How to Get Better at Something: Motor Behavior

Erick Mojica

M.S Kinesiology

March 5, 2020

I came up as a young athlete with one basic thing preached to me… repetition.

I was told about practice, how important it is to constantly work to get better at whatever I wanted to accomplish.

You might have heard some of these sayings…

“Practice makes perfect”

“Perfect practice makes perfect”

“Do it until you get it right”

“Do it until you can’t get it wrong”

With a number of things that I could’ve done incorrectly throughout my baseball career, neither of these approaches ever seemed to consistently pay off.

One day in the process of finishing up my Master’s degree, I found myself in Motor Behavior class at Avila University with Dr. Larson, and it all started to make sense to me…

“Imperfect practice makes perfect.” 🤔

Let’s start of with a few basic definitions with concepts to Motor Behavior.

Motor learning is a subdiscipline of motor behavior that examines how people acquire motor skills. Motor learning is a relatively permanent change in the ability to execute a motor skill as a result of practice or experience.

Ability is general trait or capacity of an individual that is a determinant of a persons achievement potential for the performance of specific skills.

A motor skill is a learned ability to cause a predetermined movement outcome with maximum certainty.

Performance is an act of executing a motor skill.

As you read this, you can probably see why not all forms of practice are created equal. As an athlete or coach, we have to be strategic with how we structure practice to optimize performance.

In my undergrad, I was still grasping the concepts between ability and skill.

To put it simply, ability is something that we are born with. This is what we are saying when we blame our genetics when we are not good at a something.

Skills can be developed… ALWAYS!

When we look at practice through a neurological lense, the stimulus determines how we create an adaptation.

In kinesiology, we look at movement as a behavior that can be learned, unlearned, and relearned.

Our brain works a lot like a computer. When we are first learning how to walk, there are a series of computations within the brain that is uses sensory information to make decisions on how the body is supposed move.

Sensory information works in a loop, taking in information about the environment and our experiences in it. That information gets interpreted, processed, and sent back out through our nervous system to produce an outcome.

All in the span of milliseconds! Over and over again.

When we get a grasp of this concept, it makes learning and teaching go a little bit deeper than just repetition.

Think about fielding a ground ball. If you’re having trouble fielding it cleanly, think about practicing with just the hands.

Gross motor skills require large muscle groups to produce a major action, and require less precision than that exerted by small muscles. (Fielding, Hitting, Running).

Fine motor skills are the coordination of small muscles, in movements—usually involving the synchronisation of hands and fingers—with the eyes. (Picks, Gripping/Spinning the baseball).

Sure we can take 100 grounders everyday “until you get it right,” but what if we could spend 5-10 minutes practicing with just our hands?

A great way to do this by taking footwork out of the equation and getting into kneeling fielding drills.

Ron Washington is one of my favorite infield instructors to learn from. Check out this awesome video below!

This video made a huge impact on how I run practice when we work on defense.

Remember what we said about developing a motor skill: we work with a predetermined movement outcome with maximum certainty.

With this approach, we took a moment in our practice to dissect a failure in our skill and perfected the outcome in a controlled environment.

If you want to become a better fielder, begin your practice by isolating your hands and footwork (Fine Motor).

Knee drills to work on hands. Footwork drills, my suggestion without the baseball. Especially with younger ball players learning how to play.

Once we get a better feel and understand the correction that needs to be made, we can progress to being in a position with both our hands and feet involved (Gross Motor).

Back to the subject of “imperfect practice makes perfect.”

It simply means that you take advantage of the mistakes you’ve made to make your own adjustments. Once you’ve narrowed down where you went wrong, you break things down into segments in order to re-wire the mind-body connection. Ultimately, creating a permanent change.

This applies to everything that we do, especially with physical activity.

If you want to improve your pitching mechanics, start by looking at each segment of your body and movement.

How are your ankles moving? How do your hips rotate? What sequence of movements happen from start to finish?

If you want to perform better in the weight room, think about each moving part for the exercise you’re trying to accomplish. Even more important, pay attention to areas that are supposed to keep you stable.

Want to Improve your reaction? Work on drills that emphasize using the eyes. Practice using your eyes before you add movement and coordination to throw, hit, and field.

When I talk about doing things incorrectly during my playing career, I mean that I worked on too many complicated tasks without understanding the fundamentals.

Like one of my favorite therapists Mike Reinold says, “Don’t focus too much on the icing before you bake the cake.”

To become a better hitter, I spent countless hours hitting off a tee, BP in the cage, watching videos of my favorite major leaguers.

I played around with different batting stances, different loads, different timing mechanisms. Never once did I think about how my hands led the barrel through the zone. How my load and leg kick changed my balance and posture.

To increase my pitching velocity, I was focused so much on intent and moving my body faster. Long toss, weighted balls, band-assisted exercises, modalities that mostly created a temporary change.

Not saying that any of these things don’t work, but I realize now that I didn’t understand when and how to use the tools I had.

Right now is the greatest time develop yourself as a baseball player.

We have amazing strength coaches, therapists, doctors, and coaches at the frontier of player development research.

We have tools like hitting sensors, Hit-Trax, Rapsodo, force plates, K-Vest, biomechanics labs that can measure every detail of how we’re performing.

My challenge to every player and coach reading this blog is to take some time dissect how you’re practicing/developing the skills that you want to see improvement on.

There are several ways to develop a specific skill. While I enjoy debates for which coaching philosophy works better, I’m always more interested in how each individual learns.

What things make sense to you visually?

What things help you when it’s verbalized?

Does my coaching make more sense to you with internal or external cues?

Does it have to make logical sense? No, but if it helps you feel and understand how to perform a task better, let’s use it!

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