Get Your Motors Running

By Susan Langlois and Sharman Hayward

Have you ever experienced the exhilaration of trying a new sport skill and getting it right on your first try? Maybe it was your first attempt at springing a handstand in gymnastics, a forward-pike dive from the 3-meter board, or connecting with your titanium three-wood for a 200-plus-yard drive with a slight fade.


As you read these athletic feats do you think, "I could never execute those skills on the first try (even in my dreams)?"

Most of us don't have enough natural athletic talent to accomplish these skills, unless we were given intensive instruction and a lot of time to practice.

In fact, about 90 percent of human beings are not among the motor gifted. Most mortals are not going to be able to watch an expert demonstrate it and then "just do it." Unfortunately, this reality can be frustrating, especially for young campers.

How often have you heard camper say, "Oh, I could never do that, I'm just a klutz," or watch someone who fails on a first attempt and then just gives up in disgust or shrinks from embarrassment?

Thankfully, most camp instructors are positive, encouraging, and persistent. Some campers who are about to quit can be coaxed back into trying again.

But why put campers in a position where they are at risk of failure and embarrassment? Camp should be a confidence-building experience and that's where the science of motor learning can make a difference.

Motor learning scientists have studied how the brain acquires and refines complex movements like throwing, catching, striking, or jumping. What they have found is that human beings move through three phases of motor learning to master a motor skill.

If a camp instructor designs learning activities with the principles of these learning phases, campers will have a much greater chance to enjoy and improve their skills.

Phase One: Picture It
It is very important for the beginner to have a picture of what a skill is supposed to look like. Most instructors instinctively know that.

However, there are common errors that instructors can make in this learning phase that can actually set a camper up for failure.

One of these errors is for the instructor to demonstrate the skill while talking through a complex series of mechanical instructions. Too much information is extremely difficult for most beginners to process.

The campers' nervous systems are actually coding the information about what they are seeing during the demonstration. The complicated verbiage by the instructor can make this coding very spotty and confusing in the camper's brain and when the camper tries to use this code to perform the skill, the results will usually not be smooth or accurate.

Another common error is to pick a complicated skill like a tennis serve and ask the campers to observe several complex motions, all at the same time.

Breaking down the tennis serve into the weight transfer, the toss, the cocking motion, the striking motion, and the follow through, will make learning a complex skill a more successful experience.

Keeping it simple is definitely underrated. Working without a racquet or a ball and even ignoring the service box and lines can help the campers develop the correct motion at the initial stage of learning.

Phase Two: How Does it Feel?
As the campers begin to experience success and begin to put together the correct movements, you can strategically give them simple, kinesthetic cues to improve their performance.

When students are in phase two of learning the tennis serve, you can discuss how they should feel as their shoulders rotate, their hand follows through on the ball toss, or the position of the racquet at the point where they strike the ball.

If feedback on these kinesthetic cues is delivered immediately, it can help the campers develop an idea of what it feels like to execute correctly.

They can eventually use this kinesthetic sense to give themselves their own feedback about what they are doing correctly and why they still need to adjust.

During this "how does it feel" phase, the camp instructor needs to design activities that addresses two important factors: Keeping the task easy enough for each camper to perform at least at a 50 percent success rate and giving each camper as many opportunities as possible to practice and repeat.

The difficulty of the task will depend on the skill level of the campers and how creative the instructor can be. Optimizing the number of opportunities for practice can be more challenging, depending on the size of the facilities, the availability of equipment, and the stamina of the campers.

Phase Three: Focus on the Goal
As the campers find that they can identify their own errors, make adjustments, and start to feel like the skill is automatic, they can turn their focus to the environment and deal with external factors.

Since they are performing the skill with their muscle memory, campers need to practice with a rhythm or flow that keeps the skill automatic.

To continue to make the practice of the skill meaningful, the camper should focus on speed and accuracy. In fact, once the camper reaches this stage of mastery, thinking about the mechanics of the skill can break the flow of muscle memory.

There are three important concepts that should be stressed by a camp instructor when helping campers to master a skill during this phase… Imaging the perfect execution as preparation for performing the skill, ensuring that the physical practice is at game speed, and simulating game pressure with scenarios that the camper might encounter in competition.

Imaging the perfect execution in a closed skill like a golf or archery can reinforce a motor program in the central nervous system that may enhance its proper physical execution.

In open sports, like soccer or basketball, campers can image their own mental highlight reels of outstanding passing and shooting combinations before they compete.

Practice may not make perfect, especially if it isn't performed at game speed. Instructors may need to add incentives like asking them to beat a time on a stopwatch or setting and compiling statistics for steals and rebounds to achieve in practice. These strategies can ensure that the campers are practicing with game-like intensity.

When campers are feeling confident and competent, practice conditions may need to be cranked up a notch to keep them focused on improvement.

This can be accomplished by adding an element of game pressure by setting up a play with only five seconds left on the clock or awarding a penalty stroke with a tied score and no time left on the clock.

Another tactic could be adding an extra defensive or offensive player to make the practice situation more challenging.

If camp instructors are aware of these three phases of motor learning and use creativity to structure activities with what follows these principles, it will be possible for every camper to reap the benefits of skill improvement and increased self-confidence.

Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.

Sharman Hayward has directed sports camps at every developmental level, and has coached intercollegiate field hockey and lacrosse for 11 years. Sharman currently serves as Associate Director of Athletics at Endicott College.