The brain has an extraordinary way of processing and adapting to our environment to make us more skilled in our movements. Research trials heavily study athletes to refine our understanding of the mechanisms of the brain’s plasticity.
In this article, I’ll discuss the neuroscience behind skill development and mastery, learning by mental focus, neurocognition and agility, learning by observation, and the intrinsic and extrinsic effects on learning.
Skillfulness Patterns and Constraints
In Clark’s (1995) On Becoming Skillful: Patterns and Constraints, the author outlines the four main components of dynamic systems: constraints, self-organization, patterns, and stability. Constraints occur in the individual, the environment, or the task, and all three combine to confine the resulting behavior. Under these constraints, an individual must find equilibrium, or stability, through the process of intrinsic self-organization.
A person’s innate characteristics determine their individual constraints. Examples include height, weight, fitness level, motivation, and anxiety.12 These physical, mental, and emotional attributes are always changing and largely influence an athlete’s adopted playing style.
Overweight, lethargic, unmotivated players, for example, will play much differently than a hard-working, fit, and energetic players. Although the required functional movements are the same, the approach is much different. The fit athlete will play efficiently and conform to the dynamics of the game, whereas the unfit player may lack the ability to react both mentally and physically to game dynamics.
Environmental constraints include the facility, playing surface, surrounding people (athletes, coaches, parents), weather, noise level, and lighting, to name a few.12 The environmental pressures felt by an athlete can dramatically affect motor skill acquisition and, therefore, gameplay; any discomfort in the environment can inhibit proper learning.
For example, if young athletes feel tremendous parental pressure to perform well in a given sport, they may put too much conscious effort into motor learning development, causing incorrect or inadequate skill acquisition.
- Create a relaxed learning process so the brain can develop flexible motor skill patterns to apply across a variety of play scenarios in a dynamic game situation. If an athlete has felt pressured, their patterns are too rigid, and they are too inflexible to adapt dynamically.
- Coaches can manipulate task-specific constraints in several ways, including changing the rules of play, the end goal, or the equipment used to complete the task. Great examples are playing soccer with a smaller or heavier ball, having smaller goals, or limiting the ability to shoot inside the 18-yard box. These scenarios require the athlete to apply previously acquired skills to the new task constraints—call it a dynamic range of motion for both the brain and the body.
The body constantly conforms to new environments, both internal and external, without ever having to consciously process the surplus of information filtered through the senses to the brain.
Each pattern previously generated from a specific skill movement is reinforced by practicing the same movement under the same context. Or it is re-circuited to produce a dynamically similar movement and achieves the same goal.
The dynamic nature of athletics offers a great example of how skillfulness patterns and constraints are accounted for in gameplay and adapted during motor skill development.
Retaining a skill is probably the most critical component of the learning process. Without retention, the process becomes pointless. Jacoby’s analogy states that the outcome of a particular movement can be achieved by either a conscious process or by simply retrieving a solution from memory.9
If the solution is fresh in one’s mind from a previous attempt, the process can be skipped to achieve the same solution. However, if the solution is not fresh, the process will have to take place again, providing a chance for reinforcement.
For progressive overload to occur, we must consistently build problem-solving into the training program. I don’t mean this in the most literal sense of an athlete’s training program, such as the theory of muscle confusion.For progressive overload to occur, consistently build problem-solving into the training program. Click To Tweet
Rather, it’s a way to provide variability for the brain to process with thought instead of simply retrieving without thought. Cognitive processing reinforces the motor pathway in a permanent manner, but retrieval can easily be forgotten once repetition stops.
Blocked-order practices repeat a movement with the intention of reinforcing the pattern until it becomes part of our muscle memory.9 Over time, according to the theory, problem-solving is no longer required to reach the same conclusion we learned initially.
Often highly skilled athletes don’t understand how they do a movement so well; they can’t explain the process. Does this mean they’ve forgotten? Lee, Swanson, and Hall (1991) questioned a person’s ability to construct future action plans under this type of blocked-learning environment.
Random-order practice, in contrast, uses many variations of a skill into learning development. The theory here is that the brain needs to completely regroup and execute a new plan for each trial, forcing a novel learning opportunity.
When blocked- and random-order practices were compared, participants in the random group outperformed the blocked group in retention and transfer of learning.9 Contextual-interference provided the cognitive stimulus necessary to exceed the threshold of learning.
