Different but the Same: Enhanced Expectancy for Optimal Motor Performance

General Idea: Is there an underlying commonality between all theoretical approaches?

Opinion Piece : Harjiv Singh

There seems to be a clear divide amongst different theoretical and practical approaches to motor learning and performance. The field of motor behavior itself has become extremely interesting in the past few years. Information processing theorists have transitioned from task oriented approaches to more global motor learning theories whereas those from ecological psychology perspective have transitioned from affordances being opportunities for action to affordances being opportunities during action under a set of conditions or constraints. Both perspectives would agree that perception is believed to scale the world to reflect one’s own capabilities for action. Nonetheless, enhancing motor learning and performance is still dominated and rooted by practice conditions that make problem solving or information processing more difficult and effortful. While we remain stuck linearizing a non-linear central nervous system, the concern now shifts to not “what” but “how” to bring about coordinated or skilled control of complex movement, where movement execution is of primary concern. It’s not a coincidence that motivation, movement, and motor all share the same Latin root (movere, to move). The only way we learn new skills, adapt to differing constraints, and ultimately improve performance is through this idea of expectations, where we actively anticipate rewarding properties of significance to fulfill organismic needs and desires. Think about it, our situational specific confidence allows us to take advantage of hitting high hands even after we just completely shanked the ball (volleyball example). It is common knowledge that lack of confidence disrupts fluidity, but it’s also true that circumstances which enhance expectations may also potentate even more success, improvement, and learning. In fact, confidence has been recognized as a predictor of performance. Whether you follow an information processing or ecological psychology perspective, the common language we share is this idea of forward directed anticipatory cognitions about what is to occur which not only decreases self-focus but facilitates self efficacy and goal oriented motor performance. Recent work has shed light on autonomy supportive coaching, but we’re still light years behind engaging in such an idea. While both autonomy support and enhanced expectancy fall under the category of motivation, I think it is true that enhanced expectancy incorporates this idea of autonomy support. Thus, the question here is how can we enhance expectancies in practice and during competition? 

I try to keep it nice and short and too the point. I’m always willing to discuss further and dig deeper into the philosophy and science, just shoot me an email harjiv.singh@unlv.edu

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  (Adapted from Wulf and Lewthwaite, 2016)

Pictured above is a pseudo motivational model that I will dig into through a psycholinguistic lens.  There have been numerous excellent motivational models for coaches in the past, but almost all view it through a practice condition lens. As much as we’re concerned with skill acquisition and practice conditions, words are more powerful and meaningful. Think about it, when your coach tells you something along the lines of, “I know you can do it” there is a sense of control that you assume because you’re no longer worried about pleasing your coach in the moment. Now, this may be the farthest we’ve gone in terms of enhancing expectancies. There is more to it and I hope to dig deeper into it below. For reference purposes, Psycholinguistics is the psychology of language. It is the study concerned with psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, comprehend, and produce language.

The bottom line here is that along with the typical organismic, task, and environmental constraints within the dynamical systems perspective, comprehension of language also serves as a constraint. Despite the ideology you follow, affordances are solutions of confidence and general motor programs are strategic constraints based on linguistic perceptions. 

Positive Feedback

An under appreciated function of feedback is its influence on an athlete’s motivational state. The research has clearly indicated that we want feedback on what we did good, not bad. Now, not saying if an athlete asks you for feedback on what they’re doing wrong you don’t give it. This very well maybe a way for the individual to enhance their own expectations. The feedback you do give though should be externally directed because it allows the athlete to focus primarily on the task goal. There are motivational characteristics to feedback. Reason being, an external focus primes the motor system to focus on the task goal, making it a performance criterion to accomplish that is attainable. At the same time, feedback should be instructional. When we start talking, it’s crucial to understand that our athlete will be thinking about what they did right, so a “nice job” vs. “nice job, I loved the way you flew like superman after that set” allows them to again, prime the motor system. You may be thinking that there are times where this external focus related feedback may not work especially during the cognitive stages of skill learning. After you’ve exhausted the distance effect (proximal and distal EF), it’s totally ok to go internal here, but the usage of action verbs is another way to offset the effects of the constrained action hypothesis. Research has clearly shown that the motor system is recruited during verb perception in the developing brain. The only caveat here is that your athlete needs to know what the verb actually means. So instead of telling your setter to “transfer the weight from your back foot to your front” you can easily say “push the ball towards the (target).” So clearly, theres more to positive feedback. 

