Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Model of an Athlete, of Athletecisim: z-health's 9s - also a model of coaching

Here's a question that seems to be poking me on from the earlier "do we enjoy all our workouts/practices/training sessions?" And it's: What is our model of performance? what are the qualities to which we aspire in terms of living what i'm increasingly seeing as "embodied" lives - where we get that we're not just brains with bodies, but that our bodies are life enhancing? Before answering this, one might wonder why do we need a model? Why not just you know, keep moving? Eat well, rest well, move well.

Yup. That's great. For a certain quality of well. But what makes up that "wellness"? How do we understand that wellness so we can make decisions about what to include in our practice and what to discard; what's useful and what's for later, or not at all? Frameworks, models of a system, an organism can help. Indeed, these kinds of templates are usually more effective than specific programs. They usually relate to principles from which skills and pragmatics can be derived, progress or just needs assessed. And if we're actually in a place to coach someone, the value of such frameworks becomes even greater.

Let's consider what we mean by principle centered frameworks, consider the athlete in this, and take a look at the benefit of such an approach as a coaching model, too.

Principle Informed Frameworks - Models in Other Domains
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleWe have examples of such adaptable models in other aspects of our way of being in the world. Steven Covey, author of the ubiquitously cited 7 Habits of Highly Effective People demonstrates why having a framework informing what we do is part of being truly effective. For instance, he's well known for his expression rather than prioritise your schedule "schedule your priorities." In other words, make deliberate time for what is important. That's a principle. He calls it "put first things first" or suggests that "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." To figure out what comes first, he has strategies to align with one's "true north" - one's principles. Come from principles first, not strategies like to-do lists or calendars. Those are tools; they are just the implementation details.

Good to Great ,Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Other's Don't 2002 publicationIn another now-foundational text about business success, Jim Collins and his team in Good to Great attempt to reverse engineer a set of principles that are in common with companies that made the leap from being Good companies to Great companies - companies that have beaten the market repeatedly for a particular period, by a particular percentage consecutively.  

Themes recur from attitudes of leaders to the way organizational management works. One of my favorite principles from the book is Get the Right People on the Bus. With the right folks, one can do almost anything, and thrive in any climate.

First Things FirstWhat's also interesting about the book is how many times Collins finds himself asking participants in the interviews about what their company's mission or vision is - and how this wasn't necessarily ever an explicit thing for people. The actions they took were not necesarily part of a pre-fabricated plan. It was just the right thing to do.

The role of folks like Covey and Collins is to analyse the seeming instinctive behaviours of the Great and translate them into principles first and, following this, skills that can be practiced in line with these principles. For Covey, i'd suggest that the book First Things First is very much the workbook for the temporal organization part of the Seven Habits.

By developing skills practice, as in anything, skills are first paths towards accessing an action we want to accomplish - from a better tennis swing to a better email response practice (which may mean less email). Second, the repeated practice of a skill makes it a kind of habit or even reflex. That is we do it without having to think about it. It becomes engrained. For folks who constantly practice their skills, they become not just reflexive habits but stronger patterns. Talking with Steve Cotter the other day about a really nice GS snatch tutorial video he did, he was saying he had to do a new one because he was finding his technique was refining much faster now - months rather than years. Steve has been so focussed on his snatch technique and on teaching that technique in his IKFF for GS practice and competition, no kidding he's finding new performance refinements fast. It's amazing what having to teach does to thinking about breaking something into the most teachable units.

Model of the Athlete means Focus for Skills Development
Which brings us back to athletics from a principle driven model. So what is an athlete? or what are the attributes of athleticism? That's almost as bad as asking "what is motivation?" It's a skill too.

