Monday, March 15, 2010

Sports Training on the other side of the weight room with Sensory-Motor Perception

Does Make me Stronger Make Me a Better Athlete? When athletes talk about getting stronger for their sport, what's the goal behind that quest? Is that because we think that strength is the missing ingredient that will actually make us *better* athletes in a game situation? If so, why? We want to hit the ball harder, throw faster, kick further and we think strength's it? Is that the key part of our game that's weak? And if that's it, is raw strength the real issue?

If we're swinging a bat, and our hips and pelvis move as a unit rather than serially into the swing (bacause they can't move separately), that's a power leak that where more strength mayn't make much of a performance difference without correcting that hip/pelvis issue. If we're going to grab the bar for a deadlift but our wrist mobility is shonky, are we going to be able to control our grip with the strength it takes to make the pull? More leg strength isn't the issue. If we want to kick a football really far but our balance is off so our coordination is a bit askew, more power may continue to be directed away from optimal contact.

likewise, there's a lot of decision processing going on whether on the court or on the field, right? Our brains are making tons of decisions so quickly from where to put a ball on the opponent's side of the tennis court, to where the best path is to run a ball down the field, to who's open for a shot. If we're not really seeing the field, we can't make optimal decsisions about it.

So maybe we need to consider the sensory-motor connections of visural, vestibular and proprioceptive perception and associated skills to enhance our sports performance training. Each of these systems can be trained deliberately to behave more reflexively to these very normal sports situations.

In the following sections, we'll look at these areas of the sensory-motor processing within our sensory systems AND there'll be some quick self-checks you can run to check parts of these perceptual systems' performance. We'll also consider the time a person would have to put into this program to see real performance change, and i've peppered in links for resources either to doing each bit at a time, or training to put each part together at once.

The goal is that with this overview you can begin to ask the questions - and have some answers - about how to assess yourself in terms of performance, not just strength. You may find that your strength simply improves as a consequence of better work here, too.

Tuning Sensory-Motor Performance.

By way of a quick overview the proprioceptive system, as i've written about at b2d rather a bit, is the monitoring system in our bods that lets us know what's happening to us from a range of awarenesses: pressure, temperature, chemical shifts, elecro-magnetical sensing, and particular for athletic movement, positional and noxious (aka pain in many cases) awareness.

For positional awareness, we're wired up with propriocpetive mechanorecptors ( a special class of mechnoreceptors), with a good many of them being around the joints, the bendy bits of the body (makes sense - good to know where the mobile parts of a limb can be) and in the musles that detect stretch, motion, pressure. This being the case - that these receptors convey alot about the state of our limbs moving in space - the corollary of this is the better a joint can move, or the better the range of motion and the control of that range of motion around a joint, the better the information that joint is putting out.

Eric Cobb talks about this enriched sensory action as "map clarity" - the more data points the more detailed the map; the more mechanoreceptors available to give positional information the more options the body has about where and how it can go somewhere. If there's restrictions in the ankle or knees so that range of motion is not available there's in effect a sensory deprivation and a performance decrement: the body doesn't tend to go down blind alleys; it makes the best decisions it can based on the available map. Which can mean - you body don't have the resources to step quickly over that stump, you're going down suddenly. Ugh! shock! sprain!

Similarly if an athlete's restricted in their hips for instance (the hip and pelvis behave like a fused unit rather than separate joints) how the heck are they going to perform optimally? What will pay for this lack of mobility? the Low back maybe?

Preliminary Assessment
So one key part of athletic training can be a good movement assessment before any training takes place. An assessment helps discover where an athlete may need to do some work to reduce restrictions in mobility in order to open up better movement options - and thus the athlete has a better set of options for responding to situations without getting hurt when in play: yes the body has a very clear sense of where it is and (b) with lots of range of motion available, has more options for moving the ankle rather than going over on it.

At an even more basic level, mobility work is simply the practice of the joint movements to make sure an athlete can they move the joints well on demand and effortlessly.

Aside: such assessments can also check visual and vestibular performance too.

Movement Quick Check: Here's a simple check you can do with yourself or your athletes to explore joint freedom for greater movement options. Stick a leg out in front of you, and then put the leg out and straight so that it crosses the body where the foot of the outstretched leg goes past the foot of the stance leg. Check in a mirror: is the pelvis torquing around to let the leg reach this far? Now make little circles there with the knee locked out and the leg crossed over: is the pelvis torqued over? still? going up and down? If the pelvis is still and not torqued forward as if moving towards the other leg, in that position at that speed, super. Try going slower and faster. Still good? super duper. If not, that may be a sign that the pelvis and hip don't know how to work independent of each other - and so the mechanoreceptive information is less clear/accurate, and the functional options for movement less optimal. Mobility work can often address this and recover that more discrete hip/pelvis function.

Time to train: every joint in the body takes 10 mins a day, once a day. Can work different speeds/drills on different days.

So mobility work has two main functions: (1) ensuring optimal signal for optimal options of movement in live situations (Example programs for self-development).; (2) practicing movements in a variety of positions with the joints so that getting into weird (eg accident) type positions are not shocking, but relatively adaptable (program for self-dev)

Vestibular Acuity.

The middle of the neural hierarchy is the inner ear: it is predominantly the balance system of the body. BUT it also relates to motion detection, proprioception and even muscle tone. Everything is interconnected. That's really critical to understand that these systems in the neural hierarchy are not independent of each other: an issue in one has consequences in the other, and multiple systems contribute to different degrees in different contexts to the same thing. Here, for short hand, we're focusing on the balance role of the vestibular system.

