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Sunday, May 4, 2014

The difference between "workout" and "training"

A.K.A. Short book report on the stages of learning motor skills.

The word "workout" indicates vigorous exercise, and may include specific physical skills. A second meaning of the word conjures images of people following a leader who orchestrates a routine of low-skills exercise for 45-minutes to an hour. In both cases, the desired effect is to elicit hundreds of breathing cycles (1 inhale + 1 exhale = 1 breathing cycle), turn off the critical cognitive function and make sweat pour out the body.
     A "good workout" incorporates few or no movements that require participants to slow down and learn new motor skills. This is not a criticism. Most workout material makes use of movements that exercise angles, feats of strength and coordination skills that are not typical in daily life. For basic health and fitness this is great for moving blood, lymph and synovial fluid through it's natural cleansing cycle. Plus the benefit of bringing the brain wave frequency closer to the alpha state, deep relaxation.
     The downside is that, even though the entire group may enjoy the experience if the combination of moves produces endorphins and sweat, perhaps one-third* of a group will be correctly addressed in an "exercise class." Because a majority will not get specific results, they will not be inspired to practice any part of the movement routine on their own.

*The comment "one-third" of the group is in reference to the somatic types (images below), which can be found easily with an online search. Every person is born with a physical disposition. The three broad groups are ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph body types. Each of these types have specific strengths and weaknesses regarding muscle development, weight and fat management, thus each need a different workout to achieve desired results. Anyone who wants to achieve maximum physical potential or just plain good health will accept his natural build and learn how to use it. 

A person can no more change his natural physique than can a blue jay turn itself into a goose.

The word "training" is commonly used for dedicated armed forces and professional athletic team practice. We may also say "training" in place of "practice" or "drill" to indicate the act of ingraining cognitive knowledge into physical skills with focused concentration.
     Exercise is therefore a practice of skills learned through training. In contrast to the low-skill workouts described in the first paragraph, a proper exercise is a skilled movement pattern. Every sport has specific physical skills, such as footwork, ball-handling or efficient movement sequences that must be learned with intense focus. Athletes quickly understand that with repetition, specialized techniques become more automatic, thus increase their performance level in a competition or game. A committed athlete will engaged in "practice sessions" separated from her general workout. The result of hard earned skill-building is greater enjoyment of "play" outside of practice.

"Enjoyment" and "play" are desired effects of both workouts and trainings. "Concentration" and "challenge" rarely come in as desired factors for an average exercise enthusiast. It is my experience that the challenge of training new motor skills stops many potentially great athletes from participating in sports. 

"Training" has the implication of learning from the beginning, thus an outside resource is mandatory. Anyone undertaking to learn new skills must find some form of instruction, ideally a "trainer" with knowledge of the entire skill set. Because each person learns uniquely there must be trust in the trainer's awareness of how much time and input to give each stage of motor skills learning* and when to tell the student "practice on your own until you get this part."

*Information about the three stages/phases of motor skills learning is easy to find online. The first stage is cognitive or verbal phase, second is associative phase, and third is the autonomous phase. Everyone wants to be at the autonomous phase as soon as possible, however the first two parts are essential for correct learning.

I surmise that the cognitive phase is what separates those who intend to learning
Sergey Rudnev demos GS Swing.
Photo by Diana Yap
from those who don't want a new hobby. At this stage the learner knows there is something they don't know and need to learn. This must take place in methodical steps with verbal cues and clear demonstrations by the teacher. 