The platonic arrangement of blocked practice, after the initial learning curve, does not create enough of a stimulus to approach the learning threshold and is less effective in the long run.
- Increasing variability in training is a simple solution that any coach or trainer can make in practice.
- Tweaking an exercise movement slightly between trials can encourage the brain’s problem-solving capacity to remain activated. Reduced cognitive and physical fatigue are other benefits.
- Performing the same style movements may seem specifically productive to athletes and their sports. But the increased risk of overuse injury and lack of skill retention are not worth the specificity. It’s best to mold a well-rounded athlete with solid problem-solving skills and versatility to adapt to many in-game situations.
Learning with Mental Focus
In athletics, there is no doubt that mental skills play a crucial role in the level of performance achieved. Unfocused athletes fail to meet the demands of their sport and often lack the motivation to do so. Focused athletes zone in on the game situation, filter stimuli, and respond efficiently to a game’s dynamics.
Questions arise about where the focus is directed. Does the athlete have an internal focus on consciously controlled body movements, accounting for accurate skill? Or is the focus on the external effects of the unconsciously produced movement?
With internal focus, the athlete concentrates on the specific steps and movement patterns required.11 This tends to constrain the system by placing too much emphasis on minute skill movements rather than the big picture of the game scenario at hand. However, when learning a new skill or correcting a skill error, internal focus is beneficial.13
With external focus, the athlete intuitively selects the most efficient motor pattern for completing their task with concern only for the outcome of the move. Some research shows that a novice athlete undergoing motor learning does benefit from internal focus and that learning is inhibited if they become distracted from their task.13
The opposite is true for elite athletes with well-learned skills who operate primarily on autopilot in performance situations.
An interesting study by Porter and Sims (2013) examined instructions to focus on internal, cued movements and external environmental cues and the instructions’ effect on sprinting performance. They found that sprint performance in the control group, who received no directions, performed much better than the groups who received internal and external focus cues.
The researchers believed that providing no instructions allowed the athletes to naturally select their most efficient motor and mental pathways to achieve maximum sprint effort.
- Coaches should avoid such sprint cues as, “drive your arms hard out of the blocks, keep the heels low, and push the toes forcefully into the ground.” These are internal focus cues which may hinder the athlete’s natural mental efficiency.
- Instead, more general cues such as “be powerful down the track,” or “explode out of the blocks,” may be more effective, allowing the athlete to conform their individual motor skills within the necessary framework.
Neurocognition and Agility in Elite Athletes
The Fitts and Posner three-stage model of motor skill learning progresses from cognitive to associative to autonomous learning levels.10 The cognitive stage has a steep learning curve where we learn basic movements with a general goal in mind. In the associative stage, also known as the refining stage, fundamental movements are presented and become more functional through practice. Finally, in the autonomous stage, we perform the motor skill on a subconscious level, a sign of complete mastery and expert status.
Increasing automaticity is associated with mastery because below this level, conscious and controlled processes are inefficient and demand attention.14 An athlete in this stage shows smooth, effortless, and completely efficient movements.
Can automaticity be achieved at lower levels of learning? Automaticity does not always indicate elite status. However, elite status does indicate automaticity. Some athletes fall into the category of automaticity on a mediocre level due to their comfort with their ability and routine. Repetition yields automaticity simply by a force of habit. But without refinement, the athlete’s motor development will stagnate on the subconscious plateau.Reaction seems automatic, but elite athletes have a refined method of in-play decision-making. Click To Tweet
Although their reaction seems automatic, elite athletes have a refined method of in-play decision-making. The theory is that many possible actions are released in parallel, so a speed advantage exists when choosing the best-odds move, even before receiving all the information in the environment.14
This is different than the processing system of a novice or intermediate athlete who is still in the cognitive or associative learning stages. The possible actions are consciously brought to the athlete’s attention, assessed individually, and weighed in the decision-making process. The reaction times yielded from the two groups are drastically different.
An amazing concept in neuroscience that’s not yet fully understood is the brain activation that results from visually imagining a particular action or scenario. For example, an elite athlete can quickly envision each possible outcome from directing a soccer ball downfield with numerous passing opportunities. This happens in split-second imagery before the ball is even touched.
A functional MRI of the brain would show intense activation of the motor pathways before the actions are physically carried out. The strongest elicited neural response will become the chosen decision. All of this occurs without the athlete’s voluntary control of the play.
