Motor Learning

Posted by Sascha Boulet on

How do we learn new movements? This may be something you haven't had to think about before, but as a Kinesiologist, it is something I am faced with frequently as I teach people new exercises or modify their current movement patterns, such as gait and postural control. 

First off, what is motor learning? 

Motor learning is learning a new movement or improving a movement through practice or experience. In order to be considered learning, the learner has to retain the movement pattern after initial acquisition. 

There are different stages of learning. There are multiple models to define the difference between the initial acquisition and the mastery of a movement. One model for differentiating the stages of learning divide it into three parts based on the level of attention required: Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous (Fitts and Posner Three-Stage Model). 

The initial stage - cognitive - requires a lot of attention when performing the movement in order to perform it correctly and there may be a lot of trial and error to find the correct movement pattern. The second stage - associative - still requires attention but there is less variability in the movement. The final stage -autonomous - is once the movement is automatic and can be doneproperly without a lot of attention, therefore attention can be refocused on other tasks. 

How can we improve learning? 

In order to learn a movement, and not just follow a set of instructions in the moment, it is best to practice the new movement pattern. Practice of a movement or movement skill can be optimizedto improve learning. Here are general guidelines to get the most out of practice:

More practice is better, as long as fatigue does not become a limiting factor 
Changing up tasks vs. doing one task at a time improves retention of tasks
Decreasing frequency of external feedback rather than constantly providing feedback

Motor learning is only part of performance - in addition to optimizing the movement pattern in controlled and uncontrolled environments, muscular training is also necessary to improve strength, speed, and/or endurance to complete or maintain proper motor pattern.  

Next time you are learning a new movement, trying to improve a movement skill, or change a habitual pattern (i.e. gait, posture), make sure you are 1. directing your attention to the movement task you are trying to accomplish 2. getting the right type of practice.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out! 

-Nathalie, Kinesiologist

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