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[Aliveness and the Universal Athletic Human Blueprint: EMP Podcast 41]
As much as I respect Bruce Lee, his famous quote is in fact misguided. A better formulation would be: “Fear the man who has practiced punching a thousand opponents.”
This quote illustrates a consistent error that has plagued our physical culture. It is the focus on movement patterns rather than the ability to create movement solutions.
There are three trends that together are exposing the failure of this model; these are Mixed Martial Arts, Parkour and the Constraints Led Approach to motor learning. Each of these phenomena independently reveals that the fundamentals of athletic ability are not what we have thought.
Aliveness and Martial Arts
On November 12nd 1993 a shockwave went through the martial arts world.
That day a slender young Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner named Royce Gracie defeated three larger more muscular opponents in three bouts to win the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. His first opponent was a boxer, his second a professional wrestler, and his third a Karate fighter.
None of the fights took him more than 2.5 minutes.
In the aftermath of that event, the Martial Arts scene would change dramatically. Prior to that event Martial Arts was dominated by Japanese Karate and Chinese Gung Fu, both of which were primarily taught using forms, or “kata” as they were called in Japanese. But as styles clashed in the new UFC, it would be the little-known Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Muay Thai from Thailand, along with Western Wrestling and Boxing that would prove to offer the most effective bases for combative success.
All of these arts shared a fundamental characteristic: the center of their training was a form of free play between resisting opponents. None of these arts used anything similar to the extensive and formal Kata of Karate and Gung Fu.
As the UFC has developed, athletes have found success with bases in Sambo, Judo, Kyokushin Karate, Shotokan Karate and Sanda Gung Fu as well, but all of those share the same characteristic of free play as the central aspect of training.
Matt Thornton who was the founder Straight Blast Gym International, the organization I learned most of my Jiu Jitsu from, described this as Aliveness. Aliveness, according to Thornton, was having to deal with an opponent’s energy, rhythm and timing. Any practice that did not address these and indeed did not make them the central aspect of training would not work in application.
This assertion has now been proven over and over again in the UFC.
The Rise of Parkour
Just four years after the first UFC event, parkour would be featured for the first time on French national television. This would go on to spawn a worldwide phenomenon, with 11 million participants in the USA alone.
The skill levels attained in this sport over the last 23 years have been extraordinary. The world’s best parkour and freerunning athletes can now compare with elite gymnasts in how many flips and spins they can do, and are close to parity in jumping power with elite track and field and team sport athletes.
Most of these athletes are accomplishing this despite starting later in life, training without the supervision of a coach, and training far fewer hours than their peers in gymnastics.
How is this possible?
I believe this is because Parkour is to traditional gymnastics and track and field, as Mixed Martial Arts is to traditional Martial Arts.
Just as the most adaptable and effective fighter will be the one who has tested himself against many resisting opponents, the most broadly capable locomotive athlete will be the one that has tested themselves against the broadest variety of environments.
The environment is the teacher!
Team Sports and the Constraints Led Approach
This same lesson is now being realized in America’s most popular sports like football, baseball and basketball through the growth of the Constraints Led Approach, which was first promulgated in the beginning of this century.
What the Constraints Led Approach tells us is that a skill is always expressed in relation to an
Consider for a moment the cone drills and agility ladders that have been popular aspects of team sport training for many years. Research has now shown these are ineffective in building on-field agility. If we compare them we can see they are essentially the team sport equivalent of Kata. Agility ladder drills are dead pattern training.
What has actually proven effective is player vs player agility games and drills.
Just as free play vs a resisting opponent is the foundation of combative ability, and training with a wide variety of environments is the key to the highest level of locomotive ability, free player vs player training is the key to team sport success.
The central principle revealed by all of these examples is that the lesson is in the game. This does not mean that technique drilling is not valuable or useful, it is rather a shift in emphasis. The full set of fundamental skills are only found in the game, the game is the foundation. Isolated skill building is a tool to overcome weaknesses revealed in the game where necessary.
Traditionally training has focused on technical development where the game is then the application. This is the wrong approach. It is in the game that the greatest amount of learning happens and training that more closely resembles the game will develop a broader, more transferable set of abilities.
Perception-Action, Affordances and Constraints
Games teach us more than drills or isolated technique work because they contain far more information— information that we need to be able read and react to when actually applying any skill.
No matter how many times I practice a punch against the air, or even against a heavy bag, it will not help me recognize when my opponent has moved a into a range in which I can land that punch.
In motor learning theory there are two concepts that we use to describe this recognition, affordances and constraints. An affordance is an opportunity for action, a constraint is something that limits possibilities for action. They can be seen as inverses of each other. A wall that constrains our ability to walk through a space can afford the ability to do a wall run.
