Creating a motor learning environment is important in making learning-driven and lasting changes to the way athletes move.
Whether you’re doing math or playing basketball, you’re trying to solve a problem.
The best of the best, the geniuses, are incredibly good at solving some specific kind of problems.
Getting there is multifactorial and I’m not sure we can put the finger exactly on how to train someone to become a genius at something. However, I’m pretty sure any genius didn’t just magically get there. It was most likely the result of talent and a lot of deliberate practice.
Expressions like “we are what we repeatedly do” and “practice makes permanent” are simple ways of expressing how we acquire new motor skills through practice and assimilation of tasks that then become refined and automatic.
This implies that performance is reliant on creating a motor learning environment to reinforce connections that include all of the elements of the task: sensory input, movement patterns, and cognitive information.
In this article, we will explore the many different elements that go into creating this environment for our athletes.
Movement vs Progress: Are you just squandering your training money
Deliberate practice in training or rehab means having a structured plan with the goal of creating a learning environment for the client. It’s an optimization of the available time and resources.
That’s why I like the idea of movement vs progress. You can work extremely hard, but if you’re running in circles, you’re not gaining any ground. I’d much rather walk in a straight line towards a given destination.
In essence, if the training or rehab plan isn’t structured in a way to create a learning environment, well…you might as well light your cash on fire. You’re spending money on training and rehab without much return on investment. A brand-new car is pretty fly, it gives you happiness, but it won’t make your money grow. On the other hand, putting that same amount of money on a cash down for a property might be a better idea.
Now, don’t get on your high horses here, there are always some exceptions to the rule. I know that adherence to a program is based on motivation and, thus, enjoying the program. But hopefully you’re getting the point. There are limited resources available, and we must use them wisely.
Every time we are moving, we are spending energy. Whether it’s via concentration, speed, strength, endurance…we’re spending. Spending is ok. That’s why we have currency (in this case, energy). However, there’s a difference between the value and the price. An exercise might have the same price as another but might not have the same value. Value is what you’re getting out of your investment. And that’s going to be dependent on the context, which is going to be dictated by you and your goal.
Creating a learning environment is what gives us the best return on our investment because it adds value to what we are spending energy on
The world of constraints
There are 3 types of constraints under the umbrella of ecological motor learning: Individual, Environmental, and Task-related.
Individual: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
Individual constraints can be influenced by perceptual, cognitive, physical or motor competencies. If we focus on the physical aspect here, when you lack movement competency, you reduce your movement variability. That is, you have less movement options.
Having less movement options leads to an overuse of the path of least resistance, creating movement that is excessive, imprecise or insufficient. We can define this as a compensatory pattern, a poor movement choice, or a suboptimal motor pattern.
the resources the individual possesses are going to dictate how the motor problem can be solved
You can find the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle without the pythagorean theorem, but it most likely isn’t the most efficient way to go about the problem. The importance of technical mastery is that it’s the ideal or most efficient way to use an organized system of movements to solve a given motor task.
Task: The rules of the game
What relates to the task to be accomplished is like knowing the rules of the game of football. Within the game, there might be some different tasks needed from the quarterback, like throwing a screen pass or a hail Mary. Both tasks are going to require a different solution.
Environment: The chaos that tests the stickiness of a pattern
“Virtually all movements are aimed at achieving something in the environment. In any case, each and every movement takes place in an environment. Mechanically, the environment influences movements through the forces from the environment that act on the body.” (Bernstein, 1996)
The stickiness of a given movement is going to be observed in how it overcomes or reacts to external forces which come from the environment. In sports, this means the opponent’s movements, the playing surface, the fans, or the weather.
In the weightlifting world, this might be a little different, as putting yourself under the bar doesn’t come with many surprises. However, there is a big difference between a clean and jerk with a dowel and with 200lbs.
With 200lbs over your head, I’m pretty sure your body won’t care how you get the weight up. It won’t do what is right, it’s going to do what is familiar. So, what is familiar better be technically sound or you might get yourself into some sub-optimal positions.
In summary, movement choices are made based on an individual’s available resources to satisfy task demands with consideration to environmental factors. It is the interaction between the individual, task and environment that are going to influence movement.
All of these elements need to be considered when intervening on movement optimization, skill acquisition and mastery. Providing instruction, objectives or cueing on the skill or outcome without a clearly defined process of developing progressions suited to the needs of the individual is not ideal for developing competency, proficiency and essentially, sports performance.