SO here's a model of an athlete that Eric Cobb put together and around which Z-Health (overview and index of related articles) is based.
The Z-Health 9S model of the Athlete

Strength, sustenance, skill, suppleness, stamina, structure, spirit, style and speed. All *equal sized* nodes on this graph. We all need strength: what kind of strength do we need in particular for what we do? Likewise suppleness. We all need to eat and recover. How tune that? How might one's structure be utilized or tuned to better support one's athletic goals? What about sports skills? How's one's physiological stamina mapped to one's ability to endure, to support, to be? to one's spirit? And what about one's own way of doing things, one's style? How support that to enhance rather than break one?

In graphing terms, this equal-node model is also a hub and spoke diagram where "the athlete is at the center" (the phrase you will here Cobb and Co. repeat often) and where everything is mediated through that center.  This paradigm of the athlete as the mediating center of some core attributes takes coaching in an interesting direction, and situates Z-Health as a robust approach to training longevity that goes way beyond the foundation of movement drills.

I've written quite a bit about the principles from neuroscience that Z-Health translates as a kind of engineering of movement science or neuroscience into training practice. We've looked at Z-Health from dynamic joint mobility, to pain models, to threat modulation to CNS testing.  the focus has been to improve movement quality and thereby to improve movement performance. These are the fundamental components of Z-Health.  Moving limbs well, threat modulation for effective adapatation, these are the primary building blocks of the Z-Health approach as taught in the R,I,S and T certifications. But these fundamentals are themselves motivated by this overall model of the athlete, where the goal is how best support the athlete.

In other words, the goal of Z-Health as an approach is actually to use this model of the athlete (and in Z the starting point is "everyone is an athlete") as a principle-oriented, skills-based guide to coaching> The goal, as a coach, is to learn the skills - driven by the best practical, clinical and science lead research out there - to guide an athlete's performance on each of these parameters. Cobb talks about the best coaching is knowing when to emphasize which of these compnents in training, which then means knowing how emphasize the component, and within that, what content specifically to offer the athlete. That's non-trivial. That's serious stuff. Principles are serious. And the expectation is rather that as coaches we walk the walk not just talk the talk. I've said it before: everyone needs a coach. Do you have a coach who can talk with you about your speed and your swing and your sustenance? Why not? Here's a list of master trainers who really walk the walk.

Great Coaching - Practical Principled Coaching
for Deliverable, Repeatable, Skills-based Athleticism

We are wired to learn and to adapt - it's part of our survival mechanism.
Part of the approach of the 9S model is to break down components of practice into learnable skills. All of the movements in the basic drills of R and I phase are based on athletic movements (this is particularly apparent in I-Phase).

In the 9S courses, the emphasis is on getting at these larger components of athleticism and focusing on usable knowledge and practical skills, from nutrition to strength to speed to style, to make us better coaches, so that we have the depth and breadth to provide the right knowledge, the right tools, at the right time, within a pretty broad, holistic view of an athlete fundamentally as a person. As an example, last year in Sustenance and Spirit, we spent considerable time practicing coaching skills as drills. Active Listening anyone? This was really challenging work for a lot of us: how to listen and respond rather than just program and push.  That was aside from the depth of detail we got into on basic nutrition, inflammation processes, supplement studies and related. Not just knowledge; not just tools but how to engage, when to deliver the right ones and the right time.

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody ElseThe cool thing i think is that stuff when we see someone great do it, we often take the approach of "wow, that person is really gifted - they just have that talent. what a gift" But a lot of that stuff can be taught. And practiced. With intent. We can develop skills. We can learn not only the tools to have to be a great coach, but how to BE a great coach.

And sure there may be folks who are naturally gifted. But as Geoff Colvin notes in Talent is Overrated, and as Gladwell notes in Outliers, putting in the time to practice a skill is what separates the best from the rest. We need our ten thousand reps. But knowing the skills to rep, when, for how long - that's what makes a great coach, and how to be a great coach is no small thing. But a lot of it is skills too, and skills can be (a) taught and (b) practiced.

There's an elegance to Cobb's model that i suspect as it becomes better known will end up plastered over strength coaches' walls. Sports programs will teach the 9S's as a way of communicating training goals and measurements. And what a day that will be.

