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Gold Standards Versus Variability

This is an excerpt from Motor Learning and Development 2nd Edition With Web Resource by Pamela Haibach-Beach,Greg Reid & Douglas Collier.

Instructors of physical skills sometimes teach with a template in mind (e.g., the movement pattern of a highly skilled athlete). After all, doesn't it make sense to imitate the best? A skiing instructor might encourage her students to emulate the style of the last Olympic champion, and the track coach might highlight the running pattern of Usain Bolt. Because the assumption is that everyone should strive for the gold standard, instructors' feedback is often directed at making everyone similar. However, motor learning theories challenge this gold standard thinking.

As discussed in chapter 3, most motor learning theorists agree that if every movement were stored in memory as a simple motor program, humans would have a storage problem. In addition, the single motor program idea does not provide a logical or theoretical explanation for how novel movements are produced. These questions about storage and novel movements led to the notion of a generalized motor program (Schmidt, 1975).

The generalized motor program is argued to contain the skeleton, or abstraction, of a movement pattern rather than a specific movement. For example, an overhead throwing action, as described in chapter 7, might be a motor program that contains feet placement, arm flexion, sequential trunk rotation, weight transfer, arm follow-through, and visual contact with a target. As previously described, the generalized motor program likely includes information about the sequence and relative timing and force of actions. Performers use that program when the task calls for an overhead throw, but it can be modified to meet specific environmental demands. Thus, in baseball, the second baseman throws the ball to first base with less arm flexion than the third baseman uses because the distance of the throw is shorter, and both know to "hurry the throw" when the runner is particularly quick. These situations require variations of the generalized motor program and produce different movement skills that can accomplish the task of getting the ball to the first baseman before the runner. Teachers and coaches need to include throwing variation in their practices to help learners develop generalized motor programs so that they can respond to a variety of movement situations.

Supporters of ecological and dynamic systems thinking also promote variation in movement patterns in practice but for different theoretical reasons than those of supporters of information processing. Variability is viewed very positively in dynamic systems thinking because each person is considered to have a unique signature, or style, in most motor patterns. As a result of varying intrinsic dynamics, such as body size, strength, and experience and the self-organizing nature of systems, people are expected to solve movement challenges in different ways. For example, basketball players have been shown to have quite distinct shooting patterns (Button, MacLeod, Sanders, & Coleman, 2003). People with cerebral palsy will certainly walk or reach differently than others do, even those who also have cerebral palsy. Observation of ice hockey players skating quickly reveals unique patterns even to the naked eye. Practice experiences must recognize these differences by presenting opportunities for learners to build on their personal and current capabilities. An instructor may demonstrate one way to shoot a basketball or ice skate, but should anticipate that other patterns will naturally emerge. At other times, an instructor may watch a class and determine that a very direct comment about performance is necessary, perhaps because some learners are struggling. At other times a more direct approach may be necessary to ensure safety in activities such as gymnastics, skiing, and diving. Although guided discovery has many benefits, the skilled instructor knows when to be more direct.

Variability in practice is also viewed positively by ecological and dynamic systems thinkers because it mirrors the actual situations in games and sport. Particularly in open sports, participants must frequently adapt their movements to their opponents' actions. Constant practice of the bounce pass in basketball without movement and opponents will not prepare players to lean left and pass around a moving opponent. More formally, if the attractor state for a bounce pass in basketball is too stable, the player will have difficulty with the phase shift necessary to solve the dynamics of the game. Similarly, physical and occupational therapists who may be concerned with improving walking must design practices on surfaces that vary in size and slope.

Davids, Button, and Bennett (2008) summarized these thoughts about variability when they wrote: "Practitioners' traditional emphasis on reducing errors during skill practice by encouraging consistency in motor patterns should be revised to acknowledge the valuable goal of variability in moment-to-moment control as well as long-term learning". According to Davids and colleagues, less time should be devoted to teacher-directed promotion of identical motor patterns, and more time should be devoted to problem solving, discovery learning, and self-regulation. As noted previously, this does not mean that a more direct instructional approach is never appropriate. These authors proposed the term nonlinear pedagogy as the foundation of instruction based on dynamic systems - "nonlinear" because of findings that learning is often characterized by rather sudden changes in performance (e.g., to new and more mature motor patterns) rather than by linear increments, as traditionally proposed by most other learning theorists.

Consistent with the principles of the dynamic systems approach, nonlinear practitioners recognize that a learner's solution to a movement challenge is a unique coordination pattern resulting from the self-organization of numerous body systems. Variability among people is natural, and therapists, teachers, and coaches should design practices with this in mind. Also, by changing task, environment, and personal constraints, practitioners can nudge people to new levels of performance and can better replicate in practice the dynamics that exist in real games or life contexts. Of course, in some circumstances, a therapist or instructor will intervene with a particular person and suggest a change in movement pattern, but this is quite different from expecting everyone to perform skills in identical ways.

Davids and colleagues (2008) also proposed that teachers and coaches be called hands-off practitioners to reflect a new role consistent with the dynamic systems approach. The hands-off practitioner is just as involved as the traditional practitioner, only in different ways. Davids and colleagues suggested that practitioners using traditional methods present drills to perfect a gold standard of performance for all, use practice skills outside the real context of performance, provide too much instruction and feedback, and overly manage the practice environment. The hands-off practitioner creates "a learning environment for the discovery of optimal solutions by manipulating constraints, interpreting movement variability, and nurturing learners in their search activities". Because there is no one movement solution for all learners, the hands-off teacher or therapist allows greater opportunity for learners to find appropriate personal motor patterns within practice. This prepares them to deal with changing dynamics in real performance situations, particularly in open sports and games. However, even in more closed activities such as bowling and golf, movement patterns must change subtly to accommodate changes in the physical environment or in psychological functioning.

Problem solving, discovery learning, and self-regulation are embraced in dynamic systems thinking as well as in generalized motor programs theory and knowledge-based perspectives, although the theoretical explanations differ (Wall, Reid, & Harvey, 2007). Even thoughtful educational philosophers (e.g., Dewey, 1916) have acknowledged for many years that the most effective learning occurs through discovery and problem-based activities. So, how can the physical, affective, and instruction dimensions of the learning environment be manipulated to encourage problem solving, discovery learning, and self-regulation?

It might not need stating, but just in case - the learning environment for motor skills should be structured to promote fun. Children, adolescents, and adults list other reasons for participating in sport and physical activity (Gould, Feltz, & Weiss, 1985; Weiss & Williams, 2004), but fun is often at the top of the list. Recall that intrinsic motivation is based on the pure joy of participating, and fun activities would seem to promote this. If you have seen a toddler making noise and repeating actions while playing with toys, or an elementary school gymnasium during a class, you may realize the value of fun and the notion of intrinsic motivation.

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