Sunday, January 29, 2012

Motor learning, part 2

So how do movements become so automated that we do them without a braincell of thought? Nerds will tell you that motor learning occurs when muscle movements are practiced to the extent that they become habituated and no longer require language mediation. What the nerds mean is that if we practice something enough, we will be able to do it without thinking. The motor learning that occurs is stable and long-lasting, so whatever our pursuit, it becomes "just like riding a bike."

I took violin lessons from kindergarten through 3rd grade and I gotta be honest with you - I sucked. My best friend was well on her way to becoming a child prodigy and there I was - practically tone deaf but slowly stringing along, oblivious to the cringed faces around me when I played. I had no future in music; even if I worked my ass off, the best I could have hoped for was to become a mediocre player. I took up swimming, found a new obsession, and never touched a violin again. No one complained. The world was a more harmonious place.

...until last month. At a talent show, a friend of mine gave an impressive violin performance, which reminded me of my musical years. I mentioned to him that I had played in elementary school, and he handed me his instrument and said "here, play something." Without thinking, I picked up his violin and gave an off-key, cringe-worthy rendition of Jingle Bells.

I hadn't touched a violin in over 20 years and I sucked more than ever - but somehow I remembered how to play. It was the worst Jingle Bells my friend had ever heard, but it was still, recognizably, Jingle Bells.

If you wonder how this is possible, nerds can tell you more about how this motor learning business works: movement memories are represented in the mind as mental structures known as schemas. These schemas become strengthened with repeated experiences, so they can be easily accessed in the future. The set of movements required to play Jingle Bells or armbar from guard are represented by different schemas in the mind. When motor learning occurs, behavior becomes consistent, flexible, and efficient.

Ok, I'm sold! Schema-tize me! I would like nothing more than to form mental blueprints of all my favorite BJJ moves so that I can sweep, armbar, and choke at will. Bad-ass ground fighting assassin, here I come!!

But the nerds won't let me have it. Forming motor schemas takes a while. I am told that it occurs in three stages:

1) cognitive stage - performance gains are rapid, inconsistent, and impermanent. You are in the process of acquiring the skill, but a ton of concentration is required. When I drilled X guard sweeps this week, I was absolutely in this stage. I could talk myself through it, but I was slow and clumsy.

2) associative stage - performance becomes more accurate and consistent, but still requires some thought. After drilling X guard for a while, I might use these sweeps against brand new white belts. However, I would still have to talk myself through them. If I tried them against people of a higher skill level, there is little chance they would work.

3) autonomous stage - little if any conscious thought is required. If I ever get to this point with X guard, it would become a go-to move for me in tournaments. X guard is not really applicable to street fights, but self-defense moves must fall under the autonomous stage in order to be viable. Under the adrenaline of attack, you can only count on your most practiced, automatic defenses to be at your disposal. I am not going to wrist lock someone who grabs my clothes, unless I have drilled it successfully 100 times in practice.

Fortunately, the nerds have come through for us. They have studied how to most efficiently arrive at this most holy autonomous stage. Stay tuned...and I promise not to play anymore violin.

RIP Helio Gracie
October 30, 1913 - January 29, 20009

In the words of my instructor Jake:

Three years ago, one of the greatest geniuses to ever live left us. Grandmaster Helio was an example for all of us to follow. An innovator. And a man of honor. The greatest way for all of us to keep him alive is to carry on the work that he began and share jiu-jitsu with those that need it. Not jiu-jitsu for points or medals, but jiu-jitsu as a lifestyle. As a way of empowering the weak and giving tools for anyone to feel safe wherever they are regardless of their size, gender, or age. Thank you for everything Professor. You are missed.
Grandmaster Helio Gracie
October 30, 1913 - January 29, 2009

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