Portrait of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences Professor Gabriele Wulf.
Kinesiology professor Gabriele Wulf’s studies on athletic performance aligns with the surge of pro sports teams in Southern Nevada.

Sports coaches may soon come to regard Gabriele Wulf as the athlete whisperer.

Wulf, a kinesiology professor, has spent the past 30 years studying the factors that contribute to optimal performance in motor skills learning.

Just a couple of years ago, her research culminated in the first theory published in 40 years that attempts to truly explain motor learning. The work, which has gained international attention, also led to her being named a Distinguished Professor this year.

“Knowing which factors influence motor skills learning is important for developing optimal training,” Wulf said, adding that her research has consistently pointed to three primary factors — confidence, autonomy, and external focus.

This triad has resonated with professionals in the sports world and in sports media.

“Dr. Wulf is one of the most respected researchers in our school,” said Ronald Brown, dean of UNLV’s School of Allied Health Sciences. “Her work appears in some of the best journals within the fields of psychology and motor behavior.”

International Reputation

Brian Schilling, professor and chair of the kinesiology & nutrition sciences department, said the impact of Wulf’s work transcends UNLV and the U.S.

“She is internationally known for her work and is in high demand as a speaker and author,” Schilling said. That in turn has helped elevate UNLV’s profile globally. “Since her work is so well known, she has been able to recruit great international students to our master’s and Ph.D. program, which further enhances our reputation.”

When working with coaches and instructors, Wulf emphasizes the core of her “OPTIMAL” theory, which stands for, “Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning.”

Instructors tend to believe it is important to correct the movement form frequently and immediately in an attempt to speed up learning or enhance performance, Wulf said.

“In the process, they often neglect to highlight good performances or improvements,” she said. “Yet, we know that positive feedback is critical for building confidence and, in turn, learning success.”

Providing Choices

As for autonomy, Wulf said performers who are given even incidental choices related to practice conditions show immediate improvement in their motor skills learning.

“So, instead of coaches planning every detail of practice sessions, giving athletes some control has considerable benefits,” she said. “Autonomy enhances motivation in general and really improves performance.”

Interestingly, Wulf said, instructors who focus too much on correcting body movements could be undermining the progress they hope to see.

“Any mentioning of body parts is detrimental,” she said. “It promotes a so-called internal focus of attention. Those conscious control processes interfere with optimal performance and learning.”

Instead, her research suggests, wording instructions in a way that directs attention to the intended movement outcome is far more effective.

As sports become an increasingly important part of Southern Nevada culture with the arrival of professional sports teams, such as the Golden Knights hockey team, the Lights soccer team, Las Vegas Aces basketball, and the Raiders football team, Wulf said sports-related research at UNLV is sure to grow.

“It’s an exciting time,” she said. “In our department of kinesiology and nutrition sciences, for example, we have people with a broad range of expertise, including exercise physiology, biomechanics, athletic training, nutrition sciences, and my own area of motor skill performance and learning. They all have much to offer in terms of consulting or performance testing, and hopefully we will have the opportunity to include more high-level performers in our research studies.”

The UNLV Distinguished Professor award is the university’s highest honor. It recognizes professors for their teaching and scholarship as well as their service to the community, the university, and their profession. 

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