Implicit Motor Learning – External Focus

Implicit Motor Learning for Sports, Dance, Martial Arts and other Movement Practices

For an introduction to implicit motor learning see the following lecture by Professor Rich Masters of the University of Waikato.

Implicit motor learning is when we acquire new skills but are unable to create explicit, verbal descriptions, instructions or rules about the movements needed to complete them.  Simply put, implicit learning results in improved performance, without direct knowledge of the “how?” or “why?” that underlies it.

For example, a coach might talk a student through all of the body positions that they must imitate in order to replicate a tennis stroke, which would engage the working memory and might essentially prove to be “too much information” for the student.  Implicit teaching of the same skill might involve simply using an analogy that imparts all of the necessary information but on a more subconscious level via the use of simile.

The benefit of implicit learning is that skills acquired using such methods are better retained and more importantly, replicated under pressure and fatigue as may be in the case of a performance, a competition or combat.

There are different proposed methods for learning implicitly, but the one I have chosen to focus on for this video is an external focus of attention.  What this involves is that instead of concentrating on what your body is doing while attempting a movement, you instead focus on something external; an object, an apparatus or something in the local environment that is affected by that particular movement.  For example, as with the tennis stroke again, you can either focus on what your arm is doing (internal), or you can focus on what the racket or even ball is doing (external).

As I am more a dancer than a sportsman I tend not to use apparatus, nor affect the external environment in any significant way when I move, which I why I decided that it would be interesting to begin exploring the ways in which different tools can be implemented “artificially” in order to create an external focus that would otherwise not normally exist.  The object, or the tool is only present during the learning stage, and in practice the movement is executed without it.  This concept can be potentially applied to many different scenarios, sports or activities along with the other methods of implicit learning, and with these demonstrations I hope to spark interest in others who will have their own specific needs, goals and ideas for practical application.

Although the purpose of this video is to demonstrate potential uses of the external focus method, the way in which I have structured the exercises naturally makes use of another method: errorless learning.  By breaking down the movement into small components each one can be practiced individually and with little need to call upon the working memory due to their simplicity.  As the task is simplified there is a greatly reduced tendency to think about what is happening or why, which means that successful implementation of errorless learning will lead to skills being acquired implicitly.  I will demonstrate use of external focus in tasks that are unrelated to one another, as well as ideas for creating errorless learning exercises in future videos.

Implicit motor learning is not currently something well known outside of academic circles, yet it has the potential to make huge changes to the way we think about movement (and how we might stop thinking) and how we perceive the teacher-student relationship.  This is because the underlying implication of implicit methods is that not only are they perhaps the best way to learn, but that we are all capable of learning in a more natural way that doesn’t require anything near the amount of interference and verbal over-complication that we have become accustomed to as language-led animals.  Instead of the almighty teacher passing on wisdom to the lowly student, the power roles are reversed, and it is the job of the teacher to coach in such a way that simply brings out the natural capacities of the student.  From this new perspective the teaching styles we are probably most accustomed to might not only be barriers to effective learning, but also barriers to realising our own power and importance within the process.

The following demonstration uses the example of the one inch punch as the final skill to be acquired, but as you will see the exercises themselves can also be used or modified to serve other purposes – learning never happens in a vacuum.  This is not a tutorial about how to learn an effective one inch punch, rather it is an exercise in generating ideas about how a theoretical model can be applied to different real-world situations.



Wrist movement and strength

The first clips show the initial ideas that I had, and as such, they are perhaps a little unnecessarily complicated.  The idea is that instead of simply concentrating on the stick, the resulting movement from the wrist is transferred along the stick, to the string and to the weight attached to the end (a pine cone).  Conceptually speaking, concentrating on the pine cone is supposed to be further removed from the wrist than either the stick or the string, thus being “more” external.  As the following example demonstrates, I took this external distance a step further by actively trying to hit a target with the pine cone, albeit a large one.  The (potential) problem is that in order to make the pine cone move in such a way as to strike the target with the greatest force, there is a certain amount of timing necessary, and the placement of the arm and length of the string play an important role.  These requirements may actually be beneficial in particular circumstances, but it’s unsure whether there is any advantage to making the focus more removed from the initiating movement, and it seems that by complicating the exercise in this way, it could have the opposite of the intended effect.  Thus, this variation is probably suited to more advanced learners.

