Kinesthetic Learning in Sports


“Who is the best athlete of all-time?” That question, this debate, can be as intoxicating as watching the athletes perform. Who’s the best boxer of all-time, Muhammed Ali, or Mike Tyson? Was there a professional athlete more exciting to watch than Walter Payton was? Does Michael Jordan have a peer in basketball? If you grew up in the Bill Russell, Will Chamberlain era, you think he does. Some debate participants could probably list off twenty to thirty athletes, from their personal Mount Rushmore of sports, not listed here. The question that we will answer here is how does a superior athlete achieve elite, Mount Rushmore status? 

Personal preferences often play a role in a person’s list. There are also those that achieved rarefied air during their era sportswriters often find criminally underrated in the historical record. Once we eliminate those two groups, we find that the list of elite athletes is very small. What is the difference between the professional athletes that achieved rarefied air in their era and that small pack of elite athletes that we consider the best of all time? How does one superior athlete appear to execute to perfection every single time out, while another phenomenal athlete executes a majority of the time? What’s the difference between the natural gifts of a supreme athlete, like Allen Iverson versus a gym rat like Michael Jordan? One word. Practice. We’re talking about practice.

The theme of such bar stool discussions often centers around the physical exploits of said athlete, but as author David Wallace suggests, in a posthumous collection of his essays Both Flesh and Not, the physical may no longer as instrumental as it once was in the separation between those in the upper echelon and the elite.

Most of us have participated in organized sports at one time or another in our lives, and most of us have experienced a point, in practice sessions, where we’ve withered under the demands of a demanding coach that pushed us to levels some may consider cruel and inhuman.

Kinesthetic learning (also known as tactile learning) is a style of learning that is devoted to physical activity, rather than listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. These learnings are inclined to learn more by doing than they will by studying, contemplating, or actualizing. Those that learn in this kinesthetic are learners we call “do-ers”.

Even most doers do not have a level of internal discipline necessary to achieve an elite level. Most parents attempt to cultivate the creative and physical gifts their children display, and those parents seek to keep that focus varied and well rounded. For the purpose of this discussion, such desires may prove harmful. As the child may have trouble achieving the tunnel vision necessary to achieve a level of discipline required to achieve what those in the field call “autonomic responses”. In the wide variety of concerns a parent may have for their child, achieving autonomic responses might not be in the top 1,000. They want their children to succeed, but not so much that they deprive them of the joy of being young.

The creative mind needs constant stimulation, nuance, variation, and entertainment. A creative mind can suspend that need for creativity to learn the basics of anything, when that something is determined to be fresh, new, and exciting. Once that knowledge loses its “newness”, it no longer excites the child. At that point, they may begin to tune out the information that follows. Learning sports is fun, and athletic achievement can be exciting to a young child, but every child experiences a breaking point when they learn that if they are going to succeed in sports they must learn to avoid their creative inclinations.

Achieving success in sports requires an acute focus on the muscles involved in, say hitting a baseball, and there is little in the way of variation for how to approach to the ball, the point of contact, or the follow through. The creative mind may acknowledge the teacher’s bona fides in the quest to become proficient, but the more they cede to the creative portion of their brain, the more difficult it will be to fight the urge to personalize their play a little. The creative mind does not want to be an automaton, in other words. They want to look cool, they want to have fun, and they want to introduce some creativity in the process of their swing. If the child achieves some success on the playing field, they may begin to believe that they achieved that level of success on their own, and this may lead them to ignore their coaches on some level. They might want to introduce some individual nuance into their game. They might develop creative desires that lead to ideas on how they can succeed. The ability to ignore such desires or to learn the problems inherent in falling prey to them leads to what some might call an inhuman, machine-like mind, enhanced with massive amounts of discipline, such as that of a Roger Federer, to achieve levels of success in sports, and maintain it over time.

How did Roger Federer learn how to return a serve, how did he learn to return a 130 mile per hour (MPH) serve, and how did he learn to return such a serve in a manner that he could place it in a specific, and strategic, corner of the other player’s side of the court? In a David Foster Wallace essay, we receive a description of Federer’s exploits that have left tennis aficionados with their mouths hanging open for decades. Wallace terms these moments, moments where Federer separated from the pack of the elite, as “Federer Moments”.

“Returning a 130 MPH tennis ball, in a successful manner, requires what’s sometimes called the kinesthetic sense, meaning the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks. English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on. For promising junior players, refining the kinesthetic sense is the main goal of the extreme day-to-day practice regimens we often hear about. The training here is both muscular and neurological. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by “feel” what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often appears tedious, or even cruel, to an outsider, but the outsider can’t feel what’s going on inside the player — tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness.

“The upshot,” Wallace Continues. “Is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, of pure physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of such a serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.” 

The key, in other words, is to practice so often that the creative mind, and even conscious thought, does not enter into play. A player can return a serve with some creativity, by turning a wrist flat to achieve a flat return, and they can get a little top spin on a return by twisting the wrist a little at the point of impact. These descriptions of the proper return are what many consider elementary, even to those that play tennis for recreation. For most tennis players, most of these elementary aspects of a proper return go out the window when a serve is flying at them at 130 mph. Even most of those listed in the top 100 seeds of professional tennis are satisfied to return such a serve of that speed, but the elite of the elite can place it in a strategic position. How does one achieve the degree of mental mobilization necessary to return such a serve with a left turning topspin that hits the weakest point of their opponent’s court? The short answer is that the kinesthetic learner has achieved a point where they’re no longer thinking, a result of what Wallace says others may perceive to be inhuman, cruel, and youth stealing hours, months, and years of practice to achieve a kinesthetic sense.

