How does motor learning actually work?
First off, learning can be defined as “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p.3). There are different fields of learning e.g., emotional learning, cognitive learning and also motor learning. Motor learning therefore means the learning process of acquiring a new motoric skill until it runs automatically. Dancers ongoingly go through motor learning processes when learning new technique, combinations, methods etc.
Learning a new move takes time and concentration, that´s no secret. But what are the actual steps of motor learning, what phases are there, what supports the process of learning a new move and how do I recognize the moment, the learning process is finished?
In order to be willing to learn a new move, there has to be the motivation to learn it. What certainly helps the most in developing motivation is to know what the goal is. If you see a move someone is doing and you really like it, you might also want to be able to do it and start practicing. Surely there are also other aspects come into play like having the time and someone or some material that can teach you. Either way, forming a detailed goal for yourself is very important.
When it then comes to learning that new move, the process can be described in three stages, that Fitts, P.M., Posner, M.I. described 1979. These phases base one on the other, although the transitions from one to the other are fluent:
1st phase (cognitive/ verbal phase)
When you start learning a new movement, you first have to watch how it is done. Your brain will then already have associations (sensomotoric and motoric) on how to do the move. From this starting point of visual, maybe also spoken information, together with the associations your body has, you will get into your first try outs of movement. Therefore, you will need a lot of attention and energy, you will for sure not use your power effectively nor will there be a flow of movement, but you will rather be uncertain and inefficient. That is totally normal and fine. In this first phase it is about learning the movement pattern roughly. Your body still needs to find out how to adjust strength, coordination, flexibility, endurance etc. to optimize the movement.
2nd phase (associative phase)
This phase is about developing the fine coordination of the movement. Since you are already roughly able to do the movement, you will now be able to shift the focus from control to content. So now it´s about erasing mistakes, clarifying your coordination, getting into a flow and working on the efficiency of your movement.
3rd phase (autonomous phase)
In this last phase of motor learning the fine coordination of the movement stabilizes and the movement flows automatically. You don´t need to focus anymore on the movement or it´s elements. Therefore, your attention is free to recognize your environment, to handle the movement creatively, e.g. by trying out different variations to execute the movement and to also run through it under difficult circumstances. When you are able to do that, you know, you successfully learned it.
After learning new movement and even in between practice sessions it is important to also rest, in order to keep up the motivation and concentration but also to give the brain the possibility to build up new neural connections and to shift the learned movement into the long-term memory. This aspect is not to be underestimated and as well a part of learning new movement, as are the active phases of practicing.
So, what´s the next move you are going to learn?