It takes a certain kind of genius to ask the obvious questions and then find not only the non-trivial answers but the solutions that make them tractable, teachable, learnable while letting them still be wonderful. I think that likely Eric Cobb has done this with this approach to coaching, with the athlete-centred model of athleticism.  Why? because it is principle centered, science based and skills-oriented. Each course, each cert is always geared to "what can you do with this monday morning when you're back with your athletes?"

Taking It Home.
This post started with a question about how do we  guide our pursuit of embodied happiness, embodied well being? Having a model of what makes up success in a given domain seems to be a pretty good approach. Covey has such a model for engaging with others. Collins has a model for corporate progress. And i'd suggest Cobb (wow, another C) has a model for athletic well being. And since we all have bodies and move, well, everyone is an athlete.

So if you've been riffing on Z-Health as a great approach to movement, and feeling better, maybe moving out of pain or into better performance having seen a Z-Health coach, that's great. It is super fantastic for this. If you're interested in getting started with Z-Health, here's a big fat Z-Health overview.

If you're thinking about an approach to training, about learning skills to train better, and about getting at the science of movement and these 9S's in an intelligent, useful and usable way, Z-Health is really reaching to get folks there. And that's kind of a new paradigm too for fitness, strength and conditioning, and sports-oriented training. Kinda makes me go hmm. This is an interesting place to be, and i'm inclined to watch this space.


Anonymous said...

"Everyone is an athlete"?

Depending on how you define, 'athlete', I couldn't disagree more.

A look at the term's etymology ...

It comes from a Greek term meaning 'prize' ... So an athlete was somebody who 'competed for a prize'.

Both it's historical and contemporary meanings are built upon a foundation of extrinsic motivation.

Whilst many people embrace an athletic understanding of movement and greatly benefit from this competitive approach, it's not the only way of experiencing movement.

The pleasure of movement can be a reward in it's own right. And, I think seeking this kind of intrinsic motivation for movement (pleasure/enjoyment), for most people, is actually a better strategy.

In fact, I'd argue that trying to fit/force everybody into an athletic mold/mindset is counterproductive, at least for some people.

Not everybody sees movement as a competition, or something they have to continually strive to get 'better' at.

For example, an older (non-athletic) couple I know take a short walk every night after dinner. They've done it for as long as they've been married (I think 40 plus years). I believe this simple habit has significantly contributed to their good health, strength and fitness.

That being said, at no stage have they ever ...

1. Tried to walk faster and 'win' against their 'opponents' (other people out walking).

2. Ever contemplated implementing a comprehensive strength and fitness program to help 'improve' their walking performance.

3. Got a coach in to help them improve their skill and technique at walking.

They've simply found a movement they both enjoy. And that's why they do it. The associated health, strength and fitness benefits are collateral damage.

I know you personally put a high premium on enjoying movement, so my little rant, is basically redundant. But I do think words are important ... and the term 'athlete' has a lot of baggage ... some of which I think can cause problems for many regular folk simply looking for a healthy and enjoyable pastime.

Kira :)

Austin Jones said...

kira, I like what you wrote but in my humble opinion you may be confusing competition with athleticism. The older folks going for a walk are athletes. They push, pull, bend, lunge, twist, squat, deadlift and move in general. And if they cant do those things at even the smallest and safest level- then they have lost something they shouldnt have. The level of their athletic ability is lower than say a young track star. But, everyone moves and uses all the muscles of their body is some form or another using all movement patterns and all those patterns under a load.

Just two cents...


Anonymous said...

Hey Austin,

Yes, I understand and appreciate what you're saying.

As I said, "it depends how you define athlete".

I was referring to it's most basic meaning: a person who competes for a prize.

Hope you're having a good weekend :)

dr. m.c. said...

