Wax On, Wax Off: The Way to Movement Mastery?

Karate kid 2

If we optimize on-field movement efficiency, we can maximize athletic performance. As mentioned numerous times in previous blogs, we know that technique is never constant because when you are changing your physical traits, you are also changing the way that you display your current physical capabilities (i.e. strength, speed, etc) in the execution of the performed movement skills and the overall working effect of that movement. Thus, no matter what level of mastery the athlete possesses, he must spend time each and every day to fine-tune his level of movement proficiency.

I know its cliché, but it’s true; only perfect practice makes perfect and my athletes are required to focus on both global and local aspects of each motor action each time they practice a movement skill. I believe it’s often important to take an athlete back to ground zero in their technique and continually work from the bottom up to fine-tune each movement pattern that they may have to repeat frequently throughout a game. If it is a movement that they have ingrained and occurs with unconscious competence (i.e. involuntarily), it is often more difficult to change but it can happen no matter what the age or development of the athlete. From there, we will complete rep after rep till the movement imprint becomes one that is more optimal for total efficiency.

Before ever starting our work together, I show the athlete one of my favorite video clips of all-time from the original Karate Kid (I am already at the age where some of them only know the remake of the movie…what a travesty…but I digress). I believe that for both coaches and athletes alike, this movie and specifically this clip, portrays a perfect scope of where we need to go to elevate the levels of preparation and movement perfection that we will attain.

The clip begins when we see Mr. Miyagi just getting back from a productive day of fishing at the lake. Daniel-san is angrier than a wet hen because he believes that Miyagi is taking advantage of him and accuses him of this exploitation when he is supposed to be teaching him karate (how dare he question the great Mr. Miyagi?!). Instead, poor little Daniel-san has spent the entire day doing what Miyagi instructed…

Sand the floor. Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence.

karate kid

Over…and over…and over again. All day long; nothing is done but these three tasks. Who knew crazy-ass Miyagi actually had more than one trick up his sleeve? Daniel sure didn’t but I bet you did (if not, you should probably watch more movies like this).

Before we know it, Miyagi goes on to show Daniel-san a number of very important teaching AND learning concepts which come to light rather vividly. This process helps solidify the young aspiring champion’s belief that his mentor actually has a method to this madness beyond getting his spring cleaning complete. You see, channeling my own personal piece of Miyagi, I show each of my athletes this clip for several reasons.

The first, which hopefully they gather, is that when an individual is attempting to learn a different way of execution (and hopefully a perceived better way) and is striving towards greater mastery, fundamental aspects of the his movement are of utmost importance. Note the coaching cues in each of his instructions! The older, wiser mentor has a very concise style of communication. Much of this clear verbiage is focused around analogies to learn the motor pattern in a precise way. But the catch is to give the athlete big picture items to focus on that will allow him to perform the movement while displaying the most amounts of local intricacies that are in line with what we desire. This, I believe, is one of the keys to being a great pedagogical teacher.

Unfortunately, I learned that concept the hard way. Early in my career, I would simply bombard the athlete with coaching cues. It was quite ridiculous actually. I can just hear me now…

“Do this.”
“That is wrong.”
“See; that was a little better but next time I want you to do A, B, C, D, E, and F.”

I am smart at times but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what quickly happened. If you coach long enough, you will likely also find yourself guilty of this. I don’t know if this happens because we want to show the athlete how smart we are (guilty as charged!) or we simply want so many things to change in the shortest possible time frame and it all seems so obvious to us as the outside observer of what the true cause is. No matter what the reason, this type of approach often leads to a certain state of paralysis by analysis and before we know it the words coming out of our mouths are no better than white noise in the athlete’s ears. When an athlete thinks about the execution too deeply either before or during the movement, the speed of execution and the control of the positions will be greatly hampered.

So, I implore you to listen to Miyagi’s analogies. By giving Daniel these vivid examples he is creating external cues rather than outcome goals. This approach will allow a greater focus on the global task but in a very distinct fashion. This doesn’t mean that the local tasks of the specific movement will not be optimized. In fact, quite the contrary, as you will find in my system of movement perfection, we have another way to ensure that this local structure also becomes vastly improved (i.e. the part-whole teaching method and the use of a conjugate sequence system).

Secondly, to add to the first point, in the training, development, and movement perfection process, means and methods are not always what they seem. You (as the athlete) may not always understand what it is that you are doing but we must always be encouraged to want to know why. This is where trust between the coach and the athlete is vitally important. If you don’t know, you should in fact ask. That is where the belief in the process will stem from. If the athlete does ask, it means that he wants to know and is taking part in the process. As the coach, do not turn him away during times like this! He has just put the most hittable ball of learning out on a stationary tee for you to hit…so take advantage of that and swing away. If you handle it incorrectly, it may very well take a long period of time for that to come around again (that is; if it ever does).

Third, movement repetition is only as good as the method of execution. Therefore, it MUST be deliberate…every single repetition! No reps off. No half-hearted efforts. Deliberate, focused, concentrated attention to improvement is the only way. This is why that when Daniel-san’s focus begins to drift, Miyagi quickly snaps him out of it! For Miyagi knows, intention is the key to perfection! We have all heard that only perfect practice makes perfect. In fact, many texts have gone on to elaborate upon these ideas (Outliers, Talent Code, etc). But the importance of this concept is an important one if we are to create masters of movement (or any other craft for that matter). Granted, higher level athletes often possess a central nervous system of a Supercar ready to be tweaked and tuned and even subtle changes can make huge improvements. But, one of the major noticeable differences between a good performer and an elite one will be in the way that he practices his tasks. This idea proves that it’s not always about what you do but sometimes it’s more important how you do it.

