[Extracted from Rushall, B. S., & Siedentop, D. (1972). The development and control of behavior in sport and physical education. Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger. (pp. 152-155)]

The Shaping Procedure

The process of becoming competent in physical performance must be divided into a large number of small steps with reinforcement being contingent upon the completion of each step. This does not imply teaching by the part method. It requires the development of systematic, empirically justified, successive approximations of the final skill as a program for teaching physical behaviors. Small steps facilitate shaping because they place reinforcement within the reach of the individual. The importance of step formulation cannot be over-emphasized. It offers the prospect of producing programs which eliminate or minimize errors and their contaminant negative qualities. Complex behaviors must be developed through programmed procedures. Typical procedures of instruction do not have a skillful program which moves through a series of progressive approximations to the final topography. Poorly developed programs and poor reinforcement techniques retard optimal skill development.

The learning rates and abilities of individuals vary greatly. Some need only a general idea of a skill as a prime and then seemingly proceed on their own path of self-reinforcement. In contrast, others never seem to display a facility for learning physical skills. Most participants in sports and physical education fall between these extremes. By adequate programming and reinforcement, all individuals should be able to learn. To optimize learning rates, step sequences need to be partly individualized. This does not mean that a new sequence is formulated for each performer. Rather, a single sequence designed for the very slow learner is sufficient. The fast learners skip steps according to their performance. The total sequence contains the elements necessary for a good program for any individual for it should comprise the universal set of steps. The skill in shaping behaviors resides in the coach's ability to select the correct sequence. This skill increases as the individual becomes familiar with and experienced in applying the strategy.

Shaping should continue into the highest degree of performance. The shaping process is an appropriate control strategy when further discriminations are to be made and inefficiencies are to be removed from a behavior as is the usual case with highly skilled performers.

The Distribution of Practice Sessions

A popular topic in psychological research was massed versus distributed practice sessions. This controversy was debated without any firm resolve as to the merits of one method over the other. The general conclusion has been reached that massed practice is good for some tasks and distributed practice is good for the majority of tasks. In terms of measures of retention, the practice plan seems of minor importance. Methodological problems were prevalent in this research area. However, a variable that was rarely controlled was reinforcement. It has been found that with careful control of the reinforcement conditions in a practice session, learning rates and persistence can be increased remarkably. This feature has been displayed in both animal and human experiments. The general rule now is that the length of a practice session is determined by the physiological fatigue incurred and the individual's motivation to progress (reinforcement). By carefully alternating activities and providing adequate reinforcement, the work output and performance improvement of athletes can be greatly increased. In complex activities (such as swimming, track and field, football) where the participant is required to practice a repertoire of skills, the participation period can be extended by changing the skills practiced while general physiological fatiguing occurs. This is evidenced in modem swimming programs where specialists train for a particular stroke by using a medley program (Rushall, 1967a). Generally, the greater the number of skills that need to be practiced, the longer can be the practice session. When reinforcement is programmed the main determinant of the length will be physiological tolerance.

There is a great scope for research in sports and physical education to determine the methods for increasing diligence, application, and persistence in training through the use of reinforcement. Until reinforcement is controlled, the optimum length and distribution of practice sessions cannot be postulated.

Teaching Short-duration Behaviors

Many physical skills are of a short duration, particularly those which are two-phase actions. Skills such as throwing, punting a football, diving, hitting a golf ball, etc., are examples of short-duration activities. The kinesthetic information that is generated in these behaviors is confused and relatively meaningless. The only performance information that can be used for changing the skill is evaluative intrinsic information feedback (IF) or artificial IF. Although these skills are usually two-phase actions they still constitute a chain of minute behaviors. The occasion often arises where a member in the middle of the chain needs to be altered, for example, the positioning of the foot in the punt kick. A method is required to alter this aspect of the behavior.

The solution requires an application of the second shaping model since a new aspect of the technique needs to be superimposed on an existing segment. However, a difficulty presents itself in finding a method for evaluating whether the new aspect of the skill was executed in a trial. In a kick, a throw, etc., the action occurs at too fast a speed for the observer to assess the standard of performance. Usually the behavior is so rapid that the performer is unable to adequately discern the completeness of the effort. Sophisticated instant replay TV devices are available for on-site assessment. They facilitate the evaluation procedure and provide a means of limiting the delay between the response and reinforcement. However, few organizations have such facilities for coaching and teaching. The alternatives open for solving or partially solving the evaluation problem are limited. It is not the presentation of reinforcement that is the difficulty but rather it is the decision-making process as to when reinforcement should be provided.

One solution is to set an external standard for performance. If a technique is to be changed, it must have some measurable effect upon the proficiency of the behavior. When the new behavior segment is introduced, for example, in diving a technique change can be implemented to permit an improved entry into the water, then an external measure (the entry into the water) could be used for determining when and how reinforcement should be supplied. On the other hand, some technique changes are not immediately effective and may even detract from the performance in the early stages of learning although in the long run they will improve performance. What needs to be done in this situation is to get the athlete to discriminate between the new and the old behavior segment. Some individuals can differentiate between the two, but the majority of performers cannot. What has to be done in these circumstances is that the whole action needs to be recorded on film or video-tape and replayed as soon as possible. During the delayed presentation of the recording, reinforcement is still a viable procedure for effecting behavior change. Delayed reinforcement which is contingent upon witnessing a recorded behavior and not contingent upon the actual behavior does produce results (Schwarz & Hawkins, 1970). In replay sessions of this nature, it is also advantageous to further reinforce all the aspects of the behavior. Attempts should also be made to produce a discrimination in the athlete so that he can tell correct and incorrect responses. Such a situation is far from ideal and one must expect the changes to be produced slowly as the reinforcement (particularly IF) is restricted in its use and contingency. Its effect will be subsequently diminished.

Individuals who cannot employ delayed reinforcement techniques in these difficult circumstances will be deficient in that aspect of coaching. About all that can be hoped for in such cases is that the athletes will produce good techniques through fortunate trial-and-error contingencies.

Shaping procedures may resemble those methods used by some athletic coaches and others who shape subtle skills. However, deliberate adoption of the operant principles concerned with shaping has been rare and, consequently, normal teaching procedures have suffered. The steps described here require much more attention to diagnosis, prognosis, and preparation than is usually afforded the actual behavior control procedures which are currently used in teaching and coaching activity-setting behaviors.

Summary [This refers to the previous two shaping models and this section]

A strategy was developed to guide the teacher and coach in developing new behaviors and modifying established behaviors. The strategy used the method of shaping (successive approximation) which required the teacher and coach to manipulate the stimulus setting and consequences. In shaping, behaviors are reinforced according to a planned program of steps which finally result in a desired terminal behavior being emitted.

The strategy is equally suitable for teaching skilled motor behaviors as it is for teaching general behaviors. Two models were offered for use in teaching and coaching. The first was for teaching entirely new behaviors and the second for modifying existing behaviors. Each model required the definition of the terminal behavior to be developed, the application and scheduling of reinforcement, a planned progression of developmental steps, the priming of each successively approximate behavior, and the application of a terminal schedule to establish the behavior in the individual's behavior repertoire.

The developmental process is dependent upon reinforcement and methods of priming. Priming was discussed at some length. Three methods seemed suitable for physical education and sports. They were visual, verbal, and physical guidance. Each had its advantages and disadvantages and it was asserted that guidance utilizing more than one form of media was desirable. Priming serves to reduce the number of errors that can be made.

Another feature of the strategy that was stressed was the programming of the developmental steps. The steps which serve as the criteria for reinforcement need to be such that errors are minimized. The planning of the program governs the success of the procedure. Each progression in the program should be made with equal ease and consequently maximizing reinforcement.

Shaping offers a clearly defined and measurable strategy for teaching and coaching new behavior topographies. Its utilization will facilitate errorless learning and a clearly understood behavior form. Traditional teaching procedures neglect the main benefits and requirements of shaping which are necessary for the optimal acquisition of behaviors.


  1. Rushall, B. S. (1967). The scientific bases of circulorespiratory endurance training. Unpublished master's thesis, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
  2. Schwarz, M. L., & Hawkins, R. P. (1970). Application of delayed reinforcement procedures to the behavior of an elementary school child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3, 85-96.

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