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Understanding motor learning stages improves skill instruction

This is an excerpt from Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes by Jeffery Huber.


Three Stages of Motor Learning

At this point in the chapter, you might ask, “What does all this discussion about thinking and memory have to do with motor learning and performance?” You want your athletes to respond, not think. You want them to grip it and rip it. You want them to look and automatically react. Well, motor learning, particularly early learning, involves attempts by learners to acquire an idea of the movement (Gentile, 1972) or understand the basic pattern of coordination (Newell, 1985). To achieve these goals, learners must use cognitive (Fitts & Posner, 1967) and verbal processes (Adams, 1971) to solve problems. To this end, Fitts (1964; Fitts & Posner, 1967) suggests that motor skill acquisition follows three stages: the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage.


As a coach I found this simple paradigm to be extremely helpful for understanding, guiding, and accelerating the motor learning process. Because of its importance, it is worth examining the three stages and their implications for effective coaching.


Cognitive Stage

For the new learner, the problem to be solved in the cognitive stage is understanding what to do (Schmidt & Lee, 2005). It would be extremely difficult for someone to learn a skill without receiving any prior knowledge about the skill, whether that knowledge is visual or verbal. For example, consider the butterfly stroke in swimming. It is a fairly complicated and somewhat unnatural stroke in which to syncopate the movement of the arms with the kick of the legs. It would be difficult indeed for a novice swimmer to learn such a stroke without ever seeing the stroke performed or ever receiving any declarative knowledge about how the stroke is performed. In other words, motor learning begins with the cognitive stage and the processing of information.


Surely the swimmer could discover how to roughly perform the stroke, but it probably would take many long hours of trial and error, experimentation, and some creative problem solving. It is much simpler to learn a skill by first acquiring information about the skill.


The cognitive stage is of great interest to cognitivists because this stage involves information processing. Also called the verbal–motor stage (Adams, 1971), this stage is verbal–cognitive in nature (Schmidt & Lee, 2005) because it involves the conveyance (verbal) and acquisition (cognition) of new information. In this stage, the person is trying to process information in an attempt to cognitively understand the requirements and parameters of motor movement.


Consider several young children taking beginning golf lessons. They might arrive early for their first golf lesson. Having never seen any golfers in action, they are excited and eager to see what golf is all about; each child is a mini tabula rasa ready to learn. They watch the preceding class of golfers and immediately begin collecting visual information. Next, the instructor explains the golf swing, beginning with the grip of the club and stance. Now they are gathering verbal information about the sport. In other words, they don’t simply show up and begin golfing. Everything begins with the acquisition and cognitive processing of newly presented information. During this cognitive stage, the beginning athlete ingests information and organizes it into some meaningful form that will ultimately lead to the creation of a motor program.


The cognitive stage is characterized as having large gains in performance and inconsistent performance. During this stage instruction, guidance, slow-motion drills, video analysis, augmented feedback, and other coaching techniques are highly effective (Schmidt & Lee, 2005). Recall the discussion in chapter 4 regarding Adams’ closed-loop theory and the importance of error-free learning in the initial learning stage (p. 133). During the cognitive stage it is important that the learner is provided with the necessary information, guidance, and time to establish sound fundamentals of movement. Sometimes making errors and taking a constructivist approach to coaching and learning can be useful (see the discussion on schema theory, p. 196).


Associative Stage

The associative stage is characterized as much less verbal information, smaller gains in performance, conscious performance, adjustment making, awkward and disjointed movement, and taking a long time to complete. During this stage the athlete works at making movement adjustments and stringing together small movement skills. This stage is also called the motor stage (Adams, 1971) because the problem to be solved in the associative stage is learning how to perform the skill (Schmidt & Lee, 2005). From the cognitive perspective, the athlete is attempting to translate declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge. In other words, the athlete is transforming what to do into how to do.


No diver in the history of the sport of diving has ever performed every single dive for perfect 10s in a single competition. There is always room for improvement. This is true for all sports. For example, a baseball or softball pitcher can improve delivery and learn new pitches, a pole-vaulter can learn to use a new pole and a new technique, a gymnast can refine a routine, a basketball player can improve shooting technique, and a swimmer can improve stroke or flip turn technique. Highly successful athletes and highly effective coaches are always looking for ways to get better. Consequently, they frequently revisit the cognitive stage and then the associative stage of motor learning. Revisiting these stages is the relearning process.


Some years ago, I had an opportunity to work with Professor Yu Fen at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Professor Yu Fen is one of the top diving coaches in the world and has produced numerous world and Olympic champions. One of the things I took away from working with her is the importance of continually revisiting the first and second stages of motor acquisition, no matter how accomplished an athlete might be. If a diver was not performing, say, a forward 3 1/2 somersault in the pike position, she would take the diver to the trampoline and begin working a basic jump or single somersault. During one of her practices, I observed Olympic gold medalist Tian Liang practicing on 1-meter springboard virtually the same drill as a beginning athlete on an adjacent springboard.


Let’s say you have a new athlete who recently transferred from another program to your program. The reason for the transfer is that he has hit a plateau. In fact, his level of performance has begun to decrease. After observing him, you realize that the reason for his lack of progress is that some of his fundamentals are badly in need of remedial work. Where do you begin with this adopted athlete with a host of bad habits? Given what you now know about motor acquisition, the best approach is to first explain that if he wants to improve his performance he will have to make changes, and to make changes means letting go of old habits and learning new fundamentals by revisiting the three stages (cognitive, associative, autonomous) of motor learning. This relearning process means acquiring new information (cognitive stage) and then going through the frustrating associative stage.


