Saturday, January 11, 2020

Questioning Assumptions or Why I Read a Motor Learning Textbook

In volleyball coaching circles, there may be nothing as polarizing as talking about Gold Medal Squared and their philosophies. Many coaches swear by their methods, many coaches just swear when the group is mentioned. It is difficult to know what principles the group espouses without going to a clinic and yet most coaches are happy to give a summary of what GMS is all about even while lacking that direct knowledge. I think that this behavior appears regularly in many facets of our lives and we usually commit varying degrees of the straw man fallacy in those moments. I am not writing to take a stand for or against GMS. I'm more interested in our behavior around discussions like those between pro- and anti-GMS folks.

"The science" is a commonly-used term in presentations from GMS staff that I have attended. That term tends to represent two ideas, motor learning and scientific research. I have learned a fair bit about scientific research through my academic career but I haven't had the same kind of exposure to the field of motor learning. My memories of motor learning were all of hearing coaching clinicians talk about motor learning in much the same way as I have mentioned, as "the science". And what was the clinician's level of expertise in motor learning? I have no idea now and I likely didn't know at the time either. It likely was not made explicit since it was not the main focus of what the clinic or presentation was about. This is the point: non-experts taking the words of possible non-experts and giving them the same weight as the actual "science". I don't know how well the speakers actually know "the science" but the words sound good to me and, therefore, carry more weight in my mind. It doesn't matter if I am agreeing or disagreeing with what the speaker has said, what I have overlooked is their role as an interpreter. They are sharing either a portion of the body of research or, more accurately, their perception of that portion. I, like most people, will unintentionally conflate the speaker's words with the words of the original idea that the speaker describes.

This conflation becomes very obvious if we use an opinion instead of a fact. I will tell you that, based on my experience, the Grand Canyon is grander than the Great Wall is great. As you evaluate my statement you are likely to understand that it is an opinion. If I tell you instead that the Grand Canyon is longer than the Great Wall, it is much more likely that you will evaluate the statement as a fact (true or not) rather than an opinion. If you have no previous experience with either of these wonders, you may not be able to evaluate the truth of my statement, which leaves you in a precarious place. If we are friends and you trust me because I happen to be really good at trivia games, you may readily accept what I say. If we are friends and I am really good at trivia games and I like to pull the occasional prank, you may not trust me. But what if I am a speaker at a conference and I make the same conjecture? What if that conjecture is embedded in the presentation I give and it is part of a chain of evidence that I use to reach an important conclusion? If you're not a connoisseur of wonders of the world, you may not even notice because both of us are paying more attention to conclusion that I reach. You trust me not to lead you astray as I build my argument and I do my best to earn that trust.

To be clear, I am not saying that conference speakers are trying to lead us astray nor am I saying that we need to check the credentials of every speaker we listen to. I prefer to work from the assumption that presenters are earnestly doing their best to give us a concise and coherent story without getting bogged down in nuance any more than is necessary. So what does that have to do with motor learning?

When I hear people (from either side of the GMS fence) tell me what GMS believes or what "the science" says, I want to know more. I want to investigate the claims, not out of mistrust but out of fascination with learning. I want to root intellectual laziness out of me and that means reading "the science". That means asking questions. Often. That means digging deeper instead of just digging in my heels. I don't want my initial response to be "they don't know what they're talking about". I want it to be "I don't know what I am listening to". That curiosity can help me see what I need to wrap my head around. In the case of GMS, it meant learning more about motor learning.

I read Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis by Richard A. Schmidt and Timothy D. Lee this winter break with the intent of learning what everybody meant by "the science". I found it to be boring at moments and exhilarating at others. Above all, I found it thought-provoking. I highlighted stuff, I downloaded research papers to read. I talked with friends that know more about this topic than I do. I talked with friends that rely on motor learning but in different contexts. I dug deeper. I learned. I came away with as many questions as answers. I'd tell you what I learned but that would defeat the whole point of this exercise.

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought." - Matsuo Bashō

As for the Great-Grand comparison, go look it up. Or, even better if you're able, go look for yourself.

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