A key role of movement educators is to enhance the ability of their students to learn and perform various movement tasks. It can be as simple as re-learning to walk up a flight of stairs, to kick a ball, or to teach someone a complex surgical procedure. The field of motor learning has demonstrated how some teaching strategies are more effective than others. For example, the type and frequency of feedback, as well as the structure and timing of practice schedules have all been found to considerably affect motor learning (some of these strategies have been covered on this website, such as random vs blocked practice). Here I will introduce another simple, yet very effective teaching strategy to enhance motor learning and performance: choices.
The ability to make choices and exert control over one’s environment has been identified as a fundamental psychological need  and even a biological necessity . It has been shown that that the anticipation of making a choice is associated with greater activity in brain regions involved in motivational processes . As such, a number of studies investigated if the provision of choices can enhance motor learning. Most commonly, studies attempting to answer this question divide participants into two groups: a yoked and a choice group. While participants in both groups practice the movement task for a comparable amount of sessions/repetitions, those in the choice group are allowed to make a choice concerning one or more of the practice variables. For example, they get to choose when to receive verbal feedback, when to stop the practice session, or decide on the order of the to-be-completed movement tasks. Participants in the yoked group are deprived of such choices, and are “forced” to match the choices made by those in the choice group. For example, if a participant in the choice group decided to complete 20 repetitions in the practice session and call it the day, a participant from the yoked group would simply be asked to complete 10 repetitions without having a say about it.
Results of such studies have been quite conclusive. Among others, learning enhancements were reported with basketball jump shots , draft throwing , Taekwondo moves , and various balance tasks [7,8]. In an interesting study by Wulf and colleagues , participants who were allowed to choose the order of the to-be-completed five calisthenics exercises performed 60% more repetitions than those in the yoked group, despite similar fitness baselines. Hence, in addition to enhancing motor learning, choices also increase ones motivation to work out. Another recent study examined if the promising effects of choices persisted when the provided choice was irrelevant to the motor task . Surprisingly, it was found that allowing subjects to choose the color of the golf ball enhanced their golf putting performance. The positive effects of choice on motor skill learning have been reported for a wide range of populations—including children, adults, and even those with motor impairments . Yet, until recently, no one examined if this effect generalizes to athletes. Being an applied sports scientist and a kickboxing coach, I identified a gap in the literature…
The first thing I did was contact Professor Gabriele Wulf, a leading expert on the topic, and asked if she would be interested in a collaboration. Fortunately, she agreed! After a number of discussions, we decided to conduct a two part study . The first was a case study involving a world class kickboxer, who held a prestigious world title at the time of the experiment. He was asked to attend six experimental sessions, completing a punching protocol using a special device that can accurately measure punching forces and velocities. The protocol consisted of two rounds, in which 12 single maximal effort punches were delivered (three lead straights, three rear straights, three lead hooks and three rear hooks). Importantly, between each punch there were roughly 5 seconds of rest, which eliminated the possibility of delivering any punching combinations. In one of the rounds the order of the delivered punches was predetermined, on the other round the athlete chose the order of punches himself. Thus, over six testing days, the athlete completed the two rounds one after the other (counterbalanced), without knowing the true intention of the study.
Considering the athlete had a deep understanding of the task since he delivered thousands of punches during his career, we worried he may have reached a plateau in his punching ability, and that the intervention would not affect his performance. This was exacerbated by the fact that our protocol did not lead to any fatigue. However, to our surprise, on each of the six testing days, he punched harder (5-10%) and/or faster (6-11%) in the choice, compared to the yoked rounds! Pleased with these results, we repeated the study with 13 amateur competitive kickboxers, who completed the protocol on two occasions rather than six. We found the same effect in this group as well, albeit with smaller effect sizes (2% and 6% greater punching forces and velocities, respectively, in the choice rounds). This study is the first to examine how choice can enhance the training of competitive athletes. These performance enhancing effects are within a comparable range of those achieved with resistance training protocols and dietary supplements interventions.
Whether you work with the injured and fragile, or with elite athletes, there seems to be a great benefit in letting them make choices during training. Let them decide on the order of the tasks, or the number of reps to be completed—or even let them decide when they want to receive verbal feedback from you as a trainer! As long as a choice possibility is present, it doesn’t seem to matter exactly what the nature of the choice is. Given the simplicity of this strategy and the size of the reported effects, I encourage you to implement it with your trainees and clients. Or not. It’s up to you.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The’’ what’’ and’’ why’’ of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
- Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 457–463.
- Leotti, L. A., & Delgado, M. R. (2011). The inherent reward of choice. Psychological Science, 22, 1310–1318.
- Post, P. G., Fairbrother, J. T., Barros, J. A., & Kulpa, J. D. (2014). Self-controlled practice within a fixed time period facilitates the learning of a basketball set shot. Journal of Motor Learning & Development, 2, 9-15.
- Post, P. G., Fairbrother, J. T., & Barros, J. A. (2011). Self-controlled amount of practice benefits learning of a motor skill. Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport, 82(3), 474-481.
- Lim, S., Ali, A., Kim, W., Kim, J., Choi, S., & Radlo, S. J. (2015). Influence of Self-Controlled Feedback on Learning a Serial Motor Skill. Perceptual &Motor Skills, 120(2), 462-474.
- Hartman, J. M. (2007). Self-controlled use of percived physical assistance device during a balancing task. Perceptual &Motor Skills, 104, 1005–1016.
- Wulf, G., & Adams, N. (2014). Small choices can enhance balance learning. Human Movement Science, 38, 235–240.
- Lewthwaite, R., Chiviacowsky, S., Drews, R., & Wulf, G. (2015). Choose to move: the motivational impact of autonomy support on motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22, 1383–1388.
- Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1-33.
- Halperin, I., Chapman, D. W., Martin, D. T., Lewthwaite, R., & Wulf, G. (2016). Choices enhance punching performance of competitive kickboxers. Psychological Research, 1-8.
About the author:
Israel Halperin is a PhD Candidate in exercise science at Edith-Cowan University in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Sport. His current research aims are to understand how various types of feedback affect motor learning and performance, especially among combat athletes. He's also a kickboxing and S&C coach.