Player Movement Evaluation – Barry Sanders: Is he the greatest mover of all time?

Three years ago, I wrote a movement analysis that I had intended would start a trend on Football Beyond the Stats when I published a breakdown of an all-time great, Deion Sanders. In case you missed it then, here is that blog post:

https://footballbeyondthestats.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/deionsanders/

Though it was well-received at the time, I greatly dropped the ball on keeping up with the all-time great movement breakdowns. That is, until now; I am looking to revive this series a bit! Because of that, the other night I asked for suggestions from my Twitter followers as to whom they wanted to read about. When all was said and done, it was no surprise that quite possibly the most masterful mover NFL Sundays have ever seen (at the very minimum the most agile), Barry Sanders, was overwhelmingly the player people were looking to understand more fully. The all-time great running back received 12 votes whereas the next closest was Randy Moss and Deion Sanders both with 3 nods (and of course I had already done an analysis on Deion).

Admittedly, this was both good and bad for me! Thing is, if you have followed my blog posts for any length of time, you may have read about Barry on BTS before…maybe even more than once. In fact, over the years, I have routinely used Barry as the prototype of movement mastery in the league; someone who personified my five characteristics of movement skill (ownership, optimization, virtuosity, efficiency, and effectiveness).

So, the good: I have already watched virtually every play of Barry’s NFL career and have studied it with a fine tooth comb. At game-speed and in slow motion, from a sideline view to an end zone view and every view in between; you name it, I’ve dissected it. Because of this, I don’t know any player’s movement strengths & weaknesses better than #20’s. But, with that also comes the bad: because of the respect and admiration I have for Barry’s movement skill, I cannot screw this one up! Additionally, even though I have seen every play of Barry more times than I like to admit for the sake of my social life, every time I see a play again, something new pops out to me about how he went about solving the movement problems he is facing on the field. He was truly that special and there will never be another quite like him. But, enough of the praise let me try to peel back the layers for you and show you Barry Sanders like you’ve never seen him before.

Before we go any further, I want to share a few Barry highlight videos which will likely illustrate his movement greatness better than I will be able to do in my explanation:

(Note: In my opinion, this video couldn’t be done more appropriately to match Barry’s style!)

https://youtu.be/gSCG6NGUCE8

https://youtu.be/GykaB6Fip8U

https://youtu.be/vKjfoQVssBo

Even though you just watched those, I will still contribute (that is what you came here for, right? Ha!) my thoughts regarding what I see through all of that.

How the heck did he get this way?!

More times than I can count, as a Football Movement Coach/Personal Performance Advisor for players, I have asked myself the obvious question when watching Barry: “how did he get this masterful?!” This is a question that boggles my mind because I want to be able to create similar athletes of mastery in this day and age of the game and I owe it to my athletes to pursue its answer. Though I don’t think anyone can ever truly say for sure how it occurred, I will definitely try to speculate and offer my hypothesis for you all.

Let me start by bringing up the best RB of the last decade, Minnesota Viking, Adrian Peterson. This mention isn’t because Barry and AD28 are similar in their movement skills and traits (they are quite contradictory in how they solve problems) but instead because of an example I believe Adrian creates that we can use to describe the emergence of Barry’s movement patterns too.

Throughout last year’s blog writing, most notably in my end of the year All-Movement Team (https://footballbeyondthestats.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/2015-all-movement-team-offense/), I claimed that I felt as though Adrian’s movement skill-set in 2015 were a tremendous real-life example of the Dynamical Systems Theory (or Ecological Psychology) at-hand. This was because last year was really the first time in Adrian’s career that I could recall him consistently gravitating to the utilization of certain movement strategies and certain biomechanical solutions such as the use of a deeper/wider COG/BOS (center of gravity and base of support) and an outside foot power cut (as opposed to a crossover or jump cut) and I believe this happened because in his first full year of being in Norv Turner’s offense the environmental and task constraints often required him to be one-on-one in more open space with more athletic individuals (DB and OLB) than he had when most of his past work occurred predominantly between the tackles.

