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Seth Coffing: How You Can Help the Body Remember a Physical Skill

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Perhaps you're trying to master a great new dribble technique for a match with your friends. Or maybe you're trying to learn a new song on the piano. If you aren't particularly gifted with physical skills, you will undoubtedly find these aims challenging.

Researchers have come up with various ways to help the brain store and retrieve memories more effectively. In this article, Seth Coffing, a team leader adept at working with people of different ages and backgrounds, helping them perform at the highest levels, describes what science has to offer when it comes to storing and recalling physical skills.

Understanding skill learning

Parts of the brain that control the muscles can learn to remember motion sequences by repeating them. It's called motor memory (or sometimes procedural memory). Instead of focusing on the number of times you repeat a motion, however, focus on repetition with attention to detail, so that you make as few mistakes as possible. Mistakes made during practice sessions become embedded in the memory as well. They can be hard to unlearn, which will make the learning process that much harder.

In other words, it isn't just practice that makes perfect. Instead, it's perfect practice that helps. Break the task up into small units, focus on getting them right, and then put them all together. You'll get there faster.

How the brain works

In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the way the body creates motor memory, researchers at the University of Copenhagen, studied a group of people who were given the task of learning to track a fast-moving line on a computer screen using a joystick-controlled cursor. It took a while for them to develop the kind of quick reflexes needed to perform the task fluently.

The researchers then divided the group into three. One group performed strenuous exercise first and then set about learning a physical skill. The second group learned the skill first and then did their exercise. When tested weeks later, the second group continued to be competent. The first group, however, was rusty. The third group, which learned the skill with no exercise involved, came in last.

As the brain attempts to move memory from short-term storage to long-term, intense exercise makes the memory imprinting far deeper. While the effects do not show right away, they do show after about two weeks.

As the study continues in Copenhagen, researchers have moved their focus to observe children and their desire to run about as they learn. The feeling is that the action might be instinctive, that the children's brains do what's natural in order to facilitate learning.

The takeaway from the research is that physical exercise enhances motor memory. Therefore, when you need to learn a physical skill quickly, try going for a run right after you finish your lesson.

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