OPTIMAL Theory is a theory presented by Dr. Rebecca Lewthwaite and Dr. Gabrielle Wulf outlining what they found to be the most effective strategies to teach movement based on hundreds and hundreds of motor learning studies. They found that offering choice, creating enhanced expectancies of success, and promoting an external focus of attention to be the best strategies, but what does that mean to Pilates teachers? Tune in!
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You can read the OPTIMAL Theory article and listen to a conversation with the authors. This was a big game changer for me, so I'd love to talk with you about it if you're interested/confused/concerned because I was all those things!
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[00:00:00] Welcome to Pilates Teachers' Manual, your guide to becoming a great Pilates teacher. I'm Olivia, and I'll be your host. Join the conversation and the Pilates community on Instagram at @pilatesteachersmanual and visit buymeacoffee.com/OliviaPodcasts to support the show. Today's chapter starts now.
[00:00:56] Hello, hello everybody. And welcome back to the [00:01:00] podcast. Today we're going to be talking about OPTIMAL Theory and strategies for teaching moving. So OPTIMAL Theory is a theoretical review in motor learning research land that was written by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf and Dr. Rebecca Lewthwaite. Both of those individuals are absolutely top of their field in a motor learning research land, really studying about how we learn movement.
[00:01:33] So OPTIMAL theory actually stands for Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning, and what this theoretical review kind of sought to do in 2016, when it was published, was look at like hundreds of motor learning research papers that were coming from different fields, whether it was like sports [00:02:00] medicine or psychology. Like there's a lot of overlap in learning movement and lots of different fields, and look at all of these hundreds of papers and kind of tease out what the best ways to teach movement are based on, you know, all of these studies that were done.
[00:02:21] So what they came to as conclusions or what they see as the best practices for teaching movement. And they found three things in OPTIMAL theory that it has three different parts that offering choice, that giving enhanced expectancies for success, and promoting an external focus of attention were three ways to optimize performance of a given task. So I'm going to talk a little bit about what each of those points kind of mean, and then why [00:03:00] this is kind of important to Pilates teachers in general, and also how I kind of wrestled with it because this is definitely a paper that I read and I was like, okay, I don't know if I'm a hundred percent on board with this. And just kind of the concerns that I had and then how I've reconciled those concerns.
[00:03:23] I've also linked to the paper in the show notes. So I would be happy to chat about this because one of the first things I did when I read the paper is I chatted with it with my partner, with, uh, one of my clients who is a medical researcher by trade, with other Pilates teachers. Like some of the conclusions that Lewthwaite and Wulf found were, you know, intriguing. And I was a little bit skeptical, so I wanted to talk about it. And this episode is coming from working through those thoughts that I had as I was [00:04:00] going through this.
[00:04:01] So the three points that Lewthwaite and Wulf found were offering choice, enhanced expectancy of success, and an external focus of attention, that if you do those three things, learners are going to learn better.
[00:04:15] So offering choice is exactly what it sounds like, that anything from, you know, picking the color of your mat to picking where you get to sit or having choice about what variation of an exercise you're going to do, or when you're going to do it or what you're going to do first, really anything that you give a learner choice is going to give them some motivation. They're going to feel more invested. And we, I guess, as humans enjoy having control.
[00:04:45] Giving enhanced expectancies of success, this is kind of a psychology thing that if you succeed at something early on, you're more likely to continue working at it. So [00:05:00] as a movement teacher, if you give variations of an exercise that something that the learner is able to accomplish, even if it's a really complicated exercise, if you give them something that they can do and then build from there. There's also this idea that if you think you can do it, you're more likely to do it. So you kind of build up your clients and you enhance their expectation that they're going to succeed, which in turn, boosts their motivation and makes them want to stick with it.
[00:05:31] The last point that they covered, having an external focus of attention comes to mean that instead of focusing on your body and what your body is doing, you focus on the task at hand, whether it's hitting a bullseye, or making a basket, or doing a teaser, that you're focusing on an external thing that is not your body, but is something outside of your body.
[00:05:56] So here were my reservations, as I [00:06:00] was reading through the research and hearing that these were their conclusions. I was pretty much down with offering choice and the enhanced expectancies of success. Like those were already things I think that I was doing in my teaching. Yeah, giving options and setting your clients up to succeed by giving them things that they can do, and then building them up to more challenging exercises that even if they aren't able to do that you can, you know, give them positive feedback and kind of be their hype man in some ways as well. Like those were already things that I had accepted, partially through my work in education that, you know, these are theories that apply not just to teaching movement, but also just did like teaching humans. That these are, these were things I was already on board with.
[00:06:52] But I definitely had some reservations about this external focus of attention, especially because. I [00:07:00] had seen it in Instagram and like Pilates land as talking about this external versus internal cues, adventure, and, uh, in some ways debate, in some ways argument. Some of the concerns that I had were around external cues, just switching clothing articles for body parts, which seemed to me to be a superficial change that was being made that you're saying socks instead of feet.
[00:07:28] I had some thoughts about that. I had some thoughts about whether or not this research really applied to Pilates because the studies that Lewthwaite and Wulf were citing are often studies where a very simple task was being performed, like throwing a dart at a dartboard or throwing a baseball with your non-dominant hand or, you know, hitting a bullseye, things that [00:08:00] we don't do in Pilates. In Pilates, the task at hand is the execution of a movement. It's not hitting a bullseye with a dart. So, you know, does this finding that they have, as interesting as it is, like, does this apply to Pilates.
[00:08:18] And then also a very deeply personal reservation that, you know, this isn't how I learned Pilates. This isn't how I learned yoga. That was kind of like my knee-jerk reaction as I was reading through this. So it was like, I don't even know how I feel about that.
[00:08:36] So I've linked to the research article. If you want to check it out, I've also linked to a conversation between Raphael Bender, who's the CEO of Breathe Education, and the two authors, Dr. Lewthwaite and Dr. Wulf, where he's kind of chatting with them about their paper, which I think is kind of an interesting discussion about the paper as well [00:09:00] through, you know, reading the paper, having these conversations, listening into this conversation between Raph and the authors of the paper, I was able to kind of reconcile some of my original concerns. And I want to tell you about that after the break, so stay tuned.
[00:09:21] Right after the break, I will talk about how I was able to wrestle those initial points of concern when I was looking at this research paper. That's coming up next.
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[00:10:34] instead of tackling my reservations kind of point by point, I'm going to share sort of the insights that I had as I sat with this research that kind of felt contrary to things that I knew and was kind of comfortable with implementing. The initial hesitation I had with external cues that I guess, through what I had [00:11:00] seen of external cues cuing clothing, that that wasn't making sense to me like, oh, so now we can't name body parts or you can't you know, talk about the spine and all of this.
[00:11:12] And what I found is that external cues, it's, it's complicated, but it's also not complicated. And it's not that you can't name body parts, but the focus when you're cuing externally is on what you're doing instead of how you're doing it. So you're focusing on the task at hand instead of how you are accomplishing the task. For the studies that are in the OPTIMAL Theory paper, the task is hitting the bullseye or making a basket or something like this. In Pilates, the task at hand is executing the exercise.
[00:11:56] So if you think about it, the most external [00:12:00] cue, you could give someone like in a study where they're trying to hit the bullseye is telling someone to hit the bullseye. Right? And an external cue in Pilates could be as simple as do teaser, right? You're not talking about anything other than what you want them to accomplish.
[00:12:22] It's a higher level of abstraction because someone who doesn't know what a teaser is, or how to do a teaser, saying do teaser is going to be nearly impossible for them. They have no frame of reference and they don't know what you're talking about. So that doesn't seem like a great cue for someone.
[00:12:41] But the way that I'm thinking about it now is it's kind of like when you're first learning to drive and you have this laundry list of things that you need to do. So you get in the car and you're checking your mirrors, merging lanes, you're, you know, looking at other cars, you're, [00:13:00] you know, trying to see where you are in the road and like where you're trying to get. And so turning left is going to involve doing that entire laundry list of things. Right. But eventually you'd need to turn left and all of those other things happen and you can just turn left. Like all of those things are part of it.
[00:13:20] And so in the same way, telling someone to do teaser will make sense to them. Once they understand how to do teaser. And what I saw in my own teaching is that the more comfortable a client was with an exercise, the more familiar they were with executing that exercise, I was already beginning to switch towards external cues. If you think about like the roll up, the final cue for the roll-up is just roll up. You know, you don't need to tell them anything else other than roll up or roll up to seated. And, you know, your client will do that.
[00:13:59] There's [00:14:00] already a higher level of abstraction when you're teaching. That may be, you're really setting the groundwork and like the first couple reps of the exercise. But every time someone does a roll-up, you don't have to say all of the laundry list of things that happen in the roll-up. You might just say two more like that. You know, that's super abstract, you know, like that's already focusing on the outcome of rolling up. Like, keep going, you know, like it's a cue like that.
[00:14:27] So the way I see OPTIMAL Theory, and this is, again, this is my take on it, is that it's really a goal. This it's something that you're working towards and shifting that focus to the task and that through breaking it down into pieces, but then getting to a place where you don't have to continue talking about the pieces. You can just shift your client's attention to what they're [00:15:00] doing, because how they're doing it already happens. I think about it like riding a bike, or I thought about Simone Biles in the Olympics, that gymnast's when they're flipping their body through the air, like they're moving faster than they can think about moving. Their body just needs to do it. And so when she got the twisties and her body and space, wasn't doing the things that it knew how to do. Like she lost that knowledge. I see that as kind of being similar, if that makes sense.
[00:15:34] There's benefits to shifting the focus externally and also to offering choice and, you know, and to enhancing expectancies of success, but like specifically for the external cuing, when you don't have to check in with body parts and do things on that mini scale, you can do things faster and you'll see in the study, they also talk [00:16:00] about you being able to do the exercise for longer, or there's multiple benefits to doing it that way.
[00:16:08] When I was talking with another Pilates teacher and they said, it's not that internal cues are bad. And it's not that you won't learn movement if you use internal cues, but the idea is that using external cues will get you to where you want to go, will get you to accomplishing the task, faster.
[00:16:33] I would also say that this kind of speaks to what is the goal of Pilates. OPTIMAL Theory is stating that like, these are best practices for teaching movement, you know, from what we know from what we've seen in all of these studies. And I don't think that that can be discounted, but it's also a question of like, what are you trying to do in your sessions when you're teaching Pilates? Like, what are you doing? And if you [00:17:00] can get kind of like thoughtful about that.
[00:17:03] If your goal is to teach someone of movement choreography and have them execute it. You know, these studies have been done and the studies say that if you do these three things, people will learn faster. Like if your goal is for them to learn that movement choreography faster, that it makes sense that these might be things that you would want to implement because they would help you reach your goal. There's a lot of evidence-based support that these things will help you reach your goal.
[00:17:35] What I really liked and really appreciated about OPTIMAL theory and implementing it in my teaching is that, and this also may come from my interest in pedagogy, but how we teach is as important as what we teach and how we make our clients feel, [00:18:00] the ways that we interact with them, that really plays a part. I think we've all taken Pilates classes and heard cues that didn't make sense to us, or, you know, were confusing or, you know, made us feel not great about ourselves, depending on the types of cues that we were hearing.
[00:18:25] I think OPTIMAL Theory presents pretty much just the evidence that, you know, empowering your clients that, you know, giving them the autonomy to make choices about how they do the exercise, like even the color of the mat, that sort of choice is going to boost motivation, that you're setting your clients up for success by building them up to those more complicated exercises and letting them get that taste of success and then congratulating them on that when they achieve those things that you're asking of them, and then [00:19:00] having them focus on the goals of what they're doing. Like, we just know that those things work.
[00:19:07] And I don't want to say that I'm so attached to this practice that, you know, this is the only way that I teach, but this is currently what's been shown to be a really effective way to teach movement. And, you know, there's something to be said for that. If that changes, then, you know, I would also want to change.
[00:19:31] What I appreciate about this is that it shows a little bit of method to the madness and it's not just, you know, I'm telling a client to straighten their legs because that's what my teacher told me. And that's what their teacher told them. And that's what Pilates is. Like, I think being able to be inquisitive and really ask, like, how can I be better at teaching? Like how can I be the best at what I do? [00:20:00] How can I guide my clients towards greater success? And this is just another tool to doing that. I don't think it has to be antagonistic. I don't think it has to be an either or.
[00:20:11] There is another research paper that Wulf and Lewthwaite published talking about the additive effect of these things. So even if you said, for whatever reason, I can't stand external cues, I'll never cue externally ever, but you still opted to give clients choice and enhance their expectations of success, those two things are better than no things. And even doing one of them is better than doing none of them. At least that's what the research said.
[00:20:40] So that's something that I really wrestled with, and I have notes that is, that are just like lots of exclamation points saying, does this even apply to Pilates? Like, does this even matter? But I dunno. I think it's important to question what we know because, you [00:21:00] know, everything that we do in our lives has some baseline of assumption and it takes questioning that to really see like, you know, is this the best way? Just because I learned this way, does it mean that it's the best way?
[00:21:13] The world is ever evolving and changing. I was just talking with a client about the Swiss ball, like the really big physio balls that are like 65 centimeters, like the really, really big ones. And, um, my client asked, you know, did Joseph Pilates ever use these? You know, I looked it up and actually they were developed in the 1960s in Italy and they didn't make it to the United States until the eighties. Gotta love Google. So he didn't use them because they didn't exist while he was alive. It doesn't mean that you could never do Pilates with a Swiss ball. Doing Pilates with a Swiss ball is actually kind of fun.
[00:21:50] So yeah, things change. And this was an interesting thing that I found that I wrestled with and I wanted to share the outcome of that wrestling with you. [00:22:00] If you want to chat about it, reach out on Instagram, hang out at a zoom chat if you're a supporter on the podcast, like I'd love to talk about this because it's really interesting. And it's, I think really important to what we do. If we want to continue to grow and do our best in our field. So there you have it, friends, I'll be back in just a couple of weeks with a really awesome interview with Alex Phillips talking about the history of Pilates. I think that'll be a quite fun episode as well.
[00:22:30] Yeah. Fun stuff coming up in January, a conversation with Rachel over at @radpilates. They are awesome. Conversation with Raphael Bender of Breathe education's coming up in January. It's going to be a party. I'm super excited.
[00:22:46] A really big, thank you to all my supporters on Buy Me A Coffee, including two of my newest supporters, Biki and Becky, as well as an anonymous supporter. I really appreciate your contributions to the [00:23:00] podcast. You make the project really fun and really fulfilling for me. And I really look forward to connecting with you all. I'll be back again in a couple of weeks. Talk to you soon.
[00:23:19] Thanks for listening to this week's chapter of Pilates Teachers' Manual, your guide to becoming a great Pilates teacher. Check out the podcast Instagram at @pilatesteachersmanual, and be sure to subscribe wherever you listen. For more Pilates goodness, check out my other podcast, Pilates Students' Manual, available everywhere you listen to podcasts.
[00:23:42] The adventure continues. Until next time.