The often-used analogy for movement and its development comes from education. We need to be able to read and write, add and subtract, before we can multiply and divide, before we can write a thesis or do algebraic equations. This has caused the formation of the term physical literacy, used throughout the world to describe the fundamental movement skills needed for an active life and how they are built upon to form expertise in sporting skills later, similar to how literacy is fundamental to our functioning everyday lives and has been built upon since our first day of kindergarten.
When discussing movement with very smart people (Jeff Moreno, Craig Leibenson, Stu McMillan, Matt Jordan, to name a few) we all agree that within each movement there is variability. No two movements will be exactly the same, either between two athletes or from the same athlete. The range of this variability can depend on many factors and it is these factors that we must delve into to discover how to improve.
If we take the analogy of physical literacy further, I believe we should start to think of each person’s movement pattern similar to his or her handwriting; a movement signature if you will. Everyone will write slightly differently, and will never write exactly the same way twice. We build the skill of precise handwriting over time, with practice, with deliberate learning from a young age; so too we must practice our movement skills. And must keep on exposing ourselves to it.
As variability in handwriting will distinguish between people, so too will movement. This variability will be unique to each individual however we still must be able to “read” the movement and understand what the athlete/person is trying to say. Problems occur when this variability becomes too great and the letters and words become illegible and we cannot read the movement. This type of movement will be imprecise, injurious in nature, and lead to sub-optimal performance. Therefore as coaches and teachers we must ensure that no matter what the speed or complexity, the movement is always legible. The point here is that it is OK to be different and not perfect, however your movement must be acceptable to be read by others. The greatest athletes will have unique patterns similar to how Shakespeare or CK Lewis will write slightly differently, this is OK; the end goal is the same, mastery of their craft and beauty via creativity. This is what movement and therefore sport must be, it must assume variability but within an acceptable range so we can use it. How we teach and even re-teach these patterns is where the great people I mention above come into play with their various teaching skills and knowledge.
Further to this, as a child of just before the gen Y era I still remember embedding my handwriting skills through practice and simple play – everyone remembers hand cramps after writing in their early school days. I can also remember doing the same for my movement skills, however unaware at the time, I was engraining fundamental patterns of movement; running, skipping, climbing, crawling, hitting, throwing etc. I fear though for the generations ahead of us with the use of keyboards, QWERTY devices and autocorrect from a very young age. They have little to no practice of writing by hand, for thinking for themselves, getting something wrong and learning how to fix it. Not only are the handwriting skills poor, they are fast-tracking their literacy with spellcheck and grammar check. This, along with being forced to sit and learn, they are not exposing their bodies and brains to the same volume or complexity of movement that we had. In 20 years their handwriting will be eligible but so will their movements, there is no way they will be able to move the same way, with the same accuracy and grace. Movement will be so far regressed due to this lack of formation in the developmental years that we will see far more injuries, more dropout, more inactivity, leading to a worldwide epidemic of ill-health and disease (more than we see at the moment!).
As the great Dan Pfaff would allude to, we want our elite athletes to be PhD’s of their sport and their body. Soon enough we will be teaching so called elite athletes how to read and write in movement terms rather than fine tuning skills and delving deep into mastery of our PhD students.
Ian McKeown, PhD
Head of Athletic Development
Port Adelaide Football Club, AFL