Skill Acquisition: A Practitioner’s Perspective- Part 2, Guest Post from Jeff Moyer

In Part 2 of his series Dynamic Correspondence‘s Jeff Moyer dives into history and various theories of Motor Control, and those who have paved the way for many of today’s theories.  This great synopsis of the works of the pioneers in the field provides great incite into the development of this subject and why it’s important for coaches in regards to improving athletic performance. 

Skill acquisition: A practitioner’s perspective – Part 2

“Nothing is more revealing than movement.” – Martha Graham

Motor control is the study of movements and postures and the mechanisms that underlie them, while Skill acquisition is the development of goal-oriented movements that are learned and are specific to tasks that are required in sports. [1]  Understanding how movement coordination and control is achieved can help to promote an educated organization for a learning environment and one that is effective for practice.[2]

In part 1, we discussed the need to quantitatively analyze athlete’s movement so that we can assess their strengths and weaknesses that are prevalent in their hard skills and soft skills.  In this article, I will attempt to address some of the theories and aspects of Motor Control.

“The development of a comprehensive model of motor control is necessary before one can consider issues related to learning, but this is not itself a simple task because the story of even a simple movement will have intentional, mechanical, informational, neural muscular chapters.”

Nikolai Bernstein
Nikolai Bernstein

Nikolai Bernstein:

“No natural phenomenon can be understood without carefully considering how it emerged.”[3]

Originally in the Eastern Bloc countries, sport coaches always worked to be teachers of sports technique, as this was fundamental to their work.  The Soviets associated biomechanics with the field of motor learning and motor teaching, as a means to technically prepare their athletes.  The best scientist that was known in the Soviet Union was Neurophysiologist Nikolai Bernstein, who has been considered the father of contemporary motor control (He also coined the term biomechanics). Bernstein dedicated most of his professional life to the study of how the brain controls motion.  He was the first fundamental research scientist to study human movements and how they are organized as he developed very advanced techniques to filming human movements in the 1920’s.  (  In 1935, he was nominated Doctor of Sciences without having submitted a thesis.  He was also included in the initial membership of the Academy of Medical Sciences of U.S.S.R., created in 1946.  In1948, Bernstein was awarded the Stalin prize for science.[4]

In the context of sport training, Bernstein studied each movement in detail; his results on the structure of sport movements were given to the Physical Institute of Culture, which helped to serve for practical training.

Bernstein wrote that an improvement of a motor skill consists of establishing the pathway of achieving the needed goal (motor pattern), which is resistant to its possible fluctuations under the influence of environmental conditions.  This establishing of a motor patternoccurs through the assimilation of the essential parameters of a motor task (motor determinants) with gradual adaption of its nonessential parameters to the environmental conditions.[5]   So essentially we must first figure out how we establish the needed motor pattern (hard skill), and then how that pattern is incorporated and used into its sports environment. (Soft skill)

Two Points of Bernstein’s Work:

There are two fundamental points that were in the research of Bernstein of which I would like to discuss:  first, Bernstein was concerned with what he called the Degrees of Freedom problem.  The Degrees of Freedom refer to the number of muscles and joints that need to be coordinated when we make a movement (Throwing, running, jumping).  How many limbs, muscles and joints are involved?  How are they involved and where are they involved?  There are a number of ways in which humans can move in order to achieve a goal.  However, from the start to the end of a movement humans need to be able to control and organize the body in one or more planes of motion (solve the degrees of freedom); if they are able to do this, this is called coordination.    The human body wants to use the patterns that require the least amount of energy and that is the most efficient melding of all of the parts involved

When a beginner first learns a skill, it can be difficult to control the muscles and joints to precisely control the movement pattern(s).  So naturally you may see one of two things: the athlete might compensate by “freezing” the many degrees of movement trying to assemble into a movement pattern.  This can be seen with the rigidity while learning new movements.  For example, the locking of the arm and hand at 90degrees while learning to use arm motions during running.  The stiffening of the arm and wrist while learning a tennis serve.  The stiffening of the arm and hand while learning to dribble a basketball.  The stiffness of the entire body while learning to throw a ball.   As the learner becomes more familiar & comfortable with the new movement pattern, they will begin to “unfreeze” these movements.  This “unfreezing” then allows for more precision and fluctuations to occur for advancements in the movements (More relaxed arm motion during running.  Various speeds and spins on a tennis serve.  Various basketball dribbling skills).  However with learning new movement patterns, you may also see an excessive amount of freedom that is hard to control by the athlete.  For example a young athlete whose limbs are all over the place while running, excessive body motions used to throw a ball.  With practice of the motor skill and gain in physical abilities, there will become more of a “freezing” of this excessive motion, that will help to control the complex motor skill.