Ah! so this is what mr "i'm playing off the internet for the weekend" does on a saturday night. I'm chuffed.

kira thank you for taking the time to defend the practice of your elderly neighbors NEPAs. Right on and you're absolutely right what they're doing is great.

Austin, i take your take on athleticism entirely. THanks for offering that.

Jura, You know i haven't really looked at the text book definition of an athlete?

The first one i've hit from the free dictionary reads "A person possessing the natural or acquired traits, such as strength, agility, and endurance, that are necessary for physical exercise or sports, especially those performed in competitive contexts."

and yup its etymology is about getting a prize. BUT according to the miriam webster dictionary since the 15th C, we've had "a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina"

And the z-health model as you can see kinda expands and refines these attributes. Nothing in any of these three spaces narrows the athlete to just an extrinsically driven competitor.

Indeed, in the z-health courses athlete is generally defined as people who have to move well to do what they do - whether "a desk athlete, mom athlete, cop athlete"

THe term is used deliberately in that case to help folks remember as i've been putting it that we're not just brains with bodies that are inconvenient, but that our bods and what they can do and need to do to be well are rather important to our entire well being.

As such, it seems cool to me to think about the necessary attributes of athleticism. Speed as one attribute has been fascinating me lately as it has so much to do with vision (and also because i've always seen myself as slow) - and especially as we age, it seems that something we would all benefit from keeping in keen shape, no?

So for me, this model far from constraining me has helped me get out of an old and debilitating mind set (i'm slow) and learn new skills that help all the time (i can learn visual acuity; i can learn the techniques to respond more quickly; i can learn the techniques actually to get faster).

These approaches have also been helping me with geeks too - where there is competition: if you get sick or too tired to stay awake next week that paper will not get in to that conference which will really help your cv.

As for coaching, don't you think we all benefit from coaching? Some of us find a lot of that in books - i've mentioned a bunch above. But even there, going to a seminar with a great coach to help enhance skills, see a new way - whether its dealing with finances, finding a job or moving better - seems most of us get their quicker from a little one on one - if we can find that right one.

that's just my experience.

Anonymous said...

Hey m.c.

Ha! I only go off my social networks on the weekend (facebook and twitter). I still read my RSS feeds (which includes your feed) ... A geek needs regular RSS feeding or he'll starve and die ;)

Here's an experiment for you, Ask 10 of your (non-athletic) friends the following question ... "What is an athlete?"

If I'm right about the meaning at least 8/10 will respond with one of these answers ...

Somebody who plays sport.
Somebody who competes.
Somebody who is REALLY fit.

Obviously I think playing sport, competing and getting mega fit are great ... but I also think there's a significant chunk of people out there who don't respond well to this kind of 'athletic' model of movement. And would do far better simply trying to find an activity they enjoy that happens to also improve their strength and fitness (like the walking example I gave earlier).

I guess all I'm suggesting is that if you come across somebody who isn't responding well to the athletic model ... consider trying a different model :)

Concerning coaching ...

No. I don't think coaching is ALWAYS a good thing. Sometimes coaching can lead to paternalism and dependency. Hell, sometimes it can lead to mis-placed hero-worship and destructive cultism.

Don't get me wrong, I believe a good coach is worth their weight in gold (and should be paid accordingly) ... but I also believe they should be 'used' sparingly, and only if they help you become more informed and empowered about your own fitness.

I'm one of those 'teach a dude how to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime', kinda people :)

At any rate, that's just what I think ... And I'm the first to admit that I'm often wrong ;)

I'm off to sleep ... always a pleasure chatting with you.

Kira :)

dr. m.c. said...

who cares if what a bunch of people think an athlete is is a competetive olympian? it's kinda clear that they above is proposing a somewhat different framing, no? and one that actually resonates with definitions one would find if they look up the term.

