Back to Movement School

September still has that ‘back to school’ vibe for me, even though I’m no longer a child and am not a parent – I feel like I want to buy new stationary, review my P.E. kit, or put up an academic year wall chart, which in fact I have just done. The beginning of Autumn somehow still feels like the start of the year, with October being my busiest month for work. My thoughts turn to reviewing clients progress, and finding ways to push their performance on. And with the sporting summer season coming to an end, we begin to contemplate more indoor goals or projects that will make us fitter, and readier for next summer again. And so, the cycle goes on.

While it’s been a wrench for me not to be riding my bike during this epic summer of weather, I’ve been seeking out other outdoorsy activities to keep me sane and to develop my physical fitness in other areas. I’ve also been reflecting on the significance of movement learning, and the importance of developing a range of motor skills that broaden movement vocabulary and open exercise options. In elite sport coaches talk about Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) in these terms – ensuring that young athletes don’t specialise too early, but have a breadth of skills and fitness across the spectrum of strength, core, balance, co-ordination and aerobic/anaerobic capacity. For young people, schooling movement is often part of both formal and informal physical education. But what about middle aged adults, or older adults who have retired from their work but are exploring new adventures? Isn’t there even more need for us to go back to movement school as we age? And can we learn new skills at any age, or should we just settle for what we’ve got?

The fun factor in any exercise most definitely relates to the movement vocabulary you have in your back pocket, which is why I think it’s so important we actively broaden that at every opportunity. If you want to take up a new sport or pastime, or choose an active weekend away, you want to know that your body is ready for anything you want to throw at it. There’s no doubt that when we are young our motor skill potential is at its best. Also, our bodies are relatively unhindered, and very resilient, mobile, and strong – given the right exposure to movement. I’m always interested to see that for many of my middle aged clients some of their early movement experience has stuck, despite the intervening years of inactivity. I have a client who played a lot of Judo in his youth, who naturally rests in a kneeling posture that many of my other clients find extremely uncomfortable. Another client who used to row can pick up a challenging Rowing Erg. Session without too much trouble, even when other aspects of his fitness are not where he would like them to be.

Stages and characteristics of Motor Learning

Stages and characteristics of Motor Learning

I see this in myself too. My ability to swim easily comes from efficient and consistent practice of technique as a child, training up to 7 times a week in the pool in my early teens as a club swimmer. My swimming vocabulary is well drilled. In movement terms, I’m at the stage of “unconscious competence” or “autonomy”. I don’t need to think about how to swim, I just hit the ‘swim front crawl’ motor program in my brain and off it goes. I’ve been glad of that ability this summer when I’ve pushed the boundaries of my outdoor swimming experiences, where the sea conditions or the speed or distance have been the challenge, not the movement itself. I also spent a day out kayaking, something I perhaps did for a couple of weeks at most in my early teens. Even that skill, far less drilled than my swimming, seemed to be within reach in my brain as I grappled with the techniques of turning and manoeuvring a kayak with the various paddle strokes. So, thanks to my parents sending me on all manner of activity weeks, and to me for keeping my body in pretty good shape, I have a pleasing range of movement possibilities at my disposal.

Kayaking? No Problem.

Kayaking? No Problem.

For me the three main endurance sports that make up triathlon represent essential life skills. To be able to swim, ride a bike, and run opens all sorts of sporting and adventure possibilities, especially if you like to be outside. While experts in each of these disciplines show their proficiency as a product of practice, there are a myriad of other daily movements that offer schooling in movement efficiency that can radically improve your daily life. The ‘Primal patterns’ of lunging, bending, squatting, twisting, pushing and pulling form the essentials that make up all our daily movement. But other postures, positions, and activities can broaden your movement vocabulary even further from there.

I’ve been exploring this in my work of late, as well as in my own training with some learning through “Movnat” – a ‘movement movement’ that incorporates all the human essentials grouped into inter-related categories of ground movement, carrying, balancing, climbing, get ups, jumping and landing, grappling and fighting. I’ve been particularly interested in learning their ground movements that encompass sitting and kneeling postures and various ways to transition up and down off the floor. These benefit joint health, particularly for the back, hips, knees, ankles and feet. I’ve also been using some of the Movnat balancing, jumping and landing drills with some of my clients and have found that they complement my existing way of working and give our sessions another dimension.

Exercisers practising the Movnat "balancing shuffle" and "balancing squat"

Exercisers practising the Movnat “balancing shuffle” and “balancing squat”

For many involved in sport and exercise, the word “training’ sometimes has the implication of HARD WORK, and for most without early enjoyment of sport, this is what puts them off. It can seem that fitness training involves grunting, sweating, and high levels of motivation to overcome the discomfort. What’s interesting about taking a movement approach to ‘training’ my clients is that for much of the session they are engaged with the challenge of the task, more than they are aware of the effort they are exerting. And the best distraction tactic of all is that movement challenges or tricky combinations of movements are fun to do. Even personal failure is fun, as it raises the prospect of a personal goal that can be surmounted with practice.

One of the reasons children move so well, with such a broad movement vocabulary is that they enjoy moving. They do it all the time, in as many ways as they can think of, and they repeat and repeat and repeat until they get something right. Combining movement elements in increasingly complex sequences (using ‘combos’ as Movnat call it), or overlapping two already mastered movements to make a new one, (such as overlapping a lunge with a twist) adds this engaging dimension that is only as limiting as your (or my) creativity. For older adults, there are some aspects of physical condition that might limit skill development, or require careful consideration. Lack of flexibility or mobility for example, or permanent changes to joint health that need to be worked around might have to be taken into account. For example, if my back and shoulders weren’t mobile enough, I might not be able to swim front crawl exactly the same way as I used to when I was a kid.

As an aside in the last year I have been getting involved in some musical stuff which has thrown up some interesting comparisons. I’ve joined a choir, and though I read music as a child and played several instruments, I haven’t looked at sheet music since. I have also started playing the drums, something I loved to do at primary school but was unable to pursue further because of the obvious noise pollution that would be involved. In learning to read and play music my brain has a distant memory of what to do, but my musical pathways have needed dusting off, and some further skill development has been necessary to grasp the complicated limb dynamics of the drum kit. Engaging with the challenge has been really enjoyable, along with the inevitable mistakes, and this experience has helped me empathise with the ‘mind moments’ I see clients experiencing when I am teaching them a new movement skill with increased complexity.

Jo Rides the Pony….Not the kind you’re thinking

Music is expressed through neuro-muscular pathways, and movement is not that different, so it shouldn’t be surprising that skill development and practice should be at the heart of both. And so, I would argue that at least some of the movement you include in your ‘fitness training’ should be so mindful that you are lost in the concentration of it, just as I am when I’m trying to ‘do’ music. And that at least some of the time you are enjoying the fun of failure, and the prospect of success with practice, just as a child would when they are playing. After all, Long Term Athlete development is for everyone at any age.

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