When coaches and trainers are helping their athletes try to learn or refine skills they will often refer to terms such as ‘motor control’ or ‘skill acquisition’. When I coach runners I regularly find that the runners have heard these terms and other related words but don’t really understand what they mean and what their relevance is. Essentially if the explanation isn’t clear enough and the immediate context rich enough then the runner will pretty much just let the terminology wash over them.
The subject of how we as humans learn new novel skills and refine them is a huge one and one that weaves its way through a myriad of other interconnected topics. By considering this concept we are pulling on knowledge from human evolution, from neuroscience, from physiology and from behavioral science to name just some of the subjects. But whilst this topic can seem far reaching and massively overwhelming it is possible to bring together what we know today into a coherent blended model that can help coaches perform their roles more effectively and allow individuals to develop their talents more thoroughly.
For some time in the world of motor control there have been 2 different models to explain how we as humans learn new skills, apply them and refine them. Firstly the older and more well-known closed-loop Motor Programming model and secondly the more recent and less well known Dynamic Systems Theory. In short the motor programming model describes a closed-loop process whereby the brain receives sensory information (stimuli), calculates a deliberate motor response (program) and actions this coordinated response. After which the brain calculates how accurate that response was in order to refine its response the next time that situation or type of situation (motor program category) occurs. Hence over time this closed feedback loop generates motor programs that are stored in the brain and called up in the future when needed.
In contrast the more recent dynamic systems theory is based around the fact the body wants to retain a homeostatic state with maximum energy efficiency and that for any given scenario faced by the body there is an ‘optimum attractor’ state associated with it. Hence when a stimulus is applied the body can react in novel and more reflexive ways to make adjustments on the fly to optimise the body’s response to maintain some level of homeostasis. This reflexive reaction does not involve the brain making complex calculations and calling on motor programs which in many cases may not already exist when the stimulus is applied (for example babies learning to walk for the first time or a child trying to ride a bicycle for the first time).
In coaching science today there is a consensus that neither of the above models are right or wrong. In fact there is a great weight of evidence that can be used to support both of these theories. Instead we now know as coaches that the likely true answer of how people learn and refine skills is some combination of both approaches. When people are learning to adapt to a novel stimulus for the first time it’s most likely that their bodies will respond more reflexively in line with the dynamic systems theory. But once they have gotten past that challenge with a response that either worked well or didn’t, some record of that is store in the brain in what are commonly called the lower brain centers. If we repeat the same motor response to a given challenge we will begin to emphasis firing the same neural circuitry in the brain forming motor programs. However at any time if needed we can respond reflexively if the situation is more novel than it is repeated.
Over time when motor skills are repeated and certain parts the brain are connected by maps of firing neurons certain motor programs get consolidated and hard wired, probably stored in categories of response. Categorising motor responses creates a hierarchical structure that inevitably allows the brain to respond faster in the future, just like a filing system helps you find an important document faster when someone requests it months later. Hence motor programming becomes more important the more repeated the motor response and the more repeated the activity.
a filing system helps you find an important document faster
With a movement pattern like running, that has extremely high levels of repeatability the consolidation of motor programs happens very quickly and becomes consolidated in quite an extreme way. In running coaching this is why when we considering affecting a runner’s biomechanics we have to be very careful. Even runners that haven’t accumulated that many months of running will have already consolidated hard wired motor programming that if adjusted might lead to higher risks of new injuries in the short term.
This also links into high level athletes we observe winning races and running fast that appear visually to have quite poor technical form that contradicts the textbook. Initially these runners learned efficient running movement by a dynamic systems approach that did the best with the tools the body had to offer. Their technique may look bad but they are actually internally highly efficient. When functional MRI scans have been performed on athletes like this what is found is that their brains are extremely quite (low neural activity and little to no conscious direction). So their idiosyncratic style is actually the best style for them and the most efficient because it allows their brains to be quietest and thus their body’s to be most relaxed.
Often these runners that have what looks on the outside to be poor technique have in fact over years of running training taught their body’s to be very good at making subtle compensations. When we as coaches observe movement dysfunctions and compensations by other structures we are seeing the dynamic systems theory in action. Not only does dynamic systems theory allow us to respond to novel challenges from outside the body but it can also help us to make immediate on the fly adaptations within the body. If your right hip is tight and other leg muscles and back muscles have to immediately compensate for this on the fly as you run, there will likely not be a stored motor program ready to call up to deal with this.
This combined model approach incorporating both closed loop motor programming and dynamic systems theory can also help explain a few things that scientists have been observing for a long time.
Instant reflex reactions
Many of us have experienced situations where they have been challenged to respond in a totally new situation almost instantaneously. With no time to think or calculate and no pre-existing motor programs to call upon we can still somehow execute tasks and avoid death. Clearly we have an in-built ability to react extremely quickly and respond in a way that is in our interest in terms of survival or is beneficial in terms of us maintaining some degree of homeostasis. It makes logical common sense that this is to some extent a product of human and animal evolution and that 10,000 years of adapting to constantly changing environments has built such a dynamic system into us.
Flow state and the quite brain
When we perform tasks that we are well practiced at and highly skilled at it is often noted that we can execute this performance subconsciously without internal conscious direction and dialogue and in a way that we barely even know that we are doing it. This fits with the shift from initial dynamic response to a stimulus followed by gradual transition to hardwired motor programming. As the motor programs required to perform that skill are reinforced more and more control transfers from lower brain centers to higher brain centers. The process requires less thought and becomes more automatic. At its height the brain finds it so simple and fast to fire the necessary circuits for that task that the brain produces dominantly alpha waves and slips toward what we might call a flow state, when very high levels of performance appear to come very easily to the individual.
The role of Myelin
Studies on rats as well as autopsies and brain scanning have provided evidence relatively recently to support the importance of Myelin in the brain. Myelin is a substance that is produced and secreted in the brain to help insulate and protect neural pathways. The research evidence points toward people with more highly developed skills also creating more Myelin. The current theory suggests that as particular neural maps or motor programs are called up repeatedly, so more Myelin is laid down to insulate these circuits (similar to rubber insulating tape). More Myelin insulation helps reduce signal loss that helps the signals move faster, much much faster around the circuits. Hence eventually as someone masters a skill the motor program is operating so fast and so effectively that the individual barely registers that it is happening.
The 10,000 hour rule
Connected to the concept of Myelin secretion and insulation we also know as coaches about the principle of the 10,000 hour rule. Decades of meta analysis and study into experts that have mastered a range of different skills for different activities were summarised as generally having required around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice time to achieve that mastery. In reality we know that 10,000 is just a number and that in fact the range could be huge and start as low as 3,000 hours. But given the role of Myelin and understanding that it takes time to lay down enough Myelin to fully insulate the necessary circuits fits with the concept that there is a range of practice hours required across all skill based activities in order to achieve a very high level of skill.