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Improvement IS Addictive


This post comes to us from Dr. Steve Bain, who not only knows a lot about neuro-science, but is becoming quite a good volleyball coach as well. Last year at the UW Coaching Clinic he shared some thoughts on improvement as it relates to chemical signals in the brain. This is his brief summary of those thoughts:

Improvement IS Addictive

Dr. Steve Bain

If you hang around the University of Washington volleyball program long enough you will either read it on a white board or hear Jim McLaughlin tell his players, “improvement is addictive”. As Coach McLaughlin knows, this catchy phrase is more than a motivational mantra. The meaning lies in the fact that the acquisition and refinement of skilled movements are a prerequisite for survival, as even the most basic of goal-directed movements – such as the seeking of food or water – are learned. Thus, given the life and death significance of skilled movements, it is not surprising that our brains become wired to ensure that we will repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward. Whenever a reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, triggering the release of the brain chemical dopamine, telling the brain to “do it again.”

In the case of skill learning in sport, our motivations are driven by the desire to return to the rewards we have experienced in the past, and to the environmental stimuli that mark the way to such rewards. It is primarily through its role in the selective reinforcement of associations between rewards and otherwise neutral stimuli that dopamine is important for such motivation. Whatever the mechanism, brain dopamine seems to act on connections in the brain to “stamp in” response-reward and stimulus-reward associations that are essential for the control and execution of skilled movements. In other words, what fires, gets wired.

To see how this would play out in skill learning, consider that the connections between neurons in the brain have the ability to form maps of all possible movements required to be successful in any given activity. Each time that we perform a successful movement, the neuronal connections associated with that movement are active for a brief period and that activity persists after the movement is complete. If any movement is followed by a positive reward, then the entire motor map is bathed in the reward signal carried by dopamine into this area. What would this combination of events produce? It would produce a permanent increment in the connection strength only among those neurons associated with the recently produced movements. What would these connections map after repeated execution and exposure to dopamine? The connections would map the expected value (i.e. reward) of the movement and provide the motivational impetus to “do it again”.

The association between improvements in skill learning and “addiction” is that drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and amphetamine, have the ability to hijack the same brain connections that are involved in reinforcement learning. These and other drugs stimulate the dopamine reward circuits, which in turn create powerful and enduring alterations in motivational networks that lead to maladaptive behaviors. The dopamine association between motor learning and addiction is itself only symbolic as the brain mechanisms that underlie skill learning are in no way equivalent to the hedonistic forms of addiction associated with drugs of abuse.

Symbolism aside, the concept that motor learning involves reward circuits in the brain is still very powerful, with important implications for our own coaching practices. Among the many possible implications are these:

1. Enacting training environments that are structured to elicit successful skill execution are of paramount importance. As coaches, we must keep in mind that the skills we are training will be tightly coupled to the reward stimulus and specific brain circuits. This is yet another piece of scientific evidence supporting the motor learning principles of training specificity and the superiority of whole training over part.

2. Players that are able to attend to task demands will improve faster (see Tom Black’s post on learning how to learn). In our gym, we refer to this attentional focus during practice as iMode; aka “improvement mode”. The cognitive effort required by players to achieve and maintain iMode is extremely high and once you make this demand of your players it becomes very easy to tell when your players are in iMode vs. survival mode. It is now extremely rare for our own players to descend into survival mode during practice. However, when they do, we know that learning is not possible and for everyone’s benefit, we send them home.

3. Instruct players to focus on the results of the task (the reward) vs. the structure of the movement. Research has shown that an external focus of attention is able to enhance motor learning in both experienced and new learners. Dopamine’s actions on brain reward circuits may well be the reason why.

No doubt there are many other implications linking motor learning principles with the brain’s reward circuits but at the very least, knowing that improvement is addictive underscores the importance of creating practice environments that maximally stimulate the brain circuits that are responsible for skill learning. As a coach, this is an incredibly powerful tool and once you harness it, you will be addicted!

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