If you check out some of my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I’m a fan of the dynamic systems approach to skill development. As coaches we have to manipulate the task or the environment to arrive at the desired technique. Once we have it, the athlete needs to repeat it again and again. Like making sled tracks in the snow, each good rep enhances the likelihood of the same path between taken next time. As the saying goes “practice makes permanent”.
We have a variety of different tools at our disposal to influence the task or environment e.g visual and verbal feedback, physically manipulating the athlete’s body into position, changing the rules or focus of the task, adding in environmental changes (for example an unstable load, changing the drill surface, changing the implement, whether this is a ball, sled, barbell etc.). The limitations here are endless. As long as it helps you arrive at the end goal, everything is fair game.
Stuart McMillan, Shawn Myszka and Frans Bosch have all championed the idea of implicit learning in skill learning. This is the idea that athletes should be allowed to discover optimum technique for themselves, and that learning in this manner is more vivid and sticky than being told by the coach. In the spirit of getting out of the way of the athlete and simply shaping the learning environment, here are 10 of my favourite tweaks to address common flaws in a number of movements inside and outside the gym.
Flexing at the waist during the deadlift
This is one of the most common and costly mistakes an athlete can make in the weight room. Lumbar flexion under load is one of the most effective ways to mess your back up, and in a contact sport like rugby that can have dramatic ramifications on career longevity and productivity. My favourite way to manipulate the task demands and trick athletes into hinging at the hips rather bending at the waist is to use the wall as an external goal.
Simply stand one to two paces away from the wall with soft knees and task the athlete with touching the wall lightly with their butt whilst staying as long as possible on each rep. If they bend at the waist, they won’t touch and the lack of feedback will tell them they did it wrong. I progress from bodyweight to a KB or DB held first at the belly, then the chest, then behind the head. After this I introduce a bar and start working down to the floor (which requires a little knee bend). Once they are comfortable working from the floor, step away and start deadlifting normally.
Heel striking during running
Heel striking is a problem during running for a few different reasons. Firstly it means you are more than likely contacting with the floor out in front of the centre of gravity, which means higher braking forces that slow you down. Secondly heel striking means larger impact forces, more physical cost for a given running speed, greater risk of joint pain. Lastly with a heel strike you’re less able to exploit the elastic properties of the foot and ankle, which again slows you down and entails a higher energy cost.
The solution here is a simple one: take off your shoes when performing warm up and technical drills. Modern shoes with all their cushioning have masked a painful truth: heel striking HURTS. By performing drills barefoot, the athlete will feel a lot more discomfort if they heel strike, and so will naturally gravitate to a more efficient and comfortable flat footed contact with weight distributed more towards the balls of the feet (the so called sweet spot). Note that I would not recommend this technique for full speed sprints, as I think the cost:benefit is simply too high.
Hyperextending the neck/losing torso stiffness in the deadlift
Over the course of my career I have learned that the spine tends to function as one unit. If there is flexion in one segment, there is more likely to be flexion in the others, and vice versa. Dr Quinn Henoch has written at length about how the most stable and safe position for the spine during compound lifts like the squat and deadlift is neutral and braced. Not hyper extended, not excessively flