The impact of motor control on athletic performance

The impact of motor control on athletic performance

1. Introduction

Much of the work done regarding exercise is concerned with how motor control can be improved and how we can increase the efficiency of movements. This links with motor learning and skill acquisition. But equally, there is interest in changes that occur with development, across the lifespan, and in the etiology and remediation of movement disorders. For example, the study of motor control impairment with changes in the musculoskeletal system can help explain a decreased coordination in the elderly or a person suffering from arthritis and provide strategies for its rehabilitation and prevention. Similarly, a neurological examination of the control of movement of people with cerebral palsy will identify difficulties at different stages of information processing, muscle activation, and movement coordination that can be attributed to the specific neural lesions and provide the knowledge for a systematic approach to treatment.

Motor control is the process by which humans and animals use their brain/cognition to activate and coordinate the muscles and limbs involved in the performance of a movement. Fundamentally, it is concerned with the nature of the movement and how it is controlled. Motor control is the process of initiating, directing, and grading purposeful voluntary movement. The concept originally derived from the development of a coherent theory to explain how movements are controlled, the motor program theory. Later the schema theory was introduced as an extension to the motor program theory that covered the open environment. Consideration of how control is applied, in selecting the most appropriate system of movement and the coordination between the two systems, then led on to examine the nature of the processes involved in perception, decision making, and memory that underlie skill acquisition and performance. Spanning many disciplines, motor control has considerable relevance for anyone engaging in physical activity. An understanding of how movements are regulated and executed is fundamental to being able to make appropriate interventions to learn or relearn motor skills and to perform them consistently and effectively.

2. Fundamentals of motor control

Motor control involves many different neural and physical processes that come together to allow for effective movement to occur. These complex processes are coordinated and controlled with the overall goal of moving the body and/or objects within the environment to achieve a specific outcome. The body of research in motor control is large and varied, and as such, this essay will focus primarily on fundamental control and learning aspects of the more simplified movements that are seen in clinical populations or are paradigms for more complex movement in the mainstream population. These simplified movements can take the form of a single joint movement, a movement of the whole body, or a movement of an object manipulated by the body. At their core, all movements rely on the integration of sensory information from the body and environment to facilitate action formulation inside the brain. The brain then must transmit this formulated action to the target effectors, where an effector is defined as the part of the body (e.g., a muscle) or the object that will be manipulated.

Fundamentals of motor control are important for understanding how the details of movement are regulated to accomplish a larger purpose. Numerous perspectives have been adopted to understand motor control, ranging from systems that are based on neurophysiology to more abstract accounts that are based on computational science. This essay will attempt to provide a concise overview of the information processing framework for motor control that has been derived from the latter approach. This essay will not be oriented around the information processing model; however, a complete understanding of the model is not necessary to appreciate most of the content on this site. A brief introduction to the intuition of the model is provided, followed by relevant discussion of various topics in the sections that follow.

3. Motor control and its influence on athletic performance

The influence of motor control on the execution of movement, as well as its general impact on athletic performance, is critical and yet often overlooked. It is an important component of learning and performing a particular movement or skill. Movement is a broad term that encompasses various skills and tasks, while motor control is involved in stopping, starting, regulating speed, direction, force, rhythm, and timing of complex movements. The quality of movement directly correlates with sports results and athletic performance. Poor control over motor skills can lead to a decrease in proficiency and an increased risk of injury. It is essential for athletes to have a good grasp and control of their motor skills in order to perform proficiently and prevent injury. According to Newell’s hierarchy of skill acquisition, motor control is seen as the third level, following the initial stage of skill acquisition and the actual learning of the skill or task. Newell describes a shift from an open loop control system to a closed loop control system as a skill is learned and developed. This shift highlights the importance of motor control for athletes aiming to perform a specific skill proficiently.

4. Training strategies to improve motor control

Techniques have been derived for patients based on clinical motor control research and are aimed at developing new motor skills and relearning specific tasks. This is in order to increase an individual’s central (ability to plan and carry out a movement) and associated (learning of movements) motor control of transferable tasks into their everyday lives, work, or sports.

More recently, there has been a focus on the use of exercises that are aimed at retraining motor control. This type of exercise is based on the theory that motor control can be taught and relearned using specific exercises and feedback techniques. An exercise is defined as an active process that has the goal of training specific body function to achieve maximum movement performance. These exercises are often broken down into the three motor skill categories and are aimed at an individual’s ability to complete tasks that relate to their work, daily activities, recreation, and sports.

Static stretching and strengthening exercises have been traditionally used to rehabilitate injuries. While these have been effective for some types of injuries, the recovery of motor control may be incomplete as the skills and injury themselves may be different from those defined in non-injured individuals. Strength and conditioning exercises and sports-specific training may also target motor control. However, an athlete’s ability to perform the movement may be restricted by pain or fear of re-injury.

Schmidt has classified motor skills into three categories: discrete, serial, and continuous. Discrete skills have an obvious beginning and end, which are often defined by simple movements. Serial skills are a group of discrete skills strung together to create more complex movements, while continuous skills have no obvious beginning or end and are usually defined by more complex movements.

Training to improve motor control will have to be specific to the movement type, individual, and situation. There are a number of theories and training strategies available at present. However, there is limited evidence as to which is the most effective in relation to athletic performance and injury prevention. Let’s take a brief look at some common and contemporary training strategies.

5. Conclusion

An athlete needs to learn to perform a certain behavior in the best possible way, overcoming many different constraints. The success of the task depends on the interaction of the individual, the task, and the conditions of the performance environment. Dynamic systems theory can also help explain how we learn and relearn skills after injury, with the system moving from the degenerate to attractor state and finally getting back to the original intended movement pattern. This is vital information for motor relearning after injury and how to coach an athlete to complete a certain movement.

Dynamic systems theory can be used to help explain the variability seen in completion of tasks. If we take the example of a golfer, even though the endpoint of a swing is defined by hitting the ball, there are many ways in which the task can be completed. Steadiness can only be determined if the task is repeated with the same effect, and it is determined by the variation in the repeated performance. This can help explain the success or failure of athletes in certain tasks, with task failure being a result of dynamically degenerate behaviors moving into the wrong movement pattern.

Motor control plays an essential role in allowing us to move and maintain stability effectively. Vision, proprioception, and our vestibular system are important in helping us learn how to effectively move and complete complex tasks. It is widely accepted that the conclusions reached in experimental tasks all depend on internal representations and rest on the assumption that subjects have achieved an approximate proficiency in the tasks. This is important in knowing if certain subjects are using different methods to perform the same task.

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