The second point of Bernstein’s work that I’d like to bring out is what he discusses as the existence of “key-movements”.  Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky explains, I have to say that no body has used this term ‘key-movements.’  It was necessary for me to introduce this term because in the articles of Bernstein, there is no definition of this term, also because his articles/books are totally scientific.  It’s necessary to deliberate this information… In every kind of exercise there are “key-movements.”[6]  These “key-movements” have two characteristics: 1) they improve the whole complex movement.  They are very important in motor learning, so if a person tries to improve the sports technique, it is very important to improve their ability / capacity to execute the “key-movements” correctly.  2) “Key-movements” are important in increasing the magnitude of force-effort (power) employed while also decreasing the time (speed) that it takes to employ.[7]

According to Motor Control expert Professor Mark Latash, “In his book Dexterity and it’s Development, Bernstein did use a term similar to that (Key-movements), although he used it in a very fuzzy way.  He was one of those geniuses that had such a deep understanding that he could use a fuzzy word and could still make it sound ok.”

It is from this idea of “key-movements” that Dr. Yuri Verkshoshansky came up with his criteria for the Principle of Dynamic Correspondence.  More on this idea of “key-movements” and the Principle of Dynamic Correspondence will be further brought out and explained in later articles in this Skills Acquisition series along with practical examples and results.

Motor Control:

In order to understand the nature of motor control, it is necessary to discover what is actually being controlled and how the various processes governing that control are organized.  Motor control theories accounts for how the nervous system tries to solve the degrees of freedom problem. These theories influence the type of research questions asked and the types of experiments that are conducted. (Reflex Theories, Hierarchal Theories, Dynamical Systems and Ecological Approaches)

For year’s theories on this how and what have led to great debate among motor control theorists.  The science of motor control is the physics of living systems.  This is a very tough subject to study because it is physics of non-observable objects.  You don’t really know what is going on within the system, as there are no ways you can go inside to see.  However, once you believe that you have an idea of the system, the system will then change.  Theorists have to view the system in a sneaky way in order to try and find out the physical laws that lead to a specific behavior.  They are always trying to figure who & where the “wise guy” is that is making all of the decisions on how movement is being controlled.  The physical approach of control (bottom-up) looks at movement, and they figure it is the body and the nervous system that is the “wise guy” making all of the decisions.  A hierarchal approach (“top-down” – decisions are made by the higher centers of the brain that have pre-structured sets of commends) theorist don’t care as much about the body in movement, but mostly about the brain and how decisions are being made from the store representations of movements.

Then there is growing evidence for the theories (Ecological Psychology & Dynamic Systems Theory) explaining how there is more of an interaction of independent states that self organize and collect information from various constraints (environmental, organistmic, and task) that help tobuild movement and coordination, and that there is no one wise guy making the decisions.  This makes it very dynamic because components from a top-down and a bottom-up approach are added to the movement plan all together, thus making the system self-organizing.

Each theoretical perspective provides a good explanation of motor behavior in some movements and that one theory could provide a better explanation in other movements.  However not one theory alone can explain what is actually being controlled or how the various processes of motor control are organized in all movement scenarios.  Further explanations of the various motor control theories are WELL beyond my education and the scope of this article.

“Dynamic Systems Theory, Hierarchy Theories, Reflex Theories, Ecological Theories; these theories emphasize certain aspects of the actual system, which combines them all.  It is a very dynamic system because it changes with time.  It is built on a hierarchical principle (very few people argue that the spinal cord is hierarchically lower to the brain), and most actions are ecologically sensible.” – Mark Latash [8]

