Football movement skill lessons from my failure in swimming

Let me set the visual for you here. Let’s go back to my childhood years (note: I won’t even mention the years I am referring to as it seems too many birthdays have been passed since then) for a second. Each summer I would spend 4-6 weeks participating in local school organized swimming lessons with all of my friends.

swimming lessons

Though my memory of it is vague…the just of it still seems very distinct & clear.

At the end of each week of the lessons, the teacher would take us through a series of tests to ensure that we were progressing accordingly. Additionally, if we were good little Michael Phelps wannabes, we would be patted on the back and even sent up to the next level to start the following week at the next stage of swimming prowess.

This step signified that you had the requisite skills to move on to more advanced techniques in the pool. More importantly, you would get a little certificate or a card that you could proudly show all the girls you had your eye on when you rode the bus back home.

But here’s the thing: inevitably, level after level, I remember being a straight-up champion at certain skills but often would end up frustrated by not being able to truly get the hang of a singular skill or two.

Pool of hard knocks … swimming with kids isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Yet, the rub was this…if you didn’t possess that given skill (even if it was ‘just’ one) the repercussions were quite simple: you did NOT move on to the next level till you displayed proficiency in it.

There was no middle ground…no gray area. Either go through the checkpoints of the technical execution or there would be no advancement for you.

The teachers were not dumb about this…they knew they couldn’t be irresponsible about who moved on and who didn’t. An advancement to the next level meant more intense skills which were usually performed in deeper water. And for a 3rd grader (or any human being for that matter), incomplete skills in deep water = chaos, panic, and danger.
So you may be asking yourself right now, what’s the point of this therapeutic rambling and unveiling of my childhood scars and how do they apply to you?

Well, it seems as though movement specialists, performance trainers, and football coaches either didn’t have a similar haunting & traumatic experience in the pool as I did…or they didn’t learn much from it that they can apply today to their own craft.

What do I mean? Well, one look around a good majority of the athletes playing, at any given respective qualification level, and you will see countless individuals who didn’t meet the necessary fulfillments and requirements to pass their movement lessons earlier on.

Unfortunately though, the teacher obviously didn’t really seem to concern themselves about the repercussions and advanced them anyway onto the figurative deeper water and the more intense movement actions, patterns, and skills that go with it.

It often boggles my mind when NFL players begin their time with me and I go through the analysis of the film to screen their on-field movement behaviors and find that they:

-possess a host of movement compensations that either leak energy or are causing a pain cascade somewhere in the chain or patterns of the body

-have inefficient movement patterning that is leading to suboptimal movement performance

-display lack of control or well-rounded movement competency in all the skills needed to perform their positional demands at the highest levels while in the chaos of a football field

The thing is; this all is being said about any one of the 1,696 best players on the planet. And sometimes it is being said about a guy who has already held the distinction of Pro Bowler or All-Pro in their grasps.

RG3 injury

However, it just shows the problem and lack of concern for the long-term athletic development and movement mastery potential level for the athlete taken by the trainers and coaches that he has had throughout his life. Simply put, it seems as though in efforts to advance athletes up the movement complexity totem pole, a lot of compensation and errors in movement slip through the cracks.

Granted, some mistakes are necessary (and perfectly normal) for improvement in movement at any step along the movement mastery ladder. Additionally speaking, some movement variability is also expected. However, if the movement quality standard is being sacrificed in efforts to throw guys overboard while in the deeper waters all in hopes that they will be able to swim when they get there…it may be time to question the overall approach.

Like when attempting to prescribe training means & methods to elicit any physical adaptation (either in ability or skill proficiency), a step out of the movement comfort zone is important & required. But this necessary step should only take someone into an optimal zone for adequate learning…and NOT into a state of panic where the chaos becomes too much to deal with accordingly.

Much like the unqualified, incapable, and incomplete swimmer who gets in a water environment that he/she is ill-prepared for, the mover who also lacks the abilities to sufficiently solve the problems of the environment presented to him on the field will resort to compromised and compensated movement strategies in order to get himself out of it.

If presented to this type of environment frequently enough we are setting the athlete up for ultimate disaster. It won’t be long and this will lead to us witnessing those often suboptimal strategies and the smaller local motor actions and habits that make them up, to become the firmly established motor engrams and patterns laid down in place which will lead to the display of movement behavior we see occurring when the athlete later gets on the field.


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