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Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory

Skilled motor performance is foundational to many human activities in daily life, sports, the performing arts, in occupations such as law enforcement, firefighting, or the military and medical professions. Also, instructing others in the process of learning motor skills is central to a variety of professions. Physical and occupational therapists, coaches, athletic trainers, physical education teachers, music instructors, training specialists, etc. design practice tasks and schedules, provide instructions, and give learners feedback with the goal of facilitating the acquisition of effective and efficient movement patterns. The objective of training is to achieve a skill level that is characterized by accuracy and consistency in achieving the movement goal (i.e., effectiveness), as well as automaticity, and fluent and economical movements that require little physical and mental effort (i.e., efficiency). Moreover, many situations involve social pressure, the pressure of winning or losing a game, monetary awards, or even the potential for harm. Thus, training should ideally enable performers to avoid performance decrements in pressure situations.

The understanding of how various factors influence motor performance and learning is essential for the development of optimal training methods. The implementation of effective practice methods can speed the learning process, resulting in higher skill levels being achieved sooner and potentially reduced costs of training (e.g., physical rehabilitation, medical education). Optimized training protocols may also enhance performers’ safety (e.g., patients at risk of falling, military personnel, athletes in high-risk sports) or even ultimate performance levels (e.g., athletes competing internationally).

biceps curls

Research in our lab addresses primarily attentional and motivational influences on motor learning (see Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016):

  • Attention. In numerous studies, it has been shown that instructions and feedback that direct the performer’s attentional focus to the movement effect (external focus) facilitate performance and learning compared to those that direct attention to the movements themselves (internal focus). The adoption of an external focus promotes the utilization of relatively automatic control processes – making performance more effective and efficient.
  • Motivation. Variables that enhance expectancies for future performance success (e.g., positive feedback, incremental conceptions of ability) have a beneficial effect on motor skill learning. Also, learner autonomy (e.g., self-controlled feedback, autonomy-supportive language, having choices) appears to be critically important for optimal performance learning.