On a similar note, if the athlete is raw (or if the movement pattern is foreign), it’s imperative that an athlete learns the pattern correctly the first time. If the wrong movement has been set in place (it doesn’t matter if he’s executed 10 reps in the subpar fashion or 10,000), it needs to be corrected then and from here on out repeated in the new way to lay that hose in the grass firmly (i.e. place that motor imprint where it’s supposed to be). I think it’s important to investigate how Miyagi teaches his little protégé how to properly perform the movements of choice. Miyagi understands something very well: the central nervous system, and its motor programs, are always plastic and are changing with each and every single repetition. I tell my athletes all the time, “you are always training in every moment in time even if you aren’t anywhere near the field or gym.” This training process is even much more improved (and simpler) if you can learn it correctly in the first place as your body (more specifically your brain) knows only one way of execution and then it will practice it with countless repetitions.

Finally, sequential development of the human organism is an important consideration that cannot be disregarded. Miyagi uses a very specific sequence to develop the movement skills (of course, I am speculating to a certain degree here) necessary to assist the body to attain the level of unconscious competence needed to be a high-level performer.

When the athlete is starting out, the motor learning of the movement pattern itself can be slow (and actually should be slow). This is part of the laying the motor imprint down and in place. It is a rather closed learning process where we are trying to repeat the movement deliberately and precisely.

Often, in times like this, the athlete doesn’t necessarily know exactly where their body should be in the given sequence (both spatially and temporally) and they are not necessarily aware as to when they actually complete the pattern correctly (i.e. unconscious incompetence) because of the high degree of variability to the movement (i.e. it doesn’t always happen the same way). In this stage of learning, the athlete will often report that nearly every moment action feels “awkward” or “foreign” to them even if they execute it in the exact way that we are hoping for. This is normal and to be expected. Thus, the athlete should be advised and applauded for remaining patient (it’s also important for the coach to have this awareness as well!). In Karate Kid, this was occurring when Daniel was actually completing rep upon rep of the work task (painting the fence, etc). The next step then is to help the athlete attain a certain degree of competence. This likely is still going to be highly conscious on the athlete’s part. Meaning, they will still have to think about it while executing it (hopefully not to the point of paralysis by analysis though). This happened in the movie when Miyagi was telling Daniel to complete each task but without performing the actual work task. If you watch the clip, notice how Daniel has to think about exactly what Miyagi is asking of before commencing each task. Finally, the athlete can then be expected to move to a state of unconscious competence. In the movie, this was shown when Miyagi started throwing “live” punches and kicks directly at Daniel and he was required to react and respond accordingly. Of course, the sport of football is much like karate in this fashion. The chaotic environment (i.e. nature) is the only one that matters even though the perfection process starts at how we nurture the athlete during the foundational learning.

Karate Kid 4

Granted, in the movie, this entire process was a bit accelerated for theatrical magnitude but I think you can see where I am going with this. To establish a foundation for mastery, each new task should build off the one that came before as we attempt to combine both the physiological attainment of important physical qualities (through the adaptation of the athlete’s Specialized-Morpho-Functional-Structure) with the improvement of an athlete’s skilled motor function (through the pedagogical process). In the development of mastery and perfection of movement, it is essential that the athlete has the proper drills being used in succession and at the right moment in time. If not, when push comes to shove and fists start flying (or the chaos of Sundays ensues), the athlete will get too many mixed signals to be able to perform at the highest levels.

So in the Karate Kid example, you don’t get to try to do the fancy stuff until you are able to properly perform the fundamentals that are imperative to your success. You also can’t learn to punch unless you first learn to defend. Notice; even though we all know that Daniel-san beat the Cobra-Kai ringleader’s ass with the use of a crazy crane kick, his instructor didn’t start with the fancy and then fill in the blanks with the boring fundamentals. Nope; Miyagi is much too wise for that. And we better be too if we are going to acquire higher levels of sport mastery in our athletes at any level.

Karate Kid 3

Unfortunately, one of my major gripes with the coaching community (among many other things as you are finding out) is their lack of proven progressions that are utilized in a sequential fashion only once when the athlete has displayed movement proficiency in the task that comes prior to it in the progression. Of course, repeating the same-old drill again and again all while focusing on the same piece of the puzzle (i.e. coaching cue geared towards a specific local aspect of the motor structure) isn’t sexy or flashy. And of course, everybody and their brother will think they are ready to move on (usually much, much earlier than they actually are). However, it really is the only way to the development of true mastery.

So, the key is for all of us to emulate Mr. Miyagi in our teaching and coaching?In a word, YES.

However, there is a major catch-22 of this whole thing: many NFL players (not all) are used to getting by with being lazy! Yes; I said it. And yes; it’s true. In most cases, they: 1). Are so accustomed to being the best at whatever level they are playing at and even though they may be moving in a suboptimal fashion they are still better than the person across the line from them (or at least they are able to compensate better). 2). Are so used to not getting corrected on technical aspects (remember, there is a big difference between technical teaching and tactical teaching) of their movements even though subtle changes make significant differences in the on-field movement performance. Obviously, these are very large issues that even the most properly designed, sophisticated sequential programs cannot overcome if we don’t find potential solutions to them. The athlete may not understand but we must make him aware as to how the changes will directly influence his on-field movement performance and/or reduce his chance of injury all while not negatively impacting his already previously-attained levels of performance. The athlete must also be ready to be coached and at times even scrutinized (I don’t like the idea of scrutinizing but that is how most of them will view it once you begin this process) with every moment action under a microscope aimed at a singular goal: on-field perfection. Obviously, a great deal of psychology (which is beyond the scope of this blog) is required at this point. When we look at everything that is happening in the Karate Kid clip, the greatest and most magical aspects of how Mr. Miyagi approached the entire situation is the way that he handled Daniel between the ears as much as how he changed his fists and feet.

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