Closed vs Open Sport Skills

Michael Reid will be publishing new articles on every few months and will discuss the science and practice of physical training for Water Polo. Strength, flexibility, Water Polo science, rehab and other areas of interest with respect to the physical development of the Water Polo athlete will be covered.

Every few months I do a search to see what is happening in the world of Water Polo research. Just recently published was the below article which describes a “functional water polo test”. It can be downloaded for free at the below link.

“The Functional Test for Agility Performance is a Reliable Quick Decision-Making Test for Skilled Water Polo Players"

In the introduction, the authors discuss open vs closed sport skills. Most Water Polo tests if not all we as coaches employ encompass closed skills. But the sport of Water Polo is mostly open skills which is like other combative sports where your environment is very plastic (e.g. what your opponent is doing) and the athlete is responding to this change in surroundings.

Before we go on further, below is a definition of closed vs open skills.

Open skills: sports such as Netball, Football, and Hockey involve open skills. The environment is constantly changing and so movements have to be continually adapted. Skills are predominantly perceptual and externally paced, for example a pass in football.

Closed skills: These skills take place in a stable, predictable environment and the performer knows exactly what to do and when. Skills are not affected by the environment and movements follow set patterns and have a clear beginning and end. The skills tend to be self-paced, for example a free throw in Basketball, and serving in Squash or Tennis.


A typical testing regime coaches use in Water Polo is a swim test. Although I believe these are very useful, it important to understand it's limitation. A swim test is a closed skill.

The concept of open and closed skills can also be used for planning a practice and developing your athletes skills.

How do you balance your open vs closed skill development?

It could be said that a Water Polo skill is not truely developed until you can do it in as an open skill or in a game situation.

What is an example of a Water Polo skill that you take from being a closed skill to one that is open?

Lets use shooting as an example by first practicing in a closed manner and then progressing to open.

  1. practice shooting motion into a wall (closed skill);

  2. shooting into a goal without a goalie (closed skill);

  3. shooting against a goalie (open skill);

  4. shooting against a blocker with a goalie (open skill);

  5. many steps later ... shooting in a scrimmage (open skill);

Is there a percentage of how much open vs closed skill development we need to do?

I dont' think there is a clear answer and this is where the art of coaching comes into place.

Do you have an athlete that is dynamite in a simple shooting drill but can't perform in a game? Maybe, they need more closed skill development.

Now, regarding the “functional Water Polo test”; I will leave that up to you decide if you want to implement this into your own testing regime.

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