How Olympians develop an elite motor program

A Mercury News article delves into what it takes to develop a motor program like Olympians use to perfect what it takes to compete at the highest levels in their respective sports.

We take you behind the scenes this month with our timely Vancouver Games Blog, an insider perspective on sport medicine and science headlines, talking points, statistical data and emerging trends.

Dr. Phil Wagner in the Mercury News explains just how elite level athletes build a motor program that makes their amazing skills look so effortless to us:

As we watch the Olympics, we cannot help but be amazed about four years of preparation for just one slalom run, one aerial maneuver, or one luge turn. How do such athletes perfect an experience that can be won or lost on just a few hundredths of a second? These individuals have created a motor program.

The motor program is initiated, and adjusted, by the nervous system. As explained previously, the nervous system is a network of nerves that transmits sensory impulses (signals) from the brain to the muscles by way of the spinal cord. If the body is a car, then the nervous system is the driver.

Though there is still so much we don’t understand, neuroscientists have tried to simplify the definition of a motor program into two parts, a global plan and finite adjustments. The global plan is established through numerous conscious attempts, allowing a sport skill, such as skiing downhill at 80 miles per hour, to occur without much voluntary thought. This aspect probably occurs mostly at the central level of the brain by establishing a program for future execution. The second category of a motor program most likely involves the periphery aspects of the nervous system, as finite changes are made by contracting and relaxing the muscles to allow the skier to adjust to different conditions of the snow.

Read the full article here.

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