The Science of Skill


Across the animal kingdom, we understand a lot more about athletic traits - like speed or endurance - than we do skill-based traits; but motor skill is a necessary component of evading predators, finding mates and food, and performing well in fights with competitors.

One of the reasons skill is underrated is because it's comparatively hard to measure. In the lab, it's easy to measure the sprint speeds of lizards or fish; on the field, it's easy to measure the sprint speeds of football players. But skill? Skill requires we look at the interplay between brain and brawn, which isn't easy to do.

Photo credit: Open Africa Safar  is

Photo credit: Open Africa Safaris

Photo Credit: The Soccer Store

Photo Credit: The Soccer Store

What is motor skill?

Loosely-defined, motor skill refers to more-complex motor functions that require a greater cognitive element, at least during learning, and which often involve multiple physical components. In soccer, for example, athletic traits - such as sprinting and game-endurance - are augmented by an individual's skill traits - dribbling agility and passing accuracy.

A complete picture of motor performance must include both athletic and skill-based motor traits.

How is motor skill developed? 

Motor skill development and performance may vary with experience, individual learning abilities, underlying athleticism, and even stress. In humans, even differences in socio-economic groupings or teaching methods may affect motor skill learning.

Incorporating mistakes into studies of animal and human performance

Motor control and learning is intricately associated with managing mistakes during movement. Mistakes can manifest as slippages when trying to turn too quickly, tripping when approaching an obstacle too fast or an inability to accurately control limb placement at high speeds. Mistakes make success in any task less likely. But despite the importance of mistakes, functional biologists rarely quantify motor mistakes. Because mistakes can also vary in their costs – or probability of leading to task failure – we need to understand the relationship between the types and magnitudes of mistakes and how they affect task success. In order to advance our ability to predict the movement speeds of animals, we need to begin to study animal mistakes.

Setup for testing motor skill in small mammals

Setup for testing motor skill in small mammals

Why are motor skills important?

In humans, identifying the factors that affect motor skill performance is important to rehabilitative medicine, but also could be used to understand the anthropology of hunting and to identify the potential for professional success among amateur sportspeople or military trainees.

Astoundingly, skill isn't assessed in most performance research.

We aim to change this.


Our aims in this field

We intend to improve the testing of motor skills in both humans and animals, to gain a more complete picture of the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) factors that affect learning and performance. We test questions related to our model of motor skill development (above).

This will enable us to:

  • develop training protocols for skill-heavy sports like soccer
  • suggest skills tests for identification of sporting or military success
  • understand how skill is learned and developed in traditional cultures
  • evaluate the importance of motor skill to the survival and reproduction of wild animals


Photo credit: Skye Cameron

Photo credit: Skye Cameron

Photo credit: Dunk360

Photo credit: Dunk360



Select publications in this area:

Wilson RS, James RS, David G, Hermann E, Morgan OJ, Niehaus AC, Hunter A & Smith, M. 2016. Multivariate analyses of individual variation in soccer skill as a tool for talent identification and development: utilizing evolutionary theory in sports science. Journal of Sports Sciences. 10.1080/02640414.2016.1151544.

Wynn ML, Clemente C, Amir Abdul Nasir AF & Wilson RS. 2015. Running faster causes disaster: trade-offs between speed, manoeuvrability and motor control when running around corners in northern quolls (Dasyurus hallucatus). Journal of Experimental Biology 218: 433-439.

David GK & Wilson RS. 2015. Cooperation Improves Success during Intergroup Competition: An Analysis Using Data from Professional Soccer Tournaments. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0136503. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136503

Wilson RS, Niehaus AC, David G, Hunter A & Smith M. 2014. Individual quality masks the detection of performance trade-offs: A test using analyses of human physical performance. Journal of Experimental Biology 217: 545-55.