Reps Need Roots

Jun 22, 2022

If we define a rep, or repetition, we might define it as the completion of an action. The definition describes what a rep is, it doesn't describe the quality of that rep. As strength coaches we need to define the quality of what a rep is in order to have a model of movement efficiency. We also must understand the development of a proper rep as it exists in the motor learning process.

In this article I would like to share my thoughts on motor learning as it relates to our supervision and the autonomy, we allow a rep to have.

When I monitor the development, motor learning, of my athletes I do so by following a principle of variability. What I mean by this is when a rep is performed, although it may look extremely similar to the previous rep, it will have variability within it. The variability is created from ever so slight inconsistent balance, shifting of weight, proprioceptive feedback, and so on.

This variability, grown from a solid pattern, provides greater options, or as Dan Pfaff often calls it- “Bandwidth”.

I first need the rep to be performed in such a manner that it fits into my model of movement for the skill or pattern. Secondly, once the pattern has “grown some roots” it can allow variability to establish more options for my athletes. These options are allowing the athlete to complete a rep with less than optimal form at times, and still be safe and effective. Consider the alternative of the athlete unable to manage a disturbance in their pattern- they crash and burn. As Gary Gray has said many times, and I'm paraphrasing, if you've been there and done that it is not a surprise and you know how to handle it.  Great athletes typically have more options to manage each rep or movement pattern.

If we look at a newly planted tree it will quickly begin to grow its roots into the ground.
Initially these roots are small, not very deep, or wide. Over time the roots not only grow deeper, but also wider. The depth of the roots gives strength and stability, while the width gives variability and options to “feed” the tree.


A rep needs roots too!

In the early stages of motor learning, the rep is very unstable and certainly has little options or variability. With time and intent, the rep grows its roots deep and wide- motor learning is becoming established.

A great example of this is when a child learns to ride her bike. Over time she goes from a wobbly accident waiting to happen, to a sturdy rider able to look around, avoid obstacles, and possibly ride with no hands. Her motor learning roots become deeper and wider with each ride.

There is another aspect to this motor learning process and the development of a rep. When an athlete learns a new pattern, he or she will create a schema of this pattern. It is best done with trial and error with just enough feedback from the coach to keep it safe and on track. An implicit learning style can often lead to a skill or pattern configuration that becomes strong and variable. This can be tricky at times though. A coach much have a pulse of if the athlete is developing poor patterning, and quickly redirect through coaching strategies such as cuing. I guess my point with this paragraph is learning takes time and needs the reps to build a deep and wide root system in order to handle variation.

If we were to simply look at learning and becoming better strictly through the lens of human development, meaning,as the athlete gets older and has more experiences with his or her reps, they get better, we would find trial and error and proper completion of a task drives the learning experience. There is a reason 4thgraders are better than 3rdgraders and 5thgraders are better than 4th. They have had time to grow deeper and wider roots than the younger less experienced athlete.

If we combine proper coaching with this natural event of human development, we can create environments where reps build roots.