[Extracted from Rushall, B. S. (1996). Some practical applications of psychology in physical activity settings. In K-W Kim (Ed.), The pursuit of sport excellence Vol. 2 (pp. 638-656). Seoul, Korea: Korean Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.]

A common characteristic of most physical activity instructors is the skill element progression taught to beginners. Textbooks frequently provide photo sequences starting at the initiation of the skill and ending at the "finish" position. This seems "logical" and is readily justified on the grounds that if a skill is not initiated properly, it will not be completed correctly. However, if the literature on instruction of non-verbal species is examined, it will be concluded that teaching progressions do not commence at the "start" and finish at the "end." Rather, the first element instructed is the last aspect of the behavior, the "terminal" element. Progressions of instruction are called "backward chaining" when elementary movements are required in a sequence and "backward shaping" when a single two-phase motor behavior is taught.

The assumption that a logical start-to-finish instructional progression is the best can be debated. In forward progressions, students normally learn the early elements of a sequence reasonably well. However, as a chain grows longer, activities have to be performed before the new element can be acted. The imposition of behaving before attempting a new element eventually interferes with learning. When chains are long, the success of implementing new elements becomes quite difficult and errors increase, a result that needs to be avoided if efficient and effective learning is to occur. The interference caused by the activity prior to the attempted control of a new skill element is a major weakness with forward progression instruction.

Forward progressions also invoke other behaviors which, as skill complexity increases, become detrimental to both the learning process and eventual performance. Learners often construct "mental check-lists" of instructed skill elements to ensure proper technique, resulting in cognitive control becoming an established part of covert behavior in the skill execution. Even in a simple skill such as a golf swing, such thought intrusions interfere with learning and skill development. In the length of time before a new element is acted, performance of that which has already been instructed intervenes, which promotes forgetting of what needs to be done. The mounting difficulty of introducing new elements into behavior chains increases anxiety, the frequency of negative self-appraisals, and the execution of errors. These phenomena further hinder learning. Forward progressions usually produce skills which are executed well in the initial stages but deteriorate and exhibit weaknesses and faults as the sequence progresses.

In spite of shortcomings, forward progressions as a teaching structure have been perpetuated and rarely questioned as to whether or not there is a better alternative.

The more traditional and effective way of instructing non-verbal species should be considered for humans. Discussions about backward or reverse progressions have appeared periodically in exercise-oriented literature (Chelladurai, & Stothart, 1978; Dusault, 1986; Rushall, & Ford, 1982; Sherman, & Rushall, 1993; Spooner & Spooner, 1984; Spooner, Spooner, & Ulicny, 1986). In reverse progressions, chains or skills are learned by teaching the last element of the skill first, the next-to-last second, etc. The completion of the skill or chain is the most practiced element. As the activity is performed, skill does not diminish as it progresses. This results in the execution of very safe landings, good follow-throughs, total skills, etc. None of the problems typically associated with forward progressions emerge in backward sequencing. The following figure contains a schematic of the two progressions and compares their elements.

Backward and forward progression comparisons

An illustration of backward shaping with a golf swing will demonstrate the differences in these two concepts of instructional progressions. The grip is the first element that is taught irrespective of the progression used. The student should be able to form a satisfactory grip and wield the club in a variety of actions. From then on, the forward and backward progressions differ. After the grip, backward shaping dictates that the final follow-through position be taught. The learner is instructed that it is the terminal position that should be attained at the end of every trial. Knowing the criteria for judging that position allows the learner to execute covert positive reinforcement at the end of each trial if the criteria are achieved. Thus, every trial ends with the learner appraising whether the skill progression has or has not been achieved correctly. Successive steps move the club progressively further back in the "ideal" swing. Each step has the new element executed first, followed by the remainder of the skill which has been successfully performed on previous trials. The size of the step progressions should be sufficiently easy to minimize performance errors. When done correctly, this contrasts with the forward progression, which produces errors primarily due to the interference phenomenon and the progressive weakening of the skill strength.

