Learning Models – M-Grams

So my first post (“Piles of Success“) in a series about learning models has been well received and the social media Dopamine hit has boosted my enthusiasm to write another.

I think this one is actually my favourite.

This post is about the concept I know as “M-Grams” and looks at how “units of muscle memory” build into skills.

Ok, lets get into it……..This concept was first introduced to me by Neil Gresham back when we were both working at the (old) Cotswold shop in Betws y Coed. He was in the middle of writing his first book (performance climbing training) and, as part of his research, he has spoken talking to some high-level performance sports coaches. Straight away I really connected with the idea and over time its developed for me and brought together, very neatly, a few different principals in an easy to digest way.

Please note – I’m not a sports scientist, physiologist or any other form of -ologist for that matter. These learning models I’m sharing are just things that I’ve come across and found value in. I’m sharing as others might find them useful and also as a way of inviting critical feedback. Please comment below with any thoughts so we can all share the learning.

The basic idea is that an M-Gram is a unit of muscle memory and that by repeating a movement our body builds learning into a skill.

The idea is that it takes 1000 M-Grams (repetitions of an action) to move a new movement from being a conscious action requiring thought to an unconscious and, therefore skill full action.

Now, for me, M-Grams link together some key principals in learning new skills. These include

  • Moving newly learnt movements from being consciously incompetent to being skilful unconsciously competent
  • The fact that practice does not make perfect
  • Learning new skills takes repetition

Ok, let’s unpack this

Moving from consciously incompetent to unconsciously competent.

When we learn a new movement we have to think very carefully about what we are doing. I think of this as happening in the front of the brain, its where I feel like my conscious thoughts happen. The problem with the front of the brain is there is a lot going on and while its spectacularly creative etc its processing power is clogged up with lots of visuals and too many senses. This makes it its control of movement poor and unskilful.

If we think about actions we know we can perform skillfully we will notice that we do the actions largely without thought i.e. unconsciously competently. I think of this as the back of the brain. It’s super close to the processing powerhouse at the top of our spine and uncluttered by emotions and creative thoughts. Its kinda like a graphics card in the brain, one step removed from the central processing unit so able to do its main job much faster.

The trick is to move new actions from the front of the brain to the back of the brain as smoothly and efficiently as possible. The problem is there is no shortcutting the 1000 M-Grams that are required to make this transfer. It’s a fundamental truth that you have to do things to learn them.


Practice makes perfect – insert “glitch” noise here

Why the glitch noise? Because its wrong, practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

That’s important so I’m going to repeat it –

only perfect practice makes perfect.

That needs to be on T-shirts

The idea is that when you repeat an imperfect action you will learn an imperfect action.

We commonly call these bad habits. If you’ve ever tried to cure yourself of a ‘bad habit’ or poor technique in an activity you’ll know its challenging to do.

The concept of M-Grams helps us understand that. It’s useful to think of M-Grams of having both +ve and -ve values, +ve being correct technique, and -ve being poor technique. If your initial actions are poor/wrong and therefore -ve you’ve got to unlearn those and haul yourself pack up into positive to create the unconsciously competent perfect skill. If you’ve been through this process you’ll understand it can be hard yards.

As coaches, we can make a real difference to both the quality of the skillset acquired and how long it takes. We can’t sidestep the fundamental truth that skills need repetition of movement to acquire them (1000 M-Grams) but by guiding participants towards perfect practice we not only help create a high-level skill set but do so efficiently, avoiding wasted time correcting poor technique down the line.

When Neil was first talking to me about this one of the stories that came up was about Torville and Dean. It pains me to say it but I know some of you will be too young to know who Torville and Dean were so those who do know bear with me while I explain.

Torville and Dean became British “National Treasures” through a series of extraordinary World Championship and Olympic Ice Dance televised performances that were viewed by millions around the world. Their Boléro performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics is still one of the most-watched events in British TV history. (24 million viewers! NB that’s not 24 million views streamed on YouTube, that’s 24 million people watching the live broadcast at the same time!!)

According to the British Olympic sports coaches Neil had been talking to one of the keys to their success was their capacity for perfect practice. They consistently managed to not waste time trying to correct poor movement patterns. They were excellent at getting it right first time then backing that in with lots of perfect practice.

I remember watching the Boléro performance. It was an amazing moment in time and captivated a nation.

So just to wrap up:

  • M-Grams – you cant sidestep the need to perform actions repeatedly to learn them = 1000 M-Grams
  • Learning an action or skill is a process of moving it from being a front of the brain consciously incompetent action to an unconsciously competent back of the brain skill.
  • Only perfect practice makes perfect

If you are reading this then you’ve got all the way to the end of the article, well done, give yourself a gold star! I know I can waffle on a bit. Thanks for reading, I appreciate you sticking with it.

I hope you’ve found the concept of M-Grams interesting in some way along with the other ideas in this article. Are these ideas something you will use as either a learner or a coach? Do you have any feedback or comments on the content of this post? If so then please let me know via the comments section below.

I’ve got a few more topics to go in this series. You will be able to find them all via this blogs category link for Learning Models HERE

So far this is the second in the series, you can find the first via this link “Piles of Success

Planned articles include:

  • The Inner Game
  • Differentiation
  • Thumbs up
  • Steps of progression

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