Developing an elite athlete’s automaticity may involve a more refined degree of underlying cognition than scientists currently theorize.
- When developing agility training programs, don’t neglect the neurocognitive and neuromuscular connection because it’s a vital training component. For an athlete to progress to the elite level, they must reach and master a degree of subconscious perceptual-cognitive reaction ability.
Our two main methods for developing skills are through intrinsic and extrinsic learning. Intrinsic development occurs when the learner performs and uses self-analysis to generate feedback from trial to trial. Extrinsic learning requires stimuli in our environment to initiate motor pathway development and follow-up feedback regarding our performance in that environment.
Demonstrations are a good way to teach a new skill. A demonstration requires the learner to extract perceptually relevant information from the environment to draw a generalized motor plan.
A study by Buchanan and Dean (2010) investigated the effect of having many versus one strategic solution(s) to the goal of a task. One group received verbal instruction as well as visual demonstration and performed more quickly and precisely than a group that did not have verbal help. The authors also explained that, if visual or verbal help is not included, exploratory learning hinders motor development.
A study by Hayes, et al. (2007) tested whether demonstrations help children learn a new skill. Children watched a video of a bowling action and were asked to imitate the action. The researchers found that children used the visual information to produce relative motor function, which is theorized to be very important in the early stages of learning coordination. The child’s goal is to produce a simplified version of a demonstration to achieve the same result. Unless children receive guided information or cognitive rehearsal strategies, the researchers suggested that reproduction and consistency will be lacking.
Do demonstrations need to be performed perfectly to be effective? Technical skills have internal representations of a specific movement, so it may seem counterintuitive to demonstrate a flawed version of an ideal movement.
A study by Domuracki, Wong, Olivieri, and Grierson (2015) explored the impact of flawed versus flawless demonstrations for medical trainees in a clinical setting. They concluded that flawed demonstrations provided errors for the improvement of global performance, as long as the trainees knew that they were watching error-ridden movements. The flawed demonstration approach provided feedback of how not to perform a skill.Both perfect and imperfect demonstrations may be necessary to achieve maximal skill development. Click To Tweet
Demonstrations provide a tremendous way to pick up novel motor skills quickly. In most cases, they allowed for the adoption of a generalized motor plan. Children especially benefit from verbal guidance through the developmental process.
Mixed observations of both perfect and imperfect demonstrations may be the happy medium necessary to achieve maximal skill development.5
- Any coach can add demonstration to their toolbox. It’s a tool that should be applied based on the athlete’s age and maturity level.
The Neuroscience of Learning
Huang, Hazy, Herd, and O’Reilly (2013) proposed a two-way learning model consisting of a slow-learning parietal pathway and a fast-learning hippocampal pathway. This applies to instructional learning as a stimulus-response (S-R) mechanism. The largest area of involvement in the brain lies in the lateral prefrontal cortex, premotor, and posterior parietal cortices.
The slow-parietal pathway processes simpler, routine mappings while the fast-hippocampal pathway processes new instructions via S-R mapping. Instructional-based learning is easy to follow and easily guided step-wise. Also, learning occurs more quickly than if a new motor pattern attempted to rewrite over an old one (slow pathway).
Observational learning manifests slightly differently. Mirror neurons in the F5 motor area of the prefrontal cortex are directly activated when someone watches a demonstration.10 Located in the inferior frontal gyrus, this area does not stay activated once the reproduction of the movement begins.
Remarkably, Broca’s area of the brain activates simultaneously, indicating there’s a component of speech to the learning pathway. Researchers are steadily investigating the theory that these mirror neurons exist.
The takeaway point from the Huang study is this—instructions can be memorized easily by the fast-hippocampal and then reproduced via top-down processing from the prefrontal cortex-basal ganglia system.
It would be useful to quantify the speed of mirror neuron development and processing. On another note, it would be interesting to do a parallel study which compares observational and instructional learning side-by-side. The findings would help researchers understand which method of learning causes the brain to adapt more quickly.
As noted, observational learning directly activates unique mirror neurons in the F5 motor area of the prefrontal cortex. The F5 area contains a motor homunculus, or representation of the mouth and hand actions.1 Mirror neurons possess several distinct features that differentiate them from other neurons in the brain.
