I first heard the term “motor moron” from one of my professors in physical therapy school.
He was referring to some patients that seemed to lack the basic understanding of how to move their bodies, no matter how much demonstration and detailed instructions we give.
He had stories of patients repeatedly confusing left and right limbs, or an inability to do simple one-step movements like tilting the pelvis forward and back, or not being able to do the same three movements in a row. I’m sure we all know at least a couple of people like this, or even feel that way ourselves for certain things.
“Klutzy,” “clumsy,” “two left feet” – the endless stream of terms for people like this just demonstrates how widespread this phenomenon is.
In his accounts of these “motor morons,” my professor also seemed to imply that this was a condition that wouldn’t ever change.
I didn’t believe that then, and I don’t believe it now.
Over the last 16 years of clinical practice, I’ve been lucky enough to see tens of thousands of patients, and yes there were many that had difficulty moving the way I wanted them to move.
But with time, and work, and patience, we figured it out.
Perhaps they wouldn’t be winning any dance competitions any time soon, but they improved. And it’s no surprise they did, as nearly everything we do can be changed with consistent and mindful practice. No, not everything, but a lot more than we think.
In this post I’ll go over what body control is all about, the various ways to think about it, how to develop it, and a good process to start working on it.
What is Motor Control?
Motor Control is a technical term concerning exactly how our bodies move to perform a particular task or motor skill.
It involves the interaction of the sensations within the body and outside of it, and our initiation and continuation of a movement based on the feedback we get from these sensations. There’s a world of research and science exploring the details and specifics of what’s happening when we learn and perform physical activities.
But we needn’t be so technical to understand to some degree what good coordination and body control means and looks like.
We all intuitively sense when someone seems more “put together” than others in the way they move.
It’s not only an athlete performing well that catches our attention, but a woman on the street that walks with a graceful gait, or a waiter that seems to move without wasted motion. And perhaps it’s not something we consciously think about at the time, but just a sense of knowing when a person is moving well.
Motor Control is an Individualized Process
There are various ways to talk about control and coordination, including hand-eye and leg-eye coordination when manipulating objects, such as throwing, juggling, and using implements like baseball bats, tennis rackets, and golf clubs as extensions of our extremities.
But we’ll limit this discussion to how we have control within ourselves and in moving our body through space.
Body control at its simplest is the ability to perform an action with precision and accuracy, along with a sensation of ease, with no wasted energy.
That’s a simple definition for quite a difficult thing to execute!
More specifically, with a good level of motor control, you are able to control your joints and limbs in distinct actions to create your desired movement pattern. Whether it’s something vigorous and powerful like a twisting backflip, or precise and coordinated like a cartwheel on a slack line, you are demonstrating an adeptness in that skill.
Yet the control I’m talking about isn’t about being rigid and stiff from one step of a move to the next. Nor is it conforming to another person’s standard of what a move “should look like.”
If you can perform a skill smoothly with as little tension as possible for the task at hand, then you’ve got it.
You’ve developed and exhibited good body control.
Walking is a good example. It’s a generalized motor pattern that is a common human function.
But we also all have individual ways of walking from habits likely started when we were children, followed by other patterns developed when we get older from injuries, cultural and personal affectations, and other random inputs.
So we have a pretty simple motion, one foot in front of the other with the alternate upper limb swinging at the same time, but with likely billions of small permutations that make a gait pattern unique to an individual. And some people’s walking patterns are so distinctive you can pick them out of a crowd just by their gait.
Likewise, dancers can all perform the same steps in the choreography and be synchronized, but the best ones don’t all look the same. Their control is manifest in their individuality as well as the technicality of their movement.
These distinctions indicate how we can all put our personal spin on different skills.
This is a good illustration of what body control means to me. It’s not a specific regimented concept, but instead, the ability to perform movement well and still have our personal stamp on the action.
The Characteristics of Motor Control
There are several disciplines that devote a large portion of their method to body awareness, including Hatha Yoga, Feldenkrais, martial arts, and dance.
And, of course, calisthenics and gymnastics fit in to that category as well, since bodyweight skills necessarily involve a great deal of body awareness. What the best of them have in common isn’t just a consistent performance of the chosen activity, but also the incorporation of a mindful and thoughtful process.
Going through the motions isn’t helpful for most things, and it’s especially harmful when working toward improving control over your own body.
Good movement control has these qualities in common:
- Adequate Strength
- Adequate Flexibility/Mobility
- Adequate Coordination of Strength and Flexibility
The first two are very important.
You have to make sure these are in order before you can do anything else.