As the next videos show, I simplified the exercise while gaining an improved sense of feedback from the impact with the metal bar, which I eventually changed to the punch bag which allows you to hit with greater speed without the stress of contacting an entirely solid object at speed.  Any object could potentially be placed or hung at the desired height, but as I demonstrate the exercise can be performed with the arm in different positions in order to change the emphasis and stress.  The movement is also done in the opposite direction with the stick facing behind, so that strength can be built symmetrically.  Other factors that can be altered include: how close to the end of the stick it is gripped, how long or heavy the stick is, and how thick it is.  Positioning yourself so that the impact is near the end of range of motion, near the beginning, or somewhere in the middle is also a variable to consider.

The final wrist exercise is a similar movement that only requires a stick, the other difference is that it is the opposite hand that is absorbing the impact, so this also functions as a conditioning exercise for the hands.

In all wrist exercises the movement should come from the wrist alone, and not from closing the grip around the stick as if simultaneously squeezing and lifting up.  More movement can be created this way, but it gives a false impression of the role, and therefore strength of the wrist.  Both can be practised though, as transitioning from a loose grip to a tightly-held fist is another useful skill.

Torque and force transmission

Utilising the stick and punch bag once again, I devised this technique for teaching the hips/torso how to generate power.  With the stick held firmly against the body it is left up to the body to determine how to move, while you simply concentrate on hitting the bag with the stick.  A solid grip on the stick means that you will not be able to use your arms to assist with the movement.

The next variation is a step up which could be regressed into a step forward, or modified further by being incorporated into different lunges or striking at different stages of the lunge/stepping movement.  In the first example I am stepping with the right leg while turning in a clockwise direction, and then using the opposite leg while still turning the same way.  The same is then repeated in an anticlockwise direction.  The movement has been made more complex by forcing the body to generate force from a single leg which requires more involvement from the surrounding stabilising muscles.

Other progressions might include increasing the height of the step, decreasing the stability of the standing leg, adding resistance to the movement either on the body or the stick, or calling for the movement to be executed more explosively with a jump for example.

It’s important to note that although I am demonstrating the hips and torso as one, the position of the stick can be changed in order to isolate just the hips, or could be carried out in a sitting position in order to isolate the upper body.

The next exercise is essentially the same movement, except that with the stick and the arm outstretched we are now turning rotational force into forward force, which is perhaps the most important element in maximising how much can be generated from a static position.  Failing to generate or transfer force from the lower body means that you will be relying solely on the relatively smaller muscles of your arm to do all the work.

The more the arm remains in both the same horizontal and vertical planes, the less energy is wasted and will be transferred into forward motion.  Although I practised this concept by feel, having a precise target to focus on should help ensure that the arm does not waver.  This is a good example of when the use of a very light stick would be better suited to the task, as the excess weight can make it difficult to maintain a straight line of movement.

This longer clip is just me experimenting with putting the pieces together while still using the stick to give me a feel for how well the movements were occurring.

The final piece is an example of how precision could be practised, although it would be unnecessary and even counterproductive to train at full speed in the learning stage.


The Hidden Pathway


Some months ago I began writing a list of exercises for learning how to control the lumbar spine and how to differentiate between movement that originates in the hip from that of the low back.  As my list of variations grew an interesting pattern emerged: all of these exercises required and promoted “core” strength as a kind of side-effect.  I came to call this method “implicit strength training”, but at the time I hadn’t yet applied the idea elsewhere and it seemed paradoxical to think of training the core by not training it.  This concept drew awareness to the often hidden benefits to any particular set of exercises or method.

As the weeks went by, during various moment of my training I began to tune into the implicit strength aspects of what I was doing, while juggling and playing throwing and catching games I saw how I was also conditioning not just the skin on my hands but also the bones, through the repetitive impacts of catching spinning sticks and logs.

Returning to an even earlier point a couple of years ago when I wasn’t doing any type of training or exercise, I decided that without having any strong motivations for moving I would use manual labour as a point of entry, or excuse to introduce movement into my life again.  Sweeping leaves taught me a number of things that I had forgotten in my sedentary state, most importantly, that movement and physical effort or exertion were enjoyable activities in and of themselves, regardless of what outcomes they implied or lead to.  I was also reminded that for me at least, movement is often a meditative activity, I.e. one in which I am completely focused on the present moment, enjoying the different kinetic sensations that arise from any particular action.  In addition, I was aware of the strength requirements and eventual adaptations that would result from habitually moving in such a way.

Sweeping was not a mere chore that had to be finished and as quickly as possible, but it was an opportunity to benefit from an activity in multiple, non-obvious ways.  Each movement was something that could be practiced and refined if only we decided to give it our attention and deem it worthy of our time.  The irony being, that when we make the effort to give ourselves completely to whatever we may be doing we no longer wish for time to pass quicker, and we stop seeing things as being a “waste” of time or as obstacles to achieving our goals.

