Thursday, 24 April 2008

How I think we learn: movements and other things

To give you a quick insight into my view on the biology and psychology of learning I'll focus on how we learn movements for sports. In explaining this I feel it offers insights into how we learn things generally. This concept simply sees movement as a product of the learning and shows how the two can be combined.

Everything I’ve read and experienced tells me that each time we perform a movement we are either writing, editing or using a code that’s stored in our nervous system. Basically the chain of nerves from say our hands and feet to our brain. All this is involved in performing the movement. Each point creates a short code that it runs through each time we perform a particular movement. The code is designed to be general. It doesn’t worry about speed, it cares more about the order of movements, when to move your foot, how far in relation to the rest of the body. Something like that.

Using this principle every time you hit a tennis stroke you’re writing or editing this code. This means that it’s always better to hit a slow but accurate well performed shot than a fast, rushed and inaccurate shot. Because if it’s a bad shot then your body will still learn it. So that’s why I try to focus on hitting good shots all the time and letting the body warm up appropriately. It's important to realise that you can only be at your best when your mind, body and soul are all at one, I'll talk about warming up properly in another post, until then you have to accept that you have to be patient and adjust your play accordingly.

If you take this concept further you’ll realise that this makes each movement something that you should be able to just ask your body for and it will do it. This has been shown in monkeys when parts of their brains were stimulated so this isn’t very far fetched and it’s something I’ve experienced for a long time. Taking this further still it means that you can view each movement, say hitting a topspin deep or a strong slice shot as a tool that your body has. You survey the scene and look for ways to beat your opponent. Say there’s plenty of space down the line, they put a short ball to you and they’re out of position. You just tell your body where you want the ball to go and whether to stay back or go to the net and it kind of does the rest.

This study Complex Movements Evoked by Microstimulation of Precentral Cortex lends weight to my point. It describes how researchers stimulated tiny parts of a monkeys brain and triggered it's arm to move to a certain point. No matter where the arm started from it always went to this point smoothly and quickly when triggered. The experiment triggered this movement in a crude way. I expect the brain to have a much more elegant approach which could also coordinate the movement rather than just trigger it.

It sounds far fetched but it’s easier than you might think and you’re probably doing it already when you play well. It’s when you don’t think you’re playing well that the tendency is to start analysing. Sometimes you just need to realise that you haven’t warmed up your whole system properly, you haven’t got a flow yet and maybe you’re aiming too close to the lines and expecting too much of yourself. I know we all have inexact memories of how we played before. If we played well it often gets exaggerated, the same if we played badly.
This concept of how we learn is something I've had for many years. It's only recently that I've begun to see research supporting the idea and felt I could put it across clearly enough.

In time I hope to add references to the articles that lend support to this. For now I just have to go with my experience. I use these concepts regularly to improve what I do and to teach others very quickly movements or concepts they want them to learn.

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