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Understanding how we learn motor skills

By Jeffrey T. Fairbrother, PhD

Just off Highway 1 in central California, there are several small coves on the Pacific Ocean that serve as the local arena for a handful of highly skilled surfers. Most of these surfers are not the ones you will see in magazines or movies. For them, surfing is a lifestyle, and their participation in the sport is driven by their passion to surf. One characteristic of most skilled surfers that can be readily observed is the amount of time they spend watching the ocean in general and the waves in particular. Part of the reason for this may be the indefinable allure of the ocean itself, but among the best surfers this viewing also serves an important function in their surfing skill. To become good, a surfer must learn to judge the waves and conditions of the specific location to be surfed. Experienced surfers often do this for a period of time before entering the water. They look for how the waves are approaching, where they are breaking, and how big they are, as well as other conditions such as currents or crowds. This helps the surfers understand where they need to position themselves to catch the best waves and what to do if they find themselves in a potential trouble spot. By viewing the waves and predicting when and how they will break, the surfers get practice in anticipating a critical aspect of the environment. If they watch other surfers, they can also learn what works and what doesn’t at a particular spot on a given day.

Theories of How We Learn

Over the years, many different theories have been used to explain how people learn (Adams, 1971; Schmidt, 1975). Some of these theories have been attempts to explain learning in general while others have focused mainly on the learning of motor skills. Today, one idea has emerged as the most widely adopted view of motor learning. Schema theory (Schmidt, 1975) states that as we learn a motor skill, we develop a rule that shows the relationship between movement outcomes and things such as our intended goal, the conditions of the performance setting, and the details of the motor program created to control the movement.

Suppose you want to learn to play darts. Your intended goal is to throw the dart so that it lands in the bull’s-eye. The conditions of the performance setting would include things such as the distance to the dart board and the lighting in the room. As you prepare to throw the dart, you will generate a motor program that specifies things such as the direction of the throw, the angle of release, and the force of the throw. Once you throw the dart, you will receive sensory information about how the throw felt and where the dart landed. If you do this often enough, you will learn a rule (i.e., you will develop a schema) that connects these aspects of the performance. To simplify this idea, just think about how hard you will need to throw the dart. Let’s assume that because you are inexperienced, you aim right at the bull’s-eye and throw the dart with very little arc. On your first try, the dart hits about 6 inches (15 centimeters) below the target. On your next attempt, you throw the dart a little bit harder and it lands about 2 inches (5 centimeters) low. On your third attempt, you throw the dart with even more force, and now it lands just below the bull’s-eye.

With enough practice, you will eventually develop a schema that relates throwing force to where the dart lands. That is, throws with less force allow the dart to fall to a lower position. Once you have learned this rule, you might find that aiming a little bit above your target will enable you to throw the dart with a comfortable force that will give it the appropriate arc to get to the board without falling too low.

This is an excerpt from Fundamentals of Motor Behavior.

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Fundamentals of Motor Behavior

Fundamentals of Motor Behavior

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