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.

 

Study

 

14.11.17

Study means to examine closely. Therefore to study from a book is an oxymoron because the words are simply not the thing. The study should reveal more about the book and the recording and presentation process than about the subject itself .

Studying from a book is really the study of the subject through the intermediary of both the book (the physical medium) and the author (the subjective experience).  In this way, words, images and videos etc, all represent barriers to study, as these artefacts are often mistaken for the truth, and play an important role in shaping our opinions of the subject.

If we accept that each mode of representation has its own inherent characteristics and biases, then it follows that regardless of the author’s intentions and perspective, our subjective experience will always be altered by whatever medium our subject is presented in.

While each medium is a metaphorical barrier it is also a physical one: a book is a solid screen that blocks our vision and engages our metaphorical eyesight: the imagination.  It prevents us from seeing that which we intend to study, by presenting us with a pre-filtered copy and set of conclusions.

In effect, in order to study something as best as we can, we need to have an unobstructed view as possible, otherwise our perception and ideas can become tainted by the filters.  This implies at least two things: experiencing the subject first-hand, and becoming aware of one’s own biases.

First-hand experience is always limited, but in the past was even more limited by technological constraints.  Now that we can travel more easily and cheaply than ever before, we have the possibility to meet others and have experiences that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamt of.  The invention of high-fidelity modes of information sharing such as the printed word, no doubt played a role in inspiring readers to seek out new experiences, however, they simultaneously blinded people by convincing them that the words in the book, and the subject to which they referred were one and the same.  Thus, personal study was usurped by the official printed version.

First-hand experience is also limited by time as well as space, because we cannot have experience of time periods before or after our own.

In contrast to (direct) experience, indirect experience is a misleading term, and often refers to “experience of someone else’s account of something”.  A video for example, would constitute an account of an experience, while remaining a completely different experience in itself.

“Being there” is a necessary part of experience, therefore the different mediums for communication represent tools for inducing vicarious experience of things that are not there.

[we react to old, documentary footage of soldiers being killed as if it were happening right before our eyes, despite the fact that even if those soldiers had not been killed in battle, they would have died of old age long before the point in time when we choose to view their recorded deaths.  This idea became even clearer to me upon watching on old film in which a small bird was caught using a metal hook – the bird had long ago died, and would have done so irrespective.  The recording and repetition of its pain and suffering was just an echo, albeit a powerful one. {This unintentionally answers the question “if a tree falls in the woods” in a novel way: if there is no recording of the event there can be no echo.}]

The problem is that metaphorically speaking, we refer to the imagination as if it were a place, a space or container somewhere in our heads or minds (another metaphor), so that anything that happens “in our imagination” appears to us as if it were right before our eyes, and so, experiences that are first-hand to our imagination feel as if they were external, first-hand experiences.  This abstract concept can be easily understood by going to the cinema to watch a film.  Although we know and accept the unreal nature of the events projected onto the screen, we can’t help but react to them as if they were real.  If this were not true, cinema would have little or no reason to be so successful.  We end up feeling hatred, compassion, and all other possible emotions towards the characters the actors are pretending to be!  If you spend your time thinking rationally about what is going on onscreen, you won’t enjoy the movie!

This concept explains why athletes who imagine performing their sport, experience some of the benefits of actual exercise, but more importantly it explains why zebras don’t get ulcers.  [It is also my own just-so story about why cats dream: the dream state is a low-cost means of not only staying alert, but also maintaining physical fitness and reactivity.  This assumes though, that cat dreams are similar to cat lives – running, jumping and hunting etc, and that unconscious (sleeping) imagination has a similar, or the same effect as the waking imagination.]

How we relate to the world around us is determined by how we view and experience it.  Microscopes and telescopes both afford us unique vantage points that the naked eye alone does not.  If we constantly experience life through a microscope we risk damaging our eyesight: there are no angry atoms, only angry people.  That is to say, we must maintain an awareness of human experience on a level of the naked eye, regardless of what goes on under the surface.  Anthropology is not the same as biology etc.

Beyond being interesting or entertaining, I think that viewing a subject through different lenses simultaneously shows you some truth about that subject through that which remains the same, while also highlighting the characteristics of each lens through those features that change.  In this way I believe that using a number of different filters to examine a subject has a similar effect to running multiple tests and then cross-referencing the results, i.e increasing the sample size.  If a drug is effective for example, this should be shown by each test, although not necessarily to the same degree: this is the constant, while any differences in the results could be explained by varying methodologies and so on.  Anyone familiar with the scientific method should be aware that the results of the study can be down to poor design, rather than the element being tested.  This important fact seems little acknowledged outside of the scientific domain, but has been summed up famously as:

“the medium is the message”.

So if coming closer to a state of objectivity is arrived at by both de-filtering and cross-referencing information, we can conclude that much of what we consider truth, in the sense that it shapes our impressions and actions, lies somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Our experiences and ideas are not really our own, they are concepts passed down to us through a long, complex and ongoing filtering system that includes time itself.  The information we receive prior to our first-hand experiences goes a long way to biasing them, so that in effect, books and other reference points become important factors in preventing us from having our own untainted, and in-the-moment experiences.

We are largely to blame for this state of affairs though, as we often like to research and plan things to death before taking action, for the sake of apparent control and peace of mind.  It’s as if we only wish to move forward if we can not only be sure of the destination, that it really exists and in the form we currently desire, but also that we will actually make it there without fail.

