Motor control in expert performers: Predicting aptitude, effectiveness of training and stress-related performance degradation using behavioural and electrophysiological measures

Supervisors: Ines Jentzsch, Reiner Sprengelmeyer

Project Description:
Exceptionally high levels of skilled motor performance such as exhibited by elitist athletes or concert-level instrumentalists require not only natural talent, but also years of intensive training, with the number of hours of deliberate training being a good predictor of success. However, not every individual spending years of intensive training will reach the same level of performance. In addition, successful professionals not always perform at their optimum, especially when under stress or after external distraction. The aim of this project is to identify behavioural and electrophysiological markers of motor control that can predict aptitude, effectiveness of training and overall motor ability as well as gaining a better understanding of stress-related performance degradation and choking under pressure.

More specifically, established experimental paradigms will be used in combination with electrophysiological measure (event-related brain potentials), and emotion measures (heart rate and skin conductance; mood and anxiety questionnaires) to investigate the following issues:

1. Motor Planning: Successful athletes plan their actions in advance to actual execution (anticipation of start shoot in a sprint race; mental rehearsal of penalty shot before execution, etc.). Efficiency of motor planning skills can be evaluated using cognitive paradigms such as the precuing task. Building on recent research from our lab (Anaturk & Jentzsch, 2015), we aim to evaluate possible links between athletic or musical skill and the ability to efficiently plan movements.

2. Motor Capacity: It is known that people are limited in their capacity to execute more than one task at the time. However, skilled performance often requires multi-tasking (e.g., playing with two hands, reading the music or retrieving the music from memory, processing the aural and somato-sensory feedback, etc.). The project will test, using dual-task paradigms (e.g., Jentzsch e al., 2007), how cognitive capacity can change with training and whether our currently available motor capacity predicts future levels of skilled action after training.

3. Motor Imagery: Previous research has suggested that motor imagery is critical for successful motor learning. After injury that precludes actual movement execution, skilled performers are advised to mentally practice their skills. This project will assess the efficiency of motor imagery on motor planning and learning using both variable and fixed learning situations comparing real action and imagery conditions.

4. Choking: In high-pressure situations such as competitions, expert performers sometimes fail to achieve optimal performance; they choke. Research has suggested that choking is a result of altered motor execution, switching from automatic to semi-controlled actions where performance is consciously monitored for correctness. We will investigate individual differences in the susceptibility to choking using dual-task paradigms and manipulating the evaluative nature of the task situation. Emotional variables will be tested for their suitability to predict susceptibility of choking.

Behavioural and physiological markers identified in this project will be used to design a test battery to evaluate a wide range of motor skills necessary for successful expert performance. The results of this project also have the potential to help performer better understand and deal with stress arising in evaluative situations such as competitions and public performances.