Accessibility Tools

Does Practice Make Permanent? How Practice Rewires Your Nervous System

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:

https://gallagherperformance.com/unlock_your_potential_with_this_powerful_tip/

https://gallagherperformance.com/movement-improves-brain-function/

Unlock Your Potential With This Powerful Tip

“Everyone has way more strength and power than they know how to use.“
- Larry Mather, Canadian Weighlifting Coach

Let's be clear about something: Movement is a skill. This means that exercise form is a skill. Strength is a skill. Speed is a skill. For those that have participated or are currently participating in athletics, you can appreciate the importance of practice in developing skill. Who will progress more rapidly at their sport, the individual who practices 2 hours per week or the one who is practicing 10 hours per week? Assuming all things are equal, the individual with the greater training volume will progress and achieve mastery the quickest. Understand that training volume accounts for a number of factors including training frequency, duration, load, intensity, velocity of movement, etc.

Why am I bringing this up?

Frankly, there seems to be a lot of misinformation being perpetuated about building strength, speed, or mastery in regards to highly technical movements such as sprinting, squatting, and the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk). What cannot be forgotten is that these movements are a total body approach that requires every joint to contribute in order for quality work to be performed. They require a high degree of skill and neurological coordination in the execution of the movement. Regardless of whether you want to debate where stability or mobility is needed at specific regions of the body during specific joint actions, the concept of adequate neuromuscular integrity in all directions must be present.

From a motor learning perspective, strength and power development is neuroplasticity. Clients and athletes are basically undergoing computer programming during training. The greater training volume one experiences, the quicker neural pathways will adapt to become more efficient and coordinated. When you focus on the how (technique), the how much (load or amount of weight lifted) will take care of itself. A more skilled lifter is typically stronger. They can display greater strength potential due to skill in technique and skill in their ability to generate and apply more force.

If you’ve ever coached an athlete or client through technical movements, you will most certainly understand that technique is of utmost importance. Coaching technique as it applies to sprinting, squatting, weightlifting requires that one understands biodynamics and physics. Meaning, doing it the right way is the easiest way. This also means that if the client or athlete is displaying poor technique, often times there is central motor coordination issue that must be addressed accordingly. This is what is know as, "Training the Brain." Yes, muscular imbalances and poor joint dynamics may exist, but it is very common that perceived lack of mobility is simply a result of faulty motor patterning. Rather than focusing on mobility drills and stretches to improve movement quality, appropriate cuing and biofeedback may be all that is necessary. Just watch an experienced coach in action and you’ll understand what I mean.

A coach that understands how to help their client or athlete "Train The Brain", will unlock strength and athletic potential they never knew they could achieve.

More related reading:

https://gallagherperformance.com/qa-with-head-performance-coach-ryan-gallagher-lmt-ces/

https://gallagherperformance.com/advanced-training-for-elite-athletes/

We love to hear your input. Tell us about your experience on Google.

Connect with Us

Contact

  • 4484 William Penn Highway

  • Murrysville, PA 15668

Hours of Operation

  • CHIROPRACTIC
    Monday-Thursday: 9am-1pm, 3pm-6pm
    Friday: 9am-1pm, 3pm-5pm
    Saturday: by appointment only
  • MASSAGE & TRAINING
    Hours are by appointment only