Athleticism reimagined

It's not rocket science! Youth sport coaches can be trained to teach proper movement, understand movement sequencing, and identify and correct movement chain errors.

Sometimes an idea challenges contemporary thinking simply by looking at something from a different perspective. Such an idea appeared recently in SwimSwam, an online swimming publication, that suggested that swim performance cannot be fully explained by our current model of technique and training alone; that to understand why some athletes perform better than others we have to examine the quality of movement in their swimming skills. The two-part article, Rules of the Game, was written by Jukka Shemeikka, Head of Aquatics at the Olympic Training Center at Rovaniemi, Finland. He is writing to a swimming audience but his thesis can be applied to any sport.

One claim he makes is that the current model of swimming performance, which focuses on technique and training, does not sufficiently explain the result; that other factors may also be in play. He suggests combining technique with overall mechanics and stroke articulation (movement chain) into what he calls the quality of movement. Adjusting any of these components could result in higher quality movement and a better performance.

For example, the movement chain in the front crawl begins in the pelvis where the body is able to generate significant rotational power. This power is transferred downstream through several joints to action points at the end of the chain where force is applied. If we're looking at the upper body in swimming these action points are in the hands and forearms but the origin of the movement, the beginning of the movement chain in other words, is in the pelvis. Shemeikka emphasizes the origin of movements because the movement chain for many swimmers starts in the wrong place, thus they are not able to harness power from the pelvis and end up with a lackluster performance even though their technique may look good.

Some might balk at separating technique, mechanics, and articulation by saying they are all part of the same thing. But that may be Shemeikka's point. He's not separating the three components merely to be pedantic but to emphasize that technique is often the only thing coaches and athletes consider when teaching or correcting movement. Admittedly, the movement chain is probably the least understood of the three components, especially at the age group swimming level. It's usually considered a component in strength training or weight lifting because that's how it's often explained in textbooks and lectures. Swimming skills are rarely taught to coaches with the movement chain as part of the performance mix; it's technique all the way. If Shemeikka is right, and I think he is, then a significant portion of the performance formula is not part of a swimming coach's education.

The articles offer much more detail than what I've included here, so click the link above if you're interested in reading more.

The quality of movement concept can be applied to a much wider area than just swimming. About a year ago I wrote about how we don't have a good definition of what athleticism is even though the term is used often in the sport world. This was before I heard anything about the quality of movement:

We have some terms in sport that get used a lot without the benefit of any operational definition. For example, colleagues might know what you're talking about when you say athleticism but they would be hard pressed to explain what this word means to someone who wasn't 'in the know'. Even among sport practitioners I doubt that there is any consensus as to what athleticism really means.

But using the term 'quality of movement' instead of 'athleticism' conveys the same understanding mentioned in the quote above and provides something specific to focus on; where athleticism is vague, quality of movement is specific.

As it turns out, quality of movement is not a completely new idea. A blog post at The Sustainable Training Method website noted that:

Quality movement looks good even to the inexperienced observer. Grace and ease of motion are the manifestations of mobility, strength, speed, power, balance, and coordination.

This approaches quality from a results perspective, what it looks like, rather than the operational method Shemeikka writes about but the idea seems to be the same. Both explanations of quality are movement oriented and not specific to any skill or sport.

1to1 Fitness, another commercial website, addresses the same idea:

When mobility and stability are in balance, the result is a whole body internal dynamic that expresses itself in greater success in every physical movement. The golf ball flies further, the legs run faster, the insurmountable stairs are easier to climb. Weights (including squirming weights like children and grandchildren) are lighter to lift, and mountains are quicker to master. Movement Quality teaches the body to be powerful, agile, and sturdy, by becoming better integrated in action, performing as one powerful system of muscles instead of a series of disconnected individual segments.

Traditionally athleticism has been defined in sport-specific terms. But as the descriptions above show it doesn't have to be this way. Quality of movement provides a framework for how we understand athleticism. It recognizes that effective movement is at the center of athleticism. What was previously an obscure quality now has specific meaning and a pathway to develop it.

Quality of movement and its implications for sport development

Opportunities for children to move were once measured in unstructured hours per day, now they're measured in organized hours per week. Youngsters are over-scheduled in ways that weren't possible in years past. Time that kids spent roaming their neighborhoods, climbing trees and organizing kickball games or foot races on their streets is time that doesn't exist anymore. Our ability to move used to be something we learned organically as part of growing up and playing a number of different sports. Now it's expected to be learned in specific sport practices and physical education classes.

The multi-sport participation model is doomed. Early specialization has taken over the youth sport world. The combination of economic, social, and convenience factors inherent in single-sport participation have transformed the youth sport landscape into one where it's just easier to specialize early. But proper movement can be taught within a single sport environment if it is done deliberately and if schools and governing bodies incorporate the quality of movement concept into coaches training.

At high performance levels there are staffers who can identify and correct movement chain problems. But staffing at the youth sport level is limited economically and knowledge of movement sequencing is not widespread amongst youth coaches. But it's not rocket science. Youth sport coaches can be trained to teach proper movement, understand movement sequencing, and identify and correct movement chain errors. Improving the quality of movement may be the missing link in sport performance.