Learning, Freedom, and Motor Skills


Learning, Freedom, and Motor Skills

Jenn Pilotti

You approach a tree that you used to climb as a child. As you look up at its branches, you wonder how your now somewhat larger body is going to navigate the branches and move upwards.

You begin climbing, only to find yourself stuck, about three feet off of the ground. Feeling like you have no more options left and zero interest in risking serious injury, you silently come down, surprised that something you used to do so easily is now so much harder.

When you move, your brain sends information to your muscles before you actually begin the task. The goal of the neuromuscular system is to establish a way for the body to complete the task as efficient as possible. Getting to the top of the tree requires multiple joints to coordinate in a specific way in order to propel you upwards.

When you are unable to complete the task, your brain takes that information and figures out how it can be improved upon to increase the chance of success for your next attempt.

One way to approach successfully completing motor skills is to first determine whether the goal of the skill is subjective or objective. It’s subjective if you are trying to get the skill to look or feel a certain way. Are my toes pointed in the handstand? What is my spine position during the deadlift? Am I able to get the ball to spin a little more when I throw it?

It’s objective if you are trying to accomplish a specific task. Can I enter the handstand from the tuck position? Can I lift 225 pounds? Can I get the ball to go into the basket? Can I reach my arm towards the ceiling to grab the pull-up bar?

There is value in both the subjective and the objective. Both affect how the brain perceives how the movement is performed. I would argue neither is really better than the other, though they both result in different relationships towards the learning process.

When the goal of the movement is subjective, the outcome of the way the movement is performed is placed into a right or wrong category, often by a coach or another set of eyes. When I was practicing a lot of yoga, every workshop I attended resulted in a different way of doing downdog. I learned to change my down dog depending upon whose class I was in because certain teachers viewed different of my expressions of down dog as more right or more wrong.

Subjective movement requires internal awareness. The ability to make a shape or transition look a certain way depends upon the ability to feel what you are currently doing and change it. This awareness requires body control and an internal compass of where your body is located in space.

Feeling what you are doing while you are doing it and changing what you are doing in the middle of your position requires a deep understanding of the skill. If the brain plans a movement before it’s actually performed, to change the movement mid-performance requires changing the original plan. The central nervous system has to work to both sense what you are doing and change the motor output to “correct” the skill. If you are moving quickly, the time required to process the change you want to make will lag, usually resulting in an outcome that doesn’t match the intention.

Objective movement, on the other hand, is externally focused. Can I achieve x? In this scenario, the central nervous system comes up with a plan to accomplish the task. If you are unsuccessful and you give the nervous system a chance to process the failure before you try again, your nervous system will come up with an alternative plan, given the options you have available to you. The options you have available depend on things like your current fitness status, including available strength and degrees of freedom, and your ability to control movement in an integrated fashion. Feedback regarding how to do the skill better is simple: did you accomplish the task? If no, how can the motor pattern change to accomplish the stated objective? To jump further, how you push off matters more than what your landing looks like; what you look like when you land is subjective. The objective is to jump far.

The tree example in the opening paragraph is an objective skill. It’s more challenging to climb your childhood tree both because you are a different size and because the amount of strength and mobility available to you is different than it was when you were a child. Your brain takes this into account as it maps out its motor plan- what degrees of freedom are available to accomplish this task? What worked for you in the past? You inherently know when you are not going to be able to complete the task in a way that is safe for your body, so your brain says, “nope. Not a good idea.”

However, if you came back to the same tree tomorrow, you will change your strategy a little bit, as your brain and body work together to allow you to complete the task successfully and with minimal risk.

When you look at top performers in many sports on competition day, their form doesn’t always look aesthetically pleasing. That’s because they are trying to accomplish an objective task. How they accomplish the task doesn’t win the game; doing what they were hired to do does. Game day is not the day to work on looking pretty. That is best saved for practice.

People that have achieved mastery in their given sport have learned to strike a balance between the objective and the subjective. Even a sport like gymnastics, which is largely subjective, starts with an objective goal: can you balance on the beam? Can you swing from the bar? Can you do a somersault? Once the objective is accomplished, it makes it easier to focus on how the person executes the skill.

It also makes it easier to slow the skill way down and practice doing it different ways. When you are first learning a complex task, it is difficult to understand all of the moving parts and how you are doing it. Once you have gained a small amount of proficiency with the movement, it becomes easier to dissect it.


What does this mean for coaches and students?


It depends. In an athletic setting, where an athlete needs to be able to have a basic motor pattern to proficiently perform a task, such as performing a free throw, it makes sense to focus on the gross motor pattern first. Even if the person displays a lot of moving parts initially, making the throw inefficient, he will subconsciously watch how others successfully throw a free throw. He will also try throwing the ball different ways to increase his rate of success. The information from watching others coupled with the information his nervous system receives when he is successful, will begin to form a free throw structure that works for him. It won’t be “perfect,” but it will begin to be repeatable.

Once the athlete gets to the point where his action is repeatable, then it becomes easier to work on the subjective- what does it look like? Can it be slowed down? Can it be changed to look a certain way?

On the other end of the spectrum is the idea of learning the subjective first. What do you sense? What do you feel? What does it look like? Taking away an external goal enables the student to go slowly, layering the pieces on top of each other, like an ice cream sundae. What matters is what happens during this one, small piece.

This style of learning works well for people that aren’t initially interested in an outcome. It’s not about what the person can do, but the experience.

Eventually, however, allowing movement to be less internal can be powerful. The world, after all, is external and interacting with our external environment leads to a deeper exploration of what surrounds us.

Like all things, finding balance between the subjective and the objective leads to a greater integration of movement. If you find one style resonates more with you than the other, practice the one that resonates with you less. I definitely tend more towards the subjective, but I recognize for movement to be meaningful in a variety of settings, I need to teach and practice the objective.

It is also possible to combine the two experiences with the more advanced student. Recently, kettle bell swings were programed into my workouts. The first week they were on my program, the objective goal was can I do 50 kettle bell swings in the middle of this circuit, followed by 40 the next circuit? The objective goal was to perform the swings. How was less of an issue.

The second week they showed up, I knew that yes, I can actually do this even though it’s uncomfortable, so my two goals were to perform the prescribed number of swings and keep awareness in my feet, particularly my right foot, the entire time. That became my subjective goal.

As a teacher, you have a choice based on the individual’s goals: slow things down and teach the subjective first, giving students plenty of time to process what’s happening and make thoughtful corrections as they go along or begin with objective goals, let the student get comfortable with the basic movement through reflection after the movement is finished (“This round, try straightening your arms a little bit more.” “What happens if you do this round with the right foot forward instead?”)  To successfully create a positive learning environment, choose whether you want the experience to be subjective or objective and don’t mix the two for the new student; learning is hard enough, and respecting how the process works allows the experience to be more positive.

You can also make some of the exercises in a session or class subjective and others objective; I frequently use this approach with new clients or clients that have a hard time being in their bodies. I warm them up using a subjective, slow, exploration and then allow them the opportunity to think outsides themselves for a while, using objective exercises. We finish with subjective drills, so they leave feeling internally aware.

Really, it boils down to this: at the end of the day, what do you want the skill to accomplish? More body awareness, a deeper connection, more strength, more flexibility, an actual task? When you begin to assess the purpose behind what you are doing, it becomes easier to figure out how to present the skill to allow the optimal environment for learning. Keep in mind how the brain prepares for movement, and give yourself and your students time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t. When you are allowed to interact curiously with a task, within a specific set of parameters, you are given the freedom to learn.

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