You're responding to my points by using definitions not in the article. Why not work with what's in the article and see if that re-framing works for you? or where it doesn't? that's kinda the point: does this framing help us work with folks?

as for "I'm one of those 'teach a dude how to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime', kinda people :)

yes, exactly.
that's what a good coach does: exactly the right skill at the right time for optimum result.

you say having a coach is not ALWAYS a good idea. It sounds like what you're actually saying is having a coach always present is not a good idea as if that means "someone who does it for you" - like gives you the fish rather than enhancing your fishing technique.

A coach is not a personal trainer or a teacher doing lessons or a lecturer. A coach is there to coach, to advise and guide on request, to see what that person being coached cannot see to help them get to higher ground in whatever their practice. That does not mean one does the work for them.

Indeed, with my students, if they have a problem, they are let's say strongly encouraged to come in with possible solutions - even partial ones - before coming to see me so we have something to discuss.

so ya i guess i think having a coach available on any topic that requires expertise - for a tune up or reality check is a great thing to have.

mentors likewise, more rare, and happy the person who finds a good one.


dr. m.c. said...

and jura the mutual adoption offer is still on the table.

Anonymous said...

Yes. I am talking semantics ... And whilst I agree you've CLEARLY framed/reframed the terminology, ALL I'm saying is the term (along with many others related to fitness, like 'working out' etc.) has baggage that can effect communication and ultimately implementation with CERTAIN segments of society. And we should be aware of that.

I'm not saying anything more than this ... it's important to be aware that not everybody understands things the way we'd like them to. And sometimes it's better to find a different model they can understand, rather than try and mold their thought processes to suit the model we prefer ... and thereby screw around with their own way they go about deciphering the world.

Re: 'Who cares' about ordinary peoples' perception of fitness related concepts? Me :)

I actually have a great interest in how ordinary people understand the concepts and terms related to movement. I put it down to an overly enthusiastic Sociology lecturer I had who continually emphasized the relationship between the words we use, the society we live in, and how we understand/go about our daily lives.

Indeed, I think many of the current 'discourses' of movement that are available for ordinary people to tap into are a significant barrier of entry.

And in that regard, I'm not saying an athletic model of movement (by any definition) is bad, but I think there needs to be other models available for both amateur and professional alike to utilize.

Re: Coaching ...

My preferred hierarchy of learning (particularly in regards to movement) is something like this ...

1. Autonomous.
2. Shared learning with 'equals' (friends/training partners).
3. Mentor (unpaid intermittent advice from a father/mother type figure)
4. Coach/Teacher (paid advice from a qualified professional).

I believe many people under-utilize 1-3. And I personally emphasize these three styles of learning with everyone I train with.

Gotta go ... I'll send you the necessary paperwork for mutual adoption later in the week ;)

K :)

dr. m.c. said...


yes agreed, people need to start from a common understanding - we haven't. so let's try.

you say you assume "ordinary" people have a particular definition of athlete as an elite competitor. Ok in my experience working with folks, and from talking with colleagues who work with folks, no one has been resistant to modifying their model to (a) one in a dictionary which is closer to the 9s one anyway or (b) one that's proposed, ie: you move, that's got all the properites of being an athlete and here's how, and here's what benefit you get from thinking of yourself in this way....

so yes agreed good to get a common language and an understanding of what's being heard.

As for coaching perhaps you're right and folks under-utilize 1-2, 3 as unpaid? i hadn't thought of that as a criteria, but i suppose yes usually that's often the case. 4teacher/coach in the same boat.

gotta think about your model.

in my experience, most folks do 1 and 2 quite a bit because they don't see themselves as having surplus cash to get to the paid part. Likewise, most of the kids i see, and likewise when i was in school/grad school get coaching as part of making it onto a team. where does that fit the paradigm? they're paying for that? through their scholarship?

really interesting chatting with you on this, thanks for the time.

Anonymous said...

Hey mc,

I think a lot of the problems I'm sorta talking about only come into play when you're dealing with certain segments of the community ...