The learners' tasks in the cognitive stage are:
1) to conceptualize the logic and form of basic moves
2) begin putting these moves into physical practice

In this stage the focus is connecting understanding with a chunk of motor skills. The learners cannot be judged on performance at this point, but encouraged to talk themselves through initial attempts. This helps merge the mental and physical experience, thus the name "verbal stage."
     In workshop-style training a good teacher will allow up to 3 hours for a group of new learners to grasp the cognitive phase. There will be plenty of time for short breaks and note taking. To maximize this time, assistant teachers and advanced student must be available to answer questions. 
     The Motor Skills Genius will not take breaks, knowing it's only a matter time and patience to leave the cognitive stage behind. People of this nature know that frustration in this phase is a sign of new synaptic firing patterns, and may exhibit more irritation at being interrupted to help someone else than at the slow, stilted process of programming their own bodies. These folks know that after lunch break the initial rote repetitions will have paid off.
     Learners less familiar with the physical learning stages are advised to neither compare themselves with fast learners nor indulge in negative self-talk. Rather they should clear up any gaps in understanding and then push away from the safety net of follow-the-leader. 
People will become frustrated in the transition between cognitive and associative phase. The best cure for this is a light-hearted mood.

     Moving into the associative phase will occupy another few hours, or the entire second
Ken Blackburn coaching associative phase.
day in a workshop setting. If skills are being learned in on-going classes or a seasonal training it is best for learners to practice after and between classes to speed up this transition. 

The learner's tasks in the associative phase are: 
1) to practice movement segments until all major steps become part of the physical experience
2) to string segments together into a completed pattern that can be practiced without supervision

At this stage supervised practice provides correct demonstrations, questions answered and physical feedback cues. A mirror is most useful at this stage.
     In a workshop, a night of rest from the practice often does wonders for new learners. Athletes will naturally group together based on the speed with which they make this transition or the ability to make each other laugh. Seasoned teachers encourage these groups for the magic they can produce. Through focused practice a learner gradually moves into competence with basic movements and can incorporate nuances to improve fluidity. Performance has a disjointed quality, but becomes more consistent as learners relax into the practice. Teachers can introduce intermediate training drills to help smooth out common sticking spots in this phase. 
The associative phase may last several months or years, depending on the learner.
     Some people say it takes 100 repetitions of the basics to achieve competence, some say 1,000. Before a learner reaches the autonomous phases there will be countless hours of practice. I think of this as the "obsessive" phase. Indeed, the more effort a learner puts into studying new skills the sooner he will begin to enjoy the flow of practicing them.
     As the athletes skill become autonomous he can practice with little input from the teacher, but will benefit from subtle form corrections and new mental tasks. Athletes will have specific questions, so staying in contact with the teacher or class mates as solo practice ensues is beneficial

In the autonomous phase the learner's tasks are:
1) remain open for points of refinement that will make their skills more efficient
2) develop mental discipline and positive self-talk while training for important events

     In subsequent training events the teacher will see an athlete's personal style as mental focus is now available for improvisation and variation. Performance is consistent and the athlete "makes it look easy." This is also the most tenuous phase for high-performance athletes, as mental distractions may inhibit results.

Some useful habits for learning new motor skills:
  • use of video, mirrors and coaches to mark progress
  • study video of high-level athletes in action, especially those with a similar body type
  • visualize the movements while practicing the breathing pattern
  • search for a local or online groups that practice your sport
  • set goals and find a coach to help achieve them
    At this point I'd like to bring back the importance of the "workout" even to advanced athletes. World Class sportsmen organize their training with skill refinement built into every practice session. After the high-skills technique session is over, athletes take a short break and then move into a normal looking exercise routine with focus on physical rather than mental effort. This may be a calisthenics circuit, 20 minutes on the rowing machine, or both. This elicits the well-known endorphin release needed to "feel good" after a training session. In other words, these powerful engines need to run through all the gears to get the full mental and emotional benefit of their gym time.
     The above summary of motor skills learning phases is intended to illuminate the universal process of learning a new sport. In my observations, the only thing that separates a Motor Skills Genius from a Motor Skills Moron is that the former approaches the process determined to do what it takes to learn, while the later allows frustration and negative self-talk to put a stop to the entire process. No matter where you have been on this continuum, please bear in mind the philosophy of every person who succeeds at sports:
"It's 10% talent and 90% hard work."