Continued from Part 2

I’ve mentioned before that my wife, Gail, is an ‘occupational therapist’. Occupational therapists, as they are called in the US, help people learn (or relearn) how to accomplish daily tasks that their damaged brain lost the ability to do in the original way. My wife specializes in working with people who have neurological impairments, like nervous systems that have been damaged by severe accidents, head injuries, illnesses and strokes. In many clinical settings OT and PT’s work in teams and their objectives with patients often overlap. Where a physical therapist might work on helping the whole or a part of the body regain balance, stability, strength and full range of motion, ready for many tasks, an occupational therapist helps the patient apply these skills to specific daily activities that are needed in order to return (as close as possible) to independent living. She would help someone learn how to get in and out of a shower safely, how to brush their teeth using their non-dominant arm, or how to pick up a heavy laundry basket and move it, and activities like this. 

Coincidentally, this week, at the facility where Gail works, Mike Studer, the neuro physical therapist and educator I occasionally consult with, cited in Part 1, happened to give a continuing education class to the therapist on staff. Gail came home and told me that the topic was on ‘dual-tasking’. So I was eager to hear what she took home from that time and shared my notes based on what I’ve been studying under Mike as well. 


When The Skill Becomes Automated

I liked how Gail summarized it, something like this: a person has not automated the skill or action until they can perform it consistently while paying attention to something entirely separate from that action.

In other words, a therapist might help a patient take their first steps after a debilitating injury that left them little hope of walking again. And then, over weeks they might get this patient to walk 100 feet down the hall, which would be amazing. But as long as that patient must concentrate completely on the action of walking in order to do it, the skill is not automated. To be in that category, they have to be able to walk and have attention somewhere else entirely, like on thinking about where they are going next, or talking to the person next to them. 

Being able to walk while paying complete attention to something else is a rather fundamental life skill we all take for granted… until its gone. But if you think about it a moment, just about everything we want to do in our athletics requires we can ‘walk and talk’ at the same time, so to speak. Virtually all our activities have us paying attention to many external things while we rely on the brain to reliably execute so many other actions we don’t have to think about. This is the essence of dual-tasking. 


Does this video show good examples of dual-tasking?


Definition Of Dual-Tasking

In this published article Mike Studer offers this definition of dual-tasking:

“In a 2016 article, McIsaac and colleagues defined dual task as,  “… the concurrent performance of two tasks with distinct and separate goals [56].” In the daily mobility of an older adult, the need to hurry to get to a phone, a door, or the bathroom is a complex single task merely adding the element of time as pressure. However, dialing 911 while one walks hurriedly to an injured spouse, or walking while stacking dishes atop one another to more efficiently clear a dinner table would be examples of dual tasks as the activity with the hands is performed concurrently and distinctly from the act of walking. … by way of definition for clarity, walking and speaking on a cell phone is a dual task, but merely carrying a phone that is turned off, is not.”

In this course my wife attended, Mike urged the therapists to, while working with a patient in a certain skill exercise, gradually introduce a second tasks into the exercise so that the patient is forced to perform the action while paying attention to something else. This second task could be related to what they are doing, or a ‘distraction’ on something unrelated. With attention diverted, this forces the brain to move control of that action from one part of the brain to another, from conscious control to unconscious control. The second task or distraction is necessary to provoke automation. Attention must go elsewhere while the same quality of action is still required. 

If one always maintains attention on the body part or skill being performed, the control of that skill will remain dependent on conscious attention.

In the case of the patient working on walking again, ‘quality’ action means they don’t fall down. There is a dire consequence to failure. It makes sense that there is a therapist beside this person, ready to assist should that automation process falter for a moment, which it likely will for a while as the brain makes that transfer. The patient has great motivation to avoid failure and feedback is instantaneous. So this is a super-learning situation. 


Progression Toward Autonomous Action

In our context of working on improved swimming stroke quality, with quality that can hold up under the stress of swimming faster or farther, we might take steps through the progression of attention and control, using single and then dual-tasks, like this:

Pay attention directly to controlling that part of the body in a simple exercise or drill – a single task, a single point of attention.

Pay attention to that part of the body and to another part closely related to it – a more complex single task, taking in a wider region around that body part.

Pay attention to that part of the body and to another body part, not closely related to it – more like a dual-task, with split attention.

Pay attention to that part of the body and to an external source of information  – clearly dual task, but the second point of attention has feedback concerning the body part being trained.

Pay attention to that part of the body and to environmental information – dual-task while the environmental information might or might not influence what’s happening with that body part. The brain may start to make adjustments or refinements to the control of that body part in response to the environment, without you consciously noticing this is going on. 

Pay attention only to the external focal point or environmental information – dual-task, with single point of attention. 


Seek Out Feedback

When a swimmer in the water is learning to improve precision and control over a certain part of their stroke, and she fails, fortunately, she is not going to fall and break her hip. But such an immediate and serious consequence to the failure of control would be really helpful to provoke quick learning. After all, that’s how babies learn to stand up, then to walk, then eventually to run. The consistently invariant and merciless force of gravity is an excellent teacher. Since the swimmer doesn’t have such an intense feedback system automatically attached to each little failure, she needs to seek out situations that provide stronger feedback for those failures. 

Rather than avoid putting your new stroke skills into situations where they might fail and cause you some (minor) consequences, you should actually seek them out. You need both the feedback and you need to complexity for your attention. Feedback is not just to give us information about the skill you’re working on, it’s also a distraction from it – your brain has to pay attention to something more than the skill itself. 

Coach Terry and Mat sync swimming in Cleremont Florida, Feburary 2016. You can view the video HERE.

In swimming, you may add these feedback methods:

  • Notice your head moving off the lane line (on the bottom of the pool) in response to your movement
  • Notice more or less ease of the body sliding forward in the water
  • Notice changes in stroke count (per length of the pool, or between markers on the bottom of the pool)
  • Try staying synchronized with the stroke of a partner swimming close beside you
  • Try maintaining stroke timing with the BEEP of a Tempo Trainer
  • Stay up (or back) with the swimmer in the lane next to you – work on matching pace


Split Then Wean Attention

As you can see from the attention and control progression above, in order to move that skill from conscious control to automated control, you have to gradually split your attention between two separate tasks and then wean off attention on that first task (no longer paying attention to controlling that part of the stroke) to place it intentionally on another task, or to a ‘distraction’. In this way your brain has the opportunity to shift control from one form to another. 

This might take hours of practice. This might take days. This might take weeks or months. It depends on how new, on how complex this skill is for your brain. But the general process is a guide for what to expect, or rather, what to prescribe for yourself as you work toward automated (unconscious) control. 

When you feel it getting a bit easier to consistently execute the skill with the level of attention you are giving it, then its time to turn that attention toward another task and challenge that skill further. 


You may view Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.


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