Athlete Centered Skating

In part one of this series we discussed some potential benefits of video replay and analysis. In part 02 below, we discuss some cautions of video replay use.

The ‘Imitation Trap’

The first caution relates to the benefit of presenting learners with a standard through which to compare their own work.  There is a risk that learners will attempt to copy or imitate the observed performance. Unfortunately, imitation could “lead to a superficial or surface approach to learning, impede student ownership of the task, and inadvertently reduce some of the task’s originality and intellectual challenge,” write Carless, Chan et al. (2018)(p. 108).  Though that quote is in reference to academics it has the same relevance to video analysis for motor learning.

The notion that an optimal or ideal movement pattern exists that everyone must imitate is simply a myth (Davids, Button et al. 2008, Glazier and Davids 2009, Davids 2013, Davids, Araújo et al. 2013, Seifert and Davids 2017).  Experts perform their skills in different ways and the variations in performances vary from individual to individual and context to context.  It appears that movement variability, even on repetitive single jointed movements such as hammering a nail (Latash 2012), is key to attaining consistent outcomes not movement consistency [see these specific studies on technical springboard diving (Barris, Farrow et al. 2014)and the long jump (Scott, Li et al. 1997)].  In other words: (a) every athlete is unique in their height, weight, the pendular dimensions of their limbs and so on and (b) each time an athlete performs a skill, the context is different (if ever so slightly) from every single other ‘repetition’ thus requiring a unique (if ever so slight) solution.

Takeaway: Video replay should certainly be used to convey performance standards.  However, learners should never be told to “copy” a behavior shown in a video replay.  Instead they should be encouraged to use the video performance as one possible way of many to solve the task and to develop their own conception of the behavior.

What You See May Not Be What They Are Trying to Get

An Olympic champion recently told me that 80% of figure skating performance is to do things that cannot be seen in video; the movements we watch in a video replay do not necessarily reflect the intentions of the performer.  In other words, when we see a video replay of a figure skater performing a triple jump, we are not viewing what the athlete intended, but rather the result of the athlete’s intention combined with other biomechanical factors.  The athlete might need to intend one behavior to achieve the observed behavior.  This is a particularly overlooked (I didn’t come across it in the motor learning literature) yet, in my opinion, obvious issue that warrants several examples.

First, I can guarantee that no single person could watch a video replay of the throw jumps performed by my partner Katie and me and identify how I “threw” her.  I realized through conversations with other pair skaters that my personal throwing technique was quite unique even though one cannot discern what the vital difference is from watching a video of our throw jumps.  I can’t even easily see it – but I know it was my intention as an athlete: it was my key focus!  Then, when I taught pair throws later on as a coach, the feature helped my students as well.  However, if they had simply watched videos of my throws without knowing this, they would never realize how I did it.


Pairs Throw. Here is a frame from two different angles of my throw triple flip.  What we see in the image is not necessarily reflect the performers’ intentions.  We see the result of those intentions.

The second example involves a double or triple axel.  Coaches are well aware that skaters often ‘skid’ the forward outside edge takeoff of a double or triple axel.  Video analysis confirms that many high level skaters do in fact skid their takeoff and, upon observing this behavior, a coach might decide they need to teach a skid to their students.  They even create exercises that teach students how to skid off of a forward outside edge and then apply it to an axel.  However, what is important about the skid is not that it tends to occur on double and triple axels but rather whythe skid happens.  The skid is a resultof other intentions.  Whether or not the skid occurs is irrelevant (and I know that several legendary figure skating coaches hold the same belief). In fact, most elite athletes I spoke to during my career didn’t realize they were skidding their axel takeoffs or they didn’t care if they were or not because the skid was not an important focus to them.  They didn’t think about skidding to skid!  Certain biomechanical features of the axel jump which, when achieved, mightnaturally result in a skid and that is where these athletes have their attention.

Takeaway: In these two examples, video replay use does not convey to the viewer exactly what the athlete is ‘trying to achieve’ but rather the outcome.  Therefore, video analysis is not as simple as “do what you see”.  There needs to be more knowledge to support the observation to better guide feedback.

