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.

 

Mobility, Metaphors and Cached Selves

06.11.17

The book Metaphors We Live By has been a great inspiration to me ever since I read it earlier this year.  One thing that came to light while reading was the way in which my relationship with my body was shaped by unhelpful metaphors.  The first that I noticed was the idea of mobility or flexibility as being an unobtainable object.  This idea of mobility as an object can be demonstrated by such phrases as “what will you do with your new-found mobility?” and “I’ve lost my mobility since last year” for example.  But for me, mobility wasn’t simply an object that you either have or do not have, it was impossible for me to get it no matter how hard I tried!

The second part of the metaphor describes a binary state which hides the reality that mobility is pretty much always present in varying degrees, as long as we remain alive.  When imagined as something perpetually out of reach the metaphor is successful in preventing me from exercising whatever mobility I do have, which is perhaps the most important point, especially as far as adaptation is concerned.  This isn’t just a philosophical idea; if we focus on what we lack instead of the things that we have available and perhaps take for granted, it’s quite possible that we let opportunity go to waste along with various physical and mental attributes.  Use it or lose it.

This realisation was like a fog suddenly lifting to reveal the sun that had been there all along.  I wasn’t at all as immobile and helpless as I had felt and acted, and instead of mobility being unobtainable it was an ever-present quality to be deliberately expressed.

The second metaphor that I unearthed dates back at least 10 years, and is one that more people can possibly relate to which is energy or strength as a limited resource.  While it is less obvious that this concept is a metaphor it works in similar ways to the first, which is that it limits our actions by conceptualising strength itself in a limited way.  In my own experience and no matter how absurd it may seem, what this meant was for me was that once again I failed to express what strength and energy I did have, and as my dad might say, I was “coming from a place of scarcity”.  I felt at the time, all those years ago, that I was almost “saving” my strength for some other, more important occasion that of course, never came.

As with the first metaphor, the implications are that by failing to express my strength I missed the opportunities for further growth that would have stemmed from regular, unrestricted use of what I already had.

Energy and strength are limited in a real sense, but the real-world restrictions are not well-represented by their metaphorical counterparts.

In my own case at least, it appears that metaphors were not the only things at work, and I suspect that consistency bias played a role too.  By proclaiming my inflexibility or weakness I would trap myself in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, propped up by cognitive metaphor.  Memories of myself declaring and acting in accordance with my apparent inflexibility would help form an almost unbreakable self-image over time.  Even if I attempted to change this image, it’s likely that my view of such attempts would be biased by my prior beliefs.  I.e. my beliefs would influence not only the quality and quantity of attempts to change, but my opinion of those attempts would also likely overstate the effort I put in while understating the results.  In this way, our past actions are used as a rough template of how we expect to behave in the future, which saves us the trouble of having to go out and create our self-image from scratch every morning.  The problem is we can get stuck with an undesirable self-concept and not know how to change it, or even realise we have it, as in the case of metaphor.

This is one reason I believe that much more importance should be given to psychological factors and influences when it comes to understanding one’s relationship with the body and exercise or movement.  The mind provides the foundation for a willing body to follow.

A final, more obscure example of how thoughts have influenced my behaviour also dates back at least a decade.  I recall a dream I had in which I found myself dancing in front of a large audience, where I was aware of being extremely self-conscious because I felt that everyone could see through me, as if the act of dancing rendered my thoughts and emotions visible.  Although this was a dream, at the time it made me realise that this was how I saw dance, and that I didn’t want to actually express myself in this way, or that perhaps I had just wanted to be different, to be someone and to feel something I would be proud to express.

This metaphor of dance as a display of emotion or of my “true self”, as it had felt to me in my dream, undoubtedly played a significant role in retarding my growth, just like the other metaphors seem to have done.  Feeling depressed, worthless and incapable, meant that as a reflection of these thoughts and emotions, dance itself became an act that reinforced my poor self-image, which in turn limited how I danced in public.  The circle was a vicious one.

Lately I have been dancing again, but from a new perspective, utilising more useful metaphors to promote a healthy self-image.  There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of harm to be un-done, but I am already beginning to feel physically and mentally different, in all likelihood due to a combination of my relaxation practice and a deliberate attempt to exercise and appreciate the qualities I already have.  Whatever the root causes, I am feeling more positive about the future.

Mindlessness

26.09.17

[This text uses the metaphors of “left-brained” and “right-brained” to refer to two different ways of thinking, which could be summarised as “the intellect” and “instinct”.  In reality there is no clear separation between personality types as we all express both sides to some degree, but more importantly there is no physical left/right brain divide that accounts for these differences –

The notion of different hemispheric thinking styles is based on an erroneous premise: each brain hemisphere is specialised and therefore each must function independently with a different thinking style. This connection is a bridge too far: it uses scientific findings regarding functional asymmetries for the processing of stimuli to create conceptions about hemispheric differences on a different level, such as a cognitive thinking style. Furthermore, there is no direct scientific evidence supporting the idea that different thinking styles lie within each hemisphere. Indeed, deriving different hemispheric thinking styles from functional asymmetries is quite a bold venture, which oversimplifies and misinterprets scientific findings.]

As  previously discussed, our animal instincts and primal ways have become taboo, and in the process of taming our savage selves we have over-emphasised the rational mind, conscious thought, and well-considered action, as if culturally-speaking we have given the verbal, language-focused side of the brain free reign to dominate and influence our perspectives.  In a society such as this the individuals and ideas that are not in compliance with the left-brained regulations are rejected or forcefully made to conform to them.  By dominating our instincts and other unholy inherent phenomena we are metaphorically attempting to conquer the animal inside us, by imposing colonialist ideals upon it.

The domestic human values not just control over everything external, but over all internal elements as well.  If given the choice he would even dictate his own heartbeat.

