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Background and OPTIMAL Theory

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).

A few years ago, Dr. Rebecca Lewthwaite and I proposed the OPTIMAL (Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning) theory of motor learning (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016). The theory explains well-established effects of motivational (enhanced expectancies, autonomy support) and attentional (external focus) factors on performance and learning. It has important practical implications for teaching, coaching, and physical rehabilitation. Research in our lab addresses influences of the OPTIMAL factors on motor performance and learning.