To suggest that this degree of kinesthetic learning is exclusive to tennis or exclusive to the return of a serve is an oversimplification of the comprehensive idea of kinesthetic learning, for they now teach it in every sport and in numerous situational events within those sports, until the student learns autonomic actions and reactions without thought.

“Do, or do not, there is no try,” says Yoda.

If Star Wars were to attempt capture the basics of kinesthetic learning to a point where Luke could use this kinesthetic sense, i.e. the force, against all of Darth Vader’s actions, the movies would’ve portrayed Luke in training for, at least, the first three episodes of the series, or episodes four, five,  and six for Star Wars purists. They would’ve wanted to age him, and portray him as doing nothing but training for these episodes. This wouldn’t have been very entertaining, but it would’ve displayed how intense this training can be.

Most people don’t have the aptitude to achieve a kinesthetic sense on this level, and they don’t have the discipline to endure exhaustive years of practice. Most will also never know such levels for they also don’t have the natural talent that is required to achieve Federer-level results from kinesthetic learning.

Sports, in America, used to be mano y mano. It used to be the ultimate, physical confrontation between a Bob Feller against a Ted Williams. The mental aspects of baseball, tennis, and all sports have always been a factor, as one athlete attempts to overpower his opponent with mental and physical prowess. There has also always been some association with this process and top tier athletics, but one has to wonder if the current prominence placed on psychological domination of a sport, in the manner Wallace describes, would shock even Ted Williams, the well renowned hitting aficionado of his day. He might have practiced more than others would, but did he practice to levels that some may consider inhuman, cruel, and youth stealing levels? Many considered the hours he spent honing his game legendary, in other words, but would he be shocked at the new levels of learning put forth by current sports’ psychologists?

Williams had mentors, and others that helped him focus on the intricacies of his swing, but this new focus on the “tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness” did not enter into his world we can be sure. This acute focus on kinesthetic learning in baseball, tennis, football, and all sports and kinesthetic learning has ticked up to levels that Ted Williams and Bob Feller may have found astounding. Williams may have watched Bob Feller’s game, and he may have detected some tendencies in Feller’s play, but he didn’t spend the mind-numbing hours watching game film that a Tony Gwynn did with his opponents. Tony Gwynn, and others, changed sports a little with intense tape study, but our current understanding of the process involved in succeeding in sports through this acute focus on repetitious kinesthetic learning has progressed to a science.

This psychological concentration on minutiae goes beyond the positioning of the thumb on a driver in golf, the tweak of the forearm in the tennis stroke, and all of the muscles involved in the follow through. It goes beyond the pure physical aspects of sports to the mental. We have known about some of these concentrations for eons, and the general idea behind them might not be a shock. The acute focus on the actions and reactions has increased tenfold over the decades, until the game no longer have mano y mano confrontations at the plate, but one machine conditioned to the psychology of the game versus another equipped with the same.

deion1What separates a Michael Jordan from the second best player to have played the game? What separates a Deion Sanders from the second best cornerback? I used to marvel at the athletic exploits of the Atlanta Falcon cornerback. People would say Deion couldn’t tackle. People would say he was a liability against the run. “Who cares?” I said. “Do you see what that guy can do when the ball is in the air?” The hundreds of little snapshots that most people either don’t see, or talk about often define an athlete’s career, just like anyone else’s career. These moments are the moments of crunch time, when the ball is in the air. A professional athlete practices to prepare for such moments, they think about them, they eat and drink them, until they reach a point where they’re no longer thinking about them when they occur, and they’re acting and reacting with autonomic responses.

Most normal humans haven’t engaged in any activity to the point of achieving autonomic responses. Most normal humans engage in athletic activities for casual enjoyment, and they involve their kids in sports for the purpose of the character definition it can provide. Most do not subject themselves, or their kids, to the kind of “cruel, and inhumane” amount of practice that could steal a young person’s youth. As a result, most of us cannot comprehend how a man could return a serve of 130mph and place it in that tiny spot that is his opponent’s greatest after serve weakness on a consistent basis.

Those involved in the science of sports clocked such a serve at .41 seconds, or the time it takes you to blink twice in rapid fashion, or a speed that defies the natural facilities of human reaction. On the flipside, there are other, more deliberate moments in sports. The time it takes a quarterback to throw to a receiver that a Deion Sanders is covering, for example. Depending on the quarterback, and the length of the throw, this could take a couple seconds from the time the quarterback releases the ball to the moment it hits Deion Sanders’ area. What happens in those seconds? I call this moment blank space. In the blank space, athletes on every level know what to do, but they may not be able to accomplish it on a consistent basis. They may panic. Even the greatest of athletes have had moments where they panic, and this may have caused them some confusion as they tried to come to grips with the fact that their minds and body didn’t act in unison during that crucial moment in time. They had such belief in their ability, they thought they worked as hard as anyone to prepare for that moment and they failed. After the weeks and years they spent practicing, they didn’t execute in the manner they know they should have. It can be painfully confusing. After reading Wallace’s description, and the descriptions of Federer’s workouts, these players may not have worked out to the point that some characterize as exhaustive and cruel amounts of practice required to reach a kinesthetic sense, or an autonomic response, to the ball being in the air.

Those interested in this subject might also be interested in:

The Conspiracy of the NBA Western Conference Finals, in 2002

The Psychology of the Super Sports Fan

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