I have two interesting sets of people I train with ... On the one hand, I've had a fair bit of experience training with athletes (predominantly fighters/martial artists) and on the other hand (and the group I am most interested in) I have extensive experience training with people who 'have issues' ...

I can't remember whether I've told you this or not, but the 'types' of people I've been training with over the last decade are ... people who have suffered mental or physical abuse, people recovering from addiction issues, people who have suffered brain related trauma, people who suffer from mental illness, people with social and financial problems etc.

Basically people who are in serious trouble, and don't really fit into regular society very well. (Hence why my website is called 'The Pound', and my motto is 'Mongrel Fitness for Strays').

I usually work in conjunction with professionals (usually a combination of the following ... a doctor, a psychologist, a social worker, a physio and sometimes a strength coach).

I often get referred 'problem clients' from the above mentioned professionals (I train with a few regular people as well, but I guess I prefer working with 'mongrels').

So, as you can see, perhaps the types of people I train with have made me hyper-sensitive to various culturally accepted understandings of fitness and the terminology often used.

Just as you wouldn't explain the concept of 'love' using the metaphor of a father and son, if you're talking to a kid who's been beaten and abused by his own father ... You also wouldn't explain the concept of movement using an athletic model, if the person you're dealing with has had issues with athleticism in the past ...

And the people I have trained with, almost to a person, have had serious and deep-seated anger/fear/shame related issues with the standard athletic model of fitness.

After thinking about it some more, I think you are right—a regular person is quite capable of re-orienting his understanding of athleticism ... But it simply hasn't been my experience (once again, probably due to the skewed cross-section of society I tend to train with).

Regarding the types of learning I prefer ...

I promote autonomy and shared amateur learning, not only because I think it's healthier, but also out of sheer necessity ... Most of the people I train with simply can't afford the ongoing costs associated with the services offered by regular fitness professionals. And many suffer from quite severe learning difficulties, so it often requires far more time/money to get the same sort of learning outcomes as 'ordinary' people. And besides, I don't think regular fitness pros would enjoy the kind of training situations I sometimes find myself in (extreme violence/verbal abuse/drug-fueled mania/suicide threats etc.)

At any rate, I hope that explains a little better where I'm coming from.

As I said, after thinking about it a little more, I think my experience is an aberration, and, your experience is far more applicable generally. But the basic concept (that we shouldn't be married to our models, and be prepared to use different ones when necessary) is a sound one.

Always a pleasure chatting with you.

Sorry for clogging up your commenting section ... I'll back off a bit and leave room for other people to have their say!

Cheers, my friend

K :)

dr. m.c. said...

Thanks for sharing this Kira. You just keep impressing.

I think i hear what you mean that the trad athlete of Prize Winner could be more than off-putting in some of the conditions you describe. Thanks for getting that perspective.

Do you think with your training populations any of this other def. of athlete would be helpful or would it just get in the way? COuld that help recover mapping some of the gifts they already posses, and frame them positively? or is it an obstacle to anything?

Likewise on the money side, i think i hear you: a coach becomes a luxury.

If there are books, vids whatever that folks can get for free, absolutely. And that yup for sure it takes a whole other set of passions and skills, too, to work in your space. money sucks; you're great.

Likewise nice chatting with you, too, and letting folks get to know you a bit more.

Really great food for thought.

thanks Kira,

CrossFit Christchurch said...


I may be a little late to the party...

I like semantics too, if you look at the meaning of Athlete from a historical background,(from Latin via Greek athlētēs, from athlein to compete for a prize, from athlos a contest), yes it can mean to compete.

However is competing such a crime?

"Compete - from Late Latin 'competere' to strive together, from Latin: to meet, come together, agree, from com- together + petere to seek"

If 'one' were to use "historical and contemporary meanings" to make a counter point, I would also include the "historical and contemporary meanings" of the rebuttal itself....

After all, perhaps the 'prize' could be 'quality of life' and that in order for us to attain it, we must, by necessity, use our physicality with others?


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