Motor Learning in Sports

What is Motor Learning?

Motor learning is the study of the processes involved in acquiring and refining skills.  It offers techniques and strategies that work for coaches on a daily basis. Knowing basic concepts takes much of the guess work out of finding the best instructional sequences and progressions to learn sport skills.  Required knowledge for physical education teachers, it provides key connections between sports training principles and coaching in the real world of athletics. 

I was introduced to this field of study during graduate school while coaching the throws and strength training at the University of Tennessee. Out of all of the sport sciences, I found that these courses supplied a goldmine of techniques for helping athletes accelerate learning and performance.

The Role of Skill Acquisition

Effective methods for improving skilled performance is perhaps the most valuable yet overlooked issue in the sport sciences.  Many times during my athletic career I was shown a biomechanical  analysis of my throwing technique, indicating where I could generate more force.  The reigning biomechanics expert at the time said to our group of elite throwers, "I showed you what to do.  Now you have to do it".  Our question was, "how"? That's where motor learning comes in.

Another case in point from a world-class sprint coach: Recently, Loren Seagrave shared with me that the biggest disconnect he found in the 30 years of collecting data and applying it to coaching was a lack of understanding about what is required to change a motor (movement) program to a more efficient one.  In other words, we have lots of information about sprint performance but we are not sure how to get athletes to effectively correct sprint technique.

Loren's statement provides another excellent example of the need to apply "how to" instructions so the athlete "gets it" to sport training analyses and principles.  

The bottom line is: Athletes and coaches need ways of turning scientific information into skilled performances.

With psychologically-based teaching and training tools, coaches can help athletes acquire skills more quickly.

Specific Benefits to Athletes and Coaches

Motor learning goes hand-in-hand with the other sport sciences. In many cases the research backs up what I learned as an athlete through years of practice. The research also gave me more ideas about improving my coaching techniques.

Research-based instructional and training strategies answer many common questions like:

  • How can I correct the errors in my pulling technique?
  • What's the best teaching progression for the tennis serve?
  • Will practicing with heavy or light bats improve my batting average?
  • Should I use the same instructional techniques for a beginner and an advanced athlete?
  • What's the best order of activities for my daily workout routine?

Topics on this site include:

Coaching Feedback

Individual Differences

Mental Practice

Reaction Time

Sport Skills

Sport Memory

Stages of Learning

Training Variation

Transfer of Training

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