Science of Sports Performance

Motor Practice & Learning 101

[vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=”” bg_type=”no_bg” parallax_style=”vcpb-default” bg_image_new=”” layer_image=”” bg_image_repeat=”repeat” bg_image_size=”cover” bg_cstm_size=”” bg_img_attach=”scroll” parallax_sense=”30″ bg_image_posiiton=”” animation_direction=”left-animation” animation_repeat=”repeat” video_url=”” video_url_2=”” u_video_url=”” video_opts=”” video_poster=”” u_start_time=”” u_stop_time=”” viewport_vdo=”” enable_controls=”” bg_override=”0″ disable_on_mobile_img_parallax=”” parallax_content=”” parallax_content_sense=”30″ fadeout_row=”” fadeout_start_effect=”30″ enable_overlay=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_pattern=”” overlay_pattern_opacity=”80″ overlay_pattern_size=”” overlay_pattern_attachment=”fixed” multi_color_overlay=”” multi_color_overlay_opacity=”60″ seperator_enable=”” seperator_type=”none_seperator” seperator_position=”top_seperator” seperator_shape_size=”40″ seperator_svg_height=”60″ seperator_shape_background=”#fff” seperator_shape_border=”none” seperator_shape_border_color=”” seperator_shape_border_width=”1″ icon_type=”no_icon” icon=”” icon_size=”32″ icon_color=”” icon_style=”none” icon_color_bg=”” icon_border_style=”” icon_color_border=”#333333″ icon_border_size=”1″ icon_border_radius=”500″ icon_border_spacing=”50″ icon_img=”” img_width=”48″ ult_hide_row=”” ult_hide_row_large_screen=”” ult_hide_row_desktop=”” ult_hide_row_tablet=”” ult_hide_row_tablet_small=”” ult_hide_row_mobile=”” ult_hide_row_mobile_large=””][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]If I were to ask you what percent of the ability to succeed in sports is related with physical movement, what would you say?

That answer tells you just how vastly important this topic is when creating athletic performance programs.  Everything you do, every jump, every squat, every run, is a motor pattern that needs to be learned, honed and perfected.  Knowing the background of motor learning and how we can structure it to create different results with different populations is vital to being a successful coach, so lets talk about it.

First, lets look at some definitions that are going to dictate how we structure workouts for different athletes with different goals.

There are two primary aspects to keep in consideration of teaching skills: short term and long term.  These can be described as motor performance, and motor learning.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Motor performance is described as the temporary change in movement patterns during a training session.

Motor learning is the permanent change in behavior, measured after a retention period.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Here are the ways you can teach a movement to increase learning and retention:

Partial – training small components of a larger movement individually.  These smaller components must be a naturally occurring component of the larger movement to have a positive transfer.  Great for teaching more complex actions (hang clean, run technique).

Whole – training the entire movement in its entirety (squatting, bench press).[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]The following describe practice methods in reference to the motor patterns you should teach on a daily and weekly basis.

Constant practice – repeating a single motor pattern until it is learned.  Quickly increases the motor ability on that day.  Used with new athletes to teach or refine basic patterns.

Variable – training multiple similar variations of a task. Used once an athlete has acquired the basic movement pattern.  Creates a strong long term learning and retention stimulus.

Massed Practice – Performing the same movement, over and over, with minimal rest or break, until it is accurately performed.  Works with skilled and highly motivated athletes.  Allows for technical refinement of patterns.

Distributed Practice – Performing the movement with frequent breaks, rest periods and time between training sessions.  Great for learning patterns as increased frequency and breaks allow for mental processing of the pattern.  Best for learning gross motor patterns.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]And this is how you can structure workouts over the course of weeks and months to increase learning and retention:

Blocked practice – One variation is taught repeatedly before moving to a new variation of the exercise.  Has very low interference from one movement to the next, which facilitates the learning of the basic movement pattern.  Low long term transfer to other skills, and lower retention rate.

Random practice – multiple variations trained in random order.  High interference from movement to movement, however retention stays high.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]It is also important to know the athletes purposeful understanding of WHY they are performing the movement.

Knowledge of Performance – was the desired motor pattern learned and performed correctly.

Knowledge of Results (KR) – does the movement pattern you know or are in process of learning translate to the end goal.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]What about feedback?  The information an athlete receives is vital to how they learn to perform the movement.  The two main types of feedback:

Extrinsic Feedback – external feedback on the desired technical pattern given by a 3rd party (coach).

Intrinsic Feedback – what the athlete felt when performing the movement.

The feedback the athlete receives may be the most important thing on this entire list:  if they are not properly taught how to do something, using proper type, quantity and amount of feedback, they can’t properly learn to perform the movement with proper technical efficiency.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]And last, this is the coaches role in the process.

