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.

lit_summary_table_pic

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.

thesis_lit_review_categorization

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

Neuroplasticity and the Myth of Muscle Memory: An Introduction.

 

We marvel at the creativity of action. Yet, this abstract representation of the limitlessness of the human body is often boiled down to “muscle memory,” a made up summation of the craft that beautifies the power of the brain and its relevancy. Needless to say, it is not that simple. The behaviorists studied what was observable, while the structuralists studied action through the lens of intention and consciousness. Both were very successful in aiding the revolution of theory. However, neuroplasticity, or the the idea of variability and noise as an informative biological feature of movement remained obsolete. While the popular definition of neuroplasticity still exists around experience and the structural brain changes resulting from the formation of new connections by dendritic spine growth and enhanced internal representations, how does an elite level athlete activate cognitive control processes (adaptation) during complex and constrained motor performance? In other words, is creativity simply a result of muscle memory coming from this plasticity of experience?

Traditionally, the idea of movement variability was outcome dependent. As a result, any deviation from an intended movement pattern was constituted as error. It wasn’t until much later that researchers found such deviations to be potential sources of information in the process of analyzing and monitoring biomechanical qualities. While “muscle memory” confuses adaptation, learning, and performance as simple global parameters which define output, we tend to forget that variability is present in kinetic and kinematic parameters which control basic output. Thereby, creating a system which represents low outcome variability as a resultant of high movement coordination variability. This ability of our system to achieve a task goal through different patterns of coordination defines the compensatory and flexible nature of our ability to actively engage in our perceptual-motor landscape. In fact, it is within this variability that neuroplasticity is honed.

The realm of sport performance and rehabilitation has been very structured in the past. From sets and reps to a linear progression of more complex movement, and to the use of garbage cans, cones, ladders, and whatever else that has no relevancy to skill acquisition. Instead, props like these calibrate and attune the performer to the wrong interventions, many of which won’t transfer. For example, a hurdle jump will not make a volleyball blocker jump higher when there is no ball, transition, visual cue, etc. Creative movement is not just the interaction between different body parts, but an interaction with the environment through perturbation, adaptation, responsiveness, attention, intention, etc. In fact, as Orth et al., (2017) says, its adaptive variability. As animals, we have been resourceful since the onset of our evolution, constantly trying to solve motor problems rather than repeat solutions. We don’t look for creative solutions, we discover them according to the various task relevant and irrelevant changing demands of the organism-environment interaction.

Yes, memory plays a role in the performer’s ability to interpret this interaction. Memory is generally split between long term, short term, and working memory.

Long term memory – A vast resource that represents, or models, regularities in the co-occurrence of elements of information (Barnard and Redgrave, 2006).

Short term memory- The capacity to keep a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time (Saussereau et al., 2014).

Working memory – Processing resource of limited capacity, involved in the preservation of information while simultaneously processing the same or other information (Baddeley, 2012)

A muscle clearly can’t store memory. Muscle fibers do not have a separate independent mind of their own. Of course, when accepted as truth by a large number of people without proper investigation, a myth can create cultural change. The idea behind muscle memory is that muscles can function to produce a more receptive motor cortex through its ability to adapt to different training loads and cognitive demands. This happens through our brain’s capacity to store information, strategize, and create effective solutions. It is an interplay of emotion, expectations, autonomy, instruction, motivation, and attention. None of this is originates in the muscle itself, therefore, the muscle itself is never automatized.

So the question proposed in the beginning was how does an elite level athlete activate cognitive control processes (adaptation) during complex and constrained motor performance? In other words, is creativity simply a result of muscle memory coming from this plasticity of experience? My hope is you can formulate that answer yourself with the information above. The motor learning literature is filled with work on practice conditions, stages of learning, contextual interference, motor control, measuring performance, action preparation, feedback, retention, and transfer, all of which play a significant role in adaptive variability. However, one thing I do want to briefly mention is the role of language in all this. Applicable to coaches, is the way we instruct and facilitate learning and practice. Numerous studies have been conducted on the role of attentional focus, autonomy support, and enhanced expectancies which are inherent attributes to cueing. Whether its providing choice (task relevant or irrelevant), directing performers to engage in an external focus, or providing social-comparative feedback, sport performance is not just the training load. It is the cognitive constraint that your language has on a performer’s resultant movement strategy. Our assigned sets and reps meaning absolutely nothing if variability isn’t induced in the how and what, not just the when. Muscle memory is the adaptive variability that fluctuates the perceptual motor landscape. And neuroplasticity is  the longterm retention of this adaptive variability. To sum up, this is just an introduction to many other topics that are relatable, and I think its important to realize that as coaches and practitioners, we aren’t inducing muscle memory. We are reorganizing our ability to consolidate memory from differential practice in order to satisfy a coalition of organismic, task, and environmental constraints.

With Love and Light,

Harjiv Singh

 

References:

Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory?. Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

Olesen, P. J., Westerberg, H., & Klingberg, T. (2004). Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nature neuroscience, 7(1), 75.

Orth, D., van der Kamp, J., Memmert, D., & Savelsbergh, G. J. (2017). Creative motor actions as emerging from movement variability. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1903.

 

Beyond the Sets and Reps: An Introduction.

Therein lies a correlation between the brain and body that is a direct result of an interdisciplinary approach to understanding sports science. Beyond the programming is an interaction of disciplines closely examining the chaotic nature of our being. With The Rebel Movement blog, our mission is to investigate and further the science and philosophy of motor performance. Through our collaborative approach of skill acquisition and movement analysis, we will provide thought-provoking content applicable to athletes, coaches, researchers, and practitioners.  Your feedback is vital to the blog’s mission, so please feel free to provide your thoughts, comments, and considerations. We look forward to building a stronger foundation for the sports science community.

– Harjiv and Jason

A LANDING IS NOT A LANDING

Differences amongst landing types and implications for injury

Not all landings are created equal! What I mean by this statement is the following: during sport, athletes perform a variety of landing maneuvers that may have significant implications for injury risk. Landing is a fundamental movement pattern that every land-based athlete will be exposed to at some point in sport (and yes, walking and running are simply repetitive landings!). In response to environmental demands, an athlete may be required to perform a bilateral (double-limb) or unilateral (single-limb) landing maneuver, often in the close proximity of teammates and / or opponents. After completing the landing phase, an athlete typically performs sequential movements based on the situation presented (e.g., completing an additional jump for a rebound or a cutting maneuver to avoid a defender). In this post, I will discuss the phases of a landing maneuver, the biomechanical differences between bilateral and unilateral landings, as well as the influence of both preparatory and sequential movements on landing patterns. From the information presented, we can understand the external loads placed on an athlete as a function of task demand. This will allow us better understand injury risk during landing, as well as appropriate training methods to mitigate this risk.

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