To understand when I can hit someone I need to be able to recognize when their movement and position affords me an opportunity to strike, while ideally staying within the constraint of not exposing myself to being hit in return.
Constraints can be divided into three areas, environmental, individual and task related.
For example, the surface we are moving on or the grip of my shoes are constraints that determine my potentials for action. When jumping from a springy branch my distance will be limited as the branch will absorb a lot of the force I apply to it.
Of course each athlete has unique constraints, or inversely, opportunities for action. If my arms are much longer than yours I will be afforded strikes from a longer range than you, and I will not need as many holds to complete a climbing route.
Controlling our movement in actual application always means pairing perception and action. It does not matter how fast I can change direction on an agility ladder if I cannot read an opponent’s body and see which way they are anticipating me to move, or if I cannot feel how hard I can cut against the ground.
In motor learning theory this principle is called perception action coupling. Training that couples perceptual information to movement in a way that is appropriately matched to functional application helps athletes develop actual movement problem solving skill. No amount of context-free pattern drilling can achieve the same effect.
This is most obvious in the combat or the team sport athlete but we can see this same principle in the parkour athlete. A parkour athlete who only practices a vault over the same object over and over again is failing to expose himself to a variety of the environments which he might need to adapt to. His vault pattern is highly specific and fragile when exposed to novel situations. The process of continually finding new ways in which a movement can be expressed attunes the athlete to the most important information to control their movement in the broadest set of environments.
There is no perfect technique that works for every context. What creates adaptability is the capacity to effectively perceive the affordances and constraints of different environments and match them to your action capabilities. Parkour creates more robust problem solving athletes than traditional gymnastics, or track and field, by exposing them to a much variety of environments; or to use the motor learning terminology, it helps them become better at recognizing a wider set of potential affordances and constraints.
To return to Aliveness. Aliveness can be seen as an expression of effective constraint lead training or good perception action coupling with in martial arts. Parkour similarly uses constraints to attune an athletes, perception action coupling. The difference being that the primary environmental variable in combat or team sports is the opponent or other players while in parkour it is the physical environment itself.
The role of variability
A final important concept from motor learning is the role of variability. In traditional movement teaching the goal has been the development of perfect and consistent technique. Variation in a technique was seen as noise. We would predict from this model that the best athletes would have the most consistent movement patterns and that the best athletes would express very similar movement patterns. There is an element of truth to this for example a great NBA shooter like Steph Curry will have an extremely consistent release mechanic on his shot.
However when we peak beneath the surface we discover something unexpected: Elite athlete motor activation patterns are actually more variable overall than those of novice or intermediate athletes!
How can this be?
Well consider that every time Curry takes a shot he is expressing that shot in a unique context. He may be moving forwards, backwards, to the side or twisting, he may be taking of 1 leg or 2, he may be bumped in the process or have a hand in his face, and of course his body will be more or less fatigued. All of these are sources of variation in the environment that the motor control system must be able to account for.
In order to achieve consistency in his shot, he actually needs as many possible routes to get to that consistent release point as possible.
It turns out variation can be divided into negative and positive variation, the best athletes are not only better at reducing the negative variation they are also better are finding all the positive variation.
Consider this model I got from Rob Gray:
Imagine you have to press down on two scales with a total of 10 lbs of force. One solution might be to apply 5 lbs of force on each scale. There are then two ways we can deviate from that solution: one in which we fail the task, for instance 5 and 6, but also one where we maintain the functional result despite the variation like 6 and 4 or 4 and 6, 3 and 7 etc, etc…
By having more variation available to us we actually make it easier to accomplish the task consistently. If we told the athlete that say “1 and 9” was an inefficient way of accomplishing the task, we would be removing options that would be useful to that athlete.
It is positive variation that makes movement patterns robust to an ever changing environment. No amount of perfecting mechanics in set shot will develop this full control of the positive variability, that has to come through exposure to high levels of variability.
Similarly the athlete who has practiced punching a thousand resisting opponents will have mapped far more of the variation that will allow them to achieve the functional end result of a cleanly landed strike than one who has only punched air or a heavy bag. To achieve a consistent precision landing in parkour, variation in the way you take off and move in the air are necessary.
Teaching that over-emphasizes perfect technique without accounting for the role of variation will result in robotic and ineffective movement application.
Parkour and Natural Movement
We could posit then that parkour is a uniquely effective locomotion development sport because it exposes athletes to the widest variety of environments. If this is true it can be argued that if parkour in nature is an even better model for development of general locomotive abilities.
The urban environments most commonly trained in by parkour athletes offer a far greater range of constraints and affordances for athletes to learn to read and respond to than a track stadium or gymnastics gym. This is a key factor in the rapid rise in skill in parkour athletes. The natural world expands on this as it offers an even more diverse set of movement parameters to negotiate.