When I watch and marvel at Barry’s movement skills, I can’t help but think this is a more extreme long-term example of the Dynamical Systems Theory/Ecological Psychology taking root in evolution of the movement lifecycle for an athlete over the course of his career. What do I mean by this? Well, when we look at Barry’s storied career at Oklahoma State, we don’t see nearly the same types of movement solutions as he was required to pull out of his movement toolbox once he got to the NFL and blocking wasn’t so much at a premium any longer on his often OL-deficient Detroit Lion teams. Thus, every game (and also likely every practice or scrimmage) became one big learning environment for his movement landscape to evolve from. His behaviors (where he looked & when, what he felt, etc), his brain (decision making), and his biomechanics (the agile motor execution that we watch and shake our heads at) had to become much more attuned to the problem to keep him from getting his head taken off. From this he learned affordances for action and what he was capable of under the constraints involved in the most chaotic of ways possible.

barry-lunge-reaccel

Of course, there are plenty of NFL RBs who are subjected to similar issues and not-so-good offensive lines and yet there is only one Barry Sanders. So what gives? Well, as I always say, the NFL’s best are often the athletes they are because of their ability to more positively compensate to the problems of their position better than their peers. So, from this perfect storm of movement problem, I believe walked out the most masterful mover the sport has ever seen.

Mastery Personified

Because all of the fans of guys like Deion, Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, and Reggie White (among many others) are probably now already in an uproar regarding my claim towards Barry being the clear undisputed movement champion in NFL history, let me remind you as to what my definition of movement mastery in sport is about so you can start to see why Barry is what I would refer to as mastery personified.

Sport movement mastery is really a combination of these characteristics: ownership, optimization, virtuosity, efficiency and effectiveness. Meaning, an athlete must have authentic movement (optimized) that is both stable (ownership & efficiency) as well as adaptable (virtuous & effective) to the variety of problems faced within the ever-changing environment of sport that is often filled with chaos, pressure, and anxiety. The masterful moving NFL player must be able to have very little movement skill deterioration under those psychological factors as well as physiological factors such as fatigue.

With Barry, we see a coordination, control, and organization of movement that cannot be replicated or duplicated (only imitated but never to the degree of quality as the original did it). Present Barry with any movement problem and he routinely proved that more often than not he would solve it. People may point to the fact that Barry lost a whole lot of yards in his career as a way to draw attention to any argument for any lack in his virtuosity (and mastery) armor, but to do so would be an injustice because I think we could also look at the plays he made that arguably no other player was ever capable of making.

His Behaviors (Sensory-Perceptual Qualities)

Oh how I would give anything to be able to go back and put an eye-tracking system on Barry during just one game! While listening to any NFL commentator, you will inevitably hear the idea of ‘vision’ come up as a means for RBs being able to do what they do. However, to zero in on Barry’s visual scanning is a sight to behold (pun intended!). Where plenty of research in other sport movement investigations has highlighted the apparent use of the quiet eye (see Joan Vickers research), Barry seemed to be a first-hand example of it. He was able see things others couldn’t; presumably this happened by a more accurate fixation of his eyes at the right place and right time.

barry-decel

Additionally, this Behavioral ‘B’ of movement skill comes down to more than just visual proficiency. It is also about one’s ability to know & understand where one’s body is in the context of space and time AND in relation to this opponent(s). One gander at any of the Barry videos posted above and you will see that this is one area that Barry made his bread & butter. Together then, these sensory-perceptual qualities (likely along with other senses too in varying degrees) are really what make everything else within the structure of his movement possible; namely his reading & recognizing and his anticipation. This led to the attached gathering of information (& perception of it) that led to him deciphering what was possible given the circumstances of the problem (his potential affordances to action).

SANDERS

His Brain (Cognitive Decision-Making)

From those sensory-perceptual qualities then stems a host of other processes that help organize his typical movement solutions. I often say that every athlete has access to the same sensory data as every other athlete when performing a certain movement action but it’s just that the higher level movers perceive that sensory information differently than their peers. Well, I think this is inarguable as it pertains to Barry but I think it’s appropriate to take it another step further: Barry was able to call upon the right decision (such as the selection of the right place to go and how to get there) after that information was gathered and the level of threat and its attached affordances were perceived.

Additionally, because of how often he was thrown into the proverbial fire of football chaos, he seemingly started to become more comfortable under immense pressures that would break lesser man’s movement skill down to a level indicative of a beginner. Meaning, when cognitive demands become greater because of the complexity of the problems to be solved, we find that athletes resort to that which they know best (versus that which they know IS best) and have become most solidified with.

