Motor Learning 101


Motor Learning 101

Can you actually put real numbers to tell whether your training equates to on field performance? Well, kinda.

If I were to ask you what percent of the ability to succeed in sports is related with physical movement, what would you say?

That answer tells you just how vastly important this topic is when creating athletic performance programs. Everything you do, every jump, every squat, every run, is a motor pattern that needs to be learned, honed and perfected. Knowing the background of motor learning and how we can structure it to create different results with different populations is vital to being a successful coach, so lets talk about it.

First, lets look at some definitions that are going to dictate how we structure workouts for different athletes with different goals.

There are two primary aspects to keep in consideration of teaching skills: short term and long term. These can be described as motor performance, and motor learning.

Motor performance is described as the temporary change in movement patterns during a training session.

Motor learning is the permanent change in behavior, measured after a retention period.

Ways to teach a movement

Here are the ways you can teach a movement to increase learning and retention:

Partial – training small components of a larger movement individually. These smaller components must be a naturally occurring component of the larger movement to have a positive transfer. Great for teaching more complex actions (hang clean, run technique).

Whole – training the entire movement in its entirety (squatting, bench press).

Types of Practice

This is the way you can structure your individual workouts, based on the skill of the athlete, to teach new skills or refine existing ones:

Constant practice – repeating a single motor pattern until it is learned. Quickly increases the motor ability on that day. Used with new athletes to teach or refine basic patterns.

Variable – training multiple similar variations of a task. Used once an athlete has acquired the basic movement pattern. Creates a strong long term learning and retention stimulus.

And this is how you can structure workouts over the course of weeks and months to increase learning and retention:

Blocked practice – One variation is taught repeatedly before moving to a new variation of the exercise. Has very low interference from one movement to the next, which facilitates the learning of the basic movement pattern. Low long term transfer to other skills, and lower retention rate.

Random practice – multiple variations trained in random order. High interference from movement to movement, however retention stays high.

Guided vs Unguided Practice

Guided – changes in performance are dictated by a coaches external cueing. Necessary for the vast majority of coaching. Uses extrinsic feedback to learn and perfect a movement pattern.

Discovery – letting the athlete “figure it out” and learn the movement based on feel and knowledge of the necessary skill. Useful mostly in high level athletics where the athlete knows in detail the desired goal and can train autonomously to achieve it. Uses intrinsic feedback to perfect the movement pattern.

Reading through this list, you can pretty easily surmise how they would apply to the various levels of athletes. However, the long term training goal is also a key factor in how you teach. Do you want an athlete to perfect a movement today, or are you looking to make sure the movement pattern sticks for the long haul?

Stages of Motor Control

There are three main stages of motor control an athlete will be in that you need to be aware of when designing a program and adjusting the desired variables (volume, frequency, intensity, technique).

Cognitive Stage

WHAT: The athlete is learning the basics of the training movement. Visual feedback is extremely important as the athlete develops strategies for accomplishing the task. Developing a “neural map” of what needs to fire and when to perform the movement.

HOW: Highlight purpose of the training task, demonstrate the task the way you want it to be performed, or break into smaller parts that’s relate back to the whole movement.

PRACTICE: Distribute the practice to avoid fatigue, limit distractions and negative interference from other training tasks. Use slow, controlled movements. Follow blocked-constant practice to refine movement patterns before switching to new or more complex variations. Guided practice dominates.

Associative Stage

WHAT: Practice and refinement of the movement. Movement errors will decrease, need for cognitive recognition of the pattern decreases, automaticity increases. Trying to improve the “neural map”. Mostly “whole” movement training except in cases of complex actions.

HOW: Help performer develop the decision making necessary to train the movement.

PRACTICE: Randomize practice with other variables to increase long term retention of movement patterns. Begin introducing real world scenarios to have maximal transfer of the movement. Guided practice dominates.

Autonomous Stage

WHAT: Cognitive control almost autonomous. Developing additional skill and goal attainment.

HOW: Confirm or correct the athletes analysis of the movement. Increase specificity of the training movements.

PRACTICE: Random practice movement patterns with increased specificity of movement. Discovery-guided practice to offer extrinsic feedback, which can be compared with the athletes intrinsic feedback to find potential solutions for progress.

In general, more high quality, high frequency and varied training with a pyramid of specificity from simple to complex, general to specific will yield greater motor ability. And that is the goal of training athletes, not increasing the squat max and telling them to go practice.

So how can you use this situation to adjust for various athletes? Here is a breakdown:

Youth Athletes:

  1. Focus on lots of external visual and audible feedback.
  2. Use the same exercises repeatedly before moving to others.
  3. Use several exercises per day (build the neural map), focusing only on short term retention (motor performance) of one exercise will not have any learning affect on the long term retention of the movement compared to lesser focus.
  4. Don’t look for daily perfection of everything, look for daily PROGRESS on everything, moving towards perfection over weeks, months and years.
  5. Long term success and retention is the only factor that counts with a youth athlete. Make them love training, give good feedback, and know that there is plenty of time to peak.
  6. Begin teaching basics of more complex patterns early, even if training the success of the movement is not the goal, set the foundation for future success. Jumps, skips, Olympic movements and more can be taught.

College / High School

  1. Use guided training to not just correct movement, but teach athlete a sense of what is right, to develop their own intrinsic feedback on movement patterns.
  2. Variable, random practice will allow for maximal return. Train several variations simultaneously.
  3. Train complex movements in part and as a whole.
  4. When introducing new movements, block-constant practice until learned, then integrate into main variable-random program.


  • Develop strong sense of intrinsic feedback and motivation.
  • Working with athlete to solve problems, rather than just coaching.
  • Continued refinement of motor skills leading to perfection.
  • Separate motor skills into refined and need refinement, adjust training protocols based on what will cause biggest improvement.

Note: This does not apply just to weight training. Jumping, running, positional work, or anything involving any movement pattern can be planned and programmed using the concepts described above. The goal is maximal transfer to the field, so start building your program to do just that!

About the author 

Steve Olson, MS, CSCS

Steve is a strength and conditioning coach, gym owner, and founder and CEO of Strength Coach Pro. Prior to founding SCP, Steve owned Excel Training Designs, a company created to help coaches better learn and use Excel for programming. Steve also owns a strength and conditioning gym in Cary, NC, and has his bachelors and masters in Exercise Science.

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