Self-Organization vs Hierarchical Movement System

Written by: Kevin Cann


I read an interesting article that explained how the culture of the time actually influences scientific research.  In the 80s and 90s we were in the technological era.  Computers were becoming popular in households, cell phones, mp3s, and more.


During this time movement science was focused on attempting to understand the movement capacities of a body by comparing it to a computer.  This meant that movement was controlled by a central mechanism in the brain.


Information filtered down from this control center to the rest of the body producing movement.  The development of skills here requires a large emphasis placed on cognitive processes to coordinate highly skilled movements.


This ignores the athlete’s previous experiences as well as the feedback processes of movement systems. Another issue with this hierarchical movement system is it assumes that there is a storage limit for movements. This is much like a computer running out of memory.


A problem also arises when we compare movements between novice and expert people.  These traditional theories believe the person internalizes the movement before completing it.  The problem with this is that some higher skilled movements happen too fast for this process to take place.


Skilled performers have learned to process subtle information very quickly.  Think of a batter in Major League Baseball.  They are picking up lots of subtle movements from the pitcher to predict where the ball is going and to coordinate a swing to put the bat on the ball.  You or I would not be able to accomplish this task.


These traditional theories also view error in movement as a negative thing.  This error can be eliminated through practice.  The problem with this is with the environment.  Let us look at that same hitter in baseball.


Each game is played under different environmental constraints, the sun, the wind, the temperature, the field playing surface, and the crowd are just some of the examples that the batter may need to adjust their approach with.  Athletes need a wide array of movement options to overcome these constraints.


Lots of research shows that movement variability actually increases skill level in many life and athletic tasks.  How much variability we need depends on the complexity of the task.  Hitting a baseball is much more difficult than squatting.


This means that a powerlifter does not need as much variability as a baseball player. However, there is still variability needed.  From watching the most successful lifters throughout the history of the sport we can come up with what we believe is optimal technique for the best long-term performance.


The lifter’s memories, perceptions, intentions, and preplanned strategies all play into developing this technique.  Most lifters start lifting later in life than we typically would with other sports.  At this point they most likely have well defined predictive strategies.


When we are less skilled at a sport our body needs to solve the degrees of freedom problem.  Our body has many degrees of freedom that allow for a multitude of movement options.  When we are less skilled in a movement the body will lock up some of these degrees of freedom to accomplish the task.  This is its way of gaining some control over a task in which predictive strategies are difficult due to limited experience.  As we gain more experience the body will begin to unlock these degrees of freedom.


It is our job as coaches to guide them through achieving optimal performance.  Also, I believe getting them into these positions helps to increase the lifter’s load tolerance.  If we disburse the volume amongst more joints the lifter should tolerate higher volumes. We can tolerate higher sumo deadlift volumes than we could conventional stiff legged deadlifts.  So not only are these positions required to move the most weight, but I believe they also play a role in the longevity of the lifter.


We need to help them solve this degrees of freedom problem.  I think too often as coaches we make this process about ourselves instead of the lifter.  We tell them what we want them to do and then we inundate them with feedback.  This may not be the best way to have them learn the lift.


We definitely need to communicate with them what we want them to do.  From there, we need to put them in positions to help them figure it out. This requires less talking and more watching by the coach.


Coaching cues have a place, but I feel they are overused in these situations.  I like a cue to remind a lifter what I want.  “Chest up” is used to get the upper back tight on the squat. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.  What works better is just having the lifter change their gaze to something higher up than what they were looking at before.


This is changing a constraint that tends to have a better effect on the performance outcome.  Attempting to leave the head “neutral” and keep telling them different cues is far less effective to learning.  We need movement to get into the unconscious levels. Becoming hyper focused on this one thing can bring too much conscious awareness to the lift, delaying learning. There is also solid research showing that focusing on an external thing is far more effective than internally focusing.


We definitely want to make sure the lifters are in a safe position and adhering to the rules of the sport.  I will argue all day long that neutral spine doesn’t exist and the head up position is perfectly safe, and better for performance, for a lifter not in pain.


Usually if someone is losing the upper back in the squat, we will use a variation such as pausing on the halfway up.  This variation will punish that technique breakdown.  They will not be able to pause there if they are in a poor mechanical position.  This is how we can help them self-organize to the technique that we deem to be optimal.


I also like to allow lifters to experience different foot positions, bar positions, and angles within each lift.  This helps them figure out what positions are most comfortable for them and where they can lift the most weight.  It also allows the coach to identify weaknesses to attack.


These strengths and weaknesses can change over time too.  Many times a lifter may prefer pulling sumo but sees a big jump in their conventional deadlift.  They may choose to compete in this stance at an upcoming meet, but for a future competition they find they are stronger again in the sumo position.


Every day the person in front of us is actually a different person.  All those factors that make that person who they are play into their performance.  Their perceptions, beliefs, moods, the environment, are all different each day they train.


This means that the coach needs to take these things into considerations and make any necessary changes to training day to day.  Embrace the unpredictability and uncertainty of the sport.  The human body is much like a weather system.


Weather systems are very unpredictable even a few days out.  Also, variables effect the system differently at different times.  Sometimes these variables clash and make intense thunderstorms.  Other times these variables clash, and the storm is less intense, or we don’t even get anything at all.


This is the difference between forecasting and predicting.  Weathermen are very poor at predicting weather but viewed as one of the most successful.  As coaches we need to understand this and use our eyes and our gut to make the right decisions for each lifter at the right times.


These decisions need to take appropriate load management strategies in mind.  We need the volume and mechanical stress to get stronger. How we arrange that volume can change based off of the information the coach has and his or her experience.


We need to guide them to self-organize into the positions in which we deem to be optimal.  This means watching and adjusting.  Oftentimes I will take a common variation and tweak it a bit to better suit that lifter’s learning of the task.


For example, box squats are great to teach control, but sometimes a lifter struggles to totally get it. Instead of me giving too much feedback, I will make them touch the box and pause a couple inches off of it.  We will then look at videos and discuss the difference.


The coach needs to be ok with errors in training as well.  Don’t just lower the weight until it looks better.  This changes the movement as well.  Heavier weights are different than lighter ones.  Not only due to increased gravity, but the psychological piece.


When a lifter sees heavier weights, they can become scared.  This changes the movement pattern oftentimes to be more hesitant.  Yu might see a lifter slow down on the eccentric portion of the squat.  Lifting a ton of light weights will not fix this.


Understanding all of these concepts is the art of coaching.  I have a lot to learn here as my understanding of these concepts is in its infancy.

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