Guided – changes in performance are dictated by a coaches external cueing. Necessary for the vast majority of coaching. Uses extrinsic feedback to learn and perfect a movement pattern.

Discovery – letting the athlete “figure it out” and learn the movement based on feel and knowledge of the necessary skill.  Useful mostly in high level athletics where the athlete knows in detail the desired goal and can train autonomously to achieve it.  Uses intrinsic feedback to perfect the movement pattern.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Reading through this list, you can pretty easily surmise how they would apply to the various levels of athletes.  However, the long term training goal is also a key factor in how you teach.  Do you want an athlete to perfect a movement today, or are you looking to make sure the movement pattern sticks for the long haul?

There are three main stages of motor control an athlete will be in that you need to be aware of when designing a program and adjusting the desired variables (volume, frequency, intensity, technique).[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Cognitive Stage

WHAT: The athlete is learning the basics of the training movement.  Visual feedback is extremely important as the athlete develops strategies for accomplishing the task.  Developing a “neural map” of what needs to fire and when to perform the movement.  Trying to increase KP (knowledge of performance).

HOW: Highlight purpose of the training task, demonstrate the task the way you want it to be performed, or break into smaller parts that’s relate back to the whole movement.

PRACTICE: Distribute the practice to avoid fatigue, limit distractions and negative interference from other training tasks.  Use slow, controlled movements. Follow blocked-constant practice to refine movement patterns before switching to new or more complex variations. Guided practice dominates.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Associative Stage

WHAT: Practice and refinement of the movement.  Movement errors will decrease, need for cognitive recognition of the pattern decreases, automaticity increases.  Trying to improve the “neural map”. Mostly “whole” movement training except in cases of complex actions. Goal is to increase KP and KR.

HOW: Help performer develop the decision making necessary to train the movement.

PRACTICE:  Randomize practice with other variables to increase long term retention of movement patterns.  Begin introducing real world scenarios to have maximal transfer of the movement. Guided practice dominates.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Autonomous Stage

WHAT: Cognitive control almost autonomous, mental effort not necessary to perform the movements..  Develop additional and refined motor skill and goal attainment.  KP has been established, KR is only vital factor.

HOW: Confirm or correct the athletes analysis of the movement.  Increase specificity of the training movements.

PRACTICE: Random practice movement patterns with increased specificity of movement.  Discovery-guided practice to offer extrinsic feedback, which can be compared with the athletes intrinsic feedback to find potential solutions for progress.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]In general, more high quality, high frequency and varied training with a pyramid of specificity from simple to complex, general to specific will yield greater motor ability.  And that is the goal of training athletes, not increasing the squat max and telling them to go practice.

So how can you use this situation to adjust for various athletes?  Here is a breakdown:[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Youth and untrained Athletes:

  1. Focus on lots of external visual and audible feedback.
  2. Use the same exercises repeatedly before moving to others.
  3. Use several exercises per day (build the neural map). Focusing only on short term retention (motor performance) of one exercise will minimal additional learning affect on the long term retention of the movement compared to lesser, broader focus.
  4. Don’t look for daily perfection of everything, look for daily PROGRESS on everything, moving towards perfection over weeks, months and years.
  5. Long term success and retention is the only factor that counts with a youth athlete. Make them love training, give good feedback, and know that there is plenty of time to peak.
  6. Begin teaching basics of more complex patterns early, even if training the success of the movement is not the goal, set the foundation for future success. Jumps, skips, Olympic movements and more can be taught at this stage using part method, with focus on technique rather then intensity.
[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]College / High School

  1. Use guided training to not just correct movement, but teach athlete a sense of what is right, to develop their own intrinsic feedback on movement patterns.
  2. Distribute new motor patterns with frequent breaks.  Use massed practice for developed movements which need technical refinement.
  3. Variable, random practice will allow for maximal return. Train several variations simultaneously to improve all at once
  4. Train complex movements in part and as a whole, maybe even simultaneously.
  5. When introducing new movements, block-constant practice until learned, then integrate into main variable-random program.

  1. Develop strong sense of intrinsic feedback and motivation.
  2. Working with athlete to solve problems, rather than just coaching.
  3. Continued refinement of motor skills leading to perfection.
  4. Applicable skill development is goal.  Massed practice schedule allows for extreme refinement of small, technical patterns.

Note: This does not apply just to weight training.  Jumping, running, positional work, or anything involving any movement pattern can be planned and programmed using the concepts described above.  The goal is maximal transfer to the field, so start building your program to do just that!


About author View all posts Author website

Steve Olson

Steve Olson is a sports performance coach with a special interest in program design and periodization. He believes training is planning and tracking, and uses many different but effective methods of training for the short and long term development of athletes. He has trained Athletes from youth, high school, collegiate and professional, and utilizes different periodization models, training systems and modalities for each to maximize the athletic return from that athlete. He is also the owner and founder of Excel Training Designs, and can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *