Motor Development In Stages

By Douglas Fagel
Written for PSIA AASI 32 Degrees Magazine
Published Spring 2013, Updated Fall 2018



Initial (Congnative Stage) - Lets think about thinking about it.

Elementary (Associative Stage) - The paths are connected.

Mature (Autonomous Stage) - Executing like a machine, owning it.


In any given snowboard lesson and, really, any snowsports lesson the instructor assesses the student's ability (or lack thereof) to perform certain movements. PSIA AASI's Core Concepts for Snowsports Instructors includes a very simple concept that describes how a person 's coordination of these movements develops in three stages: initial, elementary, and mature.

When PSIA AASI began developing revised, more comprehensive Certification Standards in the mid to late 2000s, these stages of motor development were incorporated to more clearly define levels of mastering movements and indicate where they correspond to levels of certification. Applicable to all disciplines, this offers a roadmap for training to a set of specific movement skills and focused outcomes within our sports, which helps create a stronger foundation of understanding as we grow as educators. In other words, we can refine our methods through consistency as we educate, train, and certify our membership around the country.

Take a look, for instance, at how we develop and learn a new skill, maneuver, or trick. The first attempts may have some of the individual movements required for executing the desired outcome, but we lack the sequence of timing and motor control to actually be successful. With properly directed practice and repetition of each step, the body can start to hone in on the timing of the movements. Over time, the sequence of movements can be coupled with the needed range of movement and exertion of energy. As the body develops the neuromuscular connections (i.e. muscle memory) for that specific skill, the mind can begin to redirect focus toward adapting to its surroundings rather than just the execution of the movements.

The development of neuromuscular connections and the application of new movements while standing still (stability), while moving (locomotor), and while controlling a piece of equipment (manipulative) is what we do as ski and snowboard educators. We connect people to an experience through movement and teach them how to develop skills that would not have been easily reached through independent trial-and-error processes.

Children develop as they progress through the initial, elementary, and mature stages of motor development. During this development, they learn different aspects of fundamental movement skills, including stability, locomotor, and manipulative. The initial stage of a child's motor development involves the ability to create the required movements, while still lacking the timing and stability to perform the goal effectively. As the activity progresses to the elementary stage, the child begins to sequence movements together while in motion. At the mature stage, the child has gained the knowledge, muscle awareness, and experience to achieve the desired outcome consistently while adapting to changes in surroundings.



Muscle memory refers to developing a specific motor task through repetition, such that the movements can eventually be performed without conscious effort. The nerve system creates stronger and familiar pathways from the muscles through the nervous system to the brain, therefore allowing a sequence of movements to be recalled from experience rather than having to think about each step of the skill.



There have been many studies done over the years based on the ability of a human to learn a new set of skills and for an athlete to develop a high level of performance within a sport. In 1967, Paul Fitts and Michael Posner presented their three stages of learning model in their book, Human Performance. Their theory highlighted a three-stage learning model for skill acquisition. These steps included the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage. As an evolution of these theories, the Stages of Motor Development where released in a 2005 book called Developmental Physical Education for All Children by David Gallahue and Frances Cleland Donnelly. This evolution of the concepts related to motor development was applied to all snowsports disciplines within PSIA AASI and was brought into the PSIA AASI National Standards to help describe proficiency and create consistency in those certification processes.

Let's take a deeper look into the stages of motor development and how we can utilize the previous works of Fitts & Posner and of Gallahue & Donnelly to develop an increased level of understanding on the subject and its application within our sports.


The initial stage of motor development is the point where the movements and skills are just being introduced. This is the point of first instruction on how to sequence and time movements to generate a specific skill or outcome. The movements will tend to be over exaggerated or restricted in range. It was first known as the cognitive stage due to the fact that the person had to consciously focus on each aspect of the movement or skill. (This is why you catch people looking down at their feet while learning to ride or ski.)

The execution lacks coordination, rhythm, and flow, which sometimes leads to missing components of a skill or movements not being effectively sequenced. The stability component of fundamental movement at the initial stage is very important in developing proper technique and to create a platform to progress to the other stages of development.


