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Motor Learning Processes (how to learn stuff lol)

Motor Learning - how we learn... same thing

You’re well aware that there are different learning styles in academics. Some people are visual learners and need the concept drawn out for them on the blackboard. Others learn better from hands-on activities. Others need Mnemonic devices to remember facts. The list goes on.

The same is true for weightlifting. Every athlete has his or her own unique way of being able to master the lifts and by you identifying your own preferences, it can help a coach refine cues to help you reach your full potential.

Now, while every athlete may have a unique learning style, no one is unique in the way we process information. Experts have divided the way people have progressed in learning into three stages:

  1. Cognitive learning

  2. Associative learning

  3. Autonomous learning

Athlete and coach intensity and volume should be based on this progression of motor learning. It is natural to human learning in every activity and is easily identifiable as to which phase an athlete is in. Rushing these phases usually results in coach and athlete having to take steps backwards because they were not patient enough to see correct movement all the way through. Learning to identify when an athlete has mastered a certain phase does wonders in your coaching skills as it makes the acquisition of higher skills come sooner.

Every new skill has to undergo this process no matter the level of athlete.

Cognitive learning

Cognitive learning is a stage that can easily be explained as the “what’s the point” stage. What is the objective of the skill?

There are two Olympic lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. But a coach may have an athlete work his overhead squat over and over. To a new athlete, this may seem counterproductive since the overhead squat is not one of the competition lifts. However, a good coach should be able to explain that we work these accessory lifts in preparation for getting down in the receiving position of the snatch.

Asking a coach “why” is never a bad thing. Your coach should know why he or she is having you do a specific exercise or movement. By you asking why, you begin to understand how each small movement begins to build on the next to ultimately get you to that next level. You are trying to build a strong base of a pyramid essentially so having the strongest base you can have will allow you to build your pyramid extremely high.

Just know this: frequent errors happen to everyone. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. If you learn the basics, you will set yourself up for success.

Associative learning

As you begin to learn why you are doing various movements, you will inevitably begin to recognize how your body moves and feels in each movement. This is the associative learning phase.

At first, everything is going to feel strange and uncoordinated. You will awkwardly stand and reverse curl the bar into a clean position. Your thumbs and palms will ache from your coach demanding that you hook-grip the bar.

But eventually, you’ll start to recognize what the proper set-up for the snatch feels like. It will become so ingrained that you won’t even have to think twice about lining the barbell up over your mid-foot, gripping the barbell wide, and dropping your hip to the proper depth. It will begin to feel natural.

During this phase, a coach should be seeking feedback from you and you should be able to say whether or not something felt off and why it felt wrong. You should be able to start identifying the minutia and nuances of the lifts -- you didn’t get low enough or you were set too high in the set-up, you didn’t keep your shoulders over the bar, you didn’t reach full extension. Even if you’re not certain of what went wrong, opening that dialogue with your coach will provide huge learning advancements. He or she can give you the cues and feedback that you can now instinctively apply to the lifts, a sure sign that you are becoming more advanced.

Throughout this phase it is common to hear athletes start to mildly “debate” what felt good and what felt bad. It is again critical that coach and athlete relationships blossom and communication is open. Sometimes just because something felt good to the athlete and the rep was “completed” does not necessarily mean that the movement was great or that the athlete did the correct adjustment. This time is critical to make sure movements are good as a majority of the athletes athletic life will be spent here and habits are ground in here hardcore.

Autonomous learning

The last phase is the autonomous phase of motor learning. Here, movement patterns become automatic and natural.

No longer does an athlete instinctively reverse curl the bar to get to the clean position. In this phase, an athlete can repeat in near perfect movement patterns what the coach has requested and the coach is able to improve small minor details that affect the athlete at maximal loads. A unique part of this phase is the coach actually talks less and less as this phase is acquired and only voices their opinion as the athlete requests it or feels it is necessary. The athlete usually self corrects before the issue is even remotely close to becoming a problem.

This is when the athlete and coach can really delve into those small details and nuances. For example, hook grip may be automatic at this stage, but does the athlete need to widen their snatch grip a millimeter or two to ensure he or she can reach their maximum potential. Or, an athlete may naturally start with his shoulders over the bar, but they lose tension in their upper back as the lift progresses in weight.

The Autonomous stage of learning is actually rarely reached by many in this sport and is actually an issue of coach and athlete thinking they are in it. If you pay attention to great coach and athlete teams like Lydia Valentin and her coach or Vladimir Sofonov while he coaches Olga Zubova you see little dialogue and more observing. The roles almost switch from when the athlete was a beginner and just listened and coach talked a lot to now the athlete talks more and coach just listens.

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