Paralysis by over-analysis

Not only is video analysis at risk of missing the key intentions or behaviors of a performer, but also of the coach or athlete discerning behaviors that really might be irrelevant or idiosyncratic.  This is especially an issue with slow motion replay where fluid chains of movements can be disconnected and assessed as separate links in the whole chain.  The individual links, when assessed separately, might be given different weights of importance or value within the overall movement- or worse, misinterpreted altogether than if they were assessed as part of a whole movement (see our Systems Thinking blog for more). Further, when coaches and skaters analyze video replay of expert skaters, there is always a risk of targeting an interesting, yet idiosyncratic behavior, that is completely irrelevant (or even detrimental) to their performance.

Takeaway: Paralysis by over-analysis is linked to several other cautions above.  Coaches should have some knowledge of biomechanics to support their video analysis work such as an understanding of the transfer of momentum, vertical and angular velocity, and lever arms.  These concepts help the coach keep the big picture of the performance in focus.

Attaining the Unattainable?

Most coaches use video footage of world and Olympic level skaters to provide examples for students of all ages and levels to watch.  This makes sense – at first – because, what better standard of performance to present a learner than the very best?  Researchers in academics literature prefer high-quality samples of work for students to observe Carless, Chan et al. (2018).  However, both motor learning research and sport psychology research shows that learners benefit more from watching the performance of similarly skilled athlete rather than an expert [please see the references to review: (Schmidt and Lee 2005, Schunk and Meece 2006, Feltz, Short et al. 2008)].

Psychology researchers speculate that seeing another athlete of similar ability demonstrates to the learner that the skill is attainable or within reach (Schunk and Meece 2006, Feltz, Short et al. 2008).  Yet, when observing an expert, the skill may appear unattainable or too challenging to discern howto actually perform the skill. Neuroscientists have also confirmed that learners benefit more by watching a similarly skilled performer than experts (Bach and Tipper 2006).  These scientists have even learned that watching an expert could actually inhibit the learner’s motor cortex (Buccino, Riggio et al. 2005, Bach and Tipper 2006).  Experts attribute this inhibition to a social comparison or contrast effect (Buccino, Riggio et al. 2005, Bach and Tipper 2006).  “Presumably, such contrast effects occur because observers automatically compare themselves with the presented individuals,” explain Bach and Tipper (Bach and Tipper 2006).

Takeaway:  The idea of using the best of the best as a model performance for your athletes to compare their own work to may seem like a great way to promote the highest quality of performance possible.  However, much more important than this highest standard of quality is that the learner is able to detect vital features of the performance and to understand that the skill is within their grasp.  Use video and demonstrations of similarly skilled and aged athletes to convey standards when possible.

Primed for Mistakes

This next issue doesn’t necessarily have any research to support it but rather my own connections between different research.  An important (research) question to ask is: if learners repeatedly watch replays of errant skill performance, will this experience reinforce continued performance of those mistakes?  In other words, does watching replay footage supplemented by the coach pointing out specific mistakes facilitate problem solving or could this ‘prime’ the athlete’s motor system to repeat the mistake again?  It’s the old “don’t think of pink elephants” conundrum.  To not think of something, you have to think of it first!

Recently, motor learning researchers discovered that the cortical circuits responsible for planning and executing actions are activated when viewing someone else perform the action, pictures or objects related to the action, or even when hearing action sentences describing the movement (Buccino, Binofski et al. 2004, Buccino, Riggio et al. 2005, Tettamanti, Buccino et al. 2005, Boulenger, Roy et al. 2006).  Researchers call this an observation-execution matching system or mirror neuron system (Buccino, Binofski et al. 2004, Tettamanti, Buccino et al. 2005).  The observation is that when a learner is exposed to such cues, the corresponding sectors of the premotor cortex are ‘primed’ for production of the action, thus facilitating the learner’s movement (Bach and Tipper 2006).  Thus, does watching oneself (or another athlete) produce an error on video prime that error in the learner’s motor cortex?

Takeaway: Proceed with caution when pointing out mistakes to athletes through video replay and support this analysis with a strong promotion of the corrected behavior.  I even recommend to supplement these videos with samples of correctly performed movements.

In summary, we greatly support the concept of video replay and analysis in facilitating our students’ learning and we use this tool very often.  However, we always proceed with caution and make sure our observations are supported with biomechanical knowledge, an understanding of the big picture of the movements, and that what we actually see might not be what we should believe!