Creating a motor learning environment
When designing a training or rehab program with the objective of motor learning, it’s important to understand the stages of learning. If we don’t, we’re going to have a hard time creating lasting changes in movement and behavior. After reading this, you should see how the Mobilization-Activation-Integration strategy makes a ton of sense to create a motor learning environment.
Many movements lie in automaticity. In our activities of daily living, we don’t think about stabilizing the scapula to grab the milk in the fridge. It just happens. But if that pattern becomes dysfunctional, say following an injury, we’re going to have to create a new motor pattern. In order to do this, we need a motor learning environment.
In a rehab plan, this means the individual needs to understand what they are doing, be aware of and feel the new movement. Only then can a new motor pattern emerge. If the understanding, feeling and awareness don’t change, the old pattern is always going to keep taking over to accomplish the task.
For example, if an individual’s scapular stability is perturbed following an injury, we will need to create an environment and structure that initially requires a lot of information and conscious effort and attention. Deliberate practice then creates a pattern that becomes more unconscious, automatic and smooth.
The objective of the Mobilization sequence is to “create space” or better space to move within. The main goal of this sequence is to make the individual more capable of movement by providing them with the necessary resources.
Let’s take our scapular stability example. When the scapula, or the scapulothoracic joint becomes unstable, the levator scapula will often become overactive to hike the shoulder girdle up in an attempt to better position the glenoid and/or provide range of motion in flexion and abduction.
If we hope to create a new pattern of scapula movement, we need to make sure we can “turn off” the bad pattern as much as possible. A levator scap release with a lacrosse ball can be a simple and effective way to down regulate the muscle and create better space within which we will have the individual move:
The Mobilization sequence can go way beyond just soft-tissue release: muscular, articular as well as neural strategies can be included to provide the nervous system with as many resources as possible for improved movement capacity. If you are interested in learning more on this, head to our Mobility Fundamentals online course.
The objective of the Activation sequence is to “create awareness”. The goal is to drive changes in and strengthen connections to form the elements of a particular behavior (or movement).
Isometrics are a very useful tool in the Activation sequence. More time is spent in a given position to create the feel. It’s all about feel. You cannot activate what you cannot feel.
For our scapular stability example, Activation is about bringing a lot of conscious awareness of the positioning of the scapula: As the upper extremity elevates, the scapula comes up and around the rib cage in protraction and posterior tilt:
The objective of the Integration sequence is to “create behavior”. The objective is to maintain positioning and improve sequencing during a loaded, specific movement pattern or behavior.
Here, the individual is putting actions together and practicing, practicing, practicing.
For example, needing to hold the scapula in a position of stability using a bottoms-up kettlebell hold:
While there is still conscious effort here, the goal is to progress towards more dynamic movement and more challenging positions as performance becomes more and more unconscious and smooth.
As the new feel is obtained, we can progress through the motor stages to challenge the skill, with the end goal being to have a movement pattern that is adaptable to the task and resilient to changes in the environment. It should be so strong that nothing can affect it.
Playing chess or playing basketball: Both are problem-solving
There is a lot to learn from chess masters. The first step towards mastery is understanding the rules of the game. Here, knowing how each piece on the board can move in order to accomplish the end goal: checkmate the king. This is the nature of the task to be accomplished.
Then, it is important to have the ability to analyze and make educated decisions about the board. That’s going to be dependent on the resources of the individual.
And then, there is the environment; the interaction between the two players, and how every strategy used impacts the placement of the pieces on the board. This is where the money is. A chess master is incredibly good at reading and adapting to the game.
However, chess masters practice not only by playing games, but by deconstructing the board and playing any given game situation. This provides the ability for pattern recognition.
Deconstructing play in this way is comparable to deconstructing movement to focus on the different motor learning constraints
Lebron James is as much of a genius as Magnus Carlsen, the current top chess player. The only difference is that Lebron is not a math genius, he is a movement genius.
Our end goal as trainers or therapists is to help our clients become movement geniuses. We do this by providing them with resources and creating a motor learning environment so we can optimize their capacity to solve problems.
Bernstein, N. A. (1996). Resources for ecological psychology. Dexterity and its development. (M. L. Latash & M. T. Turvey, Eds.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
in collaboration with Mai-Linh Dovan M.SC., CAT(C)
Marc-Antoine has been involved in baseball for many years. He played within Baseball Québec’s structure, at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College and the University of Pittsburgh. In 2015, he was selected in the MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics. Since retiring, Marc-Antoine has been transmitting his passion to young prospects as the pitching coach for the Académie Baseball Canada.