An Innovative vision in Sport training

Mirror Neuron and motor learning.

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Since the birth, humans have the necessary mechanisms to imitate actions. Babies are good examples of this, who are able to imitate facial expressions within just a few days of life. Imitation is an important tool in the natural and unconscious learning.

Our nervous system constantly gathers information from the environment. It incorporates such information through the senses. After processing it, the nervous system is prepared to trigger a response. It is not surprising that the execution of a motor activity (e.g., tennis, gymnastics) is accompanied by neuronal activation in our brain. But what was amazing to researchers, were the neural activations they found in the observers (people who only watched the action). Each time an individual (observer) observes an action performed by another (executor) the observer activates the same neurons as the executor. Observer activates motor structures that reflect the observed activity (Prinz, 1997). The key question is: How can an individual who observes an action activate the necessary neurons to perform an action? There is a group of neurons that are able to activate themselves in both situations, when the individual observes and when the individual executes an action. These neurons have been called Mirror Neuron System (Craighero, Metta, Sandini & Fadiga, 2007).

One of the methods most used by coaches to teach a new task is to show the learner how to execute the action. During the demonstration of the action the learner acquires visual information, this information needs to be transformed into motor commands that allow him/her perform the action correctly (motor visuo- transformation) (Vogt & Thomaschke, 2007). This teaching strategy is called Motor Observational Learning. Observation and execution of an action are combined in Motor Observational Learning in order to acquire new motor patterns (Maslovat, Hodges, Krigolson & Handy, 2010)

The first stage of the observational motor learning is to show the action that the individual wants to learn. By observing an action, the observer activates motor programs that allow him/her compare the action observed with his/her own repertoire of motor programs. This activation of motor programs would allow the athlete interpret or infer the intentions of the person that performs the action. But the activation of motor programs also participates in imitation of the observed activity, in which case it would be very important for learning of the new motor skills. Fabbri-Destro & Rizzolatti (Fabbri- Destro & Rizzolatti, 2008) suggest that this activation could be the basis for the transformation of visual information into motor commands.

In the second stage of the Motor Observational Learning the athletes execute the motor task. One of the ways in which the athlete obtain greater benefit in learning is by training with partners. In these trainings two apprentices work together. Alternating the physical practice with one another, the second player observes and executes what the first player does. Then the first player observes the second player and executes the same thing (Wulf, Shea & Lewthwaite, 2010). The observation of his/her partner and the subsequent execution of the task would be the factors that increase performance efficiency.

Our performance is highly influenced both by how we perceive stimuli and the ability to predict results. One way to evaluate the perceptive ability of the athletes is to ask them to estimate or predict the outcome of an observed action (Yarrow, Brown & Krakauer, 2009). Expert athletes are able to anticipate the trajectory of the ball more accurately and faster (tennis, squash, football) (Savelsbergh, Williams, Van der Kamp & Ward, 2002). This anticipatory capability is based on a correct reading of the kinematic movements of the opponents. Studies have shown improvements in anticipatory capacity through observational practice. An example of this is the observational motor learning, which combines visual and motor practice and this combination benefits both perceptual performance and motor performance of the athlete (Lago-Rodriguez et al., 2013). There are studies (Cattaneo & Rizzolatti, 2009) that suggest that Mirror Neuron System would be involved in the observational motor learning.


How is it possible to use the ability to imitate to learn a new skill? The imitation ability is in charge of a special group of neurons called Mirror Neuron. While we observe an action performed by another person we acquire visual information. This mirror neuron receives the visual information and transforms it into motor commands that allow us to reproduce the action.

Practical tips:

  1. Include observational practices during training: presentation of an execution model (physical, video, film).
  2. The athlete needs visual information to imitate. Accompany the observational practice with the execution of the action.
  3. The athlete has to execute the action after observing the model. Training with fellow learner benefits.
  4. Organize a group work, where one does the task and then watch the performance of a partner. This enhances the learning efficiency.
  5. Incorporate prediction exercises during the training.
  6. Show an unfinished action and ask the athlete to infer the target or the likelihood of success of such action. This helps to improve perception of the athletes.



Prinz, W. (1997). Perception and Action Planning. European journal of cognitive psychology, 9, 129-154.

Craighero, L., Metta, G., Sandini, G., Fadiga, L. (2007). The mirror neurons system: data and models. Prog. Brain Res. 164, 39-59.

Vogt, S., & Thomaschke, R. (2007). From visuo-motor interactions to imitation learning: behavioural and brain imaging studies. Journal Of Sports Sciences, 25(5), 497-517.

Maslovat, D., Hodges, N. J., Krigolson, O. E., & Handy, T. C. (2010). Observational practice benefits are limited to perceptual improvements in the acquisition of a novel coordination skill. Experimental Brain Research, 204, 119-130.

Fabbri-Destro, M., Rizzolatti, G. (2008). Mirror neurons and morror systems in monkeys and humans. Physiology 23, 171-179.

Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W. (2009). Inside the brain of an elite athlete: The neural processes that support high achievement in sports. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 585-596.

Savelsbergh, G. J., Williams, A. M., Van der Kamp, J., & Ward, P. (2002). Visual search, anticipation and expertise in soccer goalkeepers. J Sports Sci, 20, 279-287.

Lago-Rodriguez, A., Lopez-Alonso, V., & Fernandez-del-Olmo, M. (2013). Mirror neuron system and observational learning: Behavioral and neurophysiological evidence. Behavioural Brain Research, 248, 104-113.

Cattaneo, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (2009). The mirror neuron system. Archives of Neurology, 66, 557-560.

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