Cognitive Flexibility

By Dan Peterson

There was some fantastic discussion in the comments section of our post on neuroplasticity and elite athletes that’s worth pulling onto the main blog as a stand-alone post.  Steve Jungmann and Brian McCormick both run blogs that are very much must-reads as well.

The discussion centered on both the best way to build skills and which skills are best to build.  Deliberate practice of a rote, repetitive task might make an athlete an expert at a very narrow range of movements or skills, but neglect the creativity and adaptability required to actually function on a dynamic and constantly changing field of play.

Steve Jungmann:

Great points and great book. This is a great qualifying post to the myth of “muscle memory”. It’s really neural pathways; the muscles take commands from the brain (which I guess is obvious when you stop and think about it). The brain is so plastic that each repetition in practice affects the brain. That puts a lot of importance on “perfect practice” to ensure that the pathways being laid down in the brain are reinforced with the right neural connections. Sloppy, careless practice isn’t just wasted time, it can actually harm a skill.

Brian McCormick @Steve:

Is perfect practice the answer? There are other theories just as differential learning and nonlinear pedagogy that support the idea that athletes should engage in a wide array of skill executions and increase the number of degrees of freedom because by widening the scope of the practice, they are more likely to find the execution that best fits their anatomy, physiology, etc.Thinking of the study on the London cab drivers. Is their practice perfect? Is it perfect compared to the bus drivers who drive a pre-defined route? It is essentially the difference between routine expertise and adaptive expertise. The cab drivers, by trying new streets, develop a flexible and adaptive expertise. The bus drivers never err on their route, but their route is not always the best one – what if there is a traffic jam, an accident, a street closure? They can execute their routine with great automaticity, but not the flexibility to deal with these new constraints.

If the cab drivers stick to the conventional path and take the main streets, they are unlikely to make any errors, but they also have shallower pool of experience from which to draw when a new problem arises. It is only through exploration, not perfect practice, that the cabbies develop the new and varied pathways which make them experts at their job.

Matthew Berence @Brian:

You are absolutely correct, the experience gained by being involved in multiple situations allows the brain to be able to adapt to a wider variety of situations and react appropriately, this will only make the athlete more successful. But this still can apply to the perfect practice scenario. To continue with the cabbie example, they gain great adaptive ability by being able to explore different routes and learning which is the best at which time of day but they still need to drive the car perfectly. If they are constantly trying to drive with the emergency brake on or shift directly in to 2nd gear, the car isn’t going to last long or go very fast. The same with a football player, he needs to learn multiple plays and react to different scenarios but he still needs to practice those scenarios perfectly. Otherwise, he would reinforce a learned habit of imperfect play for a wide variety of situations.

Steve @ Brian:

I did a bit of research per your comments – you’re absolutely right. Rote repetition isn’t that effective in increasing skill. It’s the variability in practice and pushing the brain to the point of failure over and over that results in optimal changes. Failure can be reached in an infinite number of ways: a batter sees different pace, spin, height – no two pitches are the same. The London cabbie sees the same street grid under different conditions. Through vigorous variability the brain becomes more efficient.

The discussion touches on a whole host of interesting problems, chief among them the need to train not just to execute a skill in isolation, but to be able to execute in all of the scenarios that an athlete’s sport presents.  This is going to be different for every sport and situation.  Just like the london cabbies and the bus drivers need different skills, and so have different areas of expertise, a soccer player is going to need much more flexible and adaptive skills than, say, an archer who has many fewer variables to deal with.  And they’ll have to alter the balance of their training appropriately.

21 Responses to Cognitive Flexibility

  1. Variability is the oil of our central nervous system.

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  8. Connor Williamson says:

    This is a great debate and one that really ties into sports in a sense that coaches, trainers, and players must decide how to train. I’d like to make a comparison to the taxi driver issue. A taxi driver gets great variability and a much more diverse set of driving skills, while the set-route driver would be much better at driving his one route (he would know how long lights take to change, which lanes move faster at certain times of day, etc) This can be applied to practice scenarios… should basketball teams change the height of their basket every day (or even ever hour, perhaps from 9-11 feet) this would add variability and give their players an enhanced depth perception of the rim, they could also change the color or the thickness of the rim to give the players a different visual target, or perhaps even use a different size or weight of ball… but why change the target (or equipment) if the players will ALWAYS be shooting on an orange, 10 foot rim, with a standard ball. I believe that shooting on rims anything other than 10 foot and orange would be detrimental to the athletes. It would only make them better at shooting on rims from 9-11 feet, instead of making them better at shooting on exactly 10 foot rims. Instead coaches should focus on other FORMS of variability such as making sure players are shooting at all game applicable ranges (layups-3 pointers) and maybe small environmental changes such as dimming lights, or adding crowd noise in order to slightly change the atmosphere since about half of the games are road games and are played in a slightly different environment. As for bus-drivers, why would they need taxi-cab driver experience if they ONLY need to be efficient at ONE route. The debate is not that variability is NECESSARY for developing brain efficiency, that is certain. The challenge is deciding WHICH variability to implement in training sessions. The answer tends to be extremely sport-specific.

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