Sensory motor learning: Developing a kinaesthetic sense in the throws

By George Liset

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AUTHOR

George Liset coaches men's and women's throwing events at the University of New Hampshire.

 

ABSTRACT

    A highly refined ability to feel the movement of the body and limbs, or kinaesthetic sense, is necessary to control the dynamic movements required for elite level success in the throws and other athletic events. This article explores some of the factors and considerations that go into developing a kinesthetic sense. The author discusses sensory motor learning explaining that it is how all human movement takes place. In order to take advantage of the body's ability to improve through sensory motor advantage of the body's ability to improve through sensory motor learning, the athlete must give the brain an opportunity to detect and eliminate unnecessary and counter productive muscular movements in technique. The importance of movement experiences and building kinesthetic map as a basis for developing complex movement ability and technique are discussed and a number of general and hammer throw specific kinesiatric drills to improve the control of dynamic movements are presented.
 

Introduction

    The 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the hammer throw Koji Murofushi (JPN), who is at 1.87m and 90kg, is one of the lightest and slimmest world-class performers in the event. However, Murofushi's technique makes up for his relative lack of physical presence and with this he has achieved a personal best of 84.86m, making him the 5th ranked thrower of all time.
    Some say Murofushi's technique was inherited from his father Shigenobu, who was a five time Asian Games champion and held the Japanese national record in the event until his son captured it in 1998. The younger Murofushi's ability to control dynamic movement has been developed through many years of drills and a countless number of throws. Commenting on his technique and his ability to chase the perfect throw, he has said: "you have to adjust yourself for every attempt taking consideration of many factors in the field. Not a single throw should be the same as any other one. And it is hard to define which way is the best."

Gymboss Timers

    What are some of the factors and considerations that go into developing a kinesthetic sense so refined as to be able to control the dynamic movement needed to throw at an elite level? Sensory motor learning is how the acquisition and development of all human movement takes place. It begins in the information feedback process between one's senses, muscles and brain. During each movement, the senses of touch, balance and sight send the brain messages (input) about the body's position and muscle activity. The brain responds to these inputs and to one's thoughts in various ways (outputs). These can be summarised as mobility (primarily the legs), manual ability (what one does with the hands), and spoken language. There is interdependence between the abilities to varying degrees.

    As an athlete begins to refine a movement, the information is fed back and forth between the brain and the senses until a successful and coordinated pattern of action is formed. This development may be accelerated by stimulation (drills/kinesiatric movements). and may be slowed by injury or lack of stimulation. There is an orderly progression in the development of these abilities. Unnecessary and counterproductive muscular movement in the body is detected and weeded out. The movement gradually becomes more refined and efficient over time. Information is exchanged.

    As there are no other inputs to the brain, it is important in athletic development to concentrate on vision, hearing and touch.

    Researchers know that the brains of young children are easily developed and malleable to adapting and understanding new movements! As a result, new skills and abilities are more easily learned in childhood, especially by age 11, than in later life. These motor experiences are recorded and stored. One has to remember that without previous motor experiences, there is no conscious guidance to future motor experiences. The more movement experiences an individual has at an early age, the easier it is to learn new and more complex movements when one is older. This does not mean that older athletes who are lacking a movement base from an early age cannot easily learn new techniques. What it does mean is that an older athlete needs to better understand the concepts of sensory motor learning.


Sensory motor learning

    In order to take advantage of the body's ability to improve through sensory motor learning, the athlete must give the brain an opportunity to detect and eliminate unnecessary and counterproductive muscular movements in technique. Neurophysiologists have determined that when a high level of muscular effort is exerted, it becomes impossible for the brain to make the clear sensory distinctions needed to improve the body's neuromuscular organisation.

    A classic example of this would be teaching of the 35-pound (15.9kg) weight throw (an event mainly held the USA) to a novice thrower. Usually, minimal drilling occurs before the athlete is expected to pick up the weight and throw in competition. Most athletes are so concerned with fighting the weight that they are not able to concentrate on the movement and technique. This is why conventional exercises, with their focus on muscular effort, force and speed, actually inhibit the brain's ability to function properly on the body's behalf.

    When teaching a new movement or technique, the coach needs to realise that slow, easy movements will activate the brain's movement centres and generate a flow of valuable information between the brain and the muscles. By using minimal muscular force, we allow the brain to be free to make important sensory distinctions. The coach and athlete should notice that tension, strain, fatigue and discomfort disappear as neuromuscular systems reprogram the body for technical improvement. In other words, less muscular effort produces more sensory motor learning and greater physical improvement.


