Part 2: Knowing when to put the Tune on Mute

As seen in the first part of this article series (Part 1: Changing the Tune), long term motor learning and skill development is often overlooked in favor of an increase in short term motor performance especially in young or novice athletes. It has been shown that long-term motor learning is highly influenced by appropriate feedback/instruction (external focus and analogies) and that when athletes are not responding, performance coaches need to not only change the way we are giving feedback, but the means and frequency as well. It is equally important as knowing when to put the tune on mute and allow the athlete to complete the skill by using other means than just constant verbal instruction.  This part of the article series will focus on the science of motor control, modifying motor control constraints (individual, environment, task), and scheduling appropriate feedback to enhance learning and skill accusation.

Motor Control     

    Motor control is the athlete’s ability to regulate or direct the mechanisms essential to movement.1 This differs from motor learning in that motor control focuses on understanding movements already acquired and modifying them to achieve appropriate movement task. In the end the improved motor control leads to more efficient movement tasks that are available for long-term motor learning.1 Motor control of the body emerges from the interaction between three processes: the individual, the task that is being preformed, and the environment that the task is preformed in.1,2  

  • Individual: Involves individual neurological and musculoskeletal processes.  The factors within the individual that can constrain movement include the athlete’s central nervous system, perception of movement, arousal, and their biomechanics.1

  • Task: Include rules that surround the task such as position, speed of movement, and the equipment that is being used.1

  • Environmental conditions: Include gravity, the surface the movement is preformed on, weather conditions, and distractions around the athlete.1  

    Constraints on the athlete can have a negative effect on motor control if not properly identified.1 In contrast and the focus of the article, modifying these constraints in a positive way can also block unwanted movement patterns and lead to successful completion of a desired movement if employed correctly.1 Utilizing these constraints for long periods of time can become a crutch for the athlete.3 A performance coach should only use these if appropriate feedback/instructions have failed to achieve the desired task and if appropriate, be removed as soon as possible to prevent dependence.4  

Employing Movement Constraints

    It should be known that these three constraints happen concurrently.5 It is difficult to modify one without influencing the other two. However, one can be the primary focus to achieve the desired movement task.1 Individual constraints, as stated earlier, emerge through the individuals neurological and musculosketal systems.  Modifications through a means of soft tissue or activation techniques if appropriate can alter poor biomechanics. Priming the nervous system through an adequate warm up or a light explosive maneuver can lead to a heightened central nervous system to complete a more dynamic task. While increasing or decreasing athlete arousal provides better performance depending on the type of task desired.

    Changing the task is one of the easiest ways to impose constraints on the athlete and achieve proper movement patterns.  Modifying the range of motion such as deadlifting from pins/blocks or squatting to a high box are great ways to get an athlete to achieve better positions during the start and throughout the tasks. Slowing down the task allows better understanding of the movement and allows the athlete to determine their technical error. Modifying equipment can be as simple as elevating an athletes heels when squatting which alters their center of mass to reflexively engage trunk stability allowing them to squat with more erect posture.

    Environmental constraints are often overlooked and not utilized. These constraints can include having athletes jump up onto a box to decrease the acceleration of gravity if faulty landing mechanics are present. Changing the support surface to a soft surface can increase perceptional awareness to increase the desired movement effect.  The simplest of constraints in the environment is removing distractions. If an athlete cannot focus in large groups try to isolate them and remove distractions from the athlete to allow focus.   

    As mentioned earlier, it is very difficult to only alter one constraint without alerting the other two.5 It is acceptable to manipulate more than one at a time but should be treated more as a progression to determine which process works for the athlete and not just changing all three at once. Work to remove the constraint, if appropriate, as soon as possible to prevent athlete dependence.4 Incorporate constraints in order to advance motor control of the skill that the athlete already demonstrates, but still work towards achieving motor learning of the original task. It should also be reiterated that utilizing constraints should occur after appropriate feedback and instruction are unsuccessful.

Feedback schedule

    Feedback can be broken down into concurrent feedback (given during the task) and terminal feedback (given after the task).4 In regards to novice athletes it has been shown that current feedback may have a negative affect on retention and transfer of movement skills.4 Giving feedback during a task can become a distraction that increases conscious thought and can take away from movement efficiency and implicit learning.4 Therefore, terminal feedback will be the feedback of choice moving forward in this article.

    Terminal feedback, as stated previously, is the feedback given after a completion of a task 4, and in this author’s opinion is the type of feedback that is most often administered incorrectly in the performance setting. Performance coaches should ask themselves:  what frequency of terminal feedback is required for motor learning and not just how much can be given during a task.

    Terminal feedback given in a constant manor after each trail has been shown to be detrimental to motor learning and retention of tasks.4 It has also been shown that if feedback is given too often,  “feedback dependency” can occur resulting in decreased performance when the feedback is removed.4 Athletes, especially novice ones, should be allowed to make mistakes and self correct instead of solely relaying on someone else.6   To achieve success in the task or sport, performance coaches need to utilize frequency schedules in effort to decrease terminal feedback given while also allowing the athlete to self-correct there own errors.1

    Numerous methods have been proposed but some of the most common include:1

  • Bandwidth: Feedback given when performance error exceeds an acceptable range. This could include a decrease in quality (movement pattern) or quantity (movement performance). Ex: Feedback is given when quality drops such that the athlete is in a position of possible injury, or when quantity such as bar speed drop below a pre determined level.

  • Summary: Feedback is given after a number of trials. Ex. Feedback is given for each trail after athlete preforms 3 reps of a task.  

  • Faded: Feedback is provided heavily at the beginning then less at the session continues. Ex: Feedback given on every trial the first set, second set every 3rd rep, last set every 5th rep.

Conclusion

    This part of the series further confirms that coaching is an art form, and also requires a higher-level of thinking. With these young athletes, performance coaches have to understand that it is more than what is said. There are other ways to develop proper motor control and motor learning than through verbal means such as imposing constraints, and scheduling feedback appropriately. Just because there isn’t constant feedback/instruction given to the athlete throughout the entire task doesn’t mean the athlete isn’t being coached. Learning to hit the mute button is a valuable skill every performance coach should master.  

References:

1.     Shumway-Cook A, Woollacott MH.  Motor Control:Theory and

    Practical Applications. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore,

    Maryland, 2001.

2.     Perry SB. Clinical implications of a dynamic systems theory.

    Neurology Report 1998; 22(1):4-10.

3.     Nicholson DE. Teaching psychomotor skills. In: Shepard R, Jensen

    G editors. Handbook of Teaching for Physical Therapists 2nd ed.

    Butterworth-Heinemann; 2002:387-418.

4.     Schmidt RA, Wrisberg CA.  Motor Learning and Performance,

    Second Edition. Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois, 2000.

5.     Crutchfield CA, Barnes MR.  Theories of motor control. In: Motor

    control and motor learning in rehabilitation. Stokesville Publishing

    Co.,Atlanta, Georgia, 1993:1-40.

6.     Crutchfield CA, Barnes MR.  Principles of motor learning. In: Motor

    control and motor learning in rehabilitation. Stokesville Publishing

    Co.,Atlanta, Georgia, 1993:359-412.