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Theories of Learning

  • The aim of this lesson is to understand the theories behind the learning of new skills (Equivalent to UK A Level Physical Education)

In order to produce a successful response to a problem, the athlete must find a solution. If a solution works and the problem is resolved, they will be rewarded and are then likely to repeat the behaviour. This scenario involving learning new skills has been examined by many psychologists, who have put forward the following theories:

Classical Conditioning

Russian physiologist Pavlov came up with this theory having performed an experiment using dogs. A bell was rung at dinner times, just before their food was brought out. Before long, the dogs started associating the bell with food and would start salivating at the sound of the bell, before food was even presented.

It can be difficult to find examples of this within the sporting world. Something like a referee blowing the whistle signifying that play should stop is a good example. The athletes know what to do without having to think about it.

Operant Conditioning

Skinners theory of operant conditioning involves the correct response to a situation or task being rewarded. This reinforces the correct response. This behaviour is shaped by the coach and the player need not understand why they are performing like this, just that they will be rewarded if they do it correctly. Examples in sport are situations such as football shooting practice. The coach may direct the players to strike the ball into the right of the goal. If this is done they are rewarded. The area is then reduced to the top half of the right side, and then maybe the top right hand corner only. Rewarding this behaviour strengthens the link.

Trial and Error Learning

We have all heard of finding a solution by trial and error. It involves testing various methods of achieving a goal until you find one that works. This can be a slow process. A sporting example is changing your grip in racket sports.

Thorndike's Law

  1. Law of exercise - rehearsing (or exercising) the stimulus-response (SR) connections helps strengthen them and reinforce the correct skill
  2. Law of effect - If the skill is followed by a pleasant reaction, then the SR bond is further strengthened. If the following reaction is negative, then the SR bond is weakened
  3. Law of readiness - The athlete must be both mentally and physically capable of performing the skill efficiently

Problem Solving

This theory centres on the intelligence of the performer. The athlete needs to see the whole situation and find a way to respond effectively.



Feedback is beneficial in improving performance and is used either during or after the event.

Intrinsic feedback

This comes from within the athlete, during the performance. The feeling that a tennis shot was good or that a distance runner has 'plenty left in the tank' are examples of intrinsic feedback

Extrinsic feedback

This occurs after the performance from someone other than the athlete, usually a coach or family/friends. It is sometimes also called augmented feedback. Extrinsic feedback can be subdivided into:

Knowledge of results (KR) - Feedback on the consequences of a performance - e.g. the score/winning/loosing

Knowledge of performance (KP) - Feedback about the way the skill was performed - e.g. video analysis


Feedback can be motivating, reinforcing and informational. Both success and failure can motivate the athlete to do even better, or avoid further failure. It can reinforce the correct skill, as in Thordike's law (above) and inform the athlete of faults in their performance or particularly well executed skills.




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