You move like crap…or I coach like crap? How do we fix them both?
By: Joe Myhren PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS
Strength coaches and rehabilitation professionals (or whatever else we want to call ourselves) have never put such a great emphasis on movement patterning and how to influence “good movement.” This initiative has led to countless theories and interventions aiming at creating efficient and optimal “movers.” Fewer and fewer training plans worry solely about bench, squat, and deadlift numbers and more about movement quality, efficiency, and transformable movement competency towards a desired skill or sport.
This initiative has also set us up as coaches to “cue” or “intervene” at levels with individuals that promote movement options that we desire for an athlete to have. This sets us up to be heavily influential on the way they practice and explore movement.
This also sets us up to handcuff an individual from growing in his/her exploration of new movement. By coaching or cuing an individual on a new way to complete a movement, we’re providing an input that he/she must synthesize and challenge his or her old pattern, which they have successfully used to accomplish the task. This promotes nervous system confusion…and sets up situations like this:
“Hey, I’ve been successful bracing this way during my squat because my high school offensive line coach told me to…and we won state…and now we’re talking about breathing while I squat?”
Conversations like this are much deeper than squat angles and position of load. Not only is the athlete questioning his bracing strategy during the movement itself, but may not be embracing “the intent” of the movement change. Here is a simple example of thought processes and perceptions of the two parties in this scenario…
Neither of the individuals are right or wrong in this situation…but the intentions of the coach to implement a corrective exercise or movement change challenges the fundamental belief of why and how the athlete is squatting. This alone will create confusion or tension and decrease the likelihood of influencing a “true movement change.”
Our nervous system is an ever-changing computer program that’s searching for ways to accomplish a task. The task and our interpretation of the task will always drive movement outputs. Gray Cook talks about how movement outputs can be simplified to transitions in posture and position, maintenance of posture, locomotion, and the manipulation of objects. All of these movement outputs utilize sensory input and sensory interpretation to drive the need for movement to accomplish our desired task.
We must also appreciate the countless variables that influence perception of sensory inputs…
A basketball player steps to the free throw line with a chance to win the game in front of his whole school. A shot he’s made thousands of times in practice, but the nervous system experience is much more multi-system and sensory rich. How does the athlete filter the inputs that matter to produce the best output?
In childhood development, a baby must explore movement so that they can successfully (and unsuccessfully) find the patterns that allow them to accomplish a task. The sensory experience is rich, and the feedback of task accomplishment will either increase or decrease the desire to utilize that pattern next time that task needs to be accomplished. Many developmental kinesiology models reflect that task-driven posturing, locomotion, and manipulation are pre-determined and automatic in the course of central nervous system maturation.
Our ability to influence motor outputs must resemble the sensory rich experience needed at early childhood that allows an individual to experience successes and failures with regards to learning new patterns.
Let’s jump back to the above-mentioned athlete and attempting to teach a squat. The coach has the desire to produce a low threshold strategy of squatting to allow for more movement efficiency. In the athlete’s eyes, this may challenge his belief and interpretation of the movement intent and he perceives this as threatening to his sensory experience. His interpretation of sensory information may say, “This is different, I can’t and am not doing as much weight, am I going to be ready to push someone when I need to?”
Situations like these do not produce pliable and resilient sensorimotor experiences for our athletes to become better movers. They will shut down motor learning before even exploring the new movement options.
Our ability to connect, explain, and correlate the reason for movement pattern retraining and correction with an athlete or client may be the most influential portion of setting up a sensorimotor experience.
Allowing an individual to develop and synthesize the underlying task with a desire to change will re-ignite the exploration of successful versus unsuccessful movements.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are in a situation as coaches and rehab professionals where individuals will be attempting to “make us happy” and accomplish the task that we put in front of them. Our emotions, body language, choice of words, and reactions are all part of the sensory experience and will either lead to successful or unsuccessful re-enforcement of the previous movement selection.
This leads to the discussion of tension and how we can create open-ended or rigid sensory experiences with regards to promoting tension.
By cueing, teaching, pointing, giving tactile feedback, and coaching, we influence and force an individual to change the pattern they’re currently using to accomplish the task we put in front of them. We need to do this in order to explain the purpose and task at hand. Let’s not forget that we can also over cue, over teach, or over coach the task at hand to create a sensory experience that creates a stiff and rigid individual that limits optimal motor learning.
By giving too many instructions before a movement is accomplished we can set ourselves up for over coaching and creating high threshold strategies of task-accomplishment. Let’s define high vs. low threshold strategies.
To show the variability of the nervous system that we can promote by our cuing…let’s look at it in a different visual.
The top of the pyramid is “accomplishing the task” that we put in front of them!
When the body switches to a high threshold strategy, we can feed tension into the sensorimotor experience that yearns for task accomplishment. This may be a good thing, but can also create a situation where a feed-forward motor program is the most important thing to accomplishing the task at hand.
If the coach’s desire is to feed tension and promote a more sympathetic and stimulating experience…then a high threshold activity is 100% the way to go! If safe, task-accomplishment with high motor output stimulation is the goal… by all means create the environment that allows an individual to feel what it’s like to “accomplish the task with a lot of stuff turned on.”
For example, if I wish for an athlete to perform a “hardstyle plank” so that they can finally feel what it’s like to turn on his or her core. We’ve assessed that we need some time under tension to make some changes…maybe we’re ok with teeth grunting and faces turning red. Feed the tension…feed the goal of workload capacity of the core…but don’t fall into the understanding that this promotes efficient movement.