Interesting to note, there is new work being performed by Dr. Natalia Dounskaia out of Arizona State that may help with an understanding of motor control.   With her PhD in applied mathematics from the Russian Academy of Science and her background in the study of Robotics, Dr. Dounskaia is currently working on what she calls the Leading Joint Hypothesis (LJH).   This study of the LJH leads us towards two major insights: it suggests that the control strategy applied to human movements is very simple, even if multiple joints are involved.  And conversely, it highlights the complexity of the neural processes underlying the implementation of this apparently simple strategy.”The LJH proposes that a single (leading) joint is used to generate interaction torques at the other (subordinate) joints of the limb (like the handle of a whip creating the motion of the cord).  However, the muscles at the subordinate joints may also modify the passive motion generated by the leading joint.  To understand the organization of a multi jointed movement, we need only discover which joint serves as the leading joint, how it mechanically affects motion at the subordinate joints, and how the subordinate joint musculature modifies motion caused by the leading joint. [9]

Dr. Dounskaia says that her hypothesis stems from the ideas of Bernstein.    “He emphasizes the use of the brain and how the brains use of mechanical effects influences one segments effects on all others.  So basically my hypothesis says how exactly this happens.”[10]  Dr. Dounskaia believes that the simplicity of this control opens up new perspectives for learning complex motor skills such as the one used in sports.

As a practitioner, I am not in any position to argue for or against the particular theories of Motor Control.  While each theory has provided us with the important knowledge by the nature motor control in the processes that govern its control, no single theory has been able to address how these processes are controlled in all movement situations, largely because they describe human motor control at different levels of analysis.

A passage from the book Synergy, sums up the ongoing debates and struggle of understanding motor control:  “While working in an area of science dominated by intuitive rather than precisely formulated notions and hypotheses, Bernstein realized that before solving problems, one needed to focus on their exact formulation.  Later in his life, he liked to recount the following story (as recollected by Prof. V.M. Zatsiorsky):  ‘you probably do not know that God has a cousin who has never been very famous.   So, the cousin asked God to help him achieve fame and glory in science.  To please the cousin, God gave him an ability to get any information about physical systems in no time and to travel anywhere within a microsecond.  First, the cousin decided to check whether there was life on other planets. No problems; he traveled to all the planets simultaneously and got an answer.  Then he decided to find out what the foundation of matter was.  Again, this was easy: He became extremely small, crawled inside the elementary particles, looked around, and got an answer.  Then, he decided to learn how the human brain controls movements.  He acquired the information about all the neurons and their connections, sat at his desk and looked at the blueprint.  If the story has it right, he is still sitting there and staring at the map of neuronal connections.”[11]

In the next article in this series on Skill Acquisition, I will discuss motor learning; the various theories, stages, techniques, with particular attention being made to how to teach movement after an error is spotted.

[1] Terry McMorris. Skill Acquisition and Performance of Sport Skills. Wiley Blackwell. 2014

[2] Keith Davids. Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach.  Human Kinetics (2008)

[3] N.A. Bernstein. On Dexterity and its Development. Psychology Press (1996)

[4] M. Latash.  Progress in Motor Control: Vol. One. Berstein’s Traditions in Movement Studies.  Human Kinetics (1998)

[5] N.A. Bernstein “The Immediate Tasks of Neurophysiology in the Light of the Modern Theory of Biological Activity.” (1966)

[6] Personal Conversation with Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky

[7] Dr. Yuri & Natalia Verkhoshansky.  Specialized Strength Training Manual for Coaches.  Ultimate Athlete Concepts. (2009)

[8] Personal conversation with Professor Mark Latash

[9] “Poetry In Motion.”

[10] Personal conversation with Dr. Natalia Dounskaia

[11] Mark Latash Synergy.  Oxford University Press (2008)

Author Bio:

Jeff Graduated in 2004 from Hartwick College where he was a two sport athlete (Football & Track & Field).  Jeff has been a sport coach (Basketball & Football) at the youth, JV, Varsity and College level for football for over 10years.  Jeff has been in the strength in conditioning industry for over a decade, having worked in the medical, private, team, high school and collegiate settings, training clients from youth development, to rehabilitation and sport performance. 

Jeff has a relentless passion for all things physical preparation.  His pedagogy is heavily influenced by Eastern Bloc sport science.  Jeff has been very fortunate to have spent time with and studied under Dr. Michael Yessis, Yosef Johnson of Ultimate Athlete Concepts, Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky, Mike Woicik of the Dallas Cowboys, Dave Tate of EliteFTS, and Louie Simmons of Wesitside Barbell.

Jeff has numerous published articles, podcasts and videos for various websites and publications.

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