First, they’re highly specialized. During observation, mirror neurons only fire when a “biological effector,” or body part that causes a movement, interacts with an object. In other words, a hand will not fire a mirror neuron while resting. The same is true for visualizing the object involved when it is out of context.
A mirror neuron also does not activate when one mimics a particular motion. For example, throwing a ball will activate the mirror neuron while a throwing motion without the ball will not.Throwing a ball will activate the mirror neuron; a throwing motion without a ball will not. Click To Tweet
Much of the evidence for mirror neurons discredits any genetic predisposition or association. The associative learning theory explains that neural pathways in the brain for mirror neurons develop as a result of environmental stimuli.3 Some theories of observation suggest that psychological state, strategy, intention, or rationalization can influence the development of mirror neurons.
The associative theory, however, is purely based in automaticity. This nurture model fails to account for abilities in infants not observed in their environment, such as hand grasping and object manipulation. Infants reproduce observed facial gestures even though they cannot see their face.6 This indicates that some innate, pre-established neuron pathway is responsible for this ability.
This genetic model, however, has limitations as well. If mirror neurons are truly innate evolutionary adaptations, the critical periods of environmental influence on brain plasticity do not fit the mold.
Ferrari, et al. suggested an epigenetic model for the growth and development of motor neurons indicating a stabilizing selection of phenotypic traits based on environmental influence, especially during early childhood development.
This brings the two theories of nature versus nurture together into one all-encompassing model.
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- Buccino, G. & Riggio, L. (2006). “The Role of the Mirror Neuron System in Motor Learning.” Kinesiology, 38(1), 5-15.
- Buchanan, J. J., & Dean, N. J. (2010). “Specificity in Practice Benefits Learning in Novice Models and Variability in Demonstration Benefits Observational Practice.” Psychological Research, 74(3), 313-326. doi:10.1007/s00426-009-0254.
- Catmur, C., Walsh, V., & Heyes, C. (2009). “Associative Sequence Learning: The Role of Experience in the Development of Imitation and the Mirror System.” Philosophical Transactions of the Society B, 364(1528), 2369-2380. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0048.
- Clark, J. E. (1995). “On becoming skillful: Patterns and constraints.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 66(3), 173-183.
- Domuracki, K., Wong, A., Olivieri, L.,& Grierson, L. E. (2015). “The impacts of observing flawed and flawless demonstrations on clinical skill learning.” Medical Education, 49(2), 186-192. doi:10.1111/medu.12631.
- Ferrari, P. F., Tramacere, A., Simpson, E. A., & Iriki, A. (2013). “Mirror neurons through the lens of epigenetics.” Trends in Cognitive Science, 17(9), 450-457. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.07.003.
- Hayes, S. J., Hodges, N. J., Scott, M. A., Horn, R. R., & Williams, A. M. (2007). “The efficacy of demonstrations in teaching children an unfamiliar movement skill: The effects of object-oriented actions and point-light demonstrations.” Journal of Sports Sciences, 25(5), 559-575. doi:10.1080/02640410600947074.
- Huang, T., Hazy, T. E., Herd, S. A., & O’Reilly, R. C. (2013). “Assembling Old Tricks for New Tasks: A Neural Model of Instructional Learning and Control.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(6), 843-851. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00365.
- Lee, T. D., Swanson, L. R., & Hall, A. L. (1991). “What is Repeated in a Repetition? Effects of Practice Conditions on Motor Skill Acquisition.” Physical Therapy, 71(2), 150-156.
- Magill, R., & Anderson, D. (2013). Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Porter, J. M. & Sims, B. (2013). “Altering Focus of Attention Influences Elite Athletes Sprinting Performance.” International Journal of Coaching Science, 7(2), 41-51.
- Renshaw, I., Chow, J. Y., Davids, K., & Hammond, J. (2010). “A constraints-led perspective to understanding skill acquisition and game play: A basis for integration of motor learning theory and physical education praxis?” Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 15(2), 117-137. doi.org/10.1080/17408980902791586.
- Tedesqui, R. A. B. & Glynn, B. A. (2013). “‘Focus on what?’: Applying Research Findings on Attentional Focus for Elite-Level Soccer Coaching.” Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 4(2), 122-132. doi.org/10.1080/21520704.2013.785453.
- Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W. (2009). “Inside the brain of an elite athlete: The neural processes that support high achievement in sports.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 585-596. doi:10.1038/nrn2672.