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Teaching the Brain Motor Skills

Brain science tells us that the brain uses different processes and different parts for gaining different types of knowledge. The type of conscious, or explicit, knowledge we learn in school is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The logical prefrontal cortex can quickly solve rational problems and learn step by step tasks. Using the prefrontal cortex, we can analyze what we know, we can show our work in math problems, or explain to someone else how we performed a task.

However, the prefrontal cortex is easily overwhelmed by complex problems with many variables. Motor skills falls into this category. This unconscious, or implicit, learning takes place in the older part of the brain. It is about doing what “feels right”. Processes are learned by trial and error. Even the simple act of walking requires a complex, precisely timed, pattern of muscle contractions. Fortunately we don’t have to think about it, but most of us have become quite good at it. Walking on a flat surface, motion is controlled so precisely that the heel clears the pavement by only a few millimeters. But can you explain to another person how to walk? Do you really know what muscles you’re using at what intensity and in what order? Most likely not.

Learning motor skills can be frustrating because the part of the brain that learns these things doesn’t do it as fast as we might want. And it doesn’t necessary learn things in a linear fashion. We can consciously take steps in the beginning to help us learn motor skills but to gain real expertise, the learning must take place in a part of the brain that is unavailable to our prefrontal cortex for analysis and influence. This also explains why some players with the greatest skills cannot tell you how they do it. It’s not that these players are keeping their secrets from you, it’s that their brain is keeping its secrets from itself!

Coaches then face a conundrum. In order to teach, a coach must excavate their own implicit knowledge and bring it to the prefrontal cortex for analysis. Only then can we explain to another player how a skill is done. But given what we know about the brain, how can we best tell players what to do if motor skills are learned by parts of the brain that don’t deal in verbal logic?

Most researchers agree that as we learn a motor skill the movements start with some amount of conscious control and end up, after much practice being controlled automatically. As this process occurs movements become more fluid and coordinated. The skill requires less mental effort.

As coaches we want to get players to this point as quickly as possible and yet we try to use explicit instruction to achieve this goal. For example, if you’ve ever said “this time, try flicking you’re wrist harder” you are encouraging conscious control over a process that you want to become automatic. I don’t believe that all forms of verbal instruction can be eliminated, but thinking about how we give instruction can greatly influence how well a player learns a task.

In “Attention and Motor Skill Learning” Gabrielle Wulf describes an experiment in which participants learned to balance on a balance board. The research compared the effectiveness of an internal vs. external focus in motor skills learning. There were several groups receiving different instructions. Those who learned the fastest and retained the most after several days were the students who were given the instruction to keep the markers on the balance board horizontal. These participants were focusing on external factors or results. In contrast, students who were told to keep their feet horizontal (internal focus) performed no better and retained no more learning than participants who were given no instruction at all.

Balancing on a balance board versus completing a discrete task may be different enough that these results are not directly applicable to learning how to throw a disc. Still, these results may indicate that having players think about what their body is doing while learning how to throw may be completely ineffective!

Clearly some amount of verbal instruction must be given for a player to learn how to throw a forehand. I’m not suggesting that coaching is ineffective. I am suggestions a de-emphasis on verbal instruction of motor skills and at a decoupling of conscious cognitive processes from the performance of motor skills. Sometimes this can be done just by changing a few words. Instructing a player “Now see if you can throw the disc without any wobble” may produce the desired outcome without resorting to a focus on what the specific body parts are doing.

You may ask, is it desirable for players to learn motor skills with little idea about how and why they are doing what they’re doing? This is debatable, but there is some research showing that players who cannot articulate their knowledge perform better under pressure. The act of “choking” under pressure is widely understood to be a result of the brain trying to regain conscious control over the motor skills in an effort to improve performance when it matters most. This strategy is a complete disaster as our conscious knowledge is inadequate for the task. Players who have little articulate knowledge of their motor skills are not able to execute this strategy and so their motor control remains more consistent under high pressure situations. It is sometimes said that “those who can’t do, teach.” That may be a little harsh. It may also be true that the best performers are unable to teach. The inability to articulate their knowledge is actually a benefit to their performance. And the coaches’ ability to teach motor skills may inhibit performance under certain circumstances. So, as a coach, painful though it may be, you may have to decide whether you want to make players who can teach or players who can perform.

If you are a coach, what does this mean for your own performance as a player? Are you destined to be on the bench while the real clutch players take care of universe point? As a player who has flirted with greatness but not quite been able to establish herself there, I fear that this might be the case. Fortunately, there is good news. The prefrontal cortex we use to learn and to teach is also an extraordinarily creative problem solver. I’ve bought my sports psychology books and am ready to roll!

Keep Practicing!

5 thoughts on “Teaching the Brain Motor Skills”

  1. I think this is a fantastic article and gives great insight into learning and teaching…so many people figure out how to teach through trial and error but it's nice to see support that there is some sense to having an idea of what you're doing in order to coach. Whether or not that means you can replicate it on your own as effectively as some people you teach will remain a point of debate but it's great to have that thinking out there…

  2. Great article.

    As a side note, Pilates instructors use visualizations to get students to activate certain muscles. The visualizations are inherently non-technical (ex: “Imagine squeezing an orange with you mid-section”). If they don't get the muscle activation result they are looking for they suggest another visualization. What was surprising to me was the fact that they tend to get the result they are looking for on the first or second try meaning these visualizations are highly effective.

    Wondering what (if any) visualizations have been found to be most effective in the instruction of throwing.

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