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The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Motor Skill Learning

Posted by Kane Russell on

The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Motor Skill Learning

In Hyperplasticity, we discussed the fascinating, moldable nature of the brain. We described the concept of neuroplasticity and how the generation of functional neural pathways is the force behind learning and memory. Of particular interest to athletes, neuroplasticity is what allows for the acquisition and retention of motor skills. By motor skills, we are referring to finely coordinated muscle movements such as batting, putting, and free throws. This week, we’ll go deeper into the science behind motor skill learning and will discuss how Halo Sport can tap into our brain’s natural ability to acquire new athletic skills.

Breaking it Down

Motor skill learning is defined as the process by which movements are executed more quickly and accurately with practice. Motor skills are acquired over multiple training sessions until performance reaches a plateau. There are two phases of learning: a fast phase and a slow phase. The fast phase involves rapid improvement over the course of one single training session. The slow phase involves small, steady gains that develop over multiple practice sessions, eventually reaching a stable peak.

For example, if you’ve never shot a free throw before, the first time you practice will be the most learning-intensive, as you are coordinating muscles in a way that your body has never experienced before.

Once that first session is over, you are cognitively aware of much of what is required to make the shot, you’re just not very good. In your subsequent practices, you begin the slow process of gaining accuracy so that the vision in your brain matches the movements of your body. Eventually, you’ll reach a level of expertise that is relatively constant.

Motor skill learning occurs rapidly at first and then levels off with increased practice.

Breaking It Down Some More

In addition to the division between fast and slow, motor skill acquisition can be separated into stages across another axis:

  1. Encoding
  2. Consolidation
  3. Retention & Recall.

Encoding overlaps with the fast learning period and refers to the process by which a motor skill is converted from an experience to a construct that is stored in the brain. The majority of encoding will occur online— or the interval during training sessions.

In contrast, skill consolidation happens offline— or the interval betweentraining sessions. Sleep is a critical offline period; it’s when the majority of skill learning is consolidated in the brain. Consolidation can be thought of as an intermediate phase between fast and slow learning.

The last stage of learning, retention, occurs simultaneously with the slow learning phase, during both offline and and online periods.The result of retention is the commitment of the learned skill to muscle memory and the ability to retrieve this memory at will. Muscle memory refers to the ability to perform a skill without any conscious effort.

For example, every time Steph Curry shoots a free throw, the movement is effortless. He’s practiced that particular skill so many times that it’s been retained as muscle memory, so he is able to retrieve the memory and complete the movement automatically with no thought required.

Curry’s skills are automatic.

Localized Learning

So where in the brain does motor skill learning take place? That’s a complicated question. Each phase of learning involves different brain areas ranging from lower-level visual and perceptual regions (these perform the nuts-and-bolts processing) to higher-order cortical areas that integrate and synthesize information. However, one brain region that is specific to motor learning is the primary motor cortex, or M1.

Primary Motor Cortex

The primary motor cortex is responsible for the conscious initiation of voluntary movements. It is activated both during the fast stage and the slow stage of learning. Once a skill is committed to muscle memory, the motor cortex is less involved, and activation switches to lower-order processing areas such as the cerebellum where subconscious motor memories are stored. This reflects the behavioral shift that occurs as the motor skill improves — i.e. less and less reliance on thinking until the skill can be completed with no conscious effort.

Activate Your Skills

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way for all athletes to have the same baller precision as Steph Curry?

There is: adding Halo Sport to training. Halo Sport gives athletes an edge by increasing activation of the motor cortex when combined with intense, repetitive training. Increased motor cortex activation is the driving force behind Neuropriming, as it directly strengthens neural drive and enhances fast, online learning. Repeated, high level M1 activation is also the catalyst for Hyperplasticity, as it expedites the creation of new neural pathways and increases the rate of offline consolidation/retention. The ultimate result is quicker motor learning, which is awesome for any athlete looking to improve a particular skill.

But skills without strength are basically useless. Steph may have the ability to make free throws in his sleep, but if he didn’t have the strength to get the ball to the net, there’s no way he’d be the king of three-pointers. More on strength in our next installment — The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Strength.

Curious about taking the next step in refining your motor skills? Try Halo Sport risk free with our 30 day money back guarantee. Order yours here.

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