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Letting People Do Things Wrong

By Ben Csiernik


I have a confession of sorts. I let people do things wrong, kind of often. I currently work as a part time strength and conditioning coach, a part time ice hockey goalie coach, a part time researcher (this is very unpaid and does not apply to the purpose of this blog/article), all while I finish up my clinical internship. What these experiences regularly allow me to do is interact with people with various levels of physical literacy in a lot of different environments. It’s a very humbling experience to be able to work with people recovering from traumatic injuries to six-year-old goalies who have never put equipment on before, to 14-year-old athletes who are infinitely more talented than I am. While these situations are all unique, they do share a certain commonality – getting people to try and move and do things they’ve never done before. But more importantly, it allows me the opportunity to give people a general task and watch how they choose to accomplish it.


Some of you reading this may be familiar with Newell’s model of constraints (1). For those who are not, or those who are in need of a refresher, fear not, because directly below this sentence is a picture of the model.


Newell's Model of Constraints - as mentioned in the sentence directly above this picture

One of the more common interpretation of the model is that for any given task, the way a person will accomplish it depends on a variety of factors (as seen above). A really nice example of this in the rehab world is for a soccer player recovering from a knee injury. In the clinical setting, the soccer player may be able to stop and cut crisply and quickly on their injured knee. However, as soon as you put them back on the soccer pitch, they suddenly begin to struggle. Simply put, when variables change, people’s actions and performance may also change. In the case of our soccer player, a few things certainly changed, and others may play a factor that we do not always appreciate. First, the task hasn’t really changed, we are still asking them to stop and change directions. However, the soccer pitch is certainly not the clinic, meaning that the environment is now completely different. But arguably more importantly, the soccer player (read: organism), may now be nervous, or excited, fearful or maybe too intense.. Their adrenaline is a little pumped up, they don’t fully trust their knee, their visual cues are entirely different. What this means is that this task of stopping and cutting that they have expertly perfected in the clinic isn’t just a simple stop and cut task, it’s a complex series of coordinated movements, performed by a complex organism, in a very specific environmental context. So when it comes to learning a new task, or performing tasks generally, we have to appreciate the wide range of variables that are involved. But what does this have to do with doing things wrong? Well, let’s explore.


In some foundational work by Martens et al (1976), they took 60 children from the 2nd and 3rd grade, and 60 children from the 7th and 8th grade and put them through a series of four learning trials (2). I’ll save you the exact details (though the paper is really cool and academic writing from the 70’s is way more fun than a lot of what we see today), but what the authors found is that for more complex tasks, the participants struggled equally with the task whether they had been taught how to do it, shown how to do it, or just generally told what to do. Instead, each group got better with repeated trials regardless of their initial instruction – implying that a general learning curve and practice effect is required. Importantly, early in the practice of a new task, it is highly unlikely that learners will be able to produce a new coordinate movement even when it has been demonstrated and instructed by a model/teacher. But people DO get there, they DO figure the task out with a little bit of time, and they DO acquire the skills to perform the tasks.


So what dictates the ability of someone to acquire the requisite motor skills to accomplish a task? One theory behind motor learning is the Search Strategies Approach (SSA). The concept of “Search” can in my opinion, best be defined as the pattern that emerges as an individual seeks solutions between themselves, the task, and the environment that they are performing in (3). Keeping in theme with the previous paragraph, the concept of “search” occurs whether a person has been instructed by a coach, or if they attempt a task with very minimal instruction. That means if we give someone the task of squatting, they’re going to incorporate their understanding of their body in space, the environment, and the task itself as they attempt the squat. Most often, people will perform a pretty “okay” squat because they are relatively familiar with the concept of the movement, and therefore have a framework of how to “Search” for this specific task. This may not be true for completely new movements, and is also a slower process for more complex movements (Multiple degrees of freedom, body joints, dynamics, etc.). So we have to appreciate the differences in individuals’ ability to search when first taught something new.


During this initial learning process, it is also fundamental to understand the idea of inherent variability. Inherent variability is just the natural variation in how we perform tasks, and is not the same idea as “error”, or doing the task “wrong”. There will be always be slight variation in how we accomplish a task, even something like grabbing our coffee mug and taking a sip. This extends to much more complex tasks as well. At the beginner and expert level, we see significant levels of movement variability between repetitions of a task (4). In Kristiansen’s 2019 back squat variability study, the authors highlighted that there’s significant inter and intra individual variability in the back squat, that people can back squat with a bunch of different strategies, and importantly, individual’s anthropometrics and other movement related factors (skill level? Confidence? Task constraints?) promote different levels of consistency within movement. So if more experienced people demonstrate variability, it’s possible to simply say that people learning a task won’t be consistent with how they perform it, and that’s probably okay.


This all leads me to why I let people do things “wrong”. If I introduce a movement, or a concept, or a technique that a person is extremely unfamiliar with, I explicitly WANT them to work through their own search strategy from a relatively blank canvas. I want to give people the opportunity to explore the strategies that they come up with. I also want to allow people the opportunity to attempt a movement, realize that they did not accomplish the task the way they anticipated, and make the requisite changes for the next attempt themselves. When working with youth athletes, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to let them think through the decisions they make with their movement selection. Allowing them to develop their movement search strategy over a period of time is likely beneficial for improving the movement task itself, but also for concepts of transference to other movements (read: when the skills required are similar between tasks, people who have explored variability through the first skill before the second are more likely to pick up the second movement quicker) (3,5).


So I let people do things kind of wrong, and give them a bunch of chances to figure out different ways to accomplish the task we’re working on. Sometimes I provide immediate feedback (safety, miscommunication, etc.), but more often, I let people try things a bunch of times and ask them how they feel they are doing. This further allows them to process and digest why and how they’re doing what they’re doing, and if they would like to change the approach they’re taking. Motor learning is an enormous field of research and extends from simple single joint tasks to full effort high degrees of freedom tasks. It’s complex, like most things that relate to humans are. So at the end of the day, maybe let people do things a little bit differently or wrong compared to what you fully expect to see. It might allow people the chance to grow into the way they want to do things, and you might be surprised at how people will naturally fix the issues that you see, even if you don’t point them out.


So what does this have to do with me letting people do things wrong?


Not a ton honestly. I just wanted to use this to introduce the concepts that 1) every task a person does has a lot of different parts and 2) Dr. Karl Newell is really smart and this helps me introduce them so that I can talk about their work on motor learning. The ol’ switcheroo!



References


1) Newell K. Constraints on the development of coordination. Motor development in children: Aspects of coordination and control. 1986.

2) Martens R, Burwitz L, Zuckerman J. Modeling effects on motor performance. Research Quarterly. American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation. 1976 May 1;47(2):277-91.

3) Pacheco MM, Lafe CW, Newell KM. Search strategies in the perceptual-motor workspace and the acquisition of coordination, control, and skill. Frontiers in psychology. 2019 Aug 14;10:1874.

4) Kristiansen M, Rasmussen GH, Sloth ME, Voigt M. Inter-and intra-individual variability in the kinematics of the back squat. Human movement science. 2019 Oct 1;67:102510.

5) Newell KM. Motor skill acquisition. Annual review of psychology. 1991 Feb;42(1):213-37.