The major advantages of backward shaping/chaining over forward progressions can be summarized as follows:

There are some skills that do not readily lend themselves to reverse progressions, for example, diving and jumping. In activities such as these, the total behavior should be executed with a moderate degree of proficiency. From then on, skill refinements should be emphasized in a reverse progression.

When refining established skills, corrections are more effective when they are introduced in reverse order (Sherman & Rushall, 1993). The backward shaping of rowing ergometer technique was shown to produce fewer errors in the learning experience than a forward progression (Rushall, 1984). All the elements of a golf game were performed more efficiently when they were taught in a reverse progression (Simek & O'Brien, 1981).

Comparisons of forward and backward chaining progressions in manual task instruction have shown the reverse procedure to be superior in developing speed, accuracy, fluency, and skill maintenance (Martin, Koop, Tumer, & Hanel, 1981). It was also shown to be superior when teaching response chains (Weiss, 1978) and instructing military tasks (Cox & Boren, 1965).

Reverse progressions are a viable alternative to traditional forward progressions in skill instruction. Teaching tackling would commence with the opponent and tackler lying on the ground in a firm hold position which would constitute "how the tackle should finish." An equivalent backward progression starting position would occur for various wrestling take-downs and counter moves. A small child learning to throw would practice follow-throughs and release actions prior to first holding a ball. The sequence of steps has to be devised for each sporting action and then the size of the step progressions individualized for the learner's capabilities.

Below are some personal claims about the efficacy of backward progressions. These statements can be readily assessed through appropriate research projects.

  1. The rate of learning is much faster than for forward progressions. With mentally retarded subjects, the learning rate for a backward progression is approximately equal to the rate for normal subjects using forward progressions.
  2. The fewer errors increases a learner's self-concept and self-efficacy for physical activity pursuits.
  3. The number of trials to criterion is significantly fewer when compared to forward progressions.
  4. The resulting strength of the latter elements of skill performance leads to a higher level of skill performance than that which is generally achieved through forward progressions.

Backward progressions for shaping or chaining should be tried as an alternative instructional procedure in physical activity pursuits. The experience will be rewarding for both the learner and instructor.


  1. Chelladurai, P., & Stothart, C. (1978). Backward chaining: A method of teaching motor skills. CAHPER Journal, 44(1), 26-29, 36-37.
  2. Cox, J. A., & Boren, L. M. (1965). A study of backward chaining. Journal of Educational Psychology, 56, 270-274.
  3. Dusault, C. (1986). A backward shaping progression of the volleyball spike approach and jump. Volleyball Technical Journal, 8, 33-41.
  4. Martin, G. L., Koop, S., Tumer, G., & Hanel, F. (1981). Backward chaining versus total task presentation to teach assembly tasks to severely retarded persons. Behavior Research of Severe Developmental Disabilities, 2, 117-137.
  5. Rushall, B. S. (1984). Applied rowing research report III: A sequential approach to teaching rowing technique - backward shaping. Unpublished research report for Wintario, Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, Government of Ontario, Canada.
  6. Rushall, B. S., & Ford, D. (1982). Teaching backwards - an alternative skill instruction progression. CAHPER Journal, 48(5), 16-20.
  7. Sherman, C. A., & Rushall, B. S. (1993). Improving swimming stroke using reverse teaching: A case study. Applied Research in Coaching and Athletics Annual. (pp. 123-143).
  8. Simek, T. C., & O'Brien, R. M. (1981). Total golf: A behavioral approach to lowering your score and getting more out of your game. New York, NY: Doubleday.
  9. Spooner, F., & Spooner D. (1984). A review of chaining techniques: Implications for further research and practice. Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 19, 114-124.
  10. Spooner, F., Spooner, D., & Ulicny, G. (1986). Comparisons of modified backward chaining: Backward chaining with leapaheads and reverse chaining with leapaheads. Education and Treatment of Children, 9, 122-134.
  11. Weiss, K. M. (1978). A comparison of forward and backward procedures for the acquisition of response chains in humans. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 29, 255-259.

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