When I first took my parkour teaching into nature I was shocked that many of the instructions, cues and drills I expected to need to help my students acquire a given motor skill were no longer necessary. Athletes started to self organize the movement patterns I was looking for by simply being exposed to task based drills.
A classic example is the cross lateral crawl or quadrupedal movement; the majority of athletes, when asked to replicate this movement on a simple flat surface will adopt the less stable and developmental ipsilateral pattern, and coaching them out of it is often quite painstaking. Attempting the same skill on a tree branch of fallen log results in near universal adoption of cross lateral strategy without any need to cue or instruct the athlete.
Complex skills like step vaults, lazy vaults and kong ups will be acquired by students through self organization more frequently in the natural setting than in an urban or gym environment in my experience. From a Constraints Led Approach perspective we can speculate that a natural environment generally contains more complete information that specifies movement organization. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense as our perceptual and motor systems evolved to attune themselves to natural rather than artificial environments.
The Universal Athletic Blueprint
If we take these lessons from Mixed Martial Arts, parkour, natural movement and the Constraints Led Approach in team sports, and we begin to combine these insights, I believe we have uncovered the true basis for a universal athletic blueprint. This is a far more effective approach to general physical preparation and a better way to produce the ever-elusive natural athlete.
Fundamentally all sports are based on some combination of being able to move effectively through the environment, being able to throw, catch, carry, strike and manipulate objects, and being able to work cooperatively with or competitively against other humans or animals.
Training physical qualities in isolation will never provide the complete set of perceptual motor skills that provide an optimal base for adaption to any athletic task. However, a combination of elements from parkour, Mixed Martial Arts, and team sports, taught primarily in natural environments and using a constraint lead approach to teaching absolutely can. Children will naturally explore all the fundamentals of athletic ability through free play when given sufficient unstructured time, a rich environment, and well socialized playmates.
Unfortunately such circumstances are now rare. However when we look at the athletes who seem to pick up any sport easily, very frequently this kind of play was what characterized their childhood. The secret behind great athleticism is far more often this history than a history of formal weight training or technical training.
To produce the broadest base for athletes, or the most complete and effective method of movement development for the general population, we should aim at this universal athletic blueprint. We should take a lesson from the inherent way children play and the extraordinary lessons provided by the rise of Mixed Martial Arts, parkour and the Constraints Led Approach. If we respect our inherent motor learning system and work to refine it and close the gaps often left by our sedentary and overly specialized lives, we can produce healthier, more skilled, and more effective athletes and humans.
While Mixed Martial Arts, parkour and the Constraints Led Approach as applied to team sports point towards a central set of principles about how to best train, they each possess missing components in fully understanding the universal human blueprint. In our next article we will dive into those and how we are combining insights from all three to build a more robust model for human movement development for now let’s look how you can get started.
How to get started
The wonderful news about the EMP approach is there are great ways you can start on your own. You can start by going out into nature and moving through any complex terrain at a pace that feels safe for you. You can roughhouse with a friend, a child, or the family dog. You can also organize pick-up games of any basic field sport in your local community.
At EMP we believe that the basic program minimum for a good movement practice is to spend 10 minutes outside every day. Start off simple with walking, then perhaps challenge yourself to crawl, climb, run and explore your environment.
Next we want you to skip the sofa and spend 20 minutes a day on the ground. Just exploring how to sit on flat ground offers a lot more opportunity for developing mobility and ground engagement skills than you’ll find in a chair or even a yoga ball. You can do this while watching a TV show, eating a meal or playing with your kids.
Finally, find the opportunity to hang from something for a couple minutes a day. Active hang, dead hang, hang from one hand or two, maybe get crazy and add some light swinging or brachiation. Make it a daily habit and your shoulders and spine will thank you.
This may seem simple, but by adding these few elements to your daily life you will begin to notice a difference in the way you move and how your body feels throughout the day.
Why Evolve Move Play
One downside to training on your own though is that it can be really hard to calibrate your training, to know what is safe and how hard you can push yourself and make progress. By necessity I was self trained in parkour, that meant running down many false paths, injuries, over training, and frustrating plateaus.
Through that I have learned much that I can use to help you. A good teaching method is like a well-crafted map, it makes it much easier to get where you want to go. At EMP we have made it our mission to build the best map of the practices that can help you become the best version of yourself. Whether you’re an elite athlete or living with a disability, whether you’re eighteen or eighty-eight, we can help you on your journey.
So, if you’re interested in a truly alive movement practice that develops the universal human athletic blueprint, you are in luck! We guarantee that there’s no better mapped pathway towards that practice than training with us at Evolve Move Play!
Check out our upcoming online courses or retreat to start your journey.