6 Sports Science Studies to Help You Improve Athletic Skills

You've tried hundreds of drills and workouts to improve your performance with mixed results. An endless number of training sessions might not be the answer. The secret formula to get better could be as simple as changing your environment.

Trying to improve athletic skill can be overwhelming and frustrating to an amateur athlete. However, there's a great deal of research about specific-sport training that provides valuable insight on how athletes should train.

One important idea that research shows, particularly when it comes to young athletes, is how people describe "talent".

Parents, teachers, coaches and even the kids themselves, think that their "talent" is based on inherent factors. However, "talent" is based on many environmental factors as well.

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Here's an overview of six studies that show, which may change the way you look at the success and potential of children or yourself:

Deliberate Practice

Swedish psychologist, K. Anders Ericsson, conducted a series of studies starting in the '80s and '90s, which suggest that the difference between the experts in a field and everyone else was not the result of some inherent ability but, rather, the amount of time they spent working to improve their skills. In other words, what separates, the world's best violinists from a "pretty good" violinist comes down to how many hours of focused training they're engaged in. These findings have been replicated in a wide variety of fields—including many sports—by different researchers.

Deliberate Play

Researchers Jean Cote, Joseph Baker and others, have discovered that top athletes spent more time as children playing backyard and "pick-up" games (in addition to structured practice) than their less-successful peers. Top hockey players, for example, spent hours goofing around on the ice as children when they weren't working with a coach. This kind of unstructured play has an enormously positive effect on learning and skill development.

Relative Age Effect

Scientists in England and Canada noticed that most professional soccer players and hockey players have birthdays in the first few months of the year. Since it didn't make any sense that being born in January should make someone more "talented" than someone born in December, they investigated more closely. It turns out that most youth sports leagues are divided up by calendar year, so a child born in January and one born in December of the same year will be grouped together.

Developmentally, there's a big difference between children who just turned six years old versus those who are almost seven. The older children will be bigger, stronger, more coordinated and, in general perform better in their sport. As a result, they will be identified as "talented" and receive more training and attention, making that designation self-fulfilling, while the younger children are left behind.

Pygmalion Effect

In the 1960s, Harvard psychology professor, Robert Rosenthal, teamed up with San Francisco elementary school principal, Lenore Jacobson, and together they made a startling discovery about how high expectations affected a child's learning. They found that when teachers believed that a child had "promise"—he's expected to do well—that child would make far more gains in his or her learning than students who were believed would not excel. This is in spite of the fact that the teacher may not think that he is treating the students any differently. What makes the study particularly notable is that the students were divided at random. The only difference was what the teacher was led to believe. When a teacher or coach believes a child is more or less "talented," the child excels.

Learned Optimism

University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, discovered one of the biggest predictors of how well an athlete performs when faced with adversity is his "explanatory style." Or, more simply, whether or not he or she is an optimist or a pessimist. When someone with a pessimistic outlook encounters failure he or she is more likely to give up, while an optimist is more likely to work harder. An extremely important point is that one's "explanatory style" is a learned trait. And it can be changed.

Body Language

The work of social psychologist Amy Cuddy and others shows the way a person stands has an effect on his hormonal levels. Standing in a strong, positive, way increases testosterone and cortisol levels, and improves confidence and willingness to take risks. On the other hand, using submissive or passive body language results in negative hormonal and mood changes.

This is, of course, just a brief overview of how much science has revealed about the nature of success. But even from this small sampling you can see how many of our assumptions about how success works should be evaluated.

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About the Author

Jason Sheridan, owner of Sheridan Fencing Academy in New York City, coaches the 2013 Junior World Championship silver medalist, along with many of the other top fencers in the US. He specializes in developing high-level youth athletes by emphasizing the fun—and eliminating the monotony—in exercise and training.

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