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Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory

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Movement is critical to surviving and thriving. Skilled motor behavior is foundational to many human activities in daily life (e.g., typing, driving, using tools), sports (e.g., golf, swimming, skiing), the performing arts (e.g., singing, playing musical instruments, dancing), occupations such as law enforcement, firefighting, and the military (e.g., piloting aircraft, controlling machines, shooting) and medical professions (e.g., surgery, dentistry). Also, the task of 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. engage in designing practice tasks and schedules, providing instructions, and giving learners feedback about their performance 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, consistency, and reliability in achieving the movement goal (i.e., effectiveness), fluent and economical movement executions, and automaticity in motor control that is evidenced by the investment of relatively little physical and mental effort (i.e., efficiency). “Real-life” situations often 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.

In the Motor Performance and Learning Lab, we conduct studies examining how various factors influence motor performance and learning. This understanding is essential for the development of optimal training methods. The implementation of more effective methods can speed the learning process, resulting in higher skill levels being achieved sooner and potentially reduced costs of training, which are of concern in many areas in which training is extensive or expensive (e.g., physical rehabilitation, medical education, pilot training). 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).

Research in our Lab specifically addresses attentional and motivational influences on motor learning:

  • 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 (for a review, see Wulf, 2013).
  • 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 (for a review, see Lewthwaite & Wulf, 2012).

If you have questions about ongoing research projects, or to get involved, please contact Dr. Gabriele Wulf (gabriele.wulf@unlv.edu).