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Motor learning: Improving your motor skills

Posted: July 10, 2011 - 8:00am  |  Updated: July 12, 2011 - 1:27pm

Motor learning is the process of improving motor skills and is often associated with sport development but it is applicable to other venues. Any physical movement can be done more, or less, efficiently. Proper form in movement not only increases success it also decreases the incidence of injury. Appropriate practice is key in learning a skill -do the movement correctly enough times and it becomes second nature. A skill that is mastered has a motor plan etched upon the brain and enables a person to complete the skill with little thought, the brain and neuromuscular system working smoothly in concert. Skills can be learned more efficiently and with less frustration when parents, coaches and teachers use proven motor learning techniques.

A motor plan stated in a positive way can speed learning. Tell the person learning the skill what movements they need to make to complete the skill. Avoid telling the person what NOT to do. For example, when teaching the skill of throwing, tell the person:

• Show me the hand you are going to throw with (they should hold the right or left hand up, elbow at side).

• With the other hand tap your leg; this is the leg you will step with.

• Now step, point the elbow and throw.

After a few tries you should be able to say "step, point, throw." They will be approximating the skill of throwing in no time. Later, refinements can be made leading to mastery of the skill. Rotation of the torso while throwing to increase power is an example of a refinement of the skill of throwing. When a person "throws like a girl" they actually have immature throwing form and a proper motor plan can easily teach them a more mature throwing form. Increasing the success level in skill development increases the likelihood a person will stick with the activity.

When learning a new skill breaking it down into parts will help the learner. Have them try the skill, work on the portion they need help on, and then try the skill again. Once the parts are learned put them all together and continue to tweak the parts as needed. This is known as "whole, part, whole" learning.

Once a person is able to approximate a skill it is a matter of repetition in order to reach mastery. During independent practice it is important for the person to focus on proper form. It is helpful to practice a skill in front of a mirror or video yourself so you can see what proper form looks like. If you are learning a skill with your off hand watch the movements your strong hand makes and mimic that movement.

Often a slight rotation of the wrist or change in the positioning of the elbow is all that is needed. If the skill involves full body movement note footwork and torso movements you make when doing the skill on your strong side.

Repetitive motions such as throwing done with poor form may result in overuse injuries. Major league pitchers have been in the news lately due to their amazing speed and their susceptibility to injury. These guys can throw the ball at over 100 miles per hour and have become a big draw for fans. Protecting these athletes is a high priority. In addition to strength and flexibility training, pitchers are coached to maintain proper throwing form. Throwing a ball as hard as you can puts great stress on your elbow and shoulder. Even a small deviation from proper technique can increase the chance of injury. Of course, providing for rest is also a key to preventing overuse injuries.

Here are some more examples of motor plans that you may find useful. When you make up your own motor plans remember to describe the movements you want the learner to make.

Running form: A person running with their arms held high and/or swinging their elbows from side to side is exhibiting immature running form. This is easily fixed by telling the person "elbows/wrists go by the hips." This will result in the swinging of the arms forward and backward and aide in propelling the person forward.

Kicking a ball: There are several different forms used in kicking a ball, the following is for the inside pass used in soccer.

• Plant non-kicking foot near side of ball with foot pointing in the direction you want to kick

• Swing leg through the ball striking it with the inside of the foot.

Later these cues can be shortened to "plant, point, and swing through".

When participating in physical labor proper form will reduce the incidence of injury. Proper lifting technique, how to walk on ice, shoveling techniques are all part of the learning process in many work places nowadays. It is worth it to make the proper movements in order to complete the work without injury. It is also worth it to use positive teaching techniques when helping kids learn motor skills. If they have fun they are more likely to stick with the activity and develop an active lifestyle.

 

Charlie Stephens is a retired P.E. Teacher and owns/operates Kenai Sport & Train, Inc. which specializes in P.E. consulting. He can be reached at ccstephens@gci.net.

Editor's note: "Focus on Fitness" is a Clarion feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

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