Psycho-physical learning

    The term "psycho-physical" is used to emphasise the fact that a person's mind and body are not separate entities, but are dimensions of one whole functioning being. Many of our daily movements, such as walking, are unconscious. These habitual movement patterns have been developed over time and through countless repetitions. As one teaches new skill movements, techniques need to be developed using reasoned means whereby any technique can be performed in a naturally coordinated and efficient way.

    Coaches have to realise that as athletes learn new movements, they also have to retrain the mind as well as the body. Sometimes athletes develop what F. M. Alexander termed "imperfect sensory appreciation". In this case, what feels "right" to an athlete is almost always wrong. It is wrong because the athlete has moved in their habitual way for so long that their habitual way feels correct and normal. For example, clasp your hands in front of you. One or the other thumb will be on top. Now unclasp them and re-clasp them with the other thumb on top. This other position will probably feel "wrong" to you. However, if this position is practiced, it will eventually feel right.

    When a coach tries to teach the "correct" technique to an athlete who is fighting the irresistible urge to feel right, the process of change to a new pattern of movement becomes a seemingly impossible task, because the athlete's ability to carry out any technical instruction is based on the accuracy of their sensory appreciation.

    The more movement experiences that an athlete has the better he/she will be able to construct an internal visual kinesthetic map of their environment. The athlete can then act on this map. A drill that could be used would be to have an athlete perform a technique! movement, then perform the same one with eyes closed and make a comparison of the two. Learning occurs when the athlete can discern a discrepancy between the two.

    Moshe Feldenkrais, who originated a system of psycho-physical education that bears his name, propounded the importance of proper internal visual kinesthetic maps for good action. In constructing his system, Feldenkrais said that we direct ourselves to move in accordance with our physical self-image, which is a map of the body stored in the brain. He stated that this internal map frequently does not match reality, and actions taken on the basis of this will often go awry, just like a person using an inaccurate road map. This is why it is important to train under the eye of a knowledgeable coach and to use video equipment if available.

    It is important to note that just as an athlete has a visual kinesthetic map, so does the coach. It is essential that as the coach conveys his/her concept of technique to the athlete, the two may have to use physical manipulation to place the athlete in the desired position or to create the appropriate feeling to help synthesise the two maps. The coach's greatest challenge is trying to relay to the athlete the proper movement sequences, using the athlete's kinesthetic map, in order to successfully perform the given task.

    To the inexperienced eye, every movement looks the same. It is only when a coach and athlete have an understanding that the body moves in three dimensions, and therefore that all movement needs to be analysed in 3-D, will an athlete and coach be able to synthesise their two kinesthetic maps.


Vision and kinesthetics

    Vision is one of the senses that greatly effect how we learn to move. The sub-cortical area of the brain allows for the direct visual control of movement and for, the most part, it operates outside of conscious awareness. The throw of an elite athlete is almost a reflex action. It is done without thought and thinking through the process slows down the reaction time. The athlete must be able to translate visual clues into proper movement to achieve the proper technique. Paying attention to what is felt and what is seen produces improvement. This heightened proprioceptive awareness improves both vision and movement.

    In teaching movement concepts, one of the prime tenets is that the body follows the head. More specifically, the body follows where you look (central vision). However, studies have found that peripheral vision, as opposed to central vision, is the seat of visual control of movement. An athlete should be aware of the whole visual field as he/she moves.


Kinesiatric testing and drills

    Kinesiatric testing is a movement evaluation that includes a functional assessment to find out what the athlete can do. Through this, a movement plan is developed and implemented based upon the athlete's abilities and deficits. Testing falls into two categories, general and specific. General testing usually encompasses overall gross motor abilities. A coach wants to evaluate the athlete's ability to move in general. An example of a general test for kinesiatric movement would be the "T Drill" shown in Figure 1.


 

    Specific testing would be a test that might incorporate event specific movements. Tests are used to measure, among other things, an athlete's ballistic leg strength, agility/ reaction time, motor planning, total body co-ordination and ability to change direction through different planes of movement, all of which are very important factors in athletic performance. An example of a specific test for kinesiatric movement would be John Powell's "Float, Float Sting" discus drill shown in Figure 2.

