In our younger years, many of us likely heard the expression “Practice Makes Perfect.” This usually came from a parent, coach, or teacher. Some took the saying a step further, adding “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect.” Some even say, "Practice Makes Permanent". Regardless, still the message was clear – if you want to improve, you need to put in some time and focused effort. You need to practice.
But is all about simply practicing or do we need to have a different focus?
Research has provided a better understanding of how practice influences skill development, helping us understand how the nervous system is rewired during the process. While there are many components to consider during the process of motor learning and skill acquisition, in this article we will be discussing how a unique tissue to the nervous system called myelin plays a critical role in the acquisition and mastery of skills.
Practice Rewires the Nervous System When we are exposed to a movement or sport skill that is new or unfamiliar, the result is typically feeling awkward and uncoordinated. To some degree, we may be apprehensive. This is normal and to be expected. But, as we practice, something happens. Things get smoother, we feel more comfortable, and the movement/skill becomes more natural.
What is happening?
What practice is actually doing is rewiring your nervous system to become more efficient during complex movement tasks through a process called myelination.
The Role of Myelin Understanding all the intricacies of the nervous system is not the point of this article, but a little background will be helpful. Myelin is a tissue that covers our neurons, the cells that make up the nervous system. Myelin is mostly a fatty substance, with cholesterol being an essential component. It serves to insulate nerve cells and has a characteristic “white” appearance. This is why most people refer to myelin as “white matter” when discussing the nervous system. What science has helped us understand is that myelin improves the speed and strength of nerve signals, meaning that myelinated nerves transmit signals faster than non-myelinated nerves. Myelin helps our nervous system function at a higher level.
Ok, so how do we get myelin onto our nerves?
To begin with, the majority of myelination occurs during the early stages of development. These stages of development occur during the 2-3 years after birth and into early childhood. Children are myelin-generating machines. This can be seen not only in respect to movement, but also with language and comprehension skills as well. Where there is development, you will find myelin. This is why there are critical developmental stages that exist in long-term athletic developmental (LTAD) models. LTAD models help us understand that we cannot make up for lost time. Sure, as we get older we can continue to generate myelin, but it happens at a slower rate and requires more effort. This is why most young athletes who miss critical developmental stages tend to get passed up later in their athletic careers.
So what’s the big deal about critical developmental stages?
It provides children with graded exposure to skills through practice and repetition. The process of practice and repeated effort triggers a pattern of signals through our nervous system. With time and repetition, myelin is produced to increase the speed, strength, and coordination of these nerve signals. It’s a streamlining effect that your nervous system undergoes due to exposure to a repeated sensory stimulus and motor (movement) output.
Practice Makes Myelin, So Practice With Purpose Understanding the role of myelination in skill acquisition has tremendous implications. Yes, volume and frequency of practice matters, but myelination makes a case for understanding why quality of practice matters. Practicing with an extreme focus on quality is equally, if not more important, than simply practicing a lot. Don’t just practice to practice. Corrections should be made as they are needed. You don’t want to spent the majority of your time practicing bad habits, as bad habits are hard to correct. Bad habits arguably are not permanent. However, the longer they exist, the harder they are to unlearn. Myelin is a big reason why.
In the context of training and sport skill development, if you lift/sprint/jump/practice with poor technique and no one corrects your mistakes, you will be myelinating those nerve pathways – which does you no good and only serves to lowering your athletic potential. Sure you may improve, but you will never reach your true potential. And the longer your bad habits remain, the harder it is to correct them.
The takeaway: practice of movement skills over time causes specific neural pathways to work better via myelination. To improve your performance, you not only need to practice FREQUENTLY, you also must practice CORRECTLY and receive plenty of feedback from a qualified coach so you are able to properly develop your movement and sport skills. More related reading: