Motor Learning [ARTICLE]

Motor Learning
Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine

Provided by: USTFCCCA

In this chapter taken from the specialist certification course curriculum, a number of concepts, terms and principles of motor learning are addressed. The terms, concepts and principles discussed in the chapter apply across all track and field event areas.



Motor Learning.
Motor learning is a field of sports science that investigates the processes and factors involved in learning skills. In this section we will investigate motor skills, motor control and how we can use this science to improve the effectiveness of our skill teaching schemes.

Movement Strategies.
Many factors come into play when one attempts to perform even the simplest motor task. Before a movement pattern is initiated and executed, the nature of this movement is decided upon in some manner. We will call the pattern of movement planned to accomplish the task a "movement strategy". We will call the process of the formation of this strategy "movement organization".

Theories of Movement Organization.
There are two theories governing thought regarding the organization and formation of movement. It is likely that there is some validity to both of these theories, as neither can completely explain all observed phenomena.

The Generalized Motor Program Theory.
In this view of movement organization, a learned skill exists as a motor program that can be called upon and executed anytime it is needed. The program may be adapted to various situations and environments to adapt to some changed circumstance, but the basic characteristics of the program exist regardless of the environment in which the skill is performed.

The Dynamic Systems Theory.
In this view of movement organization, when a skill is performed, movement strategies are organized with respect to many environmental factors. The ability to replicate skills results from repeatedly organizing movement in similar environmental conditions.



Cognitive Decision.
Volitional thought processes are employed to trigger the use of some generalized motor program, or devise some original plan of action to undertake the task.

Nature of the Task.
The demands of the task itself, or the results that characterize success help determine the strategy employed.

Perception of the Task.
The manner perceived to be most appropriate for undertaking the task determines much of the pattern of movement. However, often the strategy that instinctively seems most appropriate is in fact a poor one. In these situations, teaching the correct pattern of movement is doomed to failure because the learner's perception is faulty.

Reflexive Action.
Certain movements or actions may elicit reflexes, which cause other movements to occur. These may positively or negatively affect performance. Stretch reflexes and some proprioceptive concerns fit into this category. We must teach movements that elicit the correct reflexive actions.

Injury Prevention Mechanisms.
Self-defense and injury prevention reflexes may thwart complete execution of certain movement strategies, or cause the originally planned movement to be modified in some way. We must design techniques that do not evoke these reflexes. Also, as coaches we must be able to differentiate between what is a dangerous situation and unfounded fear.

Prior Motor Experience.
Learners have generalized motor programs and patterns of movement already constructed and in place. The adaptability of these to the task at hand may invoke their usage in movement situations. A generalized motor program that is in place provides a convenient option when devising a movement strategy, yet this program may or may not be appropriate.

Environmental Factors.
Environmental factors have some effect on the pattern of movement chosen. Environmental factors can include prior positioning of the body, prior movements of the body, perception of prior movement, and the location of related pertinent objects.

Mechanical Concerns.
The laws of physics that govern production and application of force make certain strategies more efficient and appropriate. Humans may inherently sense these laws and operate accordingly, but often they must be taught movement strategies that are efficient in this regard.

Anatomical Concerns.
The anatomical construction of the human body, specifically the structures responsible for the production and transmission of force affect the movement strategies we choose. We must beware, because at times a movement strategy that we deem efficient when considering the laws of pure physics may be ineffective when the anatomical structure involved is considered. Falling into this category of concern are unique aspects of muscle architecture and joint structure.

Proprioceptive Concerns.
Preferred proprioceptive patterns serve to affect the perception and execution of movement. Effectiveness or patterns of proprioception may determine the muscle recruitment patterns used in the movement.

Physical Capabilities.
An individual's personal set of strengths and weaknesses in the areas of strength, speed, coordination, flexibility, and endurance help to determine the strategies employed in performing a task. A body imbalanced in these areas, or whose body parts are imbalanced with respect to each other will likely reflect these imbalances in some way in the patterns of movement chosen.


This consists of the earliest attempts at the skill, when the learner is basically becoming familiarized with the movements of the skill.

This stage consists of the time spent after acquiring the ability to perform the basic movements of the skill, when efficiency and accuracy are greatly improved.

Stabilization or Diversification.
This stage consists of the period of time during which the learner becomes able to replicate the skill at will easily and effectively, or becomes able to adapt the skill into other situations by modifying it to some extent.


The Purpose of Practice.
The practice environment may be constructed differently depending upon the purpose of the practice. While we often think of teaching a skill, there are other purposes. Meet simulation, familiarization with cue systems, rehearsal of meet communication and problem solving are all other frequently used practice purposes. The purpose of the practice greatly dictates the intensity of the practice environment and often the choice of practice activities as well.