Getting athletes to buy into relearning can be challenging. Some athletes, especially successful ones, might say, “Hey, I was high school state champion doing it this way! Why should I change? Besides, the new movement feels awkward.” A coach might reply, “Well, you could have won by even more had you done it the new way!” When these athletes try something new it feels uncomfortable and awkward and they sometimes are reluctant to continue with the change. The verbal information you provide about the three stages of motor learning as well as the information about the new technique helps them establish or activate a learning schema (p. 179) and provides a rationale or perspective for persevering with the change. Next, you work with them on the skill in its simplest form until the skill is mastered, automatic, and integrated into the movement program.


Autonomous Stage

According to Fitts’ and Posner’s paradigm, this is the final stage of motor acquisition. It often requires years of training to arrive at the autonomous stage. But this stage is where it’s at for elite athletes, where motor performance becomes largely automatic, where cognitive processing demands are minimal, and athletes are capable of attending to and processing other information, such as the position of defensive players, game strategy, or the form or style of movement (Schmidt & Lee, 2005) in sports such as ice-skating, dance, and synchronized swimming. It is the stage where they can now respond and not think (or think minimally), where they can grip it and rip it, look and automatically react, and enter a state of flow.


Both good outcomes and bad outcomes are associated with the autonomous stage. The good is that performance requires much less attentional and cognitive demand, which thereby frees the performer to engage in secondary tasks, such as the concert pianist who is able to follow random digits or perform arithmetic while simultaneously playing the piano (Shaffer, 1980), or the quarterback who is capable of surveying the defense and detecting an eminent blitz while simultaneously calling the signals and changing the play at the line of scrimmage.


The bad is that since less cognitive demand exists during performance, it leaves ample room for irrelevant and distracting thoughts to sneak into the workshop (working memory) of the mind. Examples of this occurrence are the elite athletes at the Olympic trials who get caught thinking about making the Olympic team instead of focusing exclusively on performance during the last moments of a gymnastics routine, swimming race, or wrestling match. Think of the gymnast who puts together a stellar routine only to make a silly mistake at the end; or the swimmer who swims magnificently but doesn’t finish the race and gets touched out at the wall; or the wrestler who dominates the match but loses concentration and allows his opponent to gain an easy reversal in the waning seconds. Some mountain climbing accidents occur as climbers near the top of the mountain. This may be so because those experienced climbers used some of their available attentional capacity to suddenly begin thinking about reaching the peak—the outcome—rather than focusing on what got them to that part of the mountain in the first place—the process.


The other bad outcome about automatic performance is that it reinforces athletes to maintain incorrect movements because a certain amount of comfort and reinforcement is associated with automatic performance, even if it is incorrect. But just because a motor movement can be performed automatically doesn’t mean the movement is correct or worthy of being maintained. Moreover, as soon as athletes stop thinking about the new movement during the cognitive and associative stages, they are likely to respond automatically, thereby reverting to the old and incorrect movement in their performance repertoire. The three stages of motor learning are summarized in table 6.2.


Applying Motor Learning Stages in Coaching Athletes

Provide your athletes with detailed information in the early stage of learning. If you want your athletes to perform correctly, give them the correct information. This means that you need to know what you are talking about and you need to be clear and concise with your instruction. If your athletes don’t understand what they are supposed to do, they won’t do it correctly. And if they don’t understand, perhaps the problem is you, not them. In other words, you may need to do a better job of clearly communicating exactly what you want them to do and communicate it in laymen’s terms—in language they can understand and at a conceptual level they are prepared to cognitively grasp. For example, you may understand the physics behind what you are teaching, but if your athletes don’t comprehend concepts such as angular momentum, shear force, and action–reaction you will have lost them at “Hello.”


Explain the three stages of motor learning and the relearning process. Relearning something is often more difficult than learning it correctly the first time. This difficulty can lead to frustration and frustration acts like a brick wall between the athlete and the desired goal movement being learned. Make sure your athletes understand the motor learning stages and which stage they are at during the relearning process. Continually remind them that if they trust you and stay committed to the new movement, eventually it will become automatic and integrated into their performance. The new movement seems awkward now compared to the old movement because they are in the associative stage, but after enough repetitions the new movement will become smooth, automatic, and, most important, more effective than the old movement. Some coaches are ineffective at fixing movements. They understand how to teach it correctly in the beginning, but not how to change (fix) a bad habit. Understanding cognitive theory and taking a cognitive teaching approach will help you effectively do both: Teach it correctly the first time and change a bad habit.


Be patient with your athletes during the associative stage. Based on the stages of learning, we now know that awkward and disjointed movements characterize the associative stage. Things aren’t going to look or feel very smooth at first; it is part of the learning process. If you expect performance to be immediately smooth and flowing, you are going to be disappointed, disillusioned, and perhaps even somewhat distraught—and so too are your athletes. Fear not. It is all part of the learning process. Remain patient and facilitate learning. Your impatience is likely to make your athletes anxious and impede their learning, whereas your patience and confidence will motivate them to persevere during the associative stage.


Stress the importance of positive information in working memory. A goal for you is to get your athletes to be able to perform automatically. As already mentioned, however, automaticity creates empty space in working memory, which makes it easier for athletes to unintentionally entertain negative thoughts and ruminate, which means to repeatedly dwell on negative and unproductive thoughts. For example, some athletes focus on the outcome of competition and the thought What if I lose? Ruminative thoughts are often unconscious thoughts that through sheer volume of constant repetition become overwhelming and overtake working memory. For example, at a major competition some athletes get this blank look on their faces when their coaches talk to them. It’s as though their entire focus is on some internal thought and they are lost to the external world of the here and now. Help your athletes keep working memory space filled with the right stuff; teach them to monitor their thoughts, use thought-stopping statements, redirect their thoughts, engage in positive self-talk, and answer negative thoughts and images with positive thoughts and images.


Read more from Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes by Jeffery Huber.



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