The Current State of Movement Mastery in the NFL

Super Bowl 50 is here.

Another year has passed here at ‘Football Beyond the Stats’ and so another year of the crusade begins.

Our Mover of the Year and All-Movement Team for the 2015 season has been named.

We went through 17 weeks of breaking down the nuances of tremendous plays that occurred across the League.

I have posted a few more controversial blog articles that left more than a few people upset.

And one look around any of my social media accounts will tell you that I am still fighting the good fight of trying to get people to realize that the Movement Coach idea is a viable option in the NFL. That is, regardless of how foreign of a thought the role is to most and how many people in our profession believe they “already have this whole movement thing figured out & don’t need any additional help.”

Yes; as I enter my fourth year of writing content for this blog, it seems as though the more things that change, the more things actually stay the same.

Either way, here we sit so let’s kick 2016 off with a bang and have a bit of a State of the Union address in football performance and preparation (with the mastery of movement at our foundation of course).

I pose to you a few questions…

Where do we really stand?

Are our athletes really performing because of…or could it be in spite of…our established & traditional preparation methods?

Are our practice strategies really serving to create more masterful movers?

Is our litmus test for this mastery being measured beyond the stats? Is it beyond the practice field? Are we investigating movement strategies and solutions to the level that we need to?

Are we using everything at our disposal to help set our athletes on a path towards mastery within their craft or are we spinning our wheels by just continuing to add more bells & whistles (aka deeper GPS data analysis and the inclusion of virtual reality learning)?

These questions may seem like a moot point to many out there but here’s the thing: this is my unwavering passion.

Player’s performance, fulfillment of their potential, their safety & longevity, etc…all these things are what matters to me more than just about anything else on this earth. Additionally, I will do anything in my power to ensure that we as a whole community are doing the best we can each & every season in these regards. I may not be close to having all of the answers but I refuse to sit idly by and not push the pursuit of growth in these areas.

I have personally devoted my life’s work towards the understanding of movement on an American football field. So you bet you can bet your bottom that I take offence to people when they say things like, “I think you are overcomplicating things” or “there are lots of people who have addressed/focused on movement abilities on a football field” or many anything in between.

Newsflash hot-shots: sport movement IS complex. And American football (especially at the NFL level which is where the focus of this site has always been), due to its chaotic & unpredictable nature, the tremendous pressure & anxiety involved, and the huge diversity of individuals playing the game, definitely fits this complexity distinction. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

So, if you think that we already have come to enough of the right answers, I would like to remind you that it’s time to open your mind and clear your slate a bit.

Now, a few reality checks for us all that I want you to think about…

In initial conversations with players (some who have been in the League for 1 year and others who have went around the NFL sun many more times), I am frequently told how even during the execution of simple tasks in which they appear to have a high level of mastery in, they deal with a tremendous amount of pain…enough pain that they personally feel limits them from moving with fluid efficiency or attaining maximum performance.

Additionally, it doesn’t take long into these early conversations to have players acknowledge that they do not have an opportunity to work on the refinement of movement patterns and the acquisition of new movement solutions very often (if it all) with their teams. Most players admit that many of their position coaches are diligently obsessed with, relentless in innovation with, and fantastic in the application of the X’s & O’s…BUT perform very little “coaching up” of movement skills and if & when they do, they often have S&C professionals who contradict what it is that they were told in the other room. It would seem that all too often more than a few silos exist and instead there is very little integration between individuals & departments.

On that note, when with Strength Coaches, players often feel as though it seems rather counter-intuitive for an offensive player and a defensive one to perform the same movement drills or execute fundamental movement skills in the same fashion…when they don’t perform the same task on a field on Sunday. To add to this, they are not immune to thinking that it seems more than bit odd that they would be offered so much explicit information about the technical execution of something being performed on a platform in a weight room yet are told very little regarding execution while on field turf when they must go accelerate or change direction…well, besides, “just go faster.”

Is this REALLY the best we can do as a performance community? It may be the way it’s always been done and I won’t pretend that there aren’t some definite road blocks to really following through on best practices….but I believe we can do better. And I believe we have to do better for our athletes’ sake.

For starters… The average NFL career is a mere 3.3 years. 3.3 years! Shoot; this blog that I came up with (that I wasn’t sure anyone was ever going to read) has survived longer than that.

Taking it another step further: each Sunday it has become commonplace for us to witness players go down with horrifying injuries that could potentially keep them from performing the same ever again. Granted, football is a physically-demanding game where injuries will always be present in the sport. Furthermore, injury etiology is sometimes very difficult to trace back and determine cause. However, it’s obvious to say that many of these injuries (talking about non-contact injuries here) are a result of the movement problem getting to be too much for the athlete to handle (whether this was through him not possessing a movement strategy to overcome the acute problem…or this was because their body wasn’t physically prepared to handle the loads such as during rapid cutting actions…or whether a physiological or psychological factor such as fatigue or anxiety & pressure changed their typical movement behaviors).

We can sit down to analyze the top movers in the League at their respective positions and we can find significant flaws at a multi-level of their movement solutions that fall well out of that which could be deemed an appropriate Movement Bandwidth (even if it is a reflection of the athlete’s current Authentic Movement Signature). I am the first to admit that not all compensations are dysfunctional. But while going through film for movement analysis week-by-week I will also stick by my assessment that many of the game’s best are not always possessive of the most well-rounded and virtuous coordination & control of movement skills.

Sure; some have slipped through the cracks. In fact, just a few weeks ago I stated that I felt as though our 2015 Mover of the Year, Antonio Brown, is the most masterful mover I have analyzed during this blog’s existence.

AB pic 11

Additionally, a 30 year old Adrian Peterson (even after sitting out an entire season) was recognized by me as being the best version of AD28 that I have ever broken down.

Adrian

But yet even with these athletes who have achieved this status of raising the mastery bar…I think there is more than just some slight indication that they may have only done so by means of being a better compensator than their peers. It wasn’t because of our practice methods…but maybe it happened in spite of.

Some will say, “But Shawn, players have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger,” usually pointing to the apparent fact that Physical Preparation Coaches at each level are doing their jobs (never-mind that on-field movement mastery and longevity is the player’s goal and sometimes they aren’t using their physical capabilities in the most efficacious of ways).

Or, “Look at all the sport science measures we have taken to monitor workloads and understand the demands of players,” usually pointing to the apparent fact that we are doing plenty to understand movement tendencies of players (never mind that the information we may really need to know in order to assist players in the fulfillment of potential is how they are moving and why they are moving in this way so we can help them with what they should attempt to change in order to move more effectively).

And maybe something like, “The realities of today’s NFL (such as the current CBA or player turnover issues) do not allow us to develop players by focusing on such certain qualities (like enhanced movement solutions) at the level that you’ve suggested,” usually pointing to the apparent fact that there is not anything more that we can do to enhance movement (never mind that sport performance IS about movement, and that we happen to know a great deal about the learning of more skillful movement, AND that the quality of most NFL movement practice methods is in sharp violation of much of that which we know from skill acquisition literature).

So, here’s the thing…let me get this straight…some people out there believe that our community has all the answers and there is no need to continue to search for new & improved solutions particularly as it pertains to the improvement of movement skill?

I do NOT buy it. I do NOT believe it. And I will NOT rest on this issue.

My goal for our players is this….Mastery. More of it. That’s always been my goal and always will be my goal.

Now, of course, how the heck do we measure Mastery? Thus, how do we know when we have grasped it? Or moreover, can we actually ever be fully masterful?

I’m the first to admit that the tricky thing about Mastery is that we can never have enough of it. That would be like having too fast of car…or too much money…or too hot of girlfriend…it just can’t happen…but I digress.

Movement mastery is really about the acquisition of (through practice, instructions, and experiences) a biodynamic structure of movement skill that is both stable and flexible to the ever-changing environment and tasks of one’s sport. In this way, it’s context-dependent where the 3 B’s of movement skill (the brain, the behaviors, and the biomechanics) have become attuned to integrating into a solution that can be matched to solve the sport movement problems at the highest levels.

There are five main characteristics of motor performance and motor behavior that I feel serve to define the masterful moving athlete.

  • Ownership (control & understanding of their body in time and space in reference to the peculiar aspects of the problem)
  • Optimization (acquisition of an Authentic Movement Signature that takes advantage of who they are as a human being and previous learning experiences)
  • Virtuosity (high technical mastery and error detection & correction)
  • Efficiency (use of the human movement system’s working mechanisms to perform in highly energy efficacious fashions)
  • Effectiveness (able to match an appropriate movement solution to the nature of the problem)

Surely there’s much more to it than that. In last year’s pre-Super Bowl post of 2015, entitled “Football Agility: It’s NOT about the Strength,” I ranted about this issue as I talked about masterful movers so let me take an excerpt from that to describe more of what we are looking to develop. Within it, I stated:

“Masterful movers all rely on the honing of these psychological factors to be more specialized to the types of tasks found within their sport movement demands. In comparison to less masterful or qualified movers playing the same position these types of guys will:

  • Feel more comfortable when chaos enters the mix
  • Display more body control and able to finely adjust more rapidly to the stimuli present in the ever-changing environment
  • Maintain higher degrees of freedom for potential movement strategy options
  • Execute movements with near-optimal & efficient biomechanics (when energy leaks are often present for the less masterful as the chaos increases in comparison to the execution in closed tasks)…they can essentially do more of the right kinematic things from all biomechanical positions.
  • Use more defined visual scanning to make more appropriate decisions (i.e. watching nuances of his opponent’s behaviors to give him cues regarding best choices)
  • Will use “chunked” sensory information from more various places in the environment
  • Possess an authentic movement signature (especially fluctuations in the kinesiological pattern) that would be difficult for other performers to duplicate and would often be difficult for the athlete himself to describe
  • Have deeply ingrained motor programs that are unconscious, of the highest coordination, and which utilize a high degree of his respective specific motor potential”

That all said then, it’s up to us (in whatever role you have in the athlete’s development) to utilize a practice structure & guidance methods in which these mentioned characteristics are able to fully develop and become refined over time.

