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.