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Motor Learning: How to teach an old dog it’s like riding a bike again

For the most part, we all remember when we first learned to ride a bike, catch a fish, or flush our first long iron off the range. What we don’t usually remember is how we arrived at that moment. When we are kids, we are constantly learning new things, whether by training or experience. It becomes a bit of second nature and a part of daily life. When we get older, sometimes learning becomes a bit of a chore – or rather re-learning, whether that be erasing a bad habit or a movement pattern that an injury may have left us with.

As we learn or re-learn, many of us will benefit from different styles of feedback or cueing, which many of us have experienced from coaches, trainers, or the like throughout our lives.

Internal vs External Cues

First are internal cues, where the focus is on what the body is doing or the mechanics of the movement itself. Second, are external cues, where the focus is on the desired outcome of the task or a focus that is outside the body. Here are some examples of both:

Internal Cues:Woman playing golf

  • Extend your hips
  • Keep your chin tucked
  • Drive through your feet
  • Keep your chest up
  • Keep your elbow in

External Cues:

  • Reach towards the wall
  • Imagine a bar is down your back
  • Hit the ball as close to the pin as you can
  • Drive your hips towards me

When we are first learning a task, we can benefit from both internal and external cues and it really depends on what we are trying to accomplish. We can benefit from a cue to keep our spine neutral during a bridge to promote the appropriate form or using an external cue of imagining you are in a narrow hallway during bird dogs to prevent side to side movement of the hips.

Some research does show that internal cueing may benefit a novice but hinder experts. Perkins-Ceccato, et al. found that a group of novice golfers told to adjust the force based on the distance they were from the green (internal cue) did better than another novice group who were told to hit the ball as close as possible to the pin (external cue). An expert group told to follow the same instructions had completely opposite results where the group “hitting closest to the pin” did much better than their force counterparts.

Positive vs Negative Reinforcement

Finally, something that gets confused and is oft debated, is the concept of positive vs negative reinforcement. First, reinforcement alone is encouraging a behavior to occur with more frequency. When we initially think of positive vs negative, we usually equate them to the standard definition of the words: good and bad. However, these truly boil down to the fact; positive reinforcement is encouraging results by adding a favorable result at the end whereas negative reinforcement is taking away something undesirable if completed successfully.

In the training/fitness world, an example of positive would be allowing a choice in future exercises whereas negative would be allowing a participant to get out of 10 pushups if the workout was completed correctly.

Zach Huey
Western Carolina University
Intern, Summer 2017


  1. Baron A, Galizio M. The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: use with care. Behav Anal. 2006; 29(1): 141-151.
  2. McPherson S. Chapter 2 – Motor Learning and Recovery of Function. 2017.
  3. Shumway-Cook A, Woollacott M. Motor control: translating research into clinical practice. 5th Woltre Kluwer. 2016
  4. Beilock S, Carr T, MacMahon C, Starkes J. When paying attention becomes counterproductive: impact of divided versus skill-focused attention on novice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills. J Exp Psychol. 2002;8(1):6-16.

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