For Daniel, waxing cars and painting fences was a waste of time because he had wanted to learn karate, but what he didn’t realise at the time was that he was learning, and that in fact there were many such opportunities throughout the day to practice, to learn and to improve implicitly.

Just as parkour uses obstacles as tools with which to strengthen the mind and body, the implicit learning mindset takes this a step further by applying it to all activities and all obstacles, both physical and metaphorical.

What the implicit model of learning highlights is that in our attempts to decrease work and make life more efficient and convenient we successfully reduce exercise down to what we consider the bare essentials, to our own detriment.

The trend of isolating muscles in order to train them is actually a fool’s quest, because not only does the body function as a single coordinated unit both in daily life and in sport, but ironically, if we are successful in isolating  movements, NOT muscles, we call upon a much larger range of musculature to stabilise the body while one or two joints move under control. Badly executed barbell curls that resemble strange hyper-extended deadlifts are an example of someone who thinks they are isolating their biceps, but would benefit from a free ab workout among other things if true joint isolation were to be practised. Gymnastics rings offer the most difficult and purest form of controlled joint isolations imaginable, which makes the rings a great tool for practising and increasing the skill of paired stabilisation/mobilisation, and also a diagnostic tool for finding weaknesses or areas that lack necessary control.

In nature everything is experienced multi-dimensionally and has many implicit elements.  Problems begin to show up when we attempt to isolate and prise apart these elements from their intrinsic structures because in doing so we are ignoring the context in which they have grown.  If we cut off the philosophy (or fighting) from a martial art we are left with competition or meaningless movement.

As I have previously hinted at I believe that what is often referred to as the soul is actually a number of non-obvious, invisible and implied characteristics of an object, activity or being.  Martial arts minus philosophy is soulless, a person without strong guiding values, morals and purpose: soulless.  A meal from a blender or microwaved package: soulless.

In this way we could see that attempts to alter traditions whether they originate in martial arts, religions, governments or other areas of society are deeply felt threats that are more than simple challenges to beliefs and norms, but are threats to the very soul, that act on an emotional and not intellectual level.

Soullessness is simply a synonym for “there’s something important missing from this equation”, where that important thing might just be in the eye of the beholder.

I believe that soulfulness equates with wholeness, in other words, an appreciation and expression from multiple angles maximises soul, while anything isolated is soulless.  The soul needs a body to inhabit, and not just a few skin cells.

This explains another part of the internal dilemma I had about creating my own non-martial art, which was the feeling that I was somehow contributing to a less-soulful universe.  I realised that I had successfully isolated many disparate ingredients for my home-brewed concoction, and that I now needed to put them together, to create something new and above all, whole.  I needn’t have worried though, as my intention has always been to move away from efficiency and towards deeper meaning and purpose stemming from honest self-expression.

How did I do that?  How did I get here?  These are typical feelings of those who learn implicitly, and ironically it was such a question, along with a desire to know more for the sake of self-improvement and ultimately sharing my experience with others, that lead me down a long tunnel away from self-knowledge and a naturally instinctive approach to everything in life.  I learned a lot of interesting things during that time, in a backwards, inside-out kinda way, but despite it being interesting most of that information did little to benefit me in any practical way, and more importantly it left my original question unanswered.

Now I know that I don’t want to know.  My new question however, is how can others be taught, or should I say guided towards the path of implicit learning and instinctive exploration?  Bruce Lee would have called this a study of unnatural naturalness, and I have already begun experimenting recently with novel techniques designed to facilitate skill acquisition in an unconscious manner.  My past experience though, is grounded in accidental strength, but it remains to be seen whether I can take that experience to build a useful model for others, and whether or not the other implicit qualities can be successfully integrated along with all the additional, less physical, but nevertheless important aspects of my non-martial art.

This is the challenge facing anyone wishing to design their own ritual: how to mould separate and unrelated elements together in order to form a coherent whole that appears as natural as possible, while providing the benefits you want without introducing problems.  This is another example of unnatural naturalness, but on a different level.

Perhaps the pursuit of a purpose-built, all encompassing way of life, philosophy and culture will suffer the same problems my other non-instinctive activities did, except this time on an all-encompassing scale.  I see the problem as ultimately being an artistic one though; a challenge of creating a sense of order from chaos, of building a whole that is greater than the sum of all its components.  I have already chosen the main ingredients instinctively, what remains now is how they are put together, and it seems highly likely that the result will be a surprising one.