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How do experts differ from novices? In sport, success in both low-strategy sports and high-strategy sports relies on having a solid knowledge base: knowledge may be what determines who is a true expert when athletes have similar skills and experience. As coaches and parents, the importance of knowledge bases give us a clue of how to enhance children’s athletic performances in ways other than improving physical skills.

What are the different types of knowledge?

One way to categorize our knowledge base is to break it down into three types of knowledge. We develop declarative knowledge first, then procedural, and finally, strategic. 

  • Declarative knowledge includes facts, definitions, game rules – all things that we can easily verbalize.
  • Procedural knowledge is the “how to”, like how to throw a baseball, or how to fix a bike tube. We can further split procedural knowledge into response selection (deciding what movement to execute in a given situation) and procedural motor (actually executing the chosen movement). Procedural knowledge is the connection between a situation, with its associated sensory information, and how we choose to respond to it.
  • Strategic knowledge involves knowledge of strategies and general rules, like playing zone defense, or give-and-go passing. Strategic knowledge differs from the two other types in that it is general knowledge that can be applied to many topics. Unlike declarative or procedural knowledge, it is not specific to a single topic or sport.

Experts have more declarative and procedural knowledge than novices. Procedural knowledge includes choosing and executing an action that is most appropriate for what is happening and thus, greater procedural knowledge results in faster and more accurate actions.

Why is a knowledge base so important in sport?

Knowledge is crucial for both low-strategy sports (diving, gymnastics, long jump, etc.) and high-strategy sports (soccer, baseball, tennis, etc.). For low-strategy sports, how well you execute a skill dictates your success, whereas for high-strategy sports, success requires interpretation of changing situations or interaction with an opponent.

In low-strategy sports, knowledge is a major factor in the early stages of learning a skill and in executing it. Knowledge precedes skill: you need to know facts about the skill, like its components and body position details, before you can successfully perform it. From there, you can build the procedural knowledge of how to execute the movement(s) to make it a consistently precise skill.

The emphasis of high-strategy sport is often on the ability to read a play, or to react to an opponent’s response. Again, success depends, in part, on the speed and accuracy with which you can interpret the situation and act accordingly. Without this knowledge, just having physical skill will not provide you with an advantage.

What does this mean for coaches and parents?

Children may develop knowledge faster than physical skills, making knowledge possibly the main factor influencing game performance. While experience does not equate expertise, years of being coached, of playing, and of practicing can enhance a knowledge base.

For coaches, explaining key elements of what you are looking for in a movement/skill, as well as why you do it a certain way, can help children and youth better understand – and consequently, better perform. When setting up plays, coaches can explain what the options are, allow the athletes to practice, then provide feedback. This promotes procedural learning and gives athletes the chance to practice the decision-making process as well as the movements.

Parents can facilitate the development of knowledge bases in everyday situations. It can be as simple as explaining a rule while watching a game, or describing how a skill is executed. Parents should provide the same opportunity to watch, experience, and learn about sport to all their children. The performance difference between boys and girls at a young age may not necessarily be because of superior physical skills, but perhaps the result of a knowledge base advantage: although not always the case, boys are often exposed earlier and more frequently to sport. Fathers, as well as mothers, should include the whole family in their sport experience: not only does this promote a lifelong participation in sport, it is the beginning of a solid knowledge base.

Chi MTH, Feltovich PJ, Glaser R. Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science. 1981; 5(2): 121-152.
Haywood K, Getchell N. (2009). Life Span Motor Development (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Thomas KT. The development of sport expertise: From Leeds to MVP legend. QUEST. 1994; 46(2): 199-210.

About the Author: Lily is a fourth-year student in the kinesiology program at Western University, currently interning with SIRC. With a background in synchronized swimming, she continues to be actively involved in the sport as a coach and varsity athlete.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.