomes almost automatic, which describes your ability to perform the same task very effectively and efficiently without even thinking about it. In a nutshell, the movement becomes an internalized skill that needs little mental effort to perform. From a performance standpoint, this gives you room to fully focus on tactics and surroundings.

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

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

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

Open and closed tasks

Our actions are almost always related to the environment we face. Thus, our motor skills must also be able to quickly react to changing situations provided by our surroundings. In sports science, these are called open tasks. 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, nearly all team sports rely on open task motor skills.

Closed tasks, on the other hand, do not 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 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 it is to stay within the needs of your own sport. Be sports-specific.

Delays in motor skill development

As stated earlier, motor skills are always learned in a head-to-toe order. They also follow a certain hierarchy which means that every new movement slowly builds on top of older skills. Thus, more broad gross motor skills are learned before fine motor skills that rely on accuracy.

The motor skill acquisition for a normally developing child often looks something like this:

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


However, children with developmental delays, neurological conditions, or disabilities may have difficulties learning fine motor skills. These skills can sometimes go undiagnosed until preschool, when these conditions become more apparent. In some cases, it may also be relatively easy to notice. For example, when a child is not reaching a simple gross motor skill milestone, such as rolling over or crawling. 

It is also important to remember that these symptoms are diagnosed by a pediatrician if the child consistently misses major milestones. If a diagnosis has been made, the child can be offered occupational therapy, physical therapy, or even assistive technology to help them with everyday motor skill tasks. 

Note: if you have any questions regarding your child’s motor skill development, consult your pediatrician. 

Motor skills are built on one another.

Sensitivity periods for motor skill development

A common misconception is that motor skill development stays the same throughout your whole lifetime. However, that is not entirely true. 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 can play a crucial part when in the development of younger athletes.

Skills

When talking about the sensitivity periods in athletic training, it is important to divide different skills into fundamental sports skills and sportsspecific skills. The 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.

Ages 2-4
Ages 4-7
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Ages >18
Sports-specific skills

Sports-specific skills describe your ability to use a certain skill and adapt it according to the situation you face. For example, football players have to be both technically sound with the ball and 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.

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Ages 12-18
Ages >18

Speed

As a physical attribute, speed is highly dependent on your genetics. However, other factors include movement efficiency, skill and strength. Speed can be best improved in early childhood.

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, these will improve your core control and strength which are vital for performance and injury prevention. 

The reason why speed skills, such as stride rate, should be trained before puberty is that these attributes are very difficult to improve afterwards. On the other hand, a well-balanced speed training background provides a solid foundation for athletic performance as you can proceed to strength training rather quickly.

Ages 2-4
Ages 4-7
Ages 7-12
Ages 12-18
Ages >18

Strength

Strength is a combination of two different factors; the size of muscle mass available for contraction (muscular hypertrophy) 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.

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 important muscles, such as the core and legs, for a healthier and more successful athletic performance. A good basic level of strength also creates a solid foundation for specialized strength training. 

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

Muscular strength
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Ages 7-12
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Ages >18
Muscular hypertrophy
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Ages >18

Flexibility

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

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

To prevent this, 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 will also be able to refine it towards more sports-specific active flexibility. Not only that, but you can also remain flexible if you able to maintain it through puberty.

Ages 2-4
Ages 4-7
Ages 7-12
Ages 12-18
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. For the best results, the most efficient time for endurance training is at 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 energy production system (without oxygen) is not fully developed yet. Thus, you simply cannot focus on improving lactic acid buffering ability since the body is not able to produce it yet.

That is why you would 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 is 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 lactic acid production during exercise, you are fine! 

Ages 2-4
Ages 4-7
Ages 7-12
Ages 12-18
Ages >18

Speed Endurance 

Before diving 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 lactic acid as a side effect which is one of the main causes of physical fatigue. 

As we stated in the endurance section – a developing child’s body is not mature enough to produce lactic acid.  That is why younger athletes should focus on preparing for longer cardiovascular endurance exercises that help create a foundation for overall better 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, maintaining physical activity through various games and other sports-related activities are great at providing a good level of endurance even at an early age. 

During puberty, you 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 you mature, 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 lactic acid 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. 

Ages 2-4
Ages 4-7
Ages 7-12
Ages 12-18
Ages >18

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!

Also keep in mind that sensitivity periods are under constant scientific debate due to individual differences in physical attributes and maturation. So, take this information with a grain of salt.

Final thoughts

Although motor skill development is a natural phenomenon that everyone experiences, it is important to remember that there are numerous factors that influence how well and how fast you can learn different skills. 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.

Motor learning also requires motivation and focus on the task at hand. In more technical terms, your arousal (focus) and stress levels must be in balance. 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 you are not focused enough, you probably will not give your full effort during fine motor skill tasks. Thus, the athlete must want to learn the skill it to actually learn it. 

It is also crucial to remember that everyone learns at their own pace. Pushing someone too much too soon will only harm them in the long run. So, the better aim should be to provide multiple different motor skill challenges and adjust the difficulty when necessary. In short, stay physically active!

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

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