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.


Notes on Ways of Seeing


This a response to the video Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which is itself inspired by the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by philosopher Walter Benjamin.


Artwork – images and objects tied to place and general context.  As a familiar smell, feeling or sound might signal and signify a particular context, (original) works are the signifiers of the context out of which they are born.  Copies are also signifiers of their own context, but this is mostly hidden from view, as copies are often presented in the same light as originals – when an artwork is set up to be copied the context is omitted; we don’t want to see the oil painting under bright lights in a studio, we just want to see the painting, or as much of it as possible, which means as little as possible evidence of context, as little as possible evidence that it is in fact a copy, and not an original itself.

This veiling of original context is aided by technology while simultaneously leaving its own footprint – typewriters, printing presses and computers all remove evidence of the hand of the creator.  On the face of it, such copies could come from anywhere and from any time, because the word (or image) in its homogenised form bears no resemblance to the mark of the author, and instead displays evidence of the machine or technique that produced it.  Instead of strictly referencing the author, any text published in the Times New Roman font also becomes a reference to Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent; the creators of that typeface.

As an artwork passes from original to copy status, the shift in context leaves its mark.

Graffiti on canvas, although it may be original, is really just an example of transplanting an idea into an alien context.  The form has remained the same – it is still spray-painted letters in a particular style, but it is no longer tied to the immobile and illegal world of the outdoor, on-the-run artist.  By severing the link between the context and the artwork, or as in this case, by attempting to graft the whole genre onto a new context, the origins and meaning are lost in translation.

Everything becomes bastardised in some way by experiencing it in your own preferred and habitual context, which is often at home and on your computer.  This is domestication in brief: rounding up untamed elements and bringing them into the home for the pleasure of convenient experiences. The desire to make art that fits inside gallery walls, music studios and television channels, only serves to benefit those particular structures and the people hiding behind their favourite and most profitable contexts.  Instead of a bio-diverse art community, we have work that is invested in and created simply to fit into the moulds that may accommodate them with open wallets.  Instead of artists that produce work that is true to its own, and to their own specific context, we have work whose origins are hidden, whose would-be destiny is the featureless and naked gallery wall, the tv, cinema or computer screen.  Artists are willingly giving up identity and context to the demands of technology and consumerism.

Each musical style is embedded not just in time but place as well, despite music being a non-physical medium.  There is something uniquely bizarre about listening to hip hop at home in your bedroom when you live in Finland.  This couldn’t have happened without the physical act of mechanically copying music onto disks, and without the removal of a whole culture from its context.  The role of technology in creating convenience in its many forms is at the heart of the worldwide spread of ideas, art and imagery.  If everything had to be experienced in its rightful place; in its birthplace, then it would severely limit what would be shared, and by whom.  In a sense, experience itself is the unshareable artwork: we can only gaze upon the aftermath through art-produce and its reproductions.

If you believe that everything can, and should be shared for reasons of equality, then you consequently endorse the continuation and spread of domestication, because to make everything equally available ultimately means to make it effortless and contextless, and thus meaningless.  By turning Mount Everest into a guided tour, it stops becoming the feat it once was; it is de-feated.  Accessibility for all, while on the surface appears like a noble ideal, is actually counterproductive, and seems to spring from the philosophy that all hard work should be replaced by convenience at our earliest convenience.

I experience other people’s art as if I don’t understand it, i.e. as alien and as incomprehensible as it really is.  My reactions are mostly gut reactions and a projection of my own ideas: I cannot ultimately see the world without my own biases or perspective, and so instead of understanding we must satisfy ourselves with the feeling of having understood, or at the very least, the idea that we tried.  The work exists as it is, but there is no perspective-less perspective from which to view it.  Restoring context goes some way to remedying this problem, but cannot overcome it completely.

Misunderstanding is the basis for many a creation, and could be seen as a form of memetic mutation.  By failing to re-create the original meaning or context we veer off in a new direction, using religious icons as placemats, and wartime propaganda as wall hangings.

Just as objects signify contexts, images themselves become symbols of particular ideas and associated, inferred contexts and characteristics.  It is these implicit associations that advertising uses to hijack our experiences.  Products themselves come to signify desirable contexts and experiences as they are consistently shown to us in unison, and certain colours, shapes or fonts come to signify brand markings.

If reproduction destroys original meaning and gives rise to multiple interpretations, then we could say that copying processes delete objectivity and replace it with infinite subjectivity.  But if context is also time-specific, then by virtue of them being old, we can never experience the true meaning of an artwork, even if it hangs in its right place.  It’s not that reproduction in the mechanical sense destroys meaning, but it is reproduction from one mind to another where meaning is lost, irrespective of spacial and temporal context.  Mechanical reproduction simply aided this realisation.  This becomes immediately evident when you publicly display your work.  No amount of showing it in the context of your studio, or wherever else you created it will help change the fact that the meaning people derive from the work is a product of the work itself and their own minds.  Since there cannot be an experience without one or the other it becomes the destiny of any idea or artwork to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and remixed, both purposefully and accidentally.

Meaning, if any is present in an artwork, is only ever loosely attached, in the experiential sense – there is no universal, transmittable meaning (no universally convincing arguments).