Bach, P. and S. P. Tipper (2006). “Bend it like Beckham: Embodying the motor skills of famous athletes.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology59(12): 2033-2039.

Barris, S., D. Farrow and K. Davids (2014). “Increasing functional variability in the preparatory phase of the takeoff improves elite springboard diving performance.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport85(1): 97-106.

Boulenger, V., A. C. Roy, Y. Paulignan, V. Deprez, M. Jeannerod and T. A. Nazir (2006). “Cross-talk between Language Processes and Overt Motor Behavior in the First 200 msec of Processing.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience18(10): 1607-1615.

Buccino, G., F. Binofski and L. Riggio (2004). “The miror neuron system and action recognition.” Brain Language89(2): 370-376.

Buccino, G., L. Riggio, G. Melli, F. Binkofski, V. Gallese and G. Rizzolatti (2005). “Listening to action-related sentences modulates the activity of the motor system: a combined TMS and behavioral study.” Brain Research Cognitive Brain Research24(3): 355-363.

Carless, D., K. K. H. Chan, J. To, M. Lo and E. Barrett (2018). “Developing students’ capacities for evaluative judgment through analysing exemplars.” Developing evaluative judgment in higher education: Assessment for knowing and producing quality work.

Davids, K. (2013). Complex systems in sport, Routledge.

Davids, K., D. Araújo, L. Vilar, I. Renshaw and R. Pinder (2013). “An ecological dynamics approach to skill acquisition: Implications for development of talent in sport.” Talent Development & Excellence5(1): 21-34.

Davids, K. W., C. Button and S. J. Bennett (2008). Dynamics of skill acquisition: A constraints-led approach, Human Kinetics.

Feltz, D. L., S. E. Short and P. J. Sullivan (2008). Self-Efficacy in Sport: Research and strategies for working with athletes, teams, and coaches. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.

Glazier, P. S. and K. W. Davids (2009). “On analysing and interpreting variability in motor output.” Journal of science and medicine in sport12(4): e2-e3.

Latash, M. L. (2012). Fundamentals of motor control, Academic Press.

Schmidt, R. A. and T. D. Lee (2005). Motor Control and Learning. A Behavioral Emphasis. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.

Schunk, D. H. and J. L. Meece (2006). Self-Efficacy Development in Adolescence. Self-Efficacy Beliefs of Adolescents. F. Pajares and T. Urdan. Greenwich, CT, Information Age Publishing.

Scott, M. A., F.-X. Li and K. Davids (1997). “Expertise and the regulation of gait in the approach phase of the long jump.” Journal of sports sciences15(6): 597-605.

Seifert, L. and K. Davids (2017). Ecological Dynamics: a theoretical framework for understanding sport performance, physical education and physical activity. First Complex Systems Digital Campus World E-Conference 2015, Springer.

Tettamanti, M., G. Buccino, M. C. Saccuman, V. Gallese, M. Danna, P. Scifo, F. Fazio, G. Rizzolatti, S. F. Cappa and D. Perani (2005). “Listening to action-related sentences activates fronto-parietal motor circuits.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience17(2): 273-281.


Here is a specific example.  In baseball, for the last 150 years coaches have told their players to keep their eyes on the ball all the way until it makes contact with their bat (Unknown 1954).  We know this is impossible feedback to follow.  The human eye cannot track the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to the bat (Magill 2011).  Video analysis of a major league hitter would confirm that he loses sight of the ball anywhere between 8 and 15 feet from the plate.  So, the video replay conflicts with what the batter is trying to do.  If the coach saw the replay of major league power hitter slamming a homerun and noticed that the expert did not keep his eyes on the ball, the coach might conclude that these old words of wisdom are irrelevant to performance success and might direct the batter’s attention, rather, to keeping his head and shoulder in.  Fortunately, expert baseball coaches know that by “attempting” to track the ball all the way to the bat, the batter will keep his head in position so the rest of the body stays over the plate during his swing.  If we ask a baseball player what he does with his eyes when swinging, he will tell us that he is following the ball all the way to the bat.  However, the video replay reveals that he actually is not tracking the ball all the way in.