Monday, February 04, 2008

Gross versus fine motor skill training

Updated. See the bottom of the post.

How would you react?

A while back I read an interesting college lab study on reflex response, a subject near and dear to us all here these last two months. First, the study collected and identified volunteer students who were sports players and who were not. Then specific sports were listed on the interview sheet. One of the check-off sport boxes was for basketball.

In the test, the testee student stood still in an empty room. The tester quietly approached from the rear, shouted, “hey!” while throwing a basketball very hard at the testee.

All the test takers turned and saw a basketball speeding toward them. As you might have imagined most of the testee's with no basketball experience flung their arms up in the direction of the ball, in a reflexive movement of self-protection. The ball bounced off their forearms. But, the experienced ball players tried to catch the ball with the palms of their hands. Some caught the ball, some failed. But they tried with their palms up and out. The difference being...arm-y versus hand-y. - Hock's blog 25 October 2007: Basketball Hands post

Hock Hochheim has long been one of my favorite MA/Combatives authors and instructors. Unfortunately, I've only been able to attend a brief seminar, but am looking forward to more in the future. The point of this post (read it all) was that training, specifically martial arts training, changes reflexive responses. This may come as a shock to some, but training works!

An argument has been made by many martial arts writers, instructors, and seminar "gurus" that your fine motor skills are the least-used (and least reliable), and our training should obsess (OK, focus) on the "gross motor" skills that make up the reflex response. However, the argument made in Hock's post, as well as by personal experience (think of a trained driver's response versus a lay person's to a sudden obstacle or erratic driver in traffic) leads to the obvious conclusion that training matters, and makes a difference.

We should, however, make the distinction between the types of skills used, and when:

Gross motor skills, defined as "...the abilities required to control the large muscles of the body..." are typically seen and used in the untrained, or when fine skills are inappropriate (or fail). I was speaking with the chief of a New Jersey PD a few months ago regarding his department's defensive tactics (DT) training curriculum, and he related the story of getting into a fight with a big guy that didn't, for some reason (odd, eh?), want to be cuffed or taken in. He tried some of his department-approved, and academy-taught pressure-point and joint manipulation skills, to no avail. According to the chief, "I ended up punching him in the face! Works every time!" A fine motor skill? Not really. This chief experienced the real-world failure of a technique that may have worked versus a smaller or less-resistant subject, but not against someone who is resisting, and/or aided by the use of inhibition reducing substances. In the case of our chief example, his (fine-motor) skills either weren't up to par, or not appropriate.

Fine motor skills, defined as, "...the abilities required to control the smaller muscles of the body for writing, playing an instrument, artistic expression, and craft work." Many of our more advanced techniques require this type of coordination and control. For example, Small Circle Jujitsu fingerlocks require a sensitivity and precise application of force and direction that result, ideally, in compliance. If too much force is applied at the proper angle, it results in a joint dislocation or break. If too little, the subject will escape without any consequences and all that that can entail. An example of this was a time, many years ago, when I was walking in an area where I probably shouldn't have been, and someone tried to trip me. I responded by blending with the attack, shifting my weight, and sweeping the foot of the attacker so that he hit the ground, and hot-footed it out of there. Was I surprised? Yes, but I was more aware of my balance and stride than he probably expected, though I never drilled that scenario. Fine? Undoubtedly.

So how does all of this play into how we should train? Should we focus on gross or fine motor skills? What's better for the "real world?" Well, and this is all my opinion, based only on my personal experience - we need to train both!

Train gross motor skills first. Teach techniques that are based on gross movement, larger muscle groups, and simpler reactions in the beginning, and throughout a student's progress. As you become more and more advanced, you'll notice a subtlety and refinement will naturally take place, with proper instruction and practice. You may also find that you become more efficient, wasting less energy and getting greater results with less motion, as in an advanced player of any combat-oriented sport, like Judo, BJJ, boxing, or wrestling. You'll "make it look easy."

Teach the fine motor skills (and techniques requiring them) as a student becomes more advanced and capable. Remember that the shock or surprise that result in a loss of coordination last only a moment, as in the example of the basketball players trying to catch rather than block the ball, or my sweeping reaction to the trip.

[Nathan] Check out Patrick Parker's comment below this post (click the Comments link). The money quote (at least for me):

I'm not sure if these basketballers had trained their reflexes or if they trained their perception skills but my guess is on perception instead of reflex. I guess in either case you had the same effect - they tried finer motor skills.

I'd have to agree with Patrick that, in this case it's hard to know, and we can only hazard guesses at what's going on, but my inclination is to go with both. You may remember my oft-told anecdote of my peaking for a kickboxing bout, drilling and sparring several times a week for many rounds over a period of months, and my skills being at their peak (in terms of athletic performance, not knowledge), and knocking out my roommate when he playfully threw a kick at me. My reflexes were peaked, but my perception was also beyond anything I'd experienced before or since. On the few occasions when I've "used" my skills, things seemed to move in slow motion (not me, the other guy!), and I was able to react dispassionately and appropriately. It's an interesting phenomenon and one which we should explore in more depth. Please check out these links:

Intelligence, instinct, and efficiency at Mokuren Dojo
Kung Fu: Basic Instinct, or Advanced Intelligence? at Martial Development

More comments? Join the discussion. I'm really interested in hearing back from you on this!


Patrick Parker said...

What a great photo! and a great article. You know, there's another phenomenon going on in this reaction-time/gross vs. fine discussion that has been going on at Mokuren and at Martial Thoughts and now here in this post, and that is the phenomenon of discretionary time as Rory at Chiron calls it:

the subjects in your experiment that were trained basketballers had greater ability to figure out when they had discretionary time - time to think or react with finer quality motor skills. I'm not sure if these basketballers had trained their reflexes or if they trained their perception skills but my guess is on perception instead of reflex. I guess in either case you had the same effect - they tried finer motor skills.

And there is still another related phenomenon that i've seen in my training - that of hyperactive reflexes. you've seen kids learning to play catch and you throw the ball and they get the glove on it but it bounces out before they can close the glove. They are actually knocking the ball out of their grip before they can grab it. as they get better they gently reach out and absorb the ball in their glove.

similar thing happens when you open a cabinet and a glass falls out onto you. some folks try to catch it and knock it and break it anyway. others reach out and gently catch it.

in both of these examples, there are some folks whose reflexes are calibrated way too spastic and they hyper-react, making things worse. i think training has a large effect on reducing spasticity in our reflexes so that we at least don't make things worse with our reflexes.

Nathan Teodoro said...

Thanks for the great comments. I've updated the post (scroll down on the original post) as a result.

Anyone else have feedback? What's happening, and do you agree, as far as training and teaching methodology?

brendan reen said...

i am glad i have found some people who are willing to discuss motor-skills etc in martial arts and boxing, I myself personally found that most, even advanced martial artist
had missed the most important methods of training, I have invented a device and i have wriiten a short manual that i believe could easily take an average person right up to the top level of martial arts competition, if practised with commitment. the manuals are free, and the device can be assembled relatively easily at home with some diy material