“Syntax of Action” – Part 1 – Enhanced Expectancies.

Motivation, movement, and motor share the same Latin root (movere, to move). In sport, motivation is used as a description of drive toward some goal usually in terms of level of intensity and direction of movement and also as a study of its causes and consequences.

Ryan and Deci (2000) described intrinsic motivation as, “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn.” As coaches and practitioners, we have fallen accustomed to this idea of blocked and random practice because it facilitates what is learned. Meanwhile, we tend to forget that there is a success and challenge bandwidth for instructing and constructing learning and performance pertaining to how a skill learned. After all, expectancies for personal performance appear to serve a task readying function, creating a proactive rather than a reactive motor system. Movement-system readying occurs through pre movement excitation or inhibitions mechanisms which are associated to both attention and cognition. Expectancies anticipate rewarding properties of significance fulfilling a performer’s needs. They influence working memory and long term memory biasing our motor system to expected stimuli. Self efficacy or confidence, is more than just a consciously experienced perception. It is a function of control, significance, and achievement, influencing situation specific sense that he or she will be able to effect the actions that bring about task outcomes (Bandura 1977). Throughout the next couple of blog posts, I’ll be digging into the motivational and attentional affects on motor learning and performance. My goal is to shed light onto the importance of instructional cueing and feedback with the purpose of achieving movement automaticity. It’s interesting to think about performer’s who are ‘in the zone’, have the ‘hot hand’, are considered ‘clutch’, and are able to perform even as conditions continue to vary.

(Social Comparative Feedback)

A common approach in sport today is to provide individuals and teams with veridical feedback about their own performance in reference to a standard or gold standard. Competence, or having a sense of growth and the possibility of future success, is hindered if feedback is considered bad or not enough. Normative feedback is a tool used to support competence and relatedness, or showing that others are in similar situations typically given as information such as the average performance scores of other performer’s. While the research remains limited within the social comparative feedback realm, this idea of enhanced expectancies is embedded in the dopamine response literature which I will review towards the end of this series. The studies that have included such interventions have seen increased frequency and low amplitude (improved efficiency in motor control) in balance when performer’s were given normative feedback suggesting that their performance was better than average even when it wasn’t (Lewthwaite and Wulf, 2010). Learning and performance was improved through retention. Now of course, in practicality, we don’t want to lie to our athlete or patient, but we want them feel successful. I’ll touch on positive feedback in the next post, because I know thats what you’re thinking. Another study showed that normative feedback has a functional motivation affect that directly influences physiological changes at the level of stability control specifically in the soleus and peroneus, both muscles that function primarily for plantar flexion (Navaee et al., 2016). Similarly, Hutchinson et al., (2008) showed greater tolerance for sustained effort in a continuous force production task with lower perceived exertion as a function of positive normative feedback. The role of positive normative feedback is to reduce nervousness about ability during performance. In contrast, negative feedback, a sense of outside control, induce self regulatory mechanisms which in turn allow performer’s to focus more on bodily movements (internal focus) and other processes that hamper learning and performance.

This makes sense. When we are told our performance is on average similar to others within the same performance domain, we feel good as compared to it being the opposite. Moreover, it is conceivable that a success with challenge approach is a function of the resultant dopamine response which may give way to a variety of beneficial learning and memory effects often attributed to challenge or task difficulty. Think about it. Dopamine will dampen when we are challenged to do something. For example, if we have just taken the lead as a team in a basketball game but the other team comes back and takes the lead again leaving us with the last possession, this level of dopamine will only amplify to the impact of subsequent positive cues, strengthening the learning effect. This may be a terrible example, so let’s try another one. Challenge is a risk to expected reward. Let’s take a volleyball outside hitter for example. After five kills in a row, she is blocked twice, and therefore her movement, awareness, and swing power will constrain because now its about not making a mistake. Only when her coach says, “keep swinging away” will her level of dopamine increase because in her task readying space, she feels ownership and less nervousness as compared to a coach saying, “tip the ball down the line.” One of the main takeaways is that it is more likely a player will make a mistake after a mistake is made. We will continue this chat in further posts. Giving social comparative feedback to make performer’s feel as if their results are on par with those amongst them is crucial, especially for novice performer’s. At the same time, it allows performer’s not to think too much about their mistake. I hear it all the time.

“You can’t miss this serve”

“You’ve only made 3/8 from the three point line, so pass the ball”

Stuff like this.

Back to my first point. Coaches and practitioners are more keen on changing what is learned as compared to how it is learned. Conditions of practice are impactful and it really matters. What also matters is the unique interplay between how conditions of practice facilitate positive adaptation.


While many intuitively may provide such feedback, others may be more focused on correcting errors, with unintended consequences for motivation and learning. In the hippocampus, learning increases the survival of newly generalized cells into differentiated neurons to the extent that the learning experience is new, effortful, and importantly successful (Shors, 2014). Feedback is learning, but we’re stuck looking at performance.The problem is that that we like to stop after some arbitrary criterion is reached. Concepts like overtraining and over practice start to create assumptions in our mind that take away from the importance of continuing practice. Performer’s who do not have a great deal practice beyond the stage of initial performance probably do not experience the beneficial increase is resistance to stress, fatigue, and interference that comes from extended overlearning. We are idiotically consumed by creating these habit patterns and we disallow the motor system to perform under stressful conditions where feedback and instruction are the main driver towards optimal performance.

Concepts like overtraining and over practice start to create assumptions in our mind that take away from the importance of continuing practice.

The point here is that performer’s need to develop many different cognitive sets which can be switched from one to another readily, and can include the same stimulus as members of different cognitive sets.

We are idiotically consumed by creating these habit patterns and we disallow the motor system to perform under stressful conditions where feedback and instruction are the main driver towards optimal performance.

The key takeaway from this is that there needs to be variability within the success and challenge bandwidth which is a function of practice conditions (i.e blocked and random). We talk a lot of the freeing of degrees of freedom, but tend to forget that this ‘freeing’ is a result of us as performer’s feeling good about our performance. Giving normative feedback and asking performer’s what they think about their performance is a key ingredient to the perceptual motor landscape. Social comparative feedback is one of the “syntax of action” that influence motivation and attention in motor learning, control and performance. Future research needs to study the influence of social comparative feedback within competitive team sporting events. I hope this makes you think a little bit!

Conditions of practice are impactful and it really matters. What also matters is the unique interplay between how conditions of practice facilitate positive adaptation.


Love and Light,

Harjiv Singh


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191–215

Hutchinson, J. C., Sherman, T., Martinovic, N.,&Tenenbaum, G. (2008).The effect of manipulated self-efficacy on perceived and sustained effort. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20, 457–472

Lewthwaite, R.,&Wulf,G. (2010b). Social-comparative feedback affects motor skill learning. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63, 738–749.

Navaee, S. A., Farsi, A., & Abdoli, B. (2016). The effect of normative feedback on stability and efficacy of some selected muscles in a balancing task. International Journal of Applied Exercise Physiology, 5(1), 43-52.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and wellbeing. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.

Shors, T. J. (2014). The adult brain makes new neurons, and effortful learning keeps them alive. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 311–318.

Smooth Sailing the Rough Waves of a Research Project

The entire research process is a demanding, yet rewarding endeavor which can kindle a positive revolution within our scientific community when completed successfully.  Thus, I would like to share with you how I go about initiating, processing, and completing a research project.  To provide context, I successfully defended my Master’s thesis earlier than what is typically anticipated, and I am currently going about the same process for my PhD dissertation studies.  While I do not claim to have all the answers, these tips may be especially helpful to first-year graduate researchers entering a program that requires completion of a thesis / dissertation project.  I also hope to provide new information for anyone looking to initiate a new research project.  In this post, I’ll go step-by-step through my methods for successfully completing research.

Step 1: Come prepared to bring the heat

A very basic requisite to starting a Master’s or PhD program is that you should have some semblance of an idea for a research project that you wish to accomplish during your time.  This should be based off your program’s current area(s) of study, which you have chosen based on your personal research interests.  It helps to come prepared with research ideas so that you initiate early discussions on these potential topics with your advisor.  I came to my Master’s advisor, Clark Dickin, with 3 potential thesis ideas.  After more detailed discussions early on in my studies, I finalized my thesis topic;  Examining the influence of warm-up strategies on landing mechanics in female volleyball athletes.  Those preliminary conversations helped my advisor gauge my personal research interests.  This is something you want known from the onset to allow for more centered conversations, which will help guide your journey deeper into the research process.  I had a very similar conversation with my PhD advisor, Janet Dufek, and we are now fully pursuing my dissertation studies;  The influence of prior concussion injury on biomechanical landing strategies in adolescent and collegiate athletes.