Some potential suggestions

I have been accused in the past of being good at pointing out many existing problems and not offering enough solutions (however, being that I have produced 240 sport movement skill acquisition-related videos over the course of the last two years I am not quite sure where people are looking). Thus, I could continue to highlight my perceived causes of the lack of movement mastery effect that I believe exists in the League to help you understand why this may be happening.

Many of these things would pertain to inadequate movement analysis, a lack of understanding of how football movement actually emerges on a football field (note: it’s more than just some biomechanical output), improper application of much of the movement skill acquisition research that exists, and the use of insufficient guidance methods (i.e. instructional cueing and feedback methods) by most Coaches. However, I’ve rambled on enough about the problems of the current landscape and I want to be more solution-based right now. So, let me offer you some ideas. This is by no means meant to be an all-inclusive list but it’s a start that would direct NFL coaches down the path towards greater movement mastery.

  1. Repetition Without Repetition

Famous Motor Behavior Scientist, Nikolai Bernstein, who most would refer to as the father of motor control, acknowledged long ago (1966/1967) that practice should be a form of “repetition without repetition.” And if I were to characterize what I do with my athletes this is a good three word summary.

However, one look around most movement practice settings (at all levels of qualification) and you are bound to see a whole heck of a lot of blocked and constant practice (aka ‘rote repetition’). This may be fine and dandy (and needed) for an athlete who resides at a low level of mastery (or possibly one who is attempting to establish a new motor pattern). But this rote repetition will not relate to much motor learning/skill acquisition for an NFL player.

As Siff & Verkhoshansky told us in their famous text, Supertraining: “Sport is a problem solving activity in which movements are used to produce the necessary solutions.” If sport is a problem solving activity, and the problem in the practice setting never actually changes, are those practice activities that we typically use truly preparing the athlete to acquire the abilities to adequately solve the problems of their sport?! I think you know my answer.

In this same light, ideas from the Dynamical Systems Theory, Ecological Psychology, and a Constraints-Led Approach would start to point us in a few of these practical directions where we attempt to shape constraints (of the organism, the environment, and the task) of the problem to enable the “most optimal” coordination and control of a movement solution to emerge.

More traditional motor control and motor learning research would also suggest the same. Even individuals who believe in the Generalized Motor Program/Schema Theory (which would suggest the existence of a motor engram stemming from the hierarchical levels of the brain), along with a more linear progression of skill acquisition such as what the Fitts & Posner Stages of Motor Learning would suggest, indicate that in order for an athlete’s skill to be applicable to sport they need to be able to associate & match their movement organization to certain environmental cues and ultimately get to the point where error detection and correction occurs without consciously thinking about it.

Thus, no matter which side of the theoretical fence you stand on, it’s probably time to drop the predominance on “rote repetition” that takes place especially during individual positional periods (and probably with movement-oriented days for S&C coaches). Instead, I advise for the use of a more variable practice structure in most cases in true Bernstein “repetition without repetition” fashion. This could involve more random practice than blocked scheduling. It could also involve more variable execution than constant execution. Overall, we need to create problems that are messier and more unpredictable. This will lead to an emergence of solutions that are sometimes messy as well. But that’s how athletes learn and retain skills. Thus, practice itself may not look as good on the surface, but performance will look a whole lot better on Sundays (ah hem…transfer will occur!).

  1. Deliberate & Deep Movement Practice

I have stated before that in the training of NFL players that I sometimes feel as though I am a glorified babysitter. It can be akin at times to the task of herding cats. They have minds of their own and those minds drift…pretty frequently.

However, when channeled into the right places by establishing a movement practice quality standard above that which most are accustomed, we can drastically help athletes acquire skill that will ultimately put them in ownership of more functional movement solutions when they must perform under pressure, chaos, and fatigue.

Thus, I have some rules for deliberate and deep movement practice:

  • Mindful movement; they must be in the moment at all times. If they are allowed to just go through the motions (if you have ever watched NFL players warm-up with their teams before a practice you know what I mean), there will not be much shaping of the biodynamic structure of that movement skill from any activities performed.
  • Deliberate intention & attention to detail; no repetition in practice can go to waste. Time is precious and so are the players’ current adaptation reserves. Thus, the athlete must perform each rep with a purpose on some aspect of the execution (usually this focus is on a ‘Key Performance Indicator’ or a personal weakness of the athlete’s)
  • Error detection & correction; as coaches we must get much better at analyzing and determining what errors are occurring (and what makes it an error!) and then figuring out ways to help our athletes themselves become aware of it (sometimes through explicit information and other times through implicit learning due to changing the task).
  • Slow down if need be; this is a hard one for some and of course we should attempt to find a happy medium. However, slowing down the activity when changes need to occur gets the sensory-perceptual system’s attention. It allows the athlete to perceive formerly redundant or cloudy sensory data and do something different with it during perception of it. This can then lead to a change in motor control. Often times, athletes are being instructed to “go as fast as possible” which just relates back to having them perform how they know how-to at the moment from previously established skill levels.
  1. Technical Proficiency in Common Movement Patterns (Authentic Movement Signatures & Movement Bandwidths)

When we talk about the execution of common movement patterns like acceleration and deceleration (and even more general skills like squatting, jumping, lunging, etc), we absolutely must strive to enable players to be more fundamentally-sound with their both their behaviors (their intention & attention) and their biomechanics (the actual kinematics/motor output).

Now, that said, there will always be inter-individual variability (from performer to performer across the rosters) which I refer to as an athlete’s Authentic Movement Signature. Additionally, regardless of the level of mastery, there will also always be certain intra-individual variability (from repetition to repetition/performance to performance for the same athlete) which I refer to as an athlete’s Movement Bandwidth.

These characteristics of movement execution are realities and are needed for the optimization of a movement skill. Meaning, we should not ever attempt to require athletes to adhere to an idealized motor pattern/technical model as it may not be the optimal execution (or even possible) for them based on who they are. Instead, we must deeply investigate who they are and what it may mean to their coordination, control and organization of their movement solutions.

From there, we must strive to coach and instruct per that individualized model of their Authentic Movement Signature. This takes great awareness, study, detail, and attention; I get that. Additionally, if an athlete is violating certain biomechanical truths frequently during the execution of their movements in practice, you can bet that under greater stress indicative of game-day (such as chaos, anxiety, pressure, fatigue, or pain) those habits are going to be turning into behaviors that will detract from their performance.

  1. Communication & Feedback

Attention is in hot demand. Every athlete has limited attention spans and attentional focus. Thus, our instructional words and our feedback must attempt to make good use of this attention. Be purposeful with what you say and how you say it.

Remember, Movement Mastery is what we are after. We surely can’t give an athlete a whole lot of ownership and allow them to gain error detection/correction for themselves if we are constantly bombarding them with either instructional cues or feedback after every repetition. Individual ownership from the athlete beats dependency on us as a coach/instructor.

When offering instructions, don’t get married to any one cue as every cue will expire at sometime for the athlete and it will become some additional part of redundant sensory information that serves zero function. Instead, use both intrinsic and extrinsic cueing to see how the motor performance changes for the athlete. However, realize that even in times where there may be no change in acute motor performance there could still be lasting learning effects which are more highly advantageous for the athlete down the road.

Additionally, the simple modification of your augmented feedback schedule (while still demanding a deliberate practice quality standard) to include a ‘summary feedback’ schedule (feedback offered after a certain # of reps have been completed), a ‘faded feedback’ schedule (decreasing the frequency & amount of feedback over the course of a practice session or over periods of time), and a ‘performer-regulated feedback’ schedule (where feedback is only given when/if the athlete requests it) will prove to be highly advantageous to increasing ownership and awareness of the knowledge of the performance for the athlete.

Finally, I would advise using more ‘Guided Discovery’ athlete questioning with your feedback, as well. This would equate to asking athletes a series of questions to allow a further understanding of the movement execution and outcome (note: it will help you as the Coach attempt to understand how they are organizing their specific solution too). Here then, instead of giving an athlete an explicit run-down regarding what you just saw as a Coach, you ask questions such as the ones below in an attempt to help them discover movement errors and figure out where to go next in the process:

  • What did you feel there during that rep? (Avoid asking, “How did that feel?”)
  • How did that rep compare versus the ones before it? (Or compared to last time, etc)
  • What would you like to work on correcting on the next rep/next time? (Ownership!)

Conclusion

Masterful movement on a football field is going to be determined by a complex combination of numerous determining factors. Unfortunately, the current NFL performance landscape frequently acts as a deterrent and creates numerous roadblocks for players on their path towards attaining this mastery. However, everyone involved in this movement skill acquisition at their respective levels must acknowledge this and realize that there are changes we can make; it will just take us stepping out of our comfort zones at times in order to do so.

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