As for the coordination of strength and flexibility, this is the quality that is borne out of the mindful practice I mentioned. Lots of consistent, thoughtful repetition is the key to success here.
Body Control in Action
In prior posts on body areas, such as the shoulders and hips, I’ve approached motor control exercise as specific to the joints in question.
Moving the hips and shoulders in various rotations and angles, under load and unweighted, the exercises are essentially ways of testing your ability to maintain stability in that area while the rest of your body moves, or to move the area itself in a variety of challenging actions.
This video demonstrates exploratory hip exercises for building motor control:
And in this video, I’ll show you some motor control exercises for the shoulders:
The trick with this approach is being inventive.
The videos above are simply examples of some good ideas to play with. Motor control work isn’t limited to what I had demonstrated, rather it is only limited by your own creative constraints.
3 Ways to Improve Motor Control
The most direct way to improve body control is to perform the movement in mind, over and over again, until you improve.
It’s pretty obvious if you want to get better at something, you have to practice again and again, and when you think you’ve practiced enough, practice some more. It’s laborious and can be very frustrating, but it does work.
For those people my professor called “motor morons,” however, this repetitive method likely won’t yield the best results.
Yelling at a person while demonstrating the same movement over and over again isn’t good therapy and it’s not good coaching.
Instead, you can devise modifications of the movements and work through them to find what fits best for your body and learning style. If you’ve found the standard repetitive method of learning physical skills hasn’t worked for you, you’ll benefit from incorporating any of the following variations into your routine.
These variations change the load, sensations, and directions in the movements in various ways.
These changes are often a stimulus for that eureka moment when the gears click into place and you finally start to “get” the move.
Motor Control Method #1 – Changing the Position and Load
This method is very common in physical therapy and other movement coaching, and basically involves changing the planes of motion.
So, if the chosen movement is upright, then you can switch to lying down.
Whether this means shifting to your side, back, or front, you’ll be changing the way gravity is affecting you. With different resistance, the movement quality also changes, and the sensations of moving within and out of your body give you a different type of feedback than you’re used to.
Removing weight from the actions by either lying down or being on your side decreases load, and that may make movements freer and less restricted.
It’s easy to see that lifting your hands over head is less difficult while lying on your back, than it is standing up. Hip and lower body movements in particular are much easier to perform with a decreased load. In this way, the stress of doing the movement is lessened, which improves your concentration and performance.
You can also go the other way and add weight or resistance to the chosen actions.
Sometimes adding load improves muscle contraction, and the sensation of having something to “push against” stimulates the nervous system in a new way.
Motor Control Method #2 – Incorporating Passive Motion
Another nice trick is finding a way to take yourself through the movements passively.
Sometimes we can get in our own way so much, that active movement just won’t take you there. Perhaps there is pain, or so much tension that there is no way to move in the way you’d like.
Using handles and pulleys, dowels and bands are classic ways to help you move your extremities passively.
For more complex moves, you’ll have to cut them up into components and work them one at a time. For example, you could work hip movements separate from spinal motions and then move on to shoulder rotations on your side. Imagination and visualization is key in this approach since you aren’t performing the entire move.
Visualizing yourself performing while moving in component parts will help integrate the movement when you go back to trying the whole movement again.
Motor Control Method #3 – Changing the Pattern
One more strategy is to change up the pattern itself.
You can reverse directions, for example, by moving your shoulder before your leg if you usually move your leg first.
After so much practicing and concentration on a movement pattern we can get stuck in a rut and make the same mistakes over and over again. In this case, we need to find a way to make new mistakes. Completely dissociate yourself from a prescribed order and shake yourself out a bad groove.
Reverse directions, do the movement backward, and do it so “wrong” that it doesn’t even look close to what you were doing before. Break yourself out of habit and then go back to it again.
I bet you’ll notice quite a big difference.
You CAN Learn to Control Your Body
Motor control and coordination is trainable just like everything else.
Exposing yourself to different stimulus, exploring new patterns, and figuring out what idiosyncrasies within a movement work best for you are the best ways to develop your skills practice.
There will always be people that appear “naturally” strong and adept at learning and performing complex skills, and perhaps these higher levels are not reachable to some people, but you can certainly reach a higher level with adaptable movement training, than you could if you choose not to practice and learn at all.
The best practices start with a goal in one hand and a thoughtful process in the other. Look through the examples and modifications above, choose your skill and get to work.
You may have been labeled a “motor moron” by someone else, but don’t let yourself be limited by someone else’s bias.
Motor control is one of 3 essential attributes of physical autonomy. Our newest program, Elements, will help you build control, along with the other two attributes, flexibility and strength, in a logical, manageable, and enjoyable manner.