Periodization of Skill Acquisition & Performance


Whether it be closed-skill sports like powerlifting and triathlon, or open-skilled sports like team sports and mixed martial arts (MMA), both physical attributes and technical proficiency in the sport-specific movements play a role in an athlete's success. Much of periodization has been focused around physical training, and how micro, meso, and macrocycles can be set up to aid in the improvement of strength, power and endurance. The periodization of skill acquisition and practice however, has yet to be examined to the same degree.

From my personal work on how to facilitate better technical improvements through periodization in powerlifting, to personal interests in MMA plus the back and forth debates on whether Conor McGregor's mixed martial arts skills will transfer over to the boxing ring; skill acquisition and performance is a big interest of mine.

Most of this series will be based on one of my recent readings: "Development of a Skill Acquisition Periodisation Framework for High-Performance Sport" by Damien Farrow and Sam Robertson (2016). For a more in-depth, fuller understanding, I highly suggest you read the article first.

In part 1 (this article), I will outline the main points made by Farrow & Robertson (2016) plus any of my own commentary and insight as it pertains to periodization. In part 2, I will directly quote the review article and expand on the points as it pertains to the sport of MMA and the implications it has on how MMA-specific skills are acquired, developed and expressed.

what is periodization?

There is a common misconception about periodization, where people believe periodization consist of complex progressions and loading schemes used only by advanced coaches. While these complex protocols may be used, periodization in the bigger scheme of things, is simply the division of training periods and the principle of cyclical training where programming variables are manipulated. Variables like intensity, volume, frequency, rest and exercise selection among others are strategically controlled and varied in order to reduce the risk of injury and maximize sport performance for individual athletes or sports teams.

Periodization takes into consideration the level, training age and genetic predispositions of an athlete in order to avoid overtraining and allow them to peak for one or several competitions. In a periodized training plan, certain time-frames exists for the manipulation of programming variables, these time frames are termed macrocycle, mesocycle and microcycle.

A macrocycle is considered the longest duration of the training cycle, usually several months in length or even a few years. For example, a quadrennial macrocycle describes a 4-year long program used to prepare an athlete or sport team for the Olympic games. A macrocycle is comprised of several mesocycles, which are a few months in length and can be defined as a prepatory, competition or transitional phase. Lastly, mesocycles are further divided into microcycleswhich deals with training on the weekly-basis.

Macrocycle (months to years)
Mesocycles (weeks to months)
Microcycles (training on the week to week basis)

Periodization serves as both a system where training is based on, and a tool to adapt future training protocols given the emerging information about the athlete or environment.

the process of skill acquisition and practice

In the review article by Farrow & Robertson (2016), the two researchers examine skill through a holistic view, considering them both "perceptual-cognitive and technical motor skill collectively given the reciprocal nature of the relationship between perception and action". They state that the current way of analyzing skills practice is very outcome-based, rather than based on the understanding of the principles and processes of which instruction, learning and practice is based on. 

While there has been some research on skill periodization in the setting of rehabilitation, there has not been enough literature on skills periodization in relation to high-performance sports and how different practice methodologies can be altered throughout a program to facilitate better learning, retention and transfer. Should the number of golf swings in practice increase closer to a golf tournament? Should a quarterback practice his passes with more players or less players as they get closer to the in-season? Should MMA athletes increase their frequency of sparring as they inch closer to the fight? These are all questions Farrow & Robertson (2016) want coaches and trainers asking, and ultimately, find a (or multiple) solution(s) to.

"SPORT" Framework

The main framework proposed to examine skills periodization is the "SPORT" framework/model. "SPORT" refers to the variables of [S]pecificity, [P]rogression, [O]verload, [R]eversability and [T]edium.

Right away we can draw parallels to the physical training realm, where specificity may refer to how specific a selected exercise is to the sports movement (perhaps using Bondarchuk's exercise classification system) and where overload might refer to the progression in volume load or intensity as a % of 1RM over the span of a training cycle.

Now, let's discuss each variable in the "SPORT" framework proposed to view skill training and periodization.



In skill training, specificity refers to how similar the movements and cognitive-behavioral demands of the skill being practiced are, compared to the skill being displayed and performed in competition. Farrow & Robertson (2016) use the term "representative learning design" or "representativeness" synonymously with specificity to refer to the "extent to which the practice prescribed reflects the behavioral demands of the task". Citing other literature, they also bring up the idea that training consists of several constraints that determine the degree of specificity for each movement or skill.

These constraints can be categorized into the following:

  • Individual
  • Environmental
  • Task

Individual constraints refer to the physical attributes of an athlete such as strength, power and endurance. Environmental constraints refer to the temperature, atmosphere, and weather conditions of practice and competition, while task constraints include "the type of skill being performed, rules of the game and/or the equipment used". These constraints can then be manipulated to alter the course of how skills are acquired and practiced.

Much like in physical training where highly-specific training will have their merits, including some sort of variation can help widen the base on where specific-skills are built - not every practice session has to have the same environmental conditions or the same amount of players as in competition. For example, practicing in a 2 player vs. 2 player situation or a 3v2 game may improve some measures of skills that can then be successfully transferred over to 5v5 game play. Farrow & Robertson (2016) acknowledge that there is yet to be a definitive answer on how effective these practices are, but that understanding constraints give coaches and trainers a tool by which they can better evaluate practice and prescribe skill training based on degree of specificity.

Throughout the review article, the researchers use the example of a footballer performing passes in training. Below is the example of a chart that breaks down each constraint that might be present in the practice session and its relation to competition.  

   "Three examples of skill constraints are provided; quantifying the prevalence of each allows for direct comparison of training with competition conditions. The difference between the two sets of conditions represents the level of training specificity."  via Farrow & Robertson (2016).

"Three examples of skill constraints are provided; quantifying the prevalence of each allows for direct comparison of training with competition conditions. The difference between the two sets of conditions represents the level of training specificity." via Farrow & Robertson (2016).

This sort of systematic, quantitative breakdown of skill practice and training can be used in conjunction with a more qualitative coaches' eye to better understand skill practice specificity.

Relating to the topic specificity, I would like to bring up the utilization of ladder drills for foot speed and agility. Ladder drills have been a popular training modality for football teams, soccer teams and many other team sports, and for that exact reason, has also been on the receiving end of criticism that it does not transfer over to in-game agility and is a waste of time. In this case, the proponents of the ladder drill fail not to match the physical movements to competition settings, but the constraints of the skill themselves. In a closed environment, ladder drills do not account for task constraints such as changing direction to pass a ball vs. to receive a ball, the number of teammates to pass to, and ultimately, being reactionary to the presence of a skillful defender.



All skills are composed of physical, and psycho-environmental (is that even a word?) factors. The athlete must possess the physical capacities to carry out the movement with intensity and sustainability, and they must do so under various conditions, environments and against different opponents. This has implications for how we approach closed-skill sports where the environmental and task constraints are static, compared to open-skilled sports that are reactive in nature. Can ladder drills serve as a warm up? Probably. Will ladder drills significantly improve a player's in-game agility? Probably not.



In physical training, progression usually refers to the increase in training stress to induce positive adaptation in the human body, whether it be increased endurance training mileage, increased resistance training intensity or an increased ability to tolerate higher training loads. In skill training, progression can refer to the total volume or repetitions of a particular skill being practiced, increases in mental and cognitive exertion or a higher skill specificity in practice.

The review article also highlights the concept of deliberate practice, which is defined as a "learner's capacity to develop mechanisms as a consequence of extensive training that expand their processing capacities and in turn their development". An athlete or practitioner that performs deliberate practice is thought to "seek out training situations in which a set goal exceeds their current level of performance", in other words, someone who is constantly looking to improve - which requires conscious effort (Farrow & Robertson ,2016). This all gives way to another concept termed challenge point framework which refers to how challenging a skill is in comparison to the current skill level of an athlete.

Understanding how complex and how much technicality a skill is on the hypothetical beginner/novice <--> master/expert spectrum allows coaches and trainers to more accurately prescribe drills and practices. Simply speaking, a skill being practiced shouldn't be so easy that it doesn't challenge the athlete enough for them to improve, but at the same time, shouldn't be so difficult that the athlete can't grasp or progress adequately.  

Using the football pass example again, Farrow & Robertson (2016) illustrate an example of a quantifiable progression a footballer can use to improve their passing ability on the mesocyclical level (week to week).



Consisting of one half of the principle of progressive overload, overload is measured by decreases or increases in internal training load (rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate response) and external training load (distance covered, poundages lifted). Overload can also be thought of as training above baseline to induce adaptations that allow athletes to progress in their performance - the two concepts are intertwined and often synonymous. When it comes to skill training, Farrow & Robertson (2016) refer to the the concept of load as the cognitive effort in demand, or the volume of skills and repetition practiced like discussed in the previous section. Specifically, cognitive effort is defined as "the mental work involved in making decisions that underscore movement". Time stress, pressure from the opposing players and environment, and precise decision making all play a role in how much cognitive effort is demanded of an athlete during any given practice.

