Tuesday Tips: Improving Skills Through Imitation, Presented By Spin Ultimate

Using cutting-edge neuroscience and cognitive science to approach learning to throw.

Mac Taylor learned his throwing form by imitating the best. Photo: Jeff Bell — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

This article was written by guest author Will Sun.

How do the best throwers in the game get that way? If you ask, many will tell you they learned to throw by stealing from and imitating others.

“I watched a ton of college film… especially Nick Lance. I like to think I stole a bunch of what he does with scoobers and how he attacks spaces with certain throws,” Jonathan Nethercutt once admitted on a podcast. “You know, just trying to steal and mimic anything you see that’s good…Mimicry is the best way to learn.”

Mac Taylor has shared a similar sentiment: “If you want to have good throws, watch videos of high-caliber ultimate, and mimic good throwers…I’d see a good huck or break mark, and go back and watch the thrower’s motion over and over again — in slow-mo or frame-by-frame — then practice it in front of the TV until I had it down. I think you can learn a lot that way. Release point, angle of the disc as it leaves your hand, how far to step out, how your torso leans, etc. Imitate the best.”

The same practice goes for other skills as well; according to coach Gwen Ambler, Riot star defender Sarah Griffith “has spent countless hours studying film and analyzing play to develop an incredibly nuanced field sense.”

What’s going on there? Why can’t we just learn how to throw a backhand huck by reading an article telling us to hold the disc a certain way, step with our dominant foot 90 degrees to our target, drive with torque in our hips, and let our arms follow through? Kyle Weisbrod dissected how experts’ verbal instructions often do not match what the experts physically do. This shows that much of what our body does when playing is largely unconscious, which makes verbal instruction inaccurate and means imitation is the most effective way to learn.

The Neuroscience Behind Imitation

Twenty five years ago, a group of Italian neuroscientists discovered something that would explain our incredible ability to imitate and learn by imitating. Here, Robert Greene words it better than I can.

“In studying the brains of monkeys, they found that particular motor-command neurons will not only fire when they execute a very specific action — such as [picking up a peanut] or taking hold of a banana — but that these neurons will also fire when monkeys observe another performing the same actions. These were soon dubbed mirror neurons. This neuronal firing meant that these primates would experience a similar sensation in both doing and observing the same deed, allowing them to put themselves in the place of another and perceive its movements as if they were doing them.”

In 2010, another study directly proved the presence of these same mirror neurons in humans.

We don’t have to look too hard to find examples of this phenomenon, showing mirror neurons in action. Normally, these firings would be suppressed by other, anti-mirror neurons, so that we don’t copy every little action or facial gesture somebody makes. But the suppression is sometimes caught off-guard. Count how many players jump in the clip below as the disc is caught in the endzone.

Cell recordings have also shown that mirror neurons even have anticipatory firing, before an observed action.

This clip of Christian Johnson performing a different jump than the line-toeing he observes shows that mirror neurons are firing in anticipation — imagining Johnson in the receiving player’s position.

When we watch Jon Nethercutt throw his flick or Surge Griffith play defense, we have mirror neurons in us firing as we observe them. Our body is unconsciously simulating in ourselves a low-level version of what they are doing. And so, when we then imitate his flick or her footwork, we can achieve motor resonance with them — that is, synchronicity of our neuronal firing patterns to match theirs. We can basically steal their form. This is what Nethercutt meant when he said, “mimicry is the best way to learn.”

Cool, so we can imitate somebody really well right after watching them throw a flick. But what if we want all of our flicks in games to look like Jon Nethercutt’s or Jesse Shofner’s? What if we love their crisp throwing form so much we want it forever?

Well, we practice it. Imitation helps us learn good form, yet we must ourselves refine that form to suit us personally, which involves much deliberate practice and hours of throwing. We cement the throwing motion in ourselves, while consciously refining and adapting the throwing motions to suit our taste, style, needs, personal anatomy. And the motor-command neurons in our brain will have long-term, lasting changes as we practice, which means our form is there to stay. As long as we keep practicing it, anyways.

When we practice physically doing something, like practice a flick, our brains are actually growing. Violin players over time develop a much larger area of the brain in the motor cortex region devoted to the fingers of whichever hand they play with. This is what accounts for the dexterity and fluidity that comes with practice. It is what most people call muscle memory — yet the memory lies in the growing brain and not in the cells of the muscles. The brain sends signals to the muscles by a pathway involving motor neurons.

Our dexterity with the disc is largely unconscious and determined by how well we have tuned the neurons and synapses (spaces between the neurons) in our brain. Shouting “Dial it in!” and other verbal, conscious urgings to ourselves do not help much to throw well, because the motor patterns must be well-tuned in the brain and this is not something we can directly control without putting in the practice.

