Must There Be A Drop In Performance When Improving A Skill?

There are some important differences to consider when teaching a novice or beginner swimmer on this end of the experience spectrum and when teaching an expert or advanced swimmer on the other end.

A novice is considered a novice because he has no motor patterns in place for this activity he is trying to learn, or very weak ones. He does not have neural preference or muscular strength built around any patterns. It is generally easy to introduce a new movement to a novice and have him pick up on in quickly because there is little neural resistance to doing something different than before. And since he could not swim at all or not very well, a newly acquired pattern is going to immediately make him perform better than before, even if he has to pay careful attention to what he is doing.

But that may be in stark contrast to what happens when working with an advanced or expert swimmer who is seeking an adjustment or correction in their movement patterns. This swimmer has very strong neural preference and muscular strength built up around the established movement pattern and she is going to have to work against that to make a change. That existing pattern is autonomously controlled in her brain so that it functions without requiring her attention, and because of that autonomy it will put up great resistance to being altered. When this swimmer decides she wants to make an alteration to the pattern she has to pull that movement out of the autonomous control part of the brain and put back into the conscious control part so she can override the old pattern with a new one which necessarily slows everything down a lot. It can even mess up her whole performance because other autonomously controlled aspects of her performance were tied into it and when one part is pulled back into ‘slow’ conscious control the others lose a big part of their coordination and efficiency with it.

This immediate slow down or disruption to performance can understandably be alarming to the advanced athlete… who expects corrections to come easily and quickly, at virtually no cost. But this may be a consequence of a short-term viewpoint and some lack of understanding of how the brain works. In the long-term view, we understand that neural circuits have to go through a process when being altered – the more complex the change and the more complex the conditions will be for its ultimate application, the more patient the athlete will need to be with the retraining process.

But the process works. The skill is brought back into conscious control and performance is unavoidably slowed down. It is dialed in under easy conditions, tested and refined with feedback. Then the training challenges imposed upon on that skill are gradually increased. Then she is challenged to handle dual tasks (pay attention to more than just the execution of that skill) and eventually totally distracted from it so that the brain is required to pull that skill back into the autonomous control part of the brain, where it ultimately needs to be.

I see in the research of motor learning the attempt to trick the brains of expert performers to make corrections without having to pull that correction back into conscious control, to save time and prevent slowdown. But these studies seem to be looking at small correction and with measurements of performance done over hours and days, not done on major alterations done over week and months. And I have questions about the quality of the conscious cues they have tested against one another. A quick unconscious correction process would be preferable of course, but it may not often be practical for the kind of deep corrections that some athletes need to make.

So this urges us to keep in mind at least two dimension of the process when setting expectations for working with an athlete:

Where does this person fall on the novice to expert performer spectrum? How strong are existing patterns that need to be altered, and what kind of neural resistance will there be for making a change?

And, how big of a change will she be trying to make? There may be a significant difference between making small tweaks and major alterations and the kind of neural tricks one can employ to save time on the retraining process.

In other words, it’s going to cost time for any athlete, novice or advanced, small change or big. For some people and some kinds of change there will be little or no immediate drop in performance, while for others we should expect some initial, unavoidable drop in performance as part of the necessary process to build back up to an even higher level of performance than they had before with better skill on board.

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