Once someone starts to properly execute the required movements, and neuromuscular pathways have been developed, they enter the elementary stage of motor development. The skills and movements are being achieved consistently while improvements in performance levels are still being made. The use of coordinated movement for a specific skill-showing the ability to understand timing and movement ranges is what helps solidify a skill at this elementary stage. With regard to equipment performance, at a minimum, a low level of manipulative performance must be shown. The individual must be able to isolate specific tasks and movements.

The associative component, at the elementary stage, relies upon knowing what skill or movement to apply as well as when and how to apply it. Competency in the skill at this level still requires a high level of concentration and focus, which at times can disrupt breathing and finite motor control. To continue advancement past the elementary stage requires at least some aspects of instruction, practice, and motivation.


At the mature stage of motor development, performing the skill has become second nature. The neuromuscular pathways have been developed to allow for efficiency in mechanics and motor control. Coordination of movements allows the ranges of movements to be blended together so that skills can be combined to create a fluid movement.

The ability to control and manipulate the equipment has been developed, showing precisely controlled performance. The movements or skill have become autonomous with the individual, making it seem almost automatic or habitual.


The initial, elementary, and mature stages of fundamental movement can be applied to any person learning a new movement-based skill, including a child learning to walk, a teen learning how to play a new sport, or a snowboarder or skier learning to do a new trick. When we are in tune with the three stages, we can more successfully guide our students to reach their goals and progress consistently. This can be a key component of understanding how to create drills, tasks, and activities that help to develop fundamental skills and serve as the building blocks for higher performance tricks and maneuvers.

Visualize learning how to ride through the trees on a powder day and the skills required for success. An individual needs to be able to manipulate their equipment to create a range of turn shapes and sizes while also being able to control and handle the fresh snow conditions.

When developing your plans in a group setting, you must also take into account that all people learn at different rates and some students will develop some aspect of their skills more quickly than others. By being in tune with each student's individual advancement and wherein the stages of development they are at a given time, you can better cater to their needs and skill levels. Be aware that if a student has only reached an elementary level of proficiency they may not be ready for the next step.


Initial, elementary, and mature stages of motor develop have broad applicability across all PSIA AASI disciplines and as a component of each set of standards set for each Level of Certification.

The ability to demonstrate a specific set of movements or to generate a specific performance-based outcome can be more accurately trained, more easily evaluated and more consistently tested by applying the specific guidelines for each stage of proficiency. If we look at the tasks and exercises required to reach the standards for each discipline at each level, we can apply the stage of motor development that must be achieved.

PSIA AASI uses stages of motor development to quantify the point in development for participants. Proficiency in the movements in a set of standards is based on the need to meet the requirements of either an elementary or mature stage of motor development.

For example, in the first two levels of AASI Snowboard Certification, an elementary level is required to be successful through the riding proficiency standards. At Level 3 participants need to be aware that the tasks are based on a strong ability to control and manipulate the equipment while also showing a mature level of motor development as you utilize a range of movement patterns to show similar outcome in performance.

As you look at your own skills and abilities, the use of the three stages of motor development can help you better understand where your skills are and where you might need to focus attention in your training. By realistically understanding this baseline, you can help maintain your current levels while training toward developing new connections to skills and levels of proficiency. Performance barriers are evident when the mature level is not reached with a skill that is needed to progress to a more complicated and challenging skill.

Strive to reach a mature level in all the required skills at each level of certification or area of specialty. While an elementary proficiency is the baseline requirement at some levels, be mindful that if you fail to develop your skills and proficiency levels to a mature level there will be holes in your skill set and movement foundation. As you expand your understanding and comprehension of the standards, be aware that each step should be refined in order to create the best platform to progress to the next level.


Doug Fagel is an AASI Certified Level III Snowboard Instructor who has served as the Education Chair, Snowboard Vice President and Executive Vice President for PSIA-AASI's Western Division. Doug is also the CEO of Thrive Snowboards.


For those of you who are instructor trainers, or looking to become trainers and eventually evaluators, you can use the stages of motor development to help create training exercises and programs to help promote success in your region and your home resort. By effectively evaluating the stage of motor development in a fellow instructor, trainers can identify the specific deficiencies in movement, execution, and timing.

These trainer's skills are honed over time, but even at the simplest levels peers can help share a guiding eye to what point of development an instructor has achieved. Remember, lack of quality training is what leads to plateaus and barriers in people’s progressions.

Never stop learning! - Doug

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