[Tony is currently a senior studying Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and an Applied Sport Science Intern at Athletic Lab.]
To develop fine motor movements, serious dedication needs to take place. It is important to understand the benefits of developing this key mechanism in sport performance. To do so, there are general and specific exercises that an athlete can do. While the process of developing fine motor movements can seem daunting, let’s explore why it can be beneficial, and some methods to improve it in the most efficient manner.
Since fine motor development increases the precision of movement, its benefit to sport performance can be enormous. In sports where stability is of benefit, fine motor development can not only help a gymnast stay steady, but it can also help a tactical athlete redirect force more rapidly. In sports where maximal force production is of benefit, fine motor development can help an Olympic weightlifter direct that force in the most linear and efficient manner. Even in aerobic endurance sports, fine motor development can help a distance runner more efficiently strike the ground which uses less energy that they can store for later in their event. All in all, improving fine motor development reduces wasted motion.
Utilization in Training:
While it may be attractive to attempt to develop technical, fine motor movements early, it’s important to understand the limitations of doing so. In the spectrum of motor development, gross motor development is the first that is developed, and fine, especially those related to sport-specific skills, develop last (O’Connor, 2000). Since gross motor development occurs first, an athlete must create a nearly autonomous system of gross movements (i.e. “the basics”) before fine motor skills can develop. Even though gross motor skills will develop first, can tasks that are primarily designed to develop fine motor skills for advanced athletes be incorporated into training a novice? Absolutely, and although there may be no benefit in terms of fine motor skill acquisition for a novice, these types of tasks are a great way to break up the often monotonous tasks associated with typical gross motor development training. Keep in mind that, for example, having a young soccer player spending a lot of time working on technical shots on goal is not beneficial if they are unable to consistently shoot or pass the ball where they intend, or even dribble past defenders to be in a position to shoot on goal. However, a task like this could be incorporated into practice intermittently as a varied way to develop the gross motor skills that a novice athlete needs. Focusing on developing general skills first, then specific skills is going to be of the most benefit to the athlete.
Variation and Skill Acquisition:
This being said, it is important to keep training varied. Studies have shown that varied training sessions increase skill acquisition (Spriddle, 1993; Yang, 2015), allowing progression to fine motor skill development to speed up as well. The more often an athlete is able to complete a similar task while moving differently, the more likely they are to have a positive transfer to sport performance. This variation in training not only helps athletes prepare for competition by improving skilled movements, but it also will help them adapt to changing conditions, and allow for variations in individualized, preferred movement patterns that may not alter performance outcome (Bruton et al, 2017). In any sport, especially those involving an athlete-interaction with an external object or another athlete, the ability to adapt rapidly is of tremendous benefit. Even in a seemingly consistent sport like Olympic weightlifting, conditions change, and if an athlete only prepares for one condition, they are likely not going to compete as well when something unpredictable occurs. Keeping training varied will help athletes develop gross motor skills, increase their time to developing fine motor skills, and be able to transfer those skills to unpredictable situations, which is ultimately what success in sport competition is all about.
Although it can take a long time to develop fine motor skills, it can be beneficial to seriously dedicate this time for certain athletes. Among elite athletics, the differences between first and last place are often incredibly small. Since these athletes are very advanced in their ability to move the way their sport demands, fine motor development may be a key factor in giving them the edge to win. But knowing when, and how often to incorporate fine motor skill development into training is based on the coach’s knowledge to know their athletes’ abilities. If a coach doesn’t know what to look for or implement, talk with other successful coaches. Research what others have done and develop a system that works for you, working general to specific, to develop your athletes by progressing them appropriately to meet the motor demands of their sport.
Bruton, M. R., Adams, R. D., & O’Dwyer, N. J. (July, 2017). Sex differences in drop landing: more apparent in recreational surfers than competitive surfers or nonsurfers. Perceptual and Motor Skills, (Epub ahead of Print). doi: 10.1177/0031512517717853.
O’Connor, J. P. (2000). An investigation into the hierarchical nature of fundamental motor skill development. Retrieved from Oregon PDF Digital Dissertations. (Catalog ID: PSY 2163).
Spriddle, D. (1993). A test of the variability of practice hypothesis: the acquisition of a gross motor skill. Retrieved from Oregon PDF Digital Dissertations. (Catalog ID: PSY 1684).
Yang, X. (2015). Benefits of variable practice conditions for athletes in mixed martial art. Retrieved from Oregon PDF Digital Dissertations. (Catalog ID: PE 5009).