Preseason Jitters and Motor Learning.

Hello from Vermont. I’m sitting on a bed in the middle of Mendon, Vermont, waiting for the morning, when I test out my snow legs and my (slightly impaired) right knee on Killington’s slopes for the first time this season. The first ride is always predictably terrible – all the old motor patterns take a little while to be recovered and my proprioceptors fire in all kinds of random arrays, usually resulting in a dramatic faceplant or two. After an hour or two, however, things start to work the right way again.

I’m often asked why I don’t take up skateboarding, longboarding, or surfing more religiously during the summertime, so that my snowboarding abilities will not wane in the non-riding months.

It is this concept in motor learning that renders many sports training concepts (such as cross-training) useless:

Abilities and athleticism are general; however, skills and tasks are specifc.

Here’s an example of what I mean: If you give a professional NBA player a ball and an 11 foot basket to shoot at, his free throw percentage will be considerably worse than normal. Making that task even closer to the actual task (like substituting a 10 foot 1 inch tall basket vs. a 10 foot basket) will result in an even worse percentage. Why? Because the NBA player has very specific motor patterns for the skill of shooting free throws scored in his neurons and muscle fibers, and changing the parameters of the task even slightly creates a different skill that requires an entirely different motor pattern. The closer the new task is to the original task, the more it will confuse his motor units, which will continue to recruit muscle fibers in the same manner, not realizing that the task has changed.

This begs the question: Why perform drills for sports at all? After all, at best the skills won’t transfer, and at worst, the drills may acutally impair performance.

Well, here’s some Pollyanna-ing for you:

1) Most drills improve some aspect of athleticism – whether it be strength, power, agility, etc. , so the time spent on them isn’t totally wasted. However, the benefit from the drill is usually overestimated (since drills are believed to improve skill performance).

2) Some drills do actually improve skill performance, when they are specific to the task that is to be performed. For example, vertical leap training (as much as I dislike it) does improve volleyball blockers’ performances (since a great deal of their position involves their ability to jump straight up and form a human “wall”).

3) Most athletes are “naturally gifted” in terms of movement ability and possess motor programming that is not “easily confused,” unlike the rest of us mere mortals. So, they can perform the drills without impairing their performances on the field because “they are just that good.”

I am inclined to think that point #3 is the primary reason many athletes’ training programs continue to be rife with fun but next to useless drills. As a strength coach much smarter than myself once remarked, “How do you know whether the athlete succeeded because of the training or in spite of it?”

Here’s a quick and easy test for the applicability of a given drill for skill performance (not for improving athleticism):

Does it change the movement/recruitment pattern of the skill in question? If it does, you can bet it won’t do much for skill development (check out the studies on sprinters using parachutes if you don’t believe me).

All of this doesn’t change the fact that I should have been practicing my spins during summer 😛

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