In this article we give a quick guide to serial skills, how they differ from continuous and discrete motor skills, and why they are important to understand as a coach and sport scientist.
What is a Serial Skill?
A serial skill is where two or more motor skills are linked together. A classic example of a serial skill is the triple jump, where there is a sequence of a hop, step and a jump. Serial skills can also be sets of actions required to perform a broad sporting action, such as a counter-punch in boxing, which is made up of a duck, followed by a punching action.
You can tell from the examples above that some sporting actions are clearly serial skills, whereas others are more vague and nuanced.
How do serial skills differ from other motor skills?
There are two other broad groupings for motor skills – Continuous and discrete skills. Continuous skills are movements where there is no clear start and end, such as running and cycling. Whereas, discrete skills have a definite beginning and end, such as a golf swing.
Why is it important to identify types of skills?
Knowing if a skill is continuous, discrete or serial may affect the approach you take when learning or coaching a skill. You may alter the practice structures, the feedback you give and the analysis techniques you use to evaluate the effectiveness of the movement.
What is an applied example of how coaching a serial skill may differ?
If we were a triple jump coach, working with an athlete, we may identify that the final jump phase is a key area for improvement. To help understand what is causing the issue we might want to assess a standing, and running jump to see how that action changes when not performing the jump as part of the ‘serial action sequence’.
When working with the athlete to improve this skill, we may also consider using whole practice, rather than part-practice, as the former has been shown to be better for learning temporal aspects of a motor skill (timings of actions).
Below are some sport specific examples of serial skills.
What is a serial skill in football?
A serial skill in football would be skills that are tied together to perform a broader action. Such as dribbling around a player with a step-over.
What is a serial skill in gymnastics?
A serial skill in gymnastics would involve combining multiple actions in a sequence. Such as a tumble where the athlete performs multiple handsprings and flips as part of their tumble routine.
You should now know how to classify serial skills – serial skills have a sequence and often rely on good timing. In some cases serial skills are obvious and in other cases, they are more nuanced.
Initially, students are required to classify skills as one of – serial, continuous or discrete. However, as you develop as a practitioner, it makes sense to see sports skills more on continuums, moving towards or away from these three categories. This allows you to make better decisions about how to analyser and coach these skills.
Fontana et al. (2009) Whole and Part Practice: A Meta-Analysis
DAVIS, B. et al. (2000) The Nature and classification of skill. In: DAVIS, B. et al. Physical Education and the study of sport. 4th ed. London: Harcourt Publishers, p. 284-285
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Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.