top of page
  • Writer's pictureGavin

SKILL FADE - A brief exploration of medical practice learning applied to the adventure sector.

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

Skill fade is a term many of us are familiar with in a professional context; “The depletion of our ability to exercise a skill through a break in practice”. Recent events and the onset of lockdown due to COVID-19 has all but halted the outdoor adventure industry almost overnight. As the situation continues to change many of us are thinking about the re-start. So, can we avoid skill fade and how do we do it?

My recent reading has highlighted the lack of published research on the subject in the outdoor sector, what is publicly available appears to be largely relating to other industries. Some of the concepts and ideas from medicine have significant parallels to our industry and appear hopefully provide some insight into how we can minimise with the problem.

A 2014 General Medical Council literature review captured some key findings that would appear to have direct relevance to our own practice:

1.Skills have been shown to decline over periods ranging from 6-18 months, according to a curve with a steeper decline at the outset becoming more gradual.Many of us will have experienced this in our own practice, where a break from a specific skill be it personal climbing, belay supervision or orientating a map, leads to getting rusty or errors impacting performance.Knowledge of our skills start point either through reflection or feedback will allow us to better assess the impact of a break from practice e.g. “I follow a set procedure to safely achieve the outcome” - In Figure 1 the curve starts close to the required competence and the critical intersection of the two lines take place relatively quickly.

So, to answer the original question; it is unlikely that we will have no skill fade at all. For everyone, regardless of experience, we are likely to experience it somewhere in our practice, whether we recognise it or not is a question of awareness.

Looking Forward. The full effect of COVID-19 on future operations is still not fully clear, but we can be certain that it will undoubtedly impact how we deliver our services. It is not beyond reason, at this stage, to expect there to be further periodic restrictions and breaks in our practice. Skill Fade, while limited as a research subject in the outdoors, is well recognised across the industry if only by virtue of the well-established place of CPD among many professional bodies and national governing bodies.

- Easing In.Giving practitioners time to get warmed up with the basic in manageable settings will help to limit the demand for those top end and rusty skills in the first week.Easy venues, low ratios and strong mentoring will also redevelop skills and the judgement to deploy them effectively and safely.

- Overlearning. Incorporating an effective ongoing CPD program which develops skills and knowledge above and beyond those required will help to increase organisational resilience and flexibility by minimising retraining and delays after any fallow period. Overlearning is not always about increasing the repertoire of skills to draw on though, often variety of practice in the fundamental skills can have a profound effect on ability and judgement – Figure 3.


bottom of page