"How We Learn to Move" - A Book Review
Posted April 01, 2022 by Matthew Romans
Rob Gray, PhD, is a professor at Arizona State University and has worked in the field of movement, specifically perceptual-motor skill, for over a quarter century. Gray has worked as a consultant for several sports teams, Nissan, and the United States Air Force, and in 2021 he self-published the book "How We Learn to Move." This book discusses new information in the field of motor learning and puts forth some alternative ideas to consider. Upon reading this book, it may just cause us to reevaluate how we learn and teach movement skills, as well as open our eyes to suggestions of how the youth sport experience can be improved.
Dr. Gray starts the book by discussing former Soviet scientist Nikolai Bernstein's study of blacksmiths cutting sheet metal. This may seem like a strange topic to cover in a book about sports movement skill, but it has far-reaching implications throughout the text. Bernstein discovered a subtle difference between novice and experienced blacksmiths. The novices did not hit the head of the chisel with the hammer on the same spot each time when cutting sheet metal, so their results varied. In contrast, the experienced blacksmiths hit the same spot each time, but without repeating the exact same movement on each strike. As the author says, "Skilled performance did not involve one correct movement technique. Instead, it involved using a slightly different technique with every execution. The key to becoming skillful was not strict repetition. Instead, it was repetition without repetition - learning to produce the same outcome by using different movements." This idea flies in the face of conventional wisdom, in that we have been taught for years that maximizing skill involves practicing the same exact movement over and over until we get it perfect. The idea of using slightly different movements and being adaptable to one's environment is the theme around which this book is written, and there is significant scientific evidence to support the thesis.
Anyone who has played, coached, or had their child participate in youth soccer is no doubt familiar with drills that involve dribbling the ball around cones set at predetermined distances in the hope of improving ball handling ability and coordination. Since these drills have been used for years they seem logical, but the truth is that soccer is not played in anything close to a static environment. Worse yet, these drills involve a couple of kids moving, while the rest of the team stands and waits for their turn. In a real game, conditions are always changing and you have defenders that block your path or try to steal the ball from you. An athlete needs to be adaptable to the environment around them, and if a player simply follows a prescription plan in practice he or she will be totally lost once the game starts. Dr. Gray believes that a practice environment should be set up as close to game conditions as possible, and he believes in the concepts of variability and imposing constraints. By utilizing something called a "small-sided game" (where the size of the field and the number of players are reduced) soccer players can work on adaptability by adjusting to changing conditions (having to dribble and pass in a smaller space) just as may happen in an actual game. Tennis gives us another insight. Legendary player Rafael Nadal has hit millions of shots in his life, and perhaps to the untrained eye these shots look similar if not identical, but he says this is not so. According to Nadal, "The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes - shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, ankles, knees - in every shot. And there are so many other factors - the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical." This means that Nadal has to constantly practice a variety of shots, and if he wants to produce the same outcome (a successfully placed shot), under constantly changing conditions, he will have to use a slightly different movement each time.
Chapter eleven discusses coaching youth sports and the problems with the traditional models that have been used for years. Many of the things that are practiced in sports, such as running through agility ladders in football, hitting off tees in baseball, and doing passing lanes in basketball are based on flawed assumptions. We have been taught that we need to learn proper fundamentals before moving on to more complex skills, but these drills that I just mentioned have very little to do with how each of these games are actually played. Dr. Gray brings up a good point near the end of the chapter. "What exactly is a 'fundamental' anyways? The concept comes from the long-accepted assumption that there are basic building blocks that we must put together to become skillful, like the example shown in Figure 11.3. But this idea suffers from the same problems that we have been discussing throughout this book. It assumes a linear, deterministic relationship between fundamental movement skills (if we want Skill 1 we just add Fundamentals A, B, and C) that is not consistent with what we have seen in an adaptive complex system like an athlete." Skills are highly specific to a game-like environment, and nobody hits off a tee in a baseball game. In order to maximize skill, the athlete needs to be able to adapt to the information available to them in a game environment, so coaches should structure practices to be as close to the game experience as possible. This will enable players to make the right decisions in real time and be able to "think on their feet."
Injury prevention and adaptation are talked about at length in Chapter 14, and there are multiple references to baseball pitchers having Tommy John surgery (replacement of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in the elbow). I have often wondered why this injury is so common, but Dr. Gray explains the flaws in pitching mechanics that lead to this injury. Injuries are going to happen in sports; that is just the nature of the business. However, anything that can be done to lessen the frequency and severity of injuries only serves to help the competitive athlete. It begs the question: with advancements in training techniques, nutrition, and recovery, how does one account for the rise in ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) and UCL injuries? According to Dr. Gray, "An overemphasis on planned movements creates patterns (greater angles, rotations, and energy absorption) that are likely to cause overuse injuries." The author suggests, "Adding more unplanned and unpredictable movements in practice is not only more representative of what a performer is going to actually face in competition, but is also likely to give more opportunity for them to develop this injury reducing adaptive variability." Keeping things fresh and not using the same movement patterns over and over will reduce the likelihood of an overuse injury, it will pay greater dividends in a game and help to prevent boredom and mental burnout as well.
I believe there are some takeaways from this book that have relevance to Total Results exercise. Think about what is happening with the exercise subject and the instructor during a workout: there is regular feedback given by the instructor, and the client needs to be able to process the information that is provided and execute the instructions. There is both verbal and visual information (hand gestures, etc.). It is important to give cues to the client without programming them. In addition, as much as we try to standardize each repetition, even the most proficient trainees will have variations in speed, pace, and turnaround technique from one repetition to the next. Remember, not all ten seconds are created equal. According to Dr. Gray, "Acquiring and improving a skill involves developing the controller's general abilities: perception, attention, anticipation, memory, and decision making." I also like the discussion about internal versus external focus and how it pertains to weight training. Gray says that an internal focus (something I believed was an effective strategy) in fact, "...not only leads to less force generation, it also is associated with greater muscle activity, as measured by surface EMG." Since the primary purpose of a muscle is to produce force, it makes sense that we should focus on trying to move the body part (an external focus), rather than simply concentrating internally. This leads to a greater exercise stimulus, or so it would appear.
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who works in a movement-based field or has an interest in motor learning. As a former athlete and youth/high school football coach, I can certainly relate to the scenarios presented in the text, as well as the new information that is shared. It is my belief that early specialization in one sport, as well as boredom, often lead to kids losing interest in sports before they have a chance to experience the joys as well as the life lessons that are a part of competition. New thinking about practice structure and skill development can make for a more fun and fruitful experience. The major disappointment about "How We Learn to Move" is that it has terrible proofreading and editing. In several passages there are words missing and a lack of punctuation that could very easily have been corrected; I am told this is common when a book is self-published. I simply choose to look past those flaws and focus on the excellent information that is given, as well as the sound research that supports Dr. Gray's theories. This could cause a sea change in the way athletes are coached and skills are learned, leading to a greater experience for players and coaches alike.