Skill Classification Continuums – Learn the Basics

Classifying sporting actions helps coaches and practitioners make sense of the demands that are required to perform well. In this article we’ll explain how you can classify your sporting skill on some of the most broadly used categories.

It is important to note that skill classification is not binary, nor is it an exact science. Rather skills can be placed on a continuum relative to other skills. In the following sections we’ll explain the following classifications:

  • Open versus closed skills
  • Continuous, series and discrete skills
  • Gross versus fine skills
  • Self-paced versus externally paced
  • Complex versus simple skills

Open vs closed skill continuum

Open and closed skills relate to the level of environment predictability. Many sports contain a mixture of open and closed skills within a game. As a thought experiment, read the definitions below, then try to order the following soccer skills in terms of open to closed: 1) a throw in, 2) a penalty kick and 3) successfully tackling a player running with the ball.

Open skills

Open skills are actions that are, affected by, or dependent on the environment around them. A simple example is diving to save a penalty in football, hockey or ice hockey. In open skills your action requires you to read the environment and respond to the information you collect; such as the direction the ball is heading as you dive to save it.

Closed skills

Closed skills have very stable environments and/or are less affected by changes in the environment. A free-throw in basket ball is a good example of a closed skill. The distance to the basket and conditions are near identical for every free-throw an athlete will perform.

Below are the answers to the thought experiment above. Note, skills are rarely open or close, but sit on a scale as shown below.

open and close skill examples in sport

Continuous vs discrete skill continuum

Continuous, discrete and serial skills are classified depending on the organisation and sequencing of a skill. For example, are their distinct phases and/or clear start and end points to the movement?

Continuous skills have no clear beginning and end – running, cycling and swimming are three examples of continuous skills, as these skills have no clear start or end points within the movement cycle.

When analysing continuous skills, coaches are often required to select phases of the movement based on key events. Breaking down continuous skills in this way helps the coach and the athlete to analyse their technique and make improvements. For example, ‘heel strike’ and ‘toe off’ are commonly used to break down running and walking actions.

Discrete motor skills are actions that have a clear beginning and end. Discrete motor skill examples include a golf swing, a free-throw in Basket Ball and throw-in in Soccer. All of these skills have a clear beginning and end.

Serial skills are a third type of classification. Serial skills have a sequence of actions that make up the whole skill. Triple jump is an example of a serial skill. After the run up (approach phase) the performer will perform a hop phase, a step phase and a jump phase.

The combined sequence of these phases make up the triple jump skill.

Self-paced versus externally paced continuum

The self-paced and externally paced skill continuum relates to if the athlete has control over when she or he starts the action. A free-kick and free-throw are examples of self-paced skills initiated by the performer. A goal keeper saving a shot is externally paced skill as it relies on reacting to a player taking a shot.

Self-paced skills are commonly closed skills (a free-kick and free-throw). Whereas, externally paced skills are often open skills (goal keeper save). However, be careful not to assume this relationship holds true for all skills. A sprint start is a closed skill, as the environment is very stable, but is also externally paced, as it is reliant on the starting gun.

Gross vs fine skill continuum

Gross and fine skills relate to the level and type of muscular recruitment. Fine skills, such as hand writing and archery, predominantly use small muscles and require small, precise movements. Whereas, gross skills use larger muscles and success is dependent on high levels of force production, rather than precision. Shot putt and weight lifting are two examples of gross skills.

How can you use skill classification as a coach or sport scientist?

Skill classification can sometimes seem depart from sport performance. However, being able to correctly classify skills allows you to consider the true demands that are needed to perform the skill well. As a result, you can plan more effective training strategies.

Skill classification also allows you to compare and contrast different skills. These may be skills from within the same sport or skills from a different sport. Such analysis allows you to consider how skill may transfer from one skill to another.

Other ways of classifying sports skills

For further ways to categorise skills check out Gentile’s taxonomy.

Further reading

Utley, A. Motor Control, Learning and Development: Instant Notes

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • Shaw, W. (2020) Skill Classification Continuums. Available from: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy]

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Golf Insider UK | Website | + posts

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.