Integrating New Movement Patterns into High Level Activities

Integrating New Movement Patterns into High Level Activities

  • By Susannah Steers
  • May 22, 2014

“You’re kidding me. That’s really ALL I have to do?”

When I’m working with athletes and dancers to re-program dysfunctional movement patterns, this question comes up a lot. Most athletes seem to expect that making such a change will require super-human effort. But, usually, my answer to their question is: “Yes. It’s that simple… and it’s that hard.”  Re-training a movement pattern can seem like an easy thing to do – it may not take mountains of muscle to achieve. The challenge comes in that, at first, you have to think about and play with the new pattern a lot. But with conscious attention and consistent practice, the results can be transformative in your movement, and how you feel in your moving body. And that translates into better results in performance too.

Let me explain. The human brain organizes movement into patterns. When you lift your arm to serve a tennis ball, for example, the brain figures out what you want to do, plans out how you can do it, and organizes the movement into a pattern it can recognize and reproduce every time.  The more often you perform that movement, the more ingrained and mentally effortless that movement becomes. Many people describe this patterning as “muscle memory.” It’s like a well-worn path from the brain to your body. 

Occasionally though, something along that pathway gets corrupted. Bad habits, injury, over training, fatigue, illness: these are all things that can cause the patterning to go awry. When that happens, the efficiency and function of the movement is negatively impacted, causing stress on your structure overall. Most athletes will go through some kind of movement training, or re-training over the course of their lives. That movement training becomes even more important as an athlete ages. Wear and tear on the body, structural changes and the inevitable changes in muscle mass that age brings create unique challenges for the older athlete that simply training harder can’t address.

Re-training a movement pattern is about re-programming not only the muscles, but the neural map your brain uses to spark your body into action. It’s as much, or more, about training the brain as it is about training the body.  If you’re used to working at high intensity, it can be hard to accept the idea that small, specific and very focused movement could improve your larger movement enough to make a difference in your high level, high function activities. But it does.  The trick is figuring out how integrate those small, focused movements into the larger sphere of your athletic pursuits.

Here’s how it’s done:

1. Identify the problem & gain control
Once you’ve identified that there is a motor control issue, and you’ve isolated where the “problem” is, you can start to work toward gaining control. It might be one vertebral joint that isn’t well supported, creating a cascade of failed load transfers down the body, ultimately causing pain in your hip. Maybe it’s a stiff foot, which the rest of the body has to move “around,” creating compensation after compensation up the legs and into the body. Each one of us has our own unique issues. Gaining control of these things means creating better access to the specific structure isn’t supporting its load well. Practicing small, controlled motions; using better imagery to improve proprioception; releasing tissues that are inhibiting access; strengthening weak areas; these are all strategies that can be used to increase access and control.   This phase may feel really easy, or it may feel as though you are trying to perform mental gymnastics at first. Your brain may sweat, but your body probably won’t. You may even find it’s difficult to “feel” the structures you are attempting to engage. What you will feel though, when you’re gaining better control, is increased EASE in performing simple activities.  Your body will feel better, lighter, more fluid and less dense. The movement will require less effort. You’ll  often get an internal “yum.” (One of my favourite sensations!)

 2. Challenge your control
Once you’ve gained conscious control over a new movement pattern in simple, low level activities, it’s time to up the ante. Now it’s necessary to take the control phase to a new level. If your control activities have involved movements in only one plane, it’s time to take things into 3D. Change direction, change level. If you’ve been working with minimal loading – add a little more: increase your range of motion, try some rotation, explore the speed with which you are able to move and still remain in control.  But beware! In this phase, it’s important to stay vigilant about CONTROL.

After step 1, it would be easy to say to yourself “Great, I’ve got this,” and then dive into your most challenging activities – somehow expecting your body to catch up. But that’s not the case.  It takes conscious attention and a gradual build. Throwing too much muscle at it too soon will only create more compensation. Ride the “soft edge,” on the edge of control, but not beyond it. Once you’ve moved into “efforting” the activity – you’re no longer working the structures that you’re intending to train. Instead, you’re continuing to train bad habits. You can’t rush this phase. It takes the time it takes.  The more consistent, quality practice you put in, the better your results will be and the faster you’ll get them. There are no short cuts. But do the work diligently, and your movement will improve exponentially. Guaranteed.

Set aside a bit of your training time to work on specific movement training tasks. If you’re beginning to learn a new movement skill, you may not be able to sustain  control in your most challenging athletic pursuits right away.  For a while, set aside some time to do your movement training work separately, gradually increasing the demands you place on that control. You may want to do this prior to your regular training, to “set-up” your structure for success in higher level activities. You may find that it’s useful to do a little bit after your high level training too, to help you re-set and recover from faulty load patterning in those higher level activities while you’re still in transition. Try both and see what works for you best.

3. Pay attention to everyday movement too
What kind of movements does your “everyday body” make? It’s easy to forget that whatever you do, however you choose to move, has an effect on your whole system. Whether you’re training 2 hours a week or 20, the number of hours you are in training is less than the number of hours in which you are doing other things. So what you do in those non-training hours is  important too. Do you slouch at your desk? Does your job require lots of physical labour? Are you a couch potato when you’re not training? Learn to gain control over your challenges in every day activities, and you’ll be gaining strength and endurance that will only do good things for you in competition.

4. Don’t neglect your endurance training
Strength training is sexy, it’s hip, it’s now, and it is important. But support for your deep structure requires endurance, not power. And that side of conditioning often gets neglected in favour of the stuff that creates explosive power.  Trust me when I tell you that if you haven’t got the foundation you need to support that explosive power – you’re going to get hurt.  Train the small stuff too, work on your motor control. When you make time for it, create some focus around it, you’ll find new reserves of strength, and stamina you didn’t imagine you had.

Gradually, as you pay attention to these details, gradually increasing the load on your control, you’ll find ease where there used to be struggle. You’ll have more in the tank than you ever imagined possible. Your recovery time will improve. And you’re going to find a whole new JOY in moving again! Why wouldn’t you invest a little time and energy into something that will make you feel so GOOD?

Try it! You might like it! 

(And if you’re really inspired, get started with one of Moving Spirit’s Pilates & Integrated Movement programs.  You’ll find yourself moving in ways you hadn’t imagined possible.)