Bend it like Beckham: The Neuroscience Way

Life is a continuum of learning motor skills to achieve goals.  At a young age, children learn how sit up, walk, jump, and then cut with scissors.  Later, they may learn how to play soccer or piano, but they will probably not be as proficient as professional athletes and musicians unless they dedicate their lives to perfecting that skill.  So, how does practice make us more perfect?  Here are suggested guidelines for efficient motor skill learning that neuroscience studies have proposed.

1. Practice. Practice. Practice.

When you work on a skill, like practicing a piece of music, don’t be discouraged when you make mistakes.  Instead, embrace them because you actually learn more from larger errors!  Your short-term memories are active for 20-30 seconds, so when you practice, you actually improve from each repetition to the next.

2. Forget some things.

The performance improvement that you notice during training is mostly due to activation of short-term memories, which decay quickly after you practice (Lee and Schweighofer, 2009).  When you cram for a test, your short-term memories for that information are increased, but they are quickly forgotten when you complete the test.  In order to ensure that these skills are turned into long-term memories, it is beneficial to progress slowly and sharpen your skills over many trials and even days.

3. Practice more than seems necessary.

Because it takes so long to activate long-term memories, you should practice more – even after you think your performance reaches a plateau, at which there is no further improvement during training.  By overlearning, you can retain your practiced skill much longer, simply by enhancing the long-term memory. In other words, if you don’t use it, you may lose it!

4. Reward yourself during and/or after training.

A recent study in Current Biology showed that getting rewards during and after practicing a motor skill increased long-term memory retention for over one month.  If you find that you retained more than usual during your training, give yourself a reward, like a piece of candy.  Other studies have shown that when a reward is given more than expected, the effect is even greater, so tell your friends to encourage you during practice!

5. If you don’t feel like practicing, watch others practice or imagine practicing.

Our brains have mirror neurons, which are activated both when we act and when we observe others perform the same action.  Thanks to the mirror system, we are able to gain similar effects of actual training simply by observing others.  For example, watching videos of musicians playing the piece you are learning helps you learn the piece.  Of course, this only works to a certain extent, and it is obviously better to physically practice!

6. Get enough sleep.

When you sleep, your brain undergoes structural changes as synaptic connections are rewired to turn recent short-term memories into long-term memories.  The more you practice, the more the areas of the brain associated with that skill have stronger synaptic connections!

Hopefully these suggestions will help you turn short-term memories into long-term ones more quickly and efficiently.  Now you know how to perfect that flip kick you’ve been practicing!

Lee J.Y. & Schweighofer N. (2009). Dual Adaptation Supports a Parallel Architecture of Motor Memory, Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (33) 10396-10404. DOI: 
Abe M., Schambra H., Wassermann E., Luckenbaugh D., Schweighofer N. & Cohen L. (2011). Reward Improves Long-Term Retention of a Motor Memory through Induction of Offline Memory Gains, Current Biology, 21 (7) 557-562. DOI:
Images adapted from Erik Isakson/Blend Images/Corbis and Mike Kemp/Tetra Images/Corbis

Written by Sungshin Kim.


Knowing Neurons is an award-winning neuroscience education and outreach website that was created by young neuroscientists. The global team members at Knowing Neurons explain complicated ideas about the brain and mind clearly and accurately using powerful images, infographics, and animations to enhance written content. With an extensive social media presence, Knowing Neurons has become an important science communication outlet and resource for both students and teachers.

One thought on “Bend it like Beckham: The Neuroscience Way

  • November 30, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Great stuff! Keep these awesome posts goin!.

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