Saturday, August 1, 2020

Academic Quick Hit - OPTIMAL Theory by Wulf and Lewthwaite, 2016

Where I attempt to give a quick summary and opinion on an academic paper that connects to teaching, learning, and/or sport.

Why I think this paper matters:
There are two important ideas that I took away from this paper.
- If we want to maximize the motor learning and execution of the athletes in our care, then we should incorporate support for athlete autonomy into how we teach and coach.
- If we want to maximize the motor learning and execution of the athletes in our care, then we should use external foci of attention in our instruction and feedback.

Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(5), 1382–1414.

Type of Paper:
Theoretical Review

- OPTIMAL is a backronym for Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning.
- Intrinsic Motivation refers mainly to supporting autonomy in the participants (read more by Bandura or Deci and Ryan in particular) to positively influence learning. What do the authors think autonomy is? They quote Eitam, Kennedy, and Higgins (2013): "(the perception of) one’s actions having effects on the environment" (p. 1392)
- Attention for Learning refers mainly to using external focus of attention cues (as opposed to internal) to enhance motor performance and learning.
- Given that these two areas are in the title of the theory, the authors think that "motor learning cannot be understood without considering" intrinsic motivation and external focus of attention (p. 1384).
- There is a good amount of nuance and references to other work in the field, but the arguments for intrinsic motivation center on things that increase a participant's expectancies (their belief about their chances of successful achievement of a movement goal).
- "Importantly, rewards appear to exert their effects via expectation rather than receipt." (p, 1389) While the authors do point out that intrinsic rewards are better than extrinsic ones, they also point out that extrinsic rewards can increase expectancies if we believe that we can complete the movement goal. It's the thought of getting ice cream after a win that motivates if we think we have a chance of winning. This is a separate argument from rewards vs. punishments.
- "control over an assistive device can have a beneficial effect on learning, even if that device in and of itself is relatively ineffective" (p. 1393). Think of Dumbo's magic feather. The authors also comment that superstition and similar factors can also influence performance expectancies (p. 1387).
- The language we use in our instructions (to say nothing of our actual feedback) influences motor learning. (p. 1393)
- External focus of attention increases motor performance because it lessens thoughts of self. Lessening the engagement of "self" allows the body to use faster reflex loops in movement rather than slower conscious loops.

What I am left wondering:
- While the authors point out that autonomy-supporting behaviors and external focus of attention are beneficial to motor learning, all I have to reference are more research articles. This is the nature of the divide between researchers and practitioners, it isn't the job of researchers to provide ways to implement these ideas but I, as a practitioner, typically can't use the research to learn how to implement their ideas. I have to hope that the research closely resembles my setting or I have to hope that the principle they reveal transfers clearly to my setting.
- The article cites research in which expectancies are increased by giving participants misleading feedback and by lowering the difficulty level of trials. I don't deny that these methods can work, but I am left questioning if these are methods that coaches should use or use regularly. I feel uncomfortable with doing something that I perceive as being close to lying or with regularly lowering expectations versus supporting athletes differently when they perceive that they are failing.
- If you've read my post about Gallwey's Inner Game of Tennis, then you'll know that I like engaging the self but as an observer to actions rather than the initiator of those actions. Does the "self-as-observer" focus lessen thoughts of self in the sense that Wulf and Lewthwaite mean when discussing internal focus of attention? Is this mode of thought somewhere on the continuum between external and internal focus of attention? Has any research been done to test these ideas?
- My primary sport (volleyball) and most other sports have some object that athletes need to control or manipulate and that object lends itself to external focus of attention. What if you are a dancer or a gymnast and you are the object? How do we facilitate motor learning when external focus of attention is almost non-existent?

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