Practice Distribution.
Research shows that shorter, more frequent practice periods are more effective than less frequent, longer practice periods. This lends itself to the philosophy of integration of the physical training and technical teaching program. This is because the wide variety of activities in the physical development program offers many opportunities to practice the skill or parts of the skill.

The Practice Environment and Stage of Learning.
The practice environment should be appropriate to the stage of learning. The intensity of the practice situation must be low in the initial stages of learning. Also, practicing complex skills in parts is appropriate in these early stages of learning. As proficiency increases, the practice environment can become more intense and complex.

Whole vs. Part Practice.
Whole practice is practice where the entire skill is performed in each trial, while part practice consists of practicing only some part of a skill with each trial. Research shows that whole practice is more effective in most learning situations. However, very complex skills, such as many of those we find in athletic events, are often too complex for the beginner. These skills should be introduced using part learning, or possibly using a whole-part whole approach. While there are actual athletic coaching situations where whole, competition specific practice may not be appropriate; we are generally better off employing larger parts of the movement.

Variety in the Practice Environment.
Research shows that variety in the practice environment improves performance in test situations, even though practice performance may not be improved. This suggests that we employ a variety of teaching progressions, drills and activities in practice. Planned changes in practice intensities and complexities should be employed to create the most effective learning environment and foster the greatest gains.

Choosing Practice Activities.
The exercises and drills used in the practice setting provide a context for teaching needed skills or parts of skills. The selection of these activities must be in accordance with all the considerations above for effective learning to take place.

Intensity of Practice.
Practice environments can be constructed that are of low or high intensities. This intensity is determined by the activities chosen for the practice. The intensity of practice must not only be appropriate to the stage of learning, but also to the purpose of the practice. Skill teaching requires a low intensity environment. Meet simulation dictates a high one. Communication and cue rehearsal can employ either, depending on other variables.


The Overload Principle.
The Overload Principle states that the body must be stressed to some degree in order to produce adaptation. Normally, when we consider or discuss the Overload Principle, we are considering a training stimulus and a resultant increase in fitness.

The Overload Principle and Motor Learning.
The Overload Principle can be applied to the learning of a skill as well. Well-planned, progressive increases in the intensity at which the skill is performed can accelerate the learner through the stages of learning and make learning more permanent.

Increasing Practice Intensities.
Failure to increase the intensity of the practice environment can result in staleness and lack of progress, due to failure to challenge the organism. At the same time care must be taken not to increase the intensity of the practice environment too quickly, as this could result in regression.

Mastery Levels and Progression.
Generally speaking, it is a good practice to increase practice intensities slightly once a certain level of mastery is gained at the previous intensity level. This level of mastery should be high, but expectations of 100 percent mastery before advancing are unreasonable. 100 percent mastery at a certain level of intensity is often attainable only after some increase in practice intensity beyond that point.


Quality of Communication.
For effective learning to take place, communication must be of high quality. All communication should be clear, precise, and have meaning to the teacher and learner.

Quantity of Communication.
For effective learning to take place, the quantity of communication should be limited. A person is only able to grasp a certain amount of information at a time, and is able to use only a certain amount on each trial.


Verbal Communication.
This is communication using the spoken word. While only one of many forms of communication, it is generally the form most frequently used and misused.


Nonverbal Communication.
This is communication using other means besides the spoken word. Demonstrations, signs, gestures and even body language fall into this category.

Coach to Athlete Communication.
A coach's ability to effectively communicate ideas and concepts to a learner is a crucial skill. Good communication can take many forms, and a skilled coach should be adept at these frequently used methods.

Verbal Explanations.
Verbal explanations are oral verbiage used to convey some type of concept to the learner. This concept is usually a movement concept, or some background information a coach must relay to the learner to place a movement concept in the correct context. Verbal explanations should be clear and concise. They should also be meaningful to the learner, using terms and concepts the learner is familiar with. They should also be somewhat limited in quantity, since only a limited amount of information can be processed at any one time.

Cues and Cue Systems.
Verbal directions a coach gives an athlete to elicit a certain predicted motor response are called cues. A group of related cues, used with and within a context of understood terminology, used to adjust the technical models called a cue system. Like verbal explanations, cues should be clear, concise, and use limited information.

A demonstration is a physical performance of a skill, done by a coach or someone else, for the learner to watch. This enables the learner to ascertain information about the motor pattern and assists in movement organization. Augmented feedback demonstrations may exhibit mistakes, correct movements, or both in a contrasting manner.

