Motor learning theories – why should progression stop at physical?


As a younger physiotherapist, I don’t think I ever consciously paid attention to the psychological aspect or power of my job. By that I mean, I didn’t read any research around it – it all seemed a bit wishy-washy and non-tangible. But quickly you realise that a verbal cue that just clicks with one patient turns into a complex dance choreography with another.. “No, I just wanted you to bend you knee.. why are you doing the worm?”

I’ve talked before about the clinical reasoning behind exercise progression and regression and in doing so, I skimmed the surface of the addition of intrinsic & extrinsic stimuli.  So now I want to build on the concepts of motor learning to underpin that exercise progression.

My inspiration for this blog came from a couple of podcasts by the PT Inquest gang, Erik Meira (@erikmeira) & JW Matheson (@EIPConsult). Well actually, first I bought a chinchilla, then I wrote this blog. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. It doesn’t. But listen here (PTInquest).

Funny chinchilla1

The gents speak in detail on two particular podcasts about non-linear pedagogy and how this teaching concept & theory of motor learning ties in with implicit learning. I will break down the idea and definitions shortly, but the reason I wanted to blog about this rather than just direct listeners to the podcast, is I feel the motor learning concepts need to be progressed just as much as the physical demands of an exercise are considered.


What are we talking about?

Ok so breaking down some of the terms. Because from first hand experience, these terms can be confusing. Cap in hand moment but, I Published a model to explain exercise progression (here). You will see I have described implicit & explicit learning – where in fact I mean intrinsic and extrinsic. Very different things, here’s why:

Intrinsic exercises – relies on internal feedback mechanisms, such as capsuloligamentous structures – Pancian & Ruffini receptors within joint capsules providing proprioceptive feedback that the athlete is acutely tuned into. A good example is a single leg stand where the athlete is consciously thinking about balance, aware of every movement in the foot & knee, the upper body and arm position etc – those exercises where nothing else in the room matters apart from the mark on the floor you are concentrating on to keep your balance.

The opposite to this are Extrinsic exercises – these revolve around the athlete and their environment. A snowboarder reacting to a sheet of ice after carving through powder, or a downhill biker absorbing the changes in terrain – their thought process is very external. Its about the factors they can’t control. At no point (or at least for an extremely limited time) are they consciously aware of their scapular position or degree of knee valgus, for example.

Explicit teaching – This is probably something that is easy for us to relate to. It’s a teaching technique that most of us are comfortable with because we can achieve quicker short term goals. “I want you to put your feet shoulder width apart” or “keep your knees in line with your second toe during the squat” – very clear instructions that require the athlete internalise their thoughts, suddenly their actions become intrinsic. But we get quick results in line with our (not necessarily their) goals.

Implicit teaching – this is a bit more tricky. It is giving the athlete non-directive instructions with the aim of externalising their thoughts. “When you jump onto that box, I want you to land as quietly as you can” or as the PT Inquest lads say “Land like batman” (in the batman voice). If you are encouraging effective change of direction, Conor always says “Push the ground away with your foot.” We are still giving instructions, but the athlete is thinking about external environment; noise, surface contact etc.

And this is where non-linear pedagogy comes in. Creating learning environments for athletes to explore movement variability. After all, that perfect text-book single leg squat we spent weeks mastering isn’t going to look so perfect on a skier trying to regain their balance. Chang Yi Lee et al (2014) use the example or learning a tennis stroke – comparing linear pedagogy of prescriptive, repetitive drills versus non-linear pedagogy of more open instructions like “make the ball arc like a rainbow.”

Think shoe lace tying - easier to learn with the rabbit going round the tree etc
Think shoe lace tying – easier to learn with the rabbit going round the tree etc


How does this fit into progression?

The ideal scenario is for the athlete to have as little reliance on us as therapists or coaches as possible. We wont be following them around the track, or on the pitch reminding them of their pelvic tilt.

I think the concepts of non-linear pedagogy are brilliant to explore with coaching. Working with young athletes for example that are still developing their motor control and have some fantastic imaginations to tap into.

However with a rehabilitative role, I think we need to be more inclusive of all concepts. Learning of a new task is initially rapid but without the addition of further stimuli it can quickly plateau (Gentile 1998). A rehab program should always be low risk, high demand (Mendiguchia & Brughelli 2011).Consider the pathophysiology and the structures injured. No injuries happen in isolation, if muscle is injured we will have some neural limitations also. The presence of swelling and inflammation decreases cell metabolism along with a decrease in the presence of oxygen; so we can assume that proprioception is reduced and risk of secondary injury is high.

Therefore, following injury, it is always a good concept to assume that skill level has regressed to novice, regardless of the level of athlete pre-injury.

“So whats the knee brace for?”                                             “Well you only had your surgery 2 weeks ago – just being safe”

What if we were to encourage intrinsic, explicit, linear pedagogy exercises in the early stages? We don’t need to be adding external stimuli at this stage. It’s important to internalise in order to rehabilitate proprioception. You can’t safely expect someone to externalise while proprioceptively deficient – as soon as someone can weight bear, we don’t start throwing them a tennis ball whilst stood on a Bosu (I hope!)

As the injury improves and skill levels progress, it is then important to move our instructions towards non-linear pedagogy methods, encouraging extrinsic thinking via implicit instructions. By end stage rehab, our instructions should be “start – stop” and hopefully not much more.

Just as we would progress the demand of physical activity following injury, we should really progress the cognitive demand also – but we need to start from a safe, effective position in acute stages.

Yours in sport,


3 thoughts on “Motor learning theories – why should progression stop at physical?

  1. Reblogged this on myosportstherapy and commented:
    Clinical Reasoning, Conditioning, exercise, Exercise Prescription, explicit learning, extrinsic learning, implicit learning, injury, intrinsic learning, learning, motor learning, non linear pedagogy, optimal loading, performance, Physical Therapy, Physio, Physiotherapy, podcast, rehabilitation, S&C, sport, sports medicine, treatment, youth


  2. […] As the healing progresses and the level of activity increases, it is quite common that we see some deficits in muscle function, especially after a long acute phase (if that isn’t a paradox?! Think post surgery or fixation). A good example is post ankle reconstruction, where you have worked on regaining planta / dorsi flexion but when you ask the athlete to do a heel raise, it’s quite an effort. It may be appropriate to use the Compex here as a little crutch to facilitate movement and contraction. But the key thing here is it is not our cadaver that we causing a contraction in, the athlete is consciously initiating the movement. (Previous blog on internal and external cues here). […]


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