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Self-controlled Practice and Autonomy Support: Common or Distinct Phenomena with Implications for Motor Learning?

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Self-controlled practice conditions have emerged in recent years as reliable facilitators of motor learning. A variety of practice conditions have been examined in this literature, including when and if augmented feedback is provided, whether available movement demonstrations are accessed, and when physical ...

Self-controlled practice conditions have emerged in recent years as reliable facilitators of motor learning. A variety of practice conditions have been examined in this literature, including when and if augmented feedback is provided, whether available movement demonstrations are accessed, and when physical aids might be used. In this work, participants in self-controlled conditions are typically compared with yoked participants who receive the practice variable at identical times within the study’s trial schedule as their counterparts. Explanations for the self-controlled practice advantage in motor learning studies have been limited to plausible well-timed informational and instrumental support and limited mentions of motivation. That is, self-control benefits have been interpreted mainly from an information-processing perspective. For example, self-controlled practice conditions have been viewed as allowing learners to extract more, or more relevant, information from feedback or model presentations, or to explore different movement strategies, compared to practice without self-control.

Meanwhile, over the last several decades, research in social psychology, sport and exercise psychology, and health psychology has employed Self-determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2008) to examine the role of individuals’ autonomous motivation and autonomy-supportive climates across a variety of behaviors and health conditions. In this literature, autonomy (along with needs for competence and social-relatedness) is considered a fundamental psychological need that can be thwarted or supported by the social environment. Autonomy-supportive environments – in the form of instructors’ (e.g., coaches, teachers, clinicians, parents) behaviors that provide choices and encourage collaborative problem solving – have correlationally or prospectively related to greater athlete, student, patient, or children’s engagement and satisfaction, adherence to recommended behaviors, and long-term persistence in lifestyle behaviors or physical activity, as well as better clinical and educational outcomes. In this literature, autonomy support is considered a motivational construct with downstream impacts on other motivational constructs (e.g., beliefs and affective experiences) and, particularly, behavioral choices. Interestingly, research under this tradition is often observational or quasi-experimental and has not examined the motor performance and learning effects that may be more easily studied in experimental and laboratory-based designs.

Are researchers in motor learning and sport and exercise psychology pursuing the same phenomenon, albeit applied to different dependent variables? Should the self-controlled practice effect be considered under the same motivational umbrella as autonomy-supportive interventions? Does the self-controlled practice effect on motor learning constitute another example of the impact of motivation on motor learning – in some ways similar to recent work linking expectations and social comparison interventions to motor learning?

One purpose of this research topic is to advance current knowledge with regard to the underlying mechanisms of autonomous or self-controlled practice effects. Therefore, we welcome papers that further theoretical explanations, such as motivational effects of self-controlled practice on motor learning. These studies may include but are not limited to investigations of brain activity in social-cognitive and affective neuroscience as well as motor neuroscience. We also welcome contributions that demonstrate implications of autonomy-supportive training conditions for practical settings, including sports, physical activity, and physical rehabilitation.

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