Conception of ability

An athlete’s view of their own ability as reflected by a fixed capacity versus being amenable to change with practice can affect their motivation but also influence their performance and learning. Conception of ability is a directly correlated to the influence of task instructions or performance feedback. When we give feedback and say “you’re an excellent server” vs saying “those serves were very good” you’re telling your athlete that what he/she just did was good (working memory) and that what was good, were the serves. Now, the athlete can go back and monitor what happened during those serves, why where they so good? what did I feel? what did I do differently? etc. Let’s put it into context. If as a coach I tell you prior to a serve that you are a great server, there maybe a sense of nervousness which has been shown in the literature. This is also combined with a more internal focus because now if you miss, its no longer an amenable skill but a fixed capacity. 

Positive Affect

Practice should accompany positive affect. Anticipation of positive affect is a form of enhanced expectancy. But outside representative design, positive affect can be influenced by what we say. Research has documented numerous times that with positive affect, there seems to be a sense of cognitive flexibility and creativity. It’s this conviction that one is doing well and the confidence in being able to perform well in the future that drives the “wanting” of rewards. Going back to the two predominant theoretical approaches, an affordance may just be a sense of confidence. We have all these opportunities for action yet we chose what we chose. However, the instruction or feedback evidently guides this. If as a coach, my athlete accomplishes the task goal differently then I wanted, my negative feedback towards him/her negates and positive affect. And the research seems pretty convincible that for instance, an external focus allows for more goal directed behavior as measured through the UCM approach. But, even then, to create this positive affect, you need to buy into an autonomy supportive style of coaching. Avoid the “you have to” “I need you to” “do this” “be quicker” etc. Stop demanding your player and start suggesting. Simple words like “can you” “let’s try” “how about” or articles such as “the” instead of “my” can elicit less controlling behaviors and less self focus. 

Self Modeling

Self modeling is great because almost all coaches do it. There are several ways to this including editing videos of your athletes best performances which by the way are also subjective. Nonetheless, another way is to actually self model in real time. However, again, coaches fall into this rut of talking too much and giving very self focused cues. The cues you give during self modeling need to be similar to those you give when instructing/providing feedback. There needs to be direction, description, and even distance. The idea here is to increase intrinsic motivation. Most teams nowadays use a video playback system but again when analyzing, they give vastly different cues than they do during the acquisition and performance phase. Also, providing too much “feedback” via self modeling is not good. What I want to stress mostly is that the verbiage 

should be defined and similar across all tasks. 

Perceived Task Difficulty

Setting criteria that purportedly indicate good performance but can also be reached easily can also raise expectancies. You want to challenge your outside hitter to hit more line? great, what are the smaller victories in between? perhaps, a tip down the line by the ten foot line. Using a point system can also guide this effect where you don’t constrain your server to hit the gap between 5/6, but add more passers so that they have to figure it out within the provided solution space. This gives them autonomy. Lastly, providing them choices is probably the most easiest to do during practice. The word “or” goes a long way. Provide them with choices that they feel confident in, after all, its their affordance, not yours. For example, “drive the ball to the end line, or push it to the right side of the court.” When you challenge, make sure it’s attainable, in which case the environment matters. 

To conclude, expectancies affect attention and cognition. It influences working memory, long term memory, all biased towards expected stimuli. By doing so, athletes pay more attention to task error cues, increase reaction times, and increase pre-movement excitation, to name just a few. My intention here was to give you a little insight on the possibility that all of these theoretical approaches may just be underlined by this concept of enhanced expectancy and that there is more to practice conditions. It still intrigues me that words affect how we move, and words have an emotional component to them which affects confidence or expectancy. As coaches and clinicians, we need to go beyond simple motor programs. As an introduction my own research efforts, I hope to eventually take this and study the motivational characteristics of language as it related to motor learning and performance.

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.