Sports Psychology Theories of Learning

learning theories

This section looks at different learning theories, the different types of feedback and Learning Plateaus. Theories include Operant Conditioning, Insight Learning, and Bandura’s Observational Learning.


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.

There are 3 parts to remember when it comes to Operant Conditioning:

1. Positive Reinforcement – Rewarding the correct response with praise or a treat. This strengthens the stimulus-response bond (S-R Bond) making this response more likely to be repeated in the same situation in the future.

2. Negative Reinforcement – Removal of unpleasant consequence from coach when correct technique is shown e.g. coach will stop shouting at the performer. This will also strengthen the S-R Bond as performer will see when the correct action is performed.

3. Punishment – This is used when the action performed is not desirable e.g. a player may be sent off for a reckless tackle, they could miss a game, be fined or lose their role in a team. This weakens the S-R Bond meaning that this action is less likely to be repeated in the future.

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 plays a large part in Operant Conditioning. 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

Cognitive/Insight Learning

Also known as the Gestalt theory, the performer needs to understand the whole problem before performing the skill correctly. They base their response on their previous experiences and the current situation. Perceptual ability is used to decide on the response based on their skill level and the task at hand.

An example of this would be a high jumper performing the whole skill to enable them to decide the best technique for them e.g. which foot to take off from.

Observational Learning

Developed by Bandura, observational learning states that performers learn new skills by observing others.


  • Create a mental picture of the skilled movement
  • Learn through demonstrations
  • can copy from a role model

There are 4 stages of Banduras’ theory:

1. Attention 
– Performers need to watch a suitable demonstration of the skill. This must be aimed at their ability level, performed correctly by a role model or competent peer and making sure cues are identified. Make sure it doesn’t last too long otherwise performers may get bored or miss parts of the demonstration.

2. Retention – Creating the mental picture of the skill required. Practising the skill in your mind over and over so that the correct movements are performed in the correct order. Use of mental rehearsal.

3. Motor Production -The physical movement to perform the skill. Learners must have the ability to be able to repeat the skill either the first time or through a series of progressions.

4. Motivation – The learners need, want or desire to replicate the skilled action.


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

Terminal Feedback

Feedback is given at the end of a performance. Often this type is best used on beginners so that they do not have to split their attention between performing and listening to instruction

Concurrent Feedback

Feedback delivered during the performance either internally via sense organs or externally from a coach.

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 Thorndike’s law (above) and inform the athlete of faults in their performance or particularly well-executed skills.

Learning Plateaus

When learning a new skill, sometimes a performer will experience a time where their performance does not increase. This may be temporary or they may have reached the limit of their abilities. This is known as a “Learning Plateau”

Causes of a plateau:

  • Boredom
  • Fatigue
  • Injury
  • Overtraining
  • Ability level of performer
  • Poor coaching
  • Incorrect training methods
  • Task difficulty
  • Have learned the skill to it’s highest level

A coach and a performer will need to discuss ways to increase performance based on the list above to enable them both to overcome this plateau.

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