The balance system is mainly located in the inner ears. We have two inner ears - one for each ear. That sounds obvious, but just like each eye may be slightly different in strenghts/weaknesses, likewise the inner ears may have different dominances. How well are they behaving in general to support sports movement? And how well are they behaving in concert?

Assessments of the vestibular system may show a discrepency on either side specifically, or generally that there may be some weaknesses. The cool thing is, the balance system can be trained. Intriguingly this doesn't mean stepping onto unstable surfaces. IT may mean skills development on very stable surfaces (see middle of this post) .

Quick Test: Here's an example. Stand on one foot for more than fifteen seconds. Now stand on the other. Is one side more wobbly than the other? Why is that? How common is it for someone on a sports field to have one leg off the ground at a time? So might it be valuable to ensure that one can be as stable as possible in that circumstance?

Time to train: 3x's a week, 10 mins/session, 8 weeks. Then maintenance.

Visual Accuity
At the top of the neural hierarchy is visual acuity - not eye sight, but they get sports vision evaluations to see how they're doing, and they practice visual acuity (here's one example) so that they can respond quickly to what's happening on the field - so their ability to perceive the situation under pressure improves.

When we work on visual accuity, we not only look at the function of the two eyes and how well they're working together, but we also work on improving the time, complexity and distractions that can be processed concurrently for quicker visually lead responses to action in the environment.

Quick Test - check out the near/far drill modelled in the link above.

Time to train: basic drills, 2 mins a day, can be combined with mobility work.
Practice sessions for cognitive load, 15 mins a day, 3times a week, 8 weeks, then maintenance.
Great program for self-development: great visual drills and speed work, too.

Putting This Sensory-Motor Work into Practice: Speed/Quickness:
As said in vision, we work with athletes to improve visual acuity of eye performance like speed of changing focus, but also work on processing dynamically changing visual information more quickly. When we have discrete loaded mobility, balance and visual acuity firing, we can also consider putting these together at "sports speed."

But speed is also a skill, too. Strength and conditioning has for awhile now been looking at sprining mechanics and technique and training - like plyometrics - to improve quickness. All sorts of things like towing a partner or being towed can get into faster turn over.

There are other techniques, too, though, that have to do with putting all the mobility and visual and vestibular accuity to work to move quickly and more efficiently at quickness. So sometimes speed is speed, but sometimes it's being faster in response to something than the opponent.

Speed in Context.
This one seems so obvious - to move fast is a good thing. And that's where our example athlete came in at the beginning: someone who wanted to move faster (i think that's what the fast twitch is about) but the skills described here would be not about making the person faster once they're up and running (how far do they have to go on a field?) but
  • how to get off the ground from a fall or tackle quickly,
  • foot work on how to follow,
  • turn and
  • cut,
  • techniques for how to accelerate for a critical 10 yards to get past their opponent.
Better techniques just to get going 180 degrees in a different direction can be invaluable.

I've bet guys much younger than i am that i can beat them getting turned around or i can get a faster start off the line from a standing start than they. What's the difference? Technique and practice of technique for moments of change where the technique is efficient and it respect the brilliance that is the athletic ready position.

Strength: what kind of strength. Finally, after all the above neural stuff happens, we might want to come back to the question: so do you really need to be stronger in your current deadlift to be a better socer player?

I generally find that most guys who have been playing for awhile are plenty strong on the teams but their endurance in the last part of the game can flag. So if anything gets added to the program, kettlebells can be great and very efficient for brute strength and stamina: two simple moves - swings and turkish get ups.

Quick Test If ya don't believe me, try this for ten minutes:
- (assuming you know how to swing a kb safely) you swing a heavy kb while your partner TGU's left and right with a medium bell, then swap and keep going non-stop for ten minutes. These two moves have the advantage of also developing hip and lat strength, pretty key for that athletic ready position.

Time to train - 20-40 mins every other day except in season. In season, coach's discretion.

Ask any coach if the strongest athlete in the dressing room is their best athlete on the field.

Taking the Pieces Further: getting more drills and skills and program plans.
If the above kinda program sounds interesting to you, beyond the links to various bits above, there's a three day workshop that gives a great intro to self-assessment and practice on this performance pyramid of vision, vestibular, proprioception calledessentials of elite performance (overview).

Some of us also coach this stuff (look for S-phase (review) in the training certifications). If you can't find someone in your neighborhood, i also coach via email/skype. Contact me with the email link at the bottom of this post if you're interested in neural hierarchy for sports training.

Take Away: Better is not necessarily Stronger.
Assuming the goal is to be a better field player, not just stronger, there may be more and other ways to look at performance than just raw strength. And that OTHER which we may often think of as rather fixed - vision, balance, movement - is highly plastic and trainable. When we start with the nervous system, too, the biomechanics seem to come online, stronger, faster, better.

Update: related new resource (may 2010)
DVD Mini Course - 6.5 hours of the essentials of elite performance workshop on three divds. If you can't make the workshop, or just want to get going on this stuff NOW, this new dvd mini course is a great way to get going. I'll have a full review soon, but in the meantime, there's way more self-tests and practices than covered above. Please check the link for the full nine yards on the details.

Get it, love it, sign up for the essentials workshop or R-phase cert (overview) within 30 days of purchase and get $100 off tuition of either course.

Great way to get a richer sensory-motor training tool box and tune up.


danny said...


i recently stumbled upon your blog and wanted to commend you on the quality of your posts. i'm pretty new to the 'movement' movement and you have been extremely helpful. so, thank you.


mc said...

danny thank you for stopping by
much obliged


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