In a sense it’s safer to get someone else’s opinion before launching ourselves into oblivion for the first time, both physically and metaphorically.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense that not only having correct beliefs led to greater chances of survival, but sharing them too was also beneficial for successful co-operation.  Trust could be built on accurate advice and data, and in some ways civilisation itself was also built by these same materials.  But technology has exponentially and reliably enabled us to circumvent and derail our biology, so that characteristics and circumstances that would have previously led to the extinction of a particular individual no longer have that effect.  We are able to support life that cannot even support itself, so much so that for the most part “survival of the fittest” no longer implies life-or-death struggle it once did, leaving the phrase an empty shell.  And in the same way that changes to our environment have led to us becoming less reliant on ancient practices for survival, we are no longer so dependent on the sharing and receiving of information that has a high probability of correlating to our immediate surroundings or even the world at large.  Truth is going the way of the dodo.

There are a number of things to first consider: our environment is orders of magnitude richer in information than that of our evolutionary ancestors, and although this is true, the amount of relevant information has probably not changed all that much.  These two points leave us with the conclusion that we are currently swamped with superfluous information for which there was no evolutionary advantage.  Information itself has broken free from its ancestral constraints.

Let me now bring your attention to the condom; an item that prevents the one thing we have evolved to do: procreate.  We should take care not to conflate evolution’s results with our own goals, but in a sense this should be obvious, as it appears natural for humans to rebel against their own biology in every single way possible, and currently impossible.  The existence and widespread use of contraceptives is abhorrent from a survival standpoint, as is suicide, abortion and sterilisation, which strangely enough, quite accurately maps to what certain religions also find objectionable.  The condom therefore, serves as a banal example of the normality of the strange.

In the same way that we are unable to emotionally create a distinction between things imagined and the things themselves, we also tend to treat information on a is-captivating-therefore-is-important basis, as if the latest viral videos were really information on where to harvest some ripe fruit or warnings of imminent death-by-tiger.  We also share this strange relationship to certain foods and other superstimuli, one where we are unable to untangle our emotional responses from our sense of good or bad.  We find it difficult to instinctively comprehend the idea of something having ultimately negative consequences for us, yet on the surface appears enticing and pleasant when we consume it.  But this is the crux of the issue with how human psychology operates and fails to operate effectively in our man-made environment – we are falling into our own concrete pitfalls, having spent so much effort on paving over the natural ones.

This historical anomaly we call the news, is an attempt at study from a distance, or study without study.  In order for the multitude of things reported on by the news to be of personal relevance to me, they would for the most part, have to take place in my local vicinity, so in order for me to study (experience) the effects of an earthquake in Tokyo I would have to be there in person.  This leaves me in a strange position: either I travel to every place on the news in order to experience things first-hand and in order for them to be relevant, and for me to have a greater power of affecting them, or I concede that the images before me that elicit such natural, healthy emotional responses, are merely entertainment like the actors on the cinema screen.

The news, through its study-from-home technique, emotionally transports us all across the globe, and takes us from fear, anger, astonishment, grief, joy and all the way back to fear again without us ever changing position, while constantly changing the plot and the protagonists.  For this reason the news is perhaps the strongest example of media as a teleportation device, but what goes unreported is not the trivial and meaningless occurrences that would otherwise pass by unannounced, but the collective emotional impact that such an experience of information has on the population.  We are as enthralled as we are divided: torn and divided as the range of messages, emotions and locations from which, and to where it is all broadcast.  Paying attention to the news is to self-inflict schizophrenia in small, regular doses.  The cost is sanity, as we lose our minds from having them constantly elsewhere, jolted back and forth, disturbed, uprooted, transplanted and replanted.  The end result is that we are never here.  We are never now.  Always then, in somebody else’s past, a fly on someone else’s wall, trying desperately to make sense of the events, fumbling to arrange them all in alphabetical order in an impossibly large filing cabinet that juts off heavenwards into infinity like a towering tombstone.

We don’t see the filter, only the pieces that pass through.  So when we view life through the privileged vantage points of the media, with our easily emotionally captured attention, we don’t ask ourselves why we are being presented with such information, instead we move directly on to responding to the propositions as they stand.  It’s as if when the television says “jump” we don’t say “how high?”, but proceed to jump automatically, when we should really be asking “why jump at all?”

By virtue of the focusing power that the news has over millions of people, simply showing something, anything at all, creates the illusion and feeling of primordial importance.

Terrorism became important in the minds of people, not because it was suddenly more relevant to our everyday lives, but because it was widely reported on and repeated, and re-repeated and reported.  Statistically speaking, you’re probably more likely to die by committing suicide than being killed in a terrorist attack, which if anything, means you should be worried about your own state of mind and should probably sleep with one eye open in case you’re watching.  This didn’t, and doesn’t stop anyone from feeling uneasy about walking around European cities, especially at certain times of year.  That information cannot be un-broadcast, to paraphrase a catchphrase.

Information should largely be opt-in only, which would put limits on advertising in public space, and make it the sole responsibility of the individual to manage their consumption of information.  There’s a reason it’s called a news feed.  Instead of using the heuristic interesting=good, we should be more wary of not only wasting our time, but of the possible short and long-term negative effects of having such an unrestricted diet.