“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.

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



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.