Updated: Jul 18, 2020
If we really wanted to divide athletes into two groups, we could make the argument that there are thinkers, and there are grinders. This is too simplistic, but the point remains: some players prefer to break things down, reflect, tinker, and make changes. Others prefer to simply outwork the competition. In other words, do you work hard, or do you work smart?
When it comes to improvement in any athletic endeavour, it’s not an OR but an AND – players must work hard and smart. Furthermore, it’s not just about having a balance between the two approaches – it’s about knowing when each one is more beneficial.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll define learning as improving a skill you have not yet mastered by changing a motor pattern. We’ll define training as improving a skill that you have mastered by repeating it and pushing its limits. To understand how these terms are different, we have to study the science of motor learning. Myelin is a layer of insulation that forms around nerves in the body and allows electrical impulses to travel faster either within the brain or from the brain to the muscles. Studies have shown that myelin plays a large role in motor pattern acquisition – rats whose myelination is blocked do worse on coordination tasks than control groups.
Furthermore, to quote Sampaio-Baptista et al, “results suggest that learning a novel motor skill induces structural change in task-relevant [white matter] pathways and that these changes may in part reflect learning-related increases in myelination.” In other words, myelin is produced during practice along the neural pathways that are connected to a specific motor pattern – but not others. The better insulated those pathways are, the faster information can travel from the brain to the body, or vice versa, and the more information is retained rather than lost. The conclusion? Practicing something repeatedly (training) can increase the effectiveness of a specific motor pattern, but it won’t actually change it (learning). Think of it like footsteps on a snow-covered path. The more frequently you walk along the path, the easier it becomes to walk on, but that doesn’t change the amount of snow covering any other paths.
This is why athletes in certain sports can become proficient using inefficient techniques. Through extensive training, myelin is produced and the motor pattern becomes refined to the point that it is repeatable and quick. It doesn’t change, and it may not be the most efficient pattern, but it becomes the best version of itself.
While this may seem simple, there are a few important takeaways. The first is not to train a skill that hasn’t yet been learned. The more you train a skill, the easier it is to recall. Training a skill before it is mastered, therefore, means that you will be ingraining an inefficient or sub-optimal motor pattern. The problem with this is twofold. One, performance will suffer, since the technique presumably isn't up to par if the skill isn't mastered. Two, it will be more difficult to change the pattern when it's time to do so.
Conversely, players and coaches must know when to move from learning to training for a couple of reasons. For one, any athlete who is constantly making changes and reworking a technique will never feel secure in it – repetition breeds confidence. Second, when a skill is trained, it becomes automatic. This frees the brain up for important cognitive tasks – namely, tactical problem-solving and decision-making. Lastly, teaching and learning generally take more time than training. Think about it: the skill might need to be broken into parts. The student may need to go through a progression, or watch some video. If this time only yields a small gain in performance, it may be better to train the skill (which takes less time), get a similar result, and then move on to a skill with more room for improvement.
Now that we agree that there is a time for learning and a time for training, the question remains: when is that time? And what are the roles of the athlete and coach? All that and more, next week.
Motor Skill Learning Induces Changes in White Matter Microstructure and Myelination
Cassandra Sampaio-Baptista, Alexandre A. Khrapitchev, Sean Foxley, Theresa Schlagheck, Jan Scholz, Saad Jbabdi, Gabriele C. DeLuca, Karla L. Miller, Amy Taylor, Nagheme Thomas, Jeffrey Kleim, Nicola R. Sibson, David Bannerman, Heidi Johansen-Berg
Journal of Neuroscience 11 December 2013, 33 (50) 19499-19503; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3048-13.2013