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Learning Movement As An Adult: A Perspective Shift For Better Skill Acquisition

It is a well-accepted belief that children learn things better than adults. From movement to languages we understand that as children we are 'sponges' able to absorb new information and motor patterns with ease. Often adults find they have more difficulty and they pine for the days when things just came to them more easily. Turns out there is some science behind this idea and some take-aways for middle-aged movers.


So why does this happen?


The authors of this systematic review (which is really an excellent read!) extrapolate that as young people we lack the ability to model potential events due to limited experience with physics or other unique variables. As a result we must rely on interpreting the sensory input directly. This is a more effective way to deal with in-the-moment feedback and allows young people to adapt quickly. As an adult, having already experienced countless movements and their consequences, we rely on historical modeling in addition to the sensory data. This modeling may be useful if undergoing an activity that is similar to the new one being attempted. However, if we are trying to learn something truly new our modeling may, at best, be insufficient or, at worst, actually get in the way of reacting appropriately to the new stimuli.


How can this help you?


Let's explore two possibilities:


1) Let History Help You

If you're trying to learn a new skill see if you can relate it to a previous skill you gained proficiency with. Maybe you've never done a back flip before on the ground, but you used to do them off a diving board; or perhaps if trying to swing on a trapeze you can conjure up old memories of swinging on the monkey bars. By invoking this successful history of movement your body can tap into the motor patterns it already successfully developed. This modeling may help you find new success with a related but different activity.



Just because you didn't do this as a kid doesn't mean you can't do it as an adult!


2) Listen To Your Sensation

Another alternative is just to accept that you're trying to learn something new and take a cue from your childhood self: listen to the inputs. Pay attention to the sensation in your feet, the position of your knees and hips - let the proprioception of your body create a three dimensional picture in your mind and use this to experience, in the moment, what is happening. As we age, research indicates, it becomes harder to not be influenced by our past movements, but by tapping into the raw information coming from our somatosensory pathways we can give it our best shot.


We might just find that an old dog can pick up some pretty cool new tricks.


Never stop trying to learn new things!


This is something that, as a physical therapist, I do a lot with patients. By using external cuing mechanisms such as resistance or mirrors or lasers strapped to limbs I can help you develop new motor patterns. It's fun work that focuses on the neurological limitations and opportunities we have as adult movers.


If you want to explore this with a professional reach out! You can contact me by emailing info@smartmovementpt.com or set up an appointment HERE. If you do not live near me in the Bay Area I do tele-visits utilizing video chat to discuss all of this and provide analysis and coached exercises in addition to in-person visit options.

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© 2018 by Jaimie Harrow.