And so, just as the animals and the ground they walk on have been stigmatised, so too have the ideas of mindlessness, ignorance and unconsciousness.

In a society that attempts to control and analyse everything that goes on in the mind, the thought of happily, mindlessly going about one’s business conjures images of a drooling village idiot.  To lose one’s mind means to go crazy, essentially due to the fact that the mind represents control, and a loss of such control is not only a sign of weakness, but also the sign of a dangerous individual that must be feared.  In the nature vs. nurture debate, conscious control often amounts to mollycoddling what should really be left to nature.

Ignorance is perhaps the strongest form of mindlessness, and hints at the idea that somehow we should know better, and have failed to do our duty as humans.  Holding an opinion on any particular subject is like proudly waving a little flag that reads: “I did my homework!”, but behind the host of opinions lies an uncomfortable truth, that we know very little as a species, and even less as individuals.  Opinion-waving left-brainers are uncomfortable with the weight of all these known unknowns and especially the unknown unknowns whose mere possibility keeps them awake at night in an awkward sweat.

There are two types of people: the happily ignorant, and the unhappily ignorant.

Where some see ignorance as a shamefully empty void, I see not-knowing as a blank canvas, a territory unexplored and a map yet to be drawn.  The same people who would point and cry “ignorance!” are the same ones who would dictate what it is we must not be ignorant of.

Unconsciousness or non-awareness is akin to disobedience in the eyes of the left-brained conquistador.  “You should have been paying attention!”, he angrily shouts in an attempt to wake you from your mindless reverie.  In fact we talk of consciousness using the same type of metaphors and connotations as before: high = good, low = bad.  Dismissing the fact that there are good reasons not to be aware of everything and to forcefully guide all our thoughts and actions, while also discounting the fact that many people are naturally right-brained, and that trying to make them operate in left-brained ways can be very counterproductive.

I have not only been a victim of a society that imposes left-brain standards, but I have also unwittingly fallen into the trap of wilfully attempting to conform myself, sometimes based on what I perceive to be more desirable by industry standards.  Now I realise that in multiple areas of my life I have actually made things more difficult for myself by trying to get in alignment with external factors that neither know or care about me, instead of concentrating all my efforts on being myself.

I have become too self-conscious, contained and shaped by routine, affected by what other people expect of me; a poor copy of my former self.

What I need to do is lose my mind.

Low and Mighty

24.09.17

As self-domesticated animals we retain strong links to our primal history and physical nature through our relatively unchanged biological makeup, particularly that of the brain.  But despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, we seem to be focusing our efforts on moving further away from, denying and even erasing all traces of this shameful past.

We place ourselves above animals and even use this as a derogatory term to describe other.  Flies, dogs and pigs to list a few, have all had the misfortune of having their names sullied by the connotations of man.  Animals are evidently lower life-forms, and thus, humans who share animal characteristics are repulsive pigs who deserve to die like dogs.

But the relationship we have with our beastly brethren as evidenced by our common expressions is only just the beginning of the story.  Perhaps the most significant aspect of our domestication is the move towards a sedentary lifestyle, and particularly the rejection, stigmatisation and devaluation of physical labour.

On one hand, slavery, mechanisation and technological advance are all about reducing the physical input of the individual for the sake of convenience and ultimately profit, but at the same time there are interesting, perhaps unintended consequences of such systems.  Physical work becomes associated with poverty and lower status, in the same way that pigs are linked to filth, grime and unsanitary living conditions.  If your job is manual labour, it usually signals that you are not clever enough, or well-educated enough in order to easily obtain a more sedentary position.  Moreover, it places you firmly at the bottom of a hierarchy which is quite clearly delineated between not just rich and poor, but between those roles that require the body, and those whose primary focus is the intellect, or at least just the brain.

The slave was liberated, only to become the operator of a piece of time-saving machinery, having once been the machinery himself.

So physical effort is viewed as something to be avoided, which also means that opportunities to benefit from Darwinian happiness associated with the body in movement are wasted.

There are however, well-paid physical jobs such as those of professional sportsmen, but despite their million-dollar income, football players remain manual labourers, and lack the status of other competitors in other sports such as horse or motor racing.  In both the previous examples there is a large financial barrier to entry: most children cannot afford a horse, a racecar, or even lessons, but what they can do is learn to use their own bodies with minimal equipment.  In any case, the divide can be seen within sports and physical occupations themselves.  Professional boxing has different physical demands and financial constraints compared to golf for example.

A loss of contact between humans and their animal heritage is profoundly mirrored in their actual loss of contact with the earth itself.  Squatting has been replaced with sitting in chairs, shoes separate our feet from the ground, and mats mask our contact with the floor.  The earth is dirty, like the animals who roll in it, and separation from this dirt is a sign of wealth.

Compared to the outside world, a modern gym is a sterile environment in which to habitually re-enact contrived movements for the sake of “health” or aesthetics.  In this way, humans can take their necessary movement medicine without having to get dirty, and risk the damage to their status that comes from contact with the earth and their animal nature.  A practice that not only embraces, but demands connection with the floor is fundamentally counter-culture, just as eating with cutlery is deemed to be civilised.

We are not upstanding citizens, we are low-down, dirty dogs, and these ideas are clearly reflected in our cultural metaphors.

Stand up for your beliefs by stooping so low and remaining grounded in physical activity I say.  In fact, we could even think of construction metaphors in which foundations are laid and built upon, as reflecting the same idea that domestication is about moving further away, not only from the ground and eventually the earth itself (think space travel), but from our ancestral roots.  In this sense, the negative connotations of being on the floor (down and out) may arise as a direct consequence of several metaphors which are based on the concepts up = good and down = weak.