Augmented Feedback.
Augmented feedback is communication directed from the coach to the learner after a trial, relaying information on the performance to assist the learner in perfecting the skill. Augmented feedback may be verbal in nature, and in these cases is often related to some cue system. Augmented feedback can also take the form of a demonstration, technological forms such as film, or any combination of the above. We will examine in detail the process of providing augmented feedback in a later section.

Athlete to Coach Communication.
Communication from athlete to coach is a crucial part of the communication process and a needed part of an effective learning environment. An athlete who is skilled at communication can greatly accelerate learning and help the coach avoid many hours of misunderstanding. While a coach may not be fortunate enough to be working with an athlete who is a good communicator, it is part of the teaching process to assist the athlete to communicate information the coach needs. A coach can foster athlete to coach communication several ways.

The Coach as a Listener.
The coach should, within reason, convey openness to the athlete, creating a learning environment in which the athlete is comfortable conveying information to the coach, and is assured it is being valued and considered.

Athletes Intrinsic Feedback.
Sensation athletes perceive and experience during performance, while not always accurate, can offer very important clues to a problem solving coach. The coach should create a learning environment where, within reason, this type of information is solicited and valued.

Questioning the Athlete.
The coach should be skilled at asking direct, clear questions to ascertain needed information from the learner, and to assist the athlete in communication.


Knowledge of Performance.
This is augmented feedback that consists of information the learner receives concerning the correctness of incorrectness of the movement pattern itself. Most coach issued augmented feedback falls into this category, and most research shows this type to be most frequently used and most effective form of feedback. The skilled coach should be familiar with athlete's perceptions, as these perceptions may at times conflict with the knowledge of performance feedback issued by the coach.

Knowledge of Results.
This is augmented feedback that consists of information the learner receives concerning the measurement of the performance's success. This type of feedback sometimes must be provided to the learner, but is often immediately available due to the nature of the skill.

Qualitative Feedback.
Qualitative feedback is augmented feedback that has no value attached to it. Instructions are simply given or corrections made, and no effort is made to convey to the athlete the degree of change needed or the location of that particular performance on a spectrum of many.

Quantitative Feedback.
Quantitative Feedback is augmented feedback that has a value associated with it. Not only is information provided as to the quality of movement, but also the degree of change performed or needed.


Demonstrations occur when the coach or someone else physically performs a skill for the learner to watch. This enables the learner to ascertain information about the motor pattern and assists in movement organization. Augmented feedback demonstrations may exhibit mistakes, correct movements, or both in a contrasting manner.

Verbiage consists of orally presented feedback, usually in the form of a cue or explanation.

Video. Augmented feedback can be provided via electronic media, in order to present a clear picture of the athlete's movements or the movements of some selected model.


Another key issue in providing feedback is how often feedback should be provided. Frequent feedback is helpful, especially in the earliest stages of learning. However, research shows that feedback issued after each and every trial is not effective.

Feedback Strategies.
Feedback can be addictive, and feedback addiction can disrupt the athlete's intrinsic feedback mechanisms and hinder learning. Frequency of feedback issuance can be managed using these strategies.

This is a strategy in which feed-back is issued after every trial in the earliest stages of learning, but the amount of trials after which feedback is not provided is gradually increased over time.

In this strategy, the learner solicits feedback from the coach when wanted.

In this strategy, the coach provides no feedback as long as performance is within preset, acceptable limits. When performance falls below these standards, corrective feedback is provided.

This is a strategy in which multiple trials are performed without feedback. After this set of trials, the feed back on the entire set of trials is issued. Focus can be on characteristics of individual trials, or trends that develop over the course of the trials.


Failure to Progress in the Early Stages of Learning.
Failure to progress in the early stages of learning is often due to a poorly constructed practice atmosphere. Usually the skill is too complex for the learner, and teaching should be approached from a more remedial approach.

Practice Regression.
Regression in practice performance usually results when the demands of practice (intensity or complexity) are increased too quickly. Another cause can be failure to increase these variables, failing to provide challenge in the practice environment.

Competition Regression.
Competition regression usually occurs when new learned motor patterns are not stable enough to withstand the pressures of competition. More rehearsal and/or adequate meet simulation are needed in this case.

The Choking Phenomenon.
Choking in competition is not a purely psychological response. Pressures of competition and the resulting psychological strain on the performer is the root of the problem, but this strain results in some particular breakdown in motor performance. Eliminating the choking phenomenon requires identifying the technical flaw associated with it, and helping the athlete to develop an understanding of and technical solution for the problem.

Boo Schexnayder was primarily responsible for the content of the majority of the Track & Field Academy's course curriculum including this excerpt the various Specialist Certification course texts.

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11 Jul 2018

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