Motor Learning Theory in Olympic Weightlifting

The Snatch with No Pull is an excellent example of Dynamical System Theory. There are aspects of this skill drill that the athlete can only learn by self-organisation (or learning by discovery).

Motor Learning

In the context of sports science, the subject of Motor Learning involves trying to understand the process by which skilled movements are learned. The hope is that a better understanding allows the coach to manage the learning process of the athlete more effectively and this leads to the development of skilled performance which is highly consistent.

Motor Learning Theories

There are two major theories of how complex skills are learned and it helps the Weightlifting coach to have a grasp of both.

  • Motor Program Theory
  • Dynamical Systems Theory

Motor Program Theory – The ability of the athlete to reproduce highly complex skills in very short moments of time is a factor of most sports. Think of the complex movements in diving, ice-skating, gymnastics, cricket, tennis and of course Olympic Weightlifting. These movements are performed in fractions of a second. In thinking about how this is possible, early researchers came to the conclusion that the only way that such skills can be performed with high precision and in the time frame required is if the movement instructions were somehow stored in the brain, a motor program so to speak. The question then is how are these movement instructions developed and programmed into the brain?

Using Motor Program theory, the learning approach in Olympic Weightlifting would involve breaking the whole skill down into smaller parts. Each part is then practised over and over, and coached to ensure that a high degree of movement accuracy is achieved. When all parts of the skill are practised and perfected, the whole skill can be reliably executed.

Proponents of Dynamical Systems Theory think about the ability of all individuals to self-organise when given a movement problem to solve. Let’s say the given problem was to strike a ball with the foot so that it hits a target. In attempting to develop a pattern of movement that results in hitting the target consistently, the motivated learner will try many different movement solutions over time. Patterns of movement that tend to result in missing the target are dispensed, and gradually the athlete learns and adopts the strategies that seem to produce the best result. This is self-organisation at work.

It is highly probable that coaches and athletes in Olympic Weightlifting will have issues with this theory. It seems to suggest that the athlete does their own thing and learns totally by trial and error. However, self-organisation is only one aspect of this theory. There is an important role for the coach to guide and shape the learning situation. Although the athlete is allowed to find a movement solution, the coach applies constraints or boundaries within which the athlete must stay. For example, in early learning of the Power Snatch, the coach might impose two constraints.

  • Constraint 1: In the start position, the bar must be at mid-thigh (Power Snatch from Mid-Thigh). The purpose of this constraint is to reduce the movement complexity. It is much easy to begin learning the Power Snatch if the start position is high.
  • Constraint 2: The athlete must demonstrate total balance and stability in the receiving position and remain completely still for a specific period of time (for example, a count of 3). The presumption is that if the athlete can remain balanced and still (that is nail the receiving position) something good must have happened. The athlete must work to achieve this balance in each and every repetition.

So in Dynamical Systems theory, the athlete is allowed to play and find their own movement solution provided they stay within the set boundaries given.

Which Theory is best in Olympic Weightlifting?

Well as a coach with some 40 years of experience, there is no way I am going to abandon Motor Program Theory which evolved mostly in the 70s. Our sport does require very precise movement and there is not much correlation between what feels right and what actually is right from a biomechanical standpoint. I don’t feel totally confident that if an athlete finds their own solution to the movement problem that it will be the most optimal solution. I have seen many an athlete acquire the wrong movement concept and practise an ineffective technique as a result.

However, the aspect of imposing constraints in Dynamical Systems Theory is a revelation. It is definitely the case that some of the movement problems in Olympic Weightlifting can only be learned by self-discovery. For example, there are no words that a coach can utter that can adequately describe what the athlete must do when performing the “Snatch with No Pull” for the first time. What actually happens and how it works can only be learned through self-discovery, having a go, and learning by trial and error. See the video at the top of this page.

Special Book Deal

Image of front cover of book

Click the above picture for more information on the 406 page book "Coaching Weightlifting Illustrated", ISBN-13: 9780646850634