 

    Sensory motor development can also be accelerated through the use of these and other kinesiatric drills. The aim is to teach the body to control dynamic movement The following are some considerations that need to be observed when choosing and/or developing a drill for use.

  1. The programme needs to provide a variety of movement experiences to the athlete.
  2. Movements need to be done initially with just body weight. As the athlete demonstrates more proficiency in the movement resistance can be added (i.e. weight vest, medicine balls, throwing pugs etc.) to teach the body to control dynamic movement.
  3. Movements need to be through more than one plane (i.e. rotational through a linear plane as in the hammer, discus and tumbling).
  4. The athlete needs to turn to and work both sides of the body equally.

    The following drills can be used as tests or as stations for movement conditioning:
1. Foot switching
    Using a 10-15cm aerobic step, the athlete starts with one foot on the step and the other off. On command, the athlete jumps up in the air and switches feet. This can be done for duration of 30 seconds to 1 minute.

2. Hurdle bounds
    Using small "banana" hurdles or hurdle trainers, line up 5-10 hurdles in a row. Place the hurdles 1m apart. The athlete performs double leg hops/ bounds over each hurdle. Upon completion, the athlete jogs back to the beginning. Variations can be used as well. Single leg hops using right or left leg only. The athlete can alternate right and left leg. An advanced variation would have the athlete performing a 180° turn over each hurdle going down the line using double leg bounds or single leg hops.

3. Figure eight shuttle run
    Place two cones on the ground about 9m apart. The athlete starts in a standing position and on command runs in a figure eight manner around the cones.

4. Figure eight bounds
    Place two strips of tape on the ground about 90cm apart. Standing behind one tape-line, the athlete performs a double leg bound and while in the air he/she the performs a 1800 turn to the right and lands behind the other tapeline facing the direction he/she started in. Immediately upon landing, the athlete bounds back to the other tapeline, this time turning to his/her left in the air, and lands facing the direction from which he/she came. An advanced variation would have the athlete holding a medicine ball or wearing a weighted vest.

    The following are some hammer drills we use at the University of New Hampshire to provide kinesiatric training with the implement.
1. Walking winds
    The athlete walks down a line while winding the hammer with both hands over the head. Variations of this drill can include winding in both directions (preferred side and non preferred side), winding with just the right or left arm, and winding walking backwards.

2. Full turns
    The athlete performs as many full turns in a row as their skill allows. Variations on this drill include winds to both sides, different lengths of wire, and the use of differently weighted implements.

3. Incline full turns
    This variation on the full turn drill enhances the kinesthetic experience. The athlete performs the full turn drill up a slight incline, down a slight incline and across a slight incline from both directions.

    As one can see, using the kinesiatric concept when developing a movement programme for an athlete has limitless possibilities.

Reaction time
    Reaction time can be used as a physical index of underlying neural activity. When you measure reaction time, you are taking into consideration whatever mental decision making was needed between the sensory and motor conduction processes. Simple reaction time is always quicker than the one requiring additional decision making. This is the difference between performing a relatively simple movement (a standing throw in the shot put) versus a more complex movement (rotational throw in the shot put). In measuring reaction time, you are modeling cognition. The beginning to end timings are measures of the end-to-end cognition of sensory movement, e.g. everything the brain has to do in order to respond appropriately to environmental input.
    During a complex movement, the brain is constantly making judgments as to the internal structure of biological information it is receiving. Motor memory is developed through repetition. As motor memory is developed, the decision making process becomes quicker. As complex movements become synthesised in the brain and motor patterns are developed, complex movements become reflex actions that decrease reaction time to that of a simple movement. That is why throws by an elite athlete become like a reflex action, done without thought.

Conclusion
    Knowing how the body works and best learns is of vital importance to a coach and athlete. Understanding the concepts of sensory motor learning and knowing how an athlete develops kinesiatric awareness is an integral part of coaching. The coach and athlete who can integrate these concepts into their training programme will find them to be of great advantage.

GLOSSARY

KINESTHETIC: Muscle sense, the ability to feel movement of the body and limbs, body awareness.
KINESIATRIC: The body's ability to control dynamic movement.
KINESIATRIC EXERCISES: Exercises designed to teach the human body how to assimilate the movements and skills needed to master specific skill movements and to control dynamic movement.
NEUROMUSCULAR: Of or relating to nerves and muscles. 

NEUROPHYSIOLOGIST: Studies the physiology of the nervous system.
 

FROM IAAF/NSA 1-06

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