When it comes to cognitive effort, Farrow & Robertson (2016) highlight the effect of contextual interference, which shows that high cognitive effort demanding practice results in a decrease in practice performance but improves the retention of the practice skill, and ultimately the transfer to competition. The opposite is also true where practice that doesn't require a sufficient amount of cognitive effort improves practice performance (most likely due to lower complexity or a poorly prescribed practice based on the challenge point framework) but does not provide retention and transfer effects. In order to better influence skill retention and transfer, the amount of cognitive effort (load) must be altered to benefit the athlete. Specifically, the researchers point to the blocked vs. mixed approach. Here is an example:

Blocked Approach

  • 10 field goals up close
  • 10 field goals from a moderate distance
  • 10 field goals far away

Mixed Approach

  • 2 field goals up close
  • 7 field goals from a moderate distance
  • 4 field goals up close again
  • 1 field goal far away
  • etc...

The mixed approach has shown to be more beneficial for skill retention and transfer to competition. The idea is to introduce some sort of randomness (or whatever strategy the coach sees fit) and variation to keep cognitive efforts high and to break up monotonous repetitions. Just as an athlete acclimatizes to the conditions/environment, change it. This leads to "inconsistent practice performance but superior learning of the skill" as Farrow & Robertson (2016) state. My hypothesis is that when the athletes aren't allowed to become too comfortable with the conditions and constraints of the practice, they're forced to recall certain motor patterns, shot timing, judgement of distance, etc... more frequently, leading to more adaptability and better retention. Overloading skill practice then, might mean increasing the cognitive effort demands of a practice and/or through a more difficult or random distribution of skill practice as the training cycle progresses.


Reversibility refers to the decrease in skill performance when practice has been reduced in frequency or withdrawn completely - very similar to the idea of residual effects of physical detraining. The concept of reversibility is important as it informs coaches and trainers which skills may or may not be retained heading into a competition or from one training session into the next. Skill reversibility can be tested using two methods - the retention test and the transfer test.

The Retention Test involves performing the skill after a period of no practice and determines the degree to which the particular skill is loss - which could be reaction time based or biomechnically based.

The Transfer Test is simply a direct measurement of whether the skill practiced has improved and successfully transferred over to real-life competition. 

Factors that affect the results of these tests include the method of tapering, and how fast the practice sessions were withdrawn before the date of testing.

While it wasn't touched on in great detail, Farrow & Robertson (2016) do take the time to talk about memory consolidation and how important sleep and recovery would be for retaining the skills practiced during training.

To add onto this section, I wonder if reversibility in skill training behaves like residual effects in the physical training world. I would guess that skills that have been developed for a longer period of time (let's say for 10 years) decay more slowly than skills that have been developed recently (1-2 years for example) as those skills might be more susceptible to the reversibility effect. Many anecdotes point towards this since many highly skilled practitioners from various types of sports are able to retain their skills well-beyond old age and/or cessation of training. I have not looked into the research in this area though.


Lastly, tedium refers to the state of "being bored due to monotony" as Farrow & Robertson (2016) state. Also related to specificity, the concept of tedium gives way to perhaps the underlying question that periodization is based off of - how much variation is needed?

As the expert in periodization and training management John Kiely says, "if [training variation] and adaptive energy is too widely distributed, gains may be excessively diluted... but if repetitive application of a unidimensional training stress [is applied], the athlete will be exposed to the negative effects of unremitting monotony". Not only is a lack of variation correlated with an increased incidence of overtraining syndromes and poor physical performance, it can also affect the psychological profile of an athlete.

A bored athlete is an unmotivated athlete - an unmotivated athlete is less likely to seek deliberate, challenging practice and therefore will not improve.

In addition to having a strategically written training plan that takes into account all the variables above such as specificity, training constraints and progressive overload, Farrow & Robertson (2016) note that the athlete should be provided some sort of control over their practice sessions as this has shown to enhance skill acquisition. Coaches should work with athletes, not on them - cause after all, coaching is both a science and an art. The value of interpersonal communication, coach-athlete chemistry, and enjoyment should be not be overlooked in the training process.

Putting it together - possible periodization techniques

  • Use a blocked approach (low cognitive effort) early on in the season to drill a high amount of reps, progress to a mixed approach to improve retention and transfer
  • Avoid programming a hard effort physical training workout and a skill training session that demands high cognitive effort on the same day (prolonged periods of high cognitive effort can lead to a decrease in skill practice performance)
  • Further away from competition - lower the frequency of highly representative skills and include a larger variety (less constraints matching the demands of competition)
  • Closer to a competition - increase the frequency of highly-specific skills and match the constraints and cognitive-behavioral demands of the sport
  • Skills that are less susceptible to reversibility should be practiced less often to make time to address weaknesses or other skills that need to be improved on
  • Some possible deload techniques : decrease skill complexity to reduce cognitive effort, decrease frequency of skill practice, decrease total weekly volume of skill practice,
  • Allow athletes to dictate skill training session (to a degree) further away from competition. Keep it strict closer to competition.

Thoughts, opinions or comments? Comment down below.

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