Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Practice Makes Progress"

This morning my daugther and I were watching T.V. (I know not a good thing, but we limit it to just a few minutes a day) and a short Disney program came on called the Happy Monster Band. Its a little skit with a different song each time. The title of today's song was "Practice makes Progress".

A simple, yet profound message.

The key with anything we do, is motor learning. Practice something over and over and you will get better. Learn how to do something through good coaching, lots of frequent and consistent practice, and watch others who know how to do that something well (read: mirror neurons). (Cognitive stage of motor learning: 1-1,000 reps)

Neurologically, as we begin practice a skill, we use more of the higher regions of the motor cortex and the "maps" of the skill become larger, with increased activity in the frontal lobe (specificly the supplementary motor area, which is used for complex and unfamiliar motor tasks) of the brain. As we continue to practice day after day, month after month and improve our skill level, the area of activity begins to shift lower in the cortical hierarchy (cortical=cererbral cortex is the outer layer of the brain) to the premotor cortex. We are becoming more competent. (Associative stage of learning: 1,000-10,000 reps)

Then after years of practice, eventually the brain activity for that particular skill moves into the primary motor cortex. At this point we have become truly great at whatever particular skill we have been working on. Think: world class athletes or musicians. (Autonomus stage of motor learning: 100,000-300,000 reps)

An important part to remember of world class performers, is that it takes thousands of repetitions and years of practice to get to that level. Not a few days, weeks, or even a few months, but years of consistent, frequent repetition, with the body and its' recoverability allowing.

It's all part of the awesomeness of neural plasticity. Our nervous systems will change upon anything new that we do or expose ourselves to. In the entire scheme of things, this happens very fast as our nervous system is the most rapidly adapting system in the body. The only problem is that our other systems and tissues are not this fast, and we need to allow time for them to adapt. Hence, why we have to allow time for recovery after any type of intense training.

Another key aspect is focus. Practice of any skill requires a tremendous amount of focus (if you are hoping to get good at that skill). I would argue that extreme focus on a particular task will speed up the learning curve and possibly cut down the amount of repetitions it takes to achieve mastery. ...some just want it more.

Training for a sport, specific activity or just health in general is an everyday, all day thing. Not just a 1 to 2 hours a day three to five days a week thing. Every second outside of those 1 to 2 hours of intense physical training has just about as much effect on the performance outcome as the specific training itself. The problem is, is that motor learning is always taking place... as I am currently improving my skill at sitting on my ass and typing on the computer.

Again, the message of the Happy Monster Band; practice and you will make progress.



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