Step 2: Get involved ASAP

At the start of my Master’s, I had very minimal research experience.  My interest was spurred early by getting involved with the studies being completed by my advisor and second-year graduate students.  I was able to learn how to create informed consent sheets, the ins-and-outs of IRB (a fun process at times…), the proper placement of landmarks on a participant, collecting and analyzing data, etc.  Regardless of the field of study, more than likely you’ll be starting a graduate program without a ton of prior knowledge on the entire research process, so getting “in the trenches” from the onset is extremely beneficial, especially in fields that require multiple pieces of equipment for data analysis.  Even if you have previous experience, every lab and research group is different and there will always be an adjustment period. This step requires you to be PROACTIVE.  Take the necessary initiatives to learn the intricacies of your field and your lab/labmates, it will pay off in the long run once you’re tasked with completing your own research project.

Step 3: READ, READ, READ…systematically

Sound advice you will hear from most members of the scientific community in terms of research is to read, read, read.  However, you have to be very smart in how you initiate your review of the current literature.  A tip I was given early on from Joe Eisenmann, a previous mentor at Michigan State, is to start your overview of the research with comprehensive / systematic reviews and meta-analyses.  Bonus points for reading literature that is from the last 5 years (+/-) in order to engage yourself in the most updated advances within your topic of interest.  Typically, the most up-to-date systematic reviews/meta-analyses will provide great insight into a particular topic and have a reference list that runs into the hundreds.  Collecting a large database of research from different authors also provides many different perspectives on the same (or relatively similar) research (more on this, in step 4).  Your own personal investigations (through reading!) of these references will lead you well on your way to a thorough understanding of the research endeavor as it relates to what’s been completed previously, with your research providing new insight!  In terms of reading research, I strive to read at least one related research article per day in an attempt to grow an expansive knowledge base of the specific topic, along with an understanding of related sub-topics.

Step 4: Create a master summary table

If you’ve followed me on Twitter long enough, you know I’m a very big advocate of creating a literature summary table.  Below is an example from my current dissertation research.


After reading an article, noting the major aspects pertaining to the study has significantly improved my understanding of a particular author’s viewpoint and how it relates to the literature as a whole.  In this sense, you are attacking an article from three distinct mediums: reading, writing, and summarizing in your own literature review for your thesis / dissertation (final step).  In completing this summary table for an entire topic (i.e., lower extremity injury risk post-concussion), you will allow yourself the opportunity to explore what has been previously studied, but more importantly, a stepping stone to the next crucial steps needed to further the research.  I’ve also found this method helps me get into the all-important “writing zone” for my own research- it is exciting to explore an area that has little to no research breath!!  While on the surface a summary table may seem time consuming and daunting, when completed correctly it’s actually quite the opposite- especially when writing sub-sections of your literature review.  Let me explain…

Step 5: The sectional summary tables

Whether it be a thesis or dissertation, your literature review will likely be broken into sections.  In parallel, you’ll want to create sectional summary tables branching off your master summary table.  This will help tremendously in keeping all related material in convenient locations.  For example, you will notice in the summary figure above, I referenced Lau with a highlighted 1C, a designated category for my overall literature review.  Further, I broke up the sections using summary table categorizations (see reference guide below).  Utilizing the tables, along with CLT+F to find “key” words or phrases, will allow you to be more efficient in the writing process.


Step 6: Cue the horror music…writing your research paper

…BUT it doesn’t have to be if you have followed the previous five steps!  The hardest part to writing a research paper is those first few typed lines, but writing out the summary tables should give you a great starting point.  I have also found it extremely helpful to build (and defend!) time into each day that allows for writing the research paper.  It can be 30 minutes or three hours, but writing each day helps generate and sustain the momentum necessary to produce effective work.  One line leads to one paragraph, one paragraph leads to one page, and so on.  By building on your previous work each day, you’ll not only make great progress, but you’ll feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.  Additionally, while most of our modern lives are electronic, it doesn’t hurt to save each daily document edits in a new file (noted with the date) in case said electronics do fail us.  I’d also highly recommend sending portions of your writing to your advisor at a time, that way you can continue to write while your previous writing is being reviewed and continue to build on each step of this process.

One theme I’d like to you to take away from this post is the value of consistency.  Whether it be staying up-to-date on the latest literature or writing your own document, consistency trumps all when it comes to research.  Keep in mind that from start to finish, you are looking at a project that takes roughly 18 months to complete (at minimum).  Those who are consistent in their endeavors usually produce the highest quality, and most applicable research.  Whether you are a first-year graduate student or an experienced researcher-practitioner, I hope my experiences in the research process offers some information that may be helpful for your initiatives.  As always, feel free to reach out!  I’d love to hear from you in regards to methods that have been most beneficial to your research.

– Jason

Twitter: @JasonAvedesian

Email: Jason.Avedesian@unlv.edu