If learning a movement is a continuum, high threshold strategies may be the first step in promoting the optimal learning environment for tension allocation, neuromuscular timing/sequencing, and allow inputs for internal feedback of task accomplishment.
We can appreciate this, but need to continue in our own progression of coaching movement to know, “when should my cuing promote and work towards a more efficient, low-threshold strategy?”
By staying in a high-threshold strategy, we may…slow down a movement, over tension a learning experience, or create an inefficient pattern that still allows for successful accomplishment of a task.
Let’s take the hot topic of breathing for example. The body’s task hierarchy will promote the exchange of gases and intake of oxygen as the most important task to achieve survival. The subconscious will say, “as long as air is coming in and out we don’t care about how we do it.”
Here’s two options that may follow…
Low threshold, diaphragmatic, parasympathetic breathing
High threshold, apical, cervical musculature lifting the ribs, sympathetic breathing
The task is accomplished either way. There is clearly a more efficient way of moving and breathing, but the body cares more about task accomplishment and survival than efficiency in this regard.
If you’re still reading this far into this blog, you likely care about creating an efficient movement experience for your client/patient. We need to continue to push ourselves to best figure out when to cue, and how to cue for the desired results that you want.
When promoting low-tension strategies, we can create the most options to experience successful vs. unsuccessful movement strategies. We can re-ignite the rich sensory experience of task driven motor outputs to best allow for internal reflection of good vs. bad accomplishment of a task. By continuing to practice options for “successful” movement experiences, we allow our body to naturally compute what will yield the most efficient way to accomplish the task. This can promote the optimal variability and “theoretical bell curve” of movement selection.
We as movement coaches need to put our athletes and clients in situations where they can successfully feel inputs that are beneficial to their movement maturation. I’m not telling you to forget about cuing corrective exercise and blindly allow athletes to move around your gym. We need to create our own “hierarchy” of intervention, much like our body’s have.
For example, here’s a proposal for a hierarchy of our intervention…
|Hierarchy for Cuing and Coaching Intervention|
|1. SAFETY||The pattern being practiced to accomplish the task is putting them at immediate risk for injury.|
|2. TASK ACCOMPLISHMENT||The pattern being practiced to accomplish the task is giving inconsistent results with the intent of prescribed movement.|
|3. INEFFICIENCY||The pattern being practiced to accomplish the task is grossly promoting an inefficient way to accomplish the task.|
|4. PERFORMANCE||The pattern being practiced to accomplish the task will benefit from adding an additional input.|
How we can use this hierarchy?
- Safety – Intervene immediately! Nobody wants to get hurt in the gym…cue/intervene as much as possible or needed, with whatever high-tension strategy is needed to create safe movement practice.
Example – An individual is practicing squatting with significant forward lean, lumbar spine all over the place, heels shoot up, only thing stopping his/her left knee from valgus is the right knee.
Intervention – Stop the madness! Do what you’ve been taught to do and show them how to squat!
- Task Accomplishment – Your intervention needs to facilitate reflection. The individual may not understand “why” they are being given a certain corrective. They may be going through the motions to appease the coach. An understanding of the task will give purposeful practice and allow for exploration of successful tasks.
Example – An individual is performing corrective 90-90 breathing with hemi-bridge. He/she is showing some good breaths, some passive exhales, weight shifting from heel to toe, and talking to a nearby friend.
Intervention – The “purpose” and intention of this corrective strategy is not understood or appreciated. They can do this all day and we will never influence a reciprocal gait pattern. We must address the fundamental appreciation of what task are we trying to accomplish before moving forward. Once the task is appreciated, practice of the pattern will be purposeful and allow for a good learning environment of other sensorimotor cuing. An understanding of why
- Inefficiency – They are safe and understand the task, but are grossly missing on movements needed practice the pattern efficiently. Encourage low threshold practice using interventions that facilitate sensory interpretation of the movement practice. Continuing to practice towards efficiency will allow the body to learn successful patterns and mature towards an optimal pattern with the greatest degrees of variability.
Example – An athlete is performing a Turkish Get-Up understanding that they need increased shoulder stability for them to progress in the overhead position. They’ve grabbed the heaviest kettlebell, stare at the bell, hold his/her breath, lock TL junction into extension and perform the TGU.
Intervention – Small cues or even changing distinction of task can allow for more optimal transferable sensorimotor experience. By incorporating full breathing exchanges at different transition points, head turns, conversation points, or eye transitions we can allow for the body to experience and compute variable tension strategies with regards to the task of not dropping the heavy object onto our head.
- Performance – The individual is practicing and accomplishing a safe, efficient, task driven pattern. This is gold! One cue (maybe, but no more than two) that can connect the movement to be sport/goal-driven allows the sensorimotor experience to enrich the pattern development.
Example – A slot receiver performing a ½ kneeling rotational med ball throw to promote power in stance phase of gait.
Intervention – A simple verbal cue, “Hey, great form! Now throw the ball like you care to get away from the nickel corner.”
Motor learning is a continuum and progression. Successes and failures promote learning. In a neurodevelopmental process that happens in every individual with or without a coach, we need to continually assess how we best fit into the natural progression.
The founders of FMS say, “Move well then move often.” To be very dramatic, but to make a point that sensory interpretation drives motor learning…maybe we as coaches need to “Coach less often to coach well.”