The Basics of Motor Learning: How Athletes Learn New Sport Skills & Movements

The Basics of Motor Learning: How Athletes Learn New Sport Skills & Movements

Motor learning is an evolving and emerging area of sports science. In physical therapy education, there is a broad focus on motor learning strategies and skill acquisition as it pertains to neuro-rehabilitation (i.e. post-CVA). More recently, sports science has picked up the concepts of scientifically-informed motor learning strategies and skill acquisition in order to more efficiently train athletes. This brief overview on the basics of motor learning and skill acquisition can serve as a framework to better understand how an athlete can expand their skill toolbox, enhance their skill performance, and improve their skill retention (autonomous skill retrieval). Previous skill development for athletes, especially quarterbacks, was rigid, robotic, pre-planned, stiff and closed. We now have a much better understanding of the factors that not only help athletes develop new skills but also improve their cognitive processing, skill performance, and skill retention/recall. This area of neuro-motor development is complex, as one can probably assume, therefore this overview is by no means comprehensive in nature. However, I attempt to explain the foundational pillars of motor learning in order to help you better understand the processes that drive how we learn to move.

Stages of Motor Learning

1) Cognitive

Novice learning strategy where the learner is new to a skill. This phase of learning requires a noted goal, process, and movement sequence which is known to the learner. This is a predetermined “drill” that is utilized in the explicit (extrinsic feedback) phases of motor learning. The cognitive term describes the fact there will be a great deal of thinking going on for the athlete when they are learning because they are so green to the new skill. The coach, training plan, and drills will benefit the athlete by utilizing more cuing while expecting high levels of performance inconsistency. Additionally, the more frequent exposure to these skills, usually in a closed environment, will produce a rapid improvement from novice to intermediate. This phase of learning is about learning what to do for the sport’s BASICS. The cognitive stage is the phase during which the athlete acquires the motor plan and skills required to perform, they can expect a higher amount of mistakes and more frequent corrections and explanations.

In this stage the athlete is learning the basics of movement, physical characteristics, scheme, etc that are required to be a high performer. There can be large amounts of mental “reps” or practice at this stage as well as increased cuing for the athlete with simple tasks and drills. Many errors in largely inconsistent performances are a hallmark, however the athlete will be making large gains early.

Example: A quarterback is learning the timing, step pattern, speed, and distance of a 3 step drop. The athlete needs explanations both verbally and visually, while also rehearsing or practicing step by step. The athlete is inconsistent, they make many errors, they ask a lot of questions, and they need consistent feedback from coaches. However, they learn the basics of the new skill in a relatively short period of time.

2) Associative

The associative stage of motor learning follows the cognitive phase of learning. The athlete/learner is able to associate one stimulus and another in this phase. The focus is on reducing the number of errors, increasing consistency, and enhancing performance as it pertains to using the skill in different environments. There is less need for consistent feedback and it can be graded, (bandwidth feedback) while the athlete learns to respond to changes in their environment. This stage of learning is about learning how to perform skills well and how to adapt those skills to changing environments. The associate stage can be broad and long, as there are many opportunities for new associations. This stage tends to lead itself to more open environment exposures. Although learning is more intrinsic in this phase the athlete should start to make choices and decisions even faster than they could previously think through. The athlete is becoming reactive to stimulus, instead of relying on brute force cognitive processing. The associative stage = retention of the skills with increasing environmental complexity.

The athlete learning model may consist of a coach/trainer showing a movement, skill, or pattern. The athlete then takes this movement and blends it into practice environments that are more adaptive and less rigid. There is much less verbal instruction or feedback from coaches. The athlete is not acquiring new information (skills) like in the cognitive stage, but instead learning how to use these skills in more complex environments with less feedback. We can expect failure, which can be frustrating for the athlete, but is necessary to move to an autonomous stage of learning. Athletes will require conscious effort with varying levels of performance as the stimulus changes around them, however, there will be a noticeable performance improvements over time.

Example: A quarterback is able to effectively perform a 3 step drop with proper speed, rhythm, distance, and foot positioning. The athlete now brings their newly learned skill into practice. They start to perform 3 step drops while also throwing predetermined routes-on-air (ROA). The three step drop may need to intrinsically be rehearsed by the athlete in their head, but they now understand what to do (cognitive), and they are learning how to do it in the context of throwing a route.

3) Autonomous

The final phase of motor learning is the hallmark of developing high level skills that are reproducible in highly volatile environments. In order to reach the autonomous stage the athlete must have undergone extensive practice in both open and closed environments, with various levels of cueing and feedback, over a long time horizon. This phase of learning is where the coach and athlete should practice the transfer of new skills to game-like situations. The autonomous stage = transfer of the new skill to a complex and hostile environment (focus on where defenders are, coverage, routes vs. the skill itself) without the conscious need for self talk.

This stage takes years of progressive motor learning and is the hallmark of becoming a “professional” at a sport/skill. A large amount of time must be spent in practice, with varying levels of knowledge of performance and results, in order to lead to autonomous learning. Autonomous motor expression is a culmination of each previous stage. Small improvements are made in this stage, but repetitive patterning leads to dynamic and fluid skills with “unconscious” performance.

Example: A quarterback has practiced and rehearsed a 3 step drop hundreds or thousands of times with routes on air, on different fields, in practice, in scrimmages, etc. The athlete now begins to perform a three step drop, while analyzing coverages, evading a pass rush, manipulating their eyes down field, and adapting to unforeseen environmental circumstances (a bad snap, wet grass, a receiver that slipped, a receiver that ran the wrong route, etc.). The three step drop has become an autonomous movement aspect of a larger motor performance.

Autonomous vs. Automated Adaptation

Of note, this phase is autonomous not automated. This distinction is important in remembering the complexity of bringing a new skill and movement into an athlete’s movement system. Automated learning requires thresholds to make decisions (yes/no) and then move to the next set of rules, this level of association is not optimal for an athlete in a complex environment. Autonomous brings in awareness and intelligence, where an athlete can learn and shape behaviors based upon previous outcomes (practice, games, reps, etc.). Autonomous learning allows for adaptation, reaction, and identification of when change is needed without firm parameters.

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Motor Learning Feedback

1) Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Feedback

Intrinsic feedback is the information the athlete is processing about a task or skill through their own sensory systems. Their visual processing, proprioceptive awareness (to be discussed in another blog post), kinesthetic awareness (to be discussed in another blog post), somatosensory (feeling of the laces, or their foot in the ground), etc. help to provide information about how to complete a movement effectively. Intrinsic feedback can also be the athlete's self-talk and personal cues to get them into proper positions and patterns, also known as the “feel”. Intrinsic feedback is productive for on-field performance, where the athlete must understand what they're trying to do, and how they can get themselves to do it.

Extrinsic feedback constitutes coaching, cuing, or external stimulus to shape a movement or skill. Extrinsic feedback can occur both during or after a performance (knowledge of performance [KoP] or knowledge of results [KoR]). Early stages of learning require more extrinsic feedback, while later stages require less extrinsic feedback and begin to rely on more intrinsic feedback. Good coaching should begin to taper off of extrinsic feedback, “bandwidth feedback”, in order to allow the athlete to take over more complex learning with more athlete driven “feel” and cues.

  1. Extrinsic Feedback - Cues or feedback given to the athlete during or after a performance or practice of a skill. Feedback is tactile (physical), visual or verbal from an outside source (coach).
  2. Intrinsic Feedback - Feedback, feeling, or internal voice that is felt by an athlete during a performance or practice. An individual's somatosensory (the body's senses + proprioception) system provides continuous feedback on how to naturally adapt and modify movement errors.
  3. Bandwidth Feedback - The concept in which feedback is gradually reduced in frequency over time.
  4. Knowledge of Performance - Feedback and information given to the athlete about how the skill or movement was performed. This feedback can relay information about the quality of movement, technical proficiency and performance of the skill regardless of the success outcome.
  5. Knowledge of Results - Feedback on how successful a skill was performed in relation to the desired outcome. This feedback gives the athlete knowledge on how to improve movement strategies to have better sport success next time.
  6. Open Environment - Unpredictable, changing, dynamic, complex environments.
  7. Closed Environment - Predictable, controlled, planned, “safe” environments.

If you're interested in QB specific throwing, lifting and sprint training, customized to you, with the same systems used to train NFL Quarterbacks, take the assessment and get the app at If you're interested in reading about all things quarterbacking and throwing biomechanics, subscribe to the blog.

References and Resources:

  1. Shumway-cook anne, Woollacott MH. Motor Control: Translating Research into Clinical Practice. Wolters Kluwer Health; 2022.