Motor skills

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What are motor skills?

Motor skills are about moving your body skilfully. 'Gross' motor skills are things like walking and running. 'Fine' motor skills are more complex e.g. writing, typing, tying a shoe lace.


The goal with motor skills is accuracy, precision and control. Put simply: you want your body to perform the required task efficiently, confidently and comfortably.
Motor skills are the outcome of practice and experience.

Motor learning

Motor learning is about the process of using the body, rather than simply exercising the body.
Agility, mobility, relaxed spontaneous movement, balance, structure, alignment, biomechanics, efficiency, ambidextrous body use, joint health, coordination, skill, emotional wellbeing or psychological flexibility.

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself completely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.

(Matthew Crawford)


If we take just one aspect of motor learning e.g. 'coordination' - you can see that various motor skills are required:

  1. Moving different parts of the body together in harmony

  2. Gait (manner of walking)

  3. Controlled movement

  4. Balancing
    - left and right sides of the body
    - front and back
    - upper and lower
    - hands and feet
    - elbows and knees
    - hips and shoulders

  5. Eye/hand coordination

  6. Kinaesthetic awareness (knowing where your limbs are positioned without needing to look)

  7. Ambidextrous use of the limbs

  8. Smooth movement

  9. Good skeletal alignment

  10. Agility

Common health problems such as bad back or painful knees are often the result of poor motor skills.

Does exercise help?

Exercise can enhance or hinder motor learning; it depends how you do it. e.g. It is quite common to see runners with appalling poise, heavy footfalls and terrible gait.
They may be running in order to become fit, but the manner in which they are running is doing the person more harm than good.
This sort of thing is common in various forms of exercise.

Different types of exercise

People who exercise are usually aiming to improve their motor skills. The more complex the form of exercise, the greater the range of skills required.
Consider a ballet dancer and a runner... Who has the greater degree of motor skill?

On-going practice is necessary

If you acquire a motor skill and then stop practicing it, some remnants may remain but the performance will diminish quite rapidly.
For example: many people study a martial art when young, but mistakenly believe that they have retained the associated skills despite long years without practice.
This is naive. We remember what we encounter regularly and we forget what we do not.

Nervous system

The quality of your motor skills is determined by how well you can employ your nervous system. A healthy nervous system is not simply a physical matter.
A psychologically tense person will be incapable of skilled body movement. Neurologists maintain that the mind affects the physical nervous system, and the nervous system affects the mind.
Mind and body are connected.

Be honest...

Most adults do not possess good motor skills. Very few people can use their hands interchangeably (ambidexterity), their balance is typically poor. Nimbleness and agility don't exist.
Instead of challenging their bodies to perform better, most people settle for less.


People often like to fiddle with things. Fiddling reflects an agitated, bored, restless state of mind.
It is quite common to believe that fiddling with electronic devices such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets or video games will improve your motor skills... But is this true?


The repetitive nature of many 'adult toys' dulls the nervous system; causing a decrease in sensitivity.
If you want to improve fine motor control, you would be better off washing the dishes by hand rather than playing with your smart phone.
Doing craft work or building and painting a model demands fine motor skills. By contrast, tapping a screen is simply not the same...

Consider this: Most people live lives that are not particularly physically challenging. They sit at a desk, or if they move around, it's not a lot. They aren't performing manoeuvres that require tremendous balance and coordination. Thus they settle into a low level of physical capabilities - enough for day-to-day activities or maybe even hiking or biking or playing golf or tennis on the weekends, but far from the level of physical capabilities that a highly trained athlete possesses.

The reason that most people don't possess extraordinary physical capabilities isn't because they don't have the capacity for them, but rather because they're satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it.

The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in. We learn enough to get by but once we reach that point we seldom push to go beyond.

(Anders Ericsson)

New starters

Hardly anybody starts a tai chi class with good motor skills. Often people with a background in dance, yoga, sport or other martial arts come to class.
They may fair slightly better than some people, but their motor skills are usually quite coarse and need considerable on-going work.

Bad habits

Typically, people are over-confident. They believe that their body is performing an action skilfully despite the action being shockingly clumsy and uncoordinated.
Because the action is familiar/habitual, it feels 'normal'.

False sensory appreciation

F M Alexander discovered that our body lies to us. Often what we think/perceive to be taking place runs contrary to the fact. This impedes motor learning.
Only through careful observation and guidance can we train the body to do precisely what we want.


Page created 21 May 1998
Last updated 16 June 2023