5 Tips For Making The Most Of Imitation

1. Watch with an intent to imitate.

While the quotes from Nethercutt and Taylor at the start of this article use “imitate” and “mimic” interchangeably, those words have different definitions in cognitive science. Imitation requires an understanding of the purpose of an action so you can fulfill both the means (how, like how you’re physically moving to do the action) and the goal (why). Mimicking only involves the means (how) — a parrot may mimic your words without knowing what they really mean.

This has major implications if you’re trying to teach or learn throwing. Motor resonance — synchronicity of our motor-command neurons by mirror neuron activity when watching somebody else — is not achieved simply by observing somebody perform an action. Our goals affect how we process stimuli. Research has found that when subjects were instructed to remember an action either for later imitation or for later recognition, there was different brain activation. If a student/observer just watches without intent to imitate, much effort is wasted — the student won’t get full mirror activity in the different brain regions and the motor pattern for the throwing motion isn’t ingrained well.

Intuitively, this may feel quite obvious. A player watching an instructional video or receiving direction from a coach/veteran player isn’t going to just sit and glaze their eyes over. You’re watching in order to be instructed, so of course you intend to imitate and try to learn the throw. Yet, many college rookies stand in line for drills and watch the veteran players deliver breakmark flicks with expertise and good form, then still finish the season and still can’t throw. Clearly, they just watched and weren’t trying to imitate. Don’t miss opportunities to learn by not watching intently.

2. View from the 1st person perspective.

If you’re trying to teach somebody how to throw a flick, demonstrating while facing the person forces them to mentally rotate your motions 180 degrees before they can imitate the flick motion themselves. Research shows that a greater proportion of mirror neurons fire in the first person perspective, compared to firing in the third person or second person (90 degree) perspectives. So whenever teaching, or learning from somebody, the observer should stand behind or side-to-side the demonstrator in order to most optimally imitate and learn. This way the body can imitate the motion much easier, as more mirror neurons are synchronized with the demonstrator.

If you’re coaching kids, this is even more important as many studies have shown that young children — with incomplete development of all brain regions — are much slower and less accurate than adults at mentally rotating objects.

3. Mirror images and videos when watching players playing with the opposite hand.

Just as you have to mentally rotate an image when watching it from the third-person perspective, left-handed people have to mentally flip the visual to the opposite side of their body in order to imitate a right-handed demonstrator.

Science shows that when we wave our right hand, it is the left and not the right side of our brain which is activating, in the motor cortex brain region. This is contralateral. Opposite side. Similarly, observing somebody make a right-handed action also activates mirror neurons for the left hemisphere motor cortex, and not for the right hemisphere. But use a mirror and the righty action will look like a left-handed action (or vice versa), and there will now be mirror neuron activity in the right hemisphere.

This means you are not limited to only mimicking throwers who throw with the same hand and can learn from anyone.

4. Practice visualization in addition to physical practice.

Can we achieve motor resonance a few hours or a day or more after watching an expert demonstrate a skill, simply by replaying the visual memory of the expert in our mind so we can imitate? While there aren’t yet any studies specifically testing and proving this, some related studies — as well as personal experience — suggests yes.

Visualization (also called mental practice) has been shown to improve performance and fluidity on motor tasks. We also know that a similar pattern of mirror neuron activity occurs when you imagine yourself performing an action (such as throwing) or when observing someone else performing that action. This suggests that replaying a visual memory of an expert throwing a backhand huck should trigger the mirror neurons in us for that huck, allowing us to imitate it somewhat close to synchronicity.

So, when watching a video with an intent to imitate, work to create an accurate mental image of the motion or skill so you can mimic it not just in real time while watching, but also from visualization of a memory.

5. Simulate opponents’ habits to train reactions.

Months before fights, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer will watch film of the opponent, looking for bad habits. When he has found one, the trainer will learn it and imitate it, so it can be used in simulation for Pacquiao’s practice. Together, they figure out a way to exploit the bad habit and take advantage of it. Then, during the fight, Pacquiao will have seen the pattern many times before, recognize it, and know exactly what to do to knock his opponent out.

That sounds like resonance and mirror neurons, right? The same principle can work in ultimate. If opponents are tired of falling for Ashlin Joye’s signature shimmy fake to I/O flick, getting moved on the mark every single damn time, perhaps it would be possible for them to do some film study, have a teammate learn and simulate the shimmy flick himself, then have a defender practice against that imitated shimmy fake in order to identify it, get used to it, and not fall for it.1

The human brain is an incredible tool and can be trained to use our cognitive pre-wiring to improve our play. While practice is still a necessity to master the skills of our sport, imitation is a short-cut.

  1. As long as they can tell the difference between his shimmy and his around backhand. If there is any. 

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