In one of the videos above Barry states, “I tried to perfect the skill of making people miss. In a lot of plays I am doing something impulsive where I had to turn off the brain in certain ways and just react.”

This is rather interesting dialogue from #20. So whether those thought processes were more conscious & explicit at one time earlier in the timescale of his movement skill acquisition remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear, the palette of movement strategies he had to select from was refined and yet artistic at the same time. Ironically, this type of balance reminds me strikingly of the late and great martial artist, Bruce Lee.

His Biomechanics (Motor Solutions/Technical Execution)

Whether we are talking about mechanics displayed in linear speed or in change of direction (let’s say agility instead though) many in our field will think of technical models of movement when they discuss biomechanics. However, often times those technical models don’t take individuality into consideration (e.g. anthropometric features, strengths & weaknesses, etc). That all said, within the commonly executed movement actions for a RB, Barry was an example of authenticity.

In linear speed applications we traditionally saw from him:

  • Fast acceleration qualities (like most explosive RBs who hit high relative speeds early in running) highlighted by short ground contact times and a steep angle of the force vectors caused by the strike of his foot due to the interaction of his front-side & back-side mechanics (though this had a wide movement bandwidth due to the nature of the linear demands for a RB)

barry-accel

  • Short stride length though he had high & clean front-side knee angle mechanics where the hip projected forward horizontally with little wasted vertical action made possible due to his very apparent elastic-reactive SSC ability and maximization of dorsi-flexion
  • Efficient backside mechanics and consistent arm action

full-speed

In agility situations we traditionally saw from him:

  • Angles, angles, and more angles (‘sharp’ doesn’t begin to describe them)
  • The deepest of COG and widest of BOS that would be unnatural for others to even get into
  • Unbelievably rapid force absorption in deceleration
  • Equally adept unilateral cutting maneuvers as his bilateral ones
  • The frequent use of a variety of feints, fakes, and stutters to freeze guys momentarily…this allowed him to get guys panicked so he could strike like a cobra
  • Balance in even the most extreme of unstable positions

barry-far-plant-2

Of course, when watching Barry we saw more moves than we had never witnessed before in any other player. The movement pattern that emerged was often one of creativity and novelty. Out of the wide diversity of motor problems that Barry was faced with, it could be said no player ever had more dexterity in his movement toolbox. He wasn’t just an expert with a saw on a piece of wood (let’s call this his power cut), but he could also hammer quite the nail too (let’s say this is a crossover cut), and do everything in between as well (jump cuts, speed cuts, and lunge cuts!). This ability to switch from one pattern to another and still be equally skillful with an efficient and effective execution of those patterns allowed him to find himself an adequate solution to match to the biggest bandwidth of problems. His movement solutions were simply that adaptable (i.e. solidified/stable/consistent yet fluctuating/plastic).

extreme-crossover-2

Conclusion

There have been lots of special movers in the National Football League over the decades the game has been played and has been evolving for. However, I believe it’s pretty clear that Barry Sanders stands firmly atop the movement mastery ladder and is without equal. The blend of perception and action; how his brain, behaviors, and biomechanics coalesced to formulate the most optimal solution to even the most complex of movement problems…breathtaking and brilliant! The positions he could get into that even the best of the best wouldn’t even dream of finding themselves in…mind-bending! The way he thrived when things broke down or times when it looked like no option existed…head-scratching! The production and consistency he displayed when everyone on the field, in attendance, and watching at home, knew exactly where the ball was going…uncanny. Barry Sanders was truly a one of a kind anomaly even among the all-time greats the NFL has ever witnessed.

 

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One thought on “Player Movement Evaluation – Barry Sanders: Is he the greatest mover of all time?

  1. Incredible article. I have also studied Barry Sanders movement for years trying to help my athletes improve with their change of direction and develop better react to the stimulus around them. This article takes it a step further and gets into how he developed this running style through (practice). Seeing different things because of his inferior OL, he had to adapt to that or never become the running back he was capable of becoming. Also the qualities of Sport Movement Mastery are awesome! I am looking forward to reading more into those qualities.
    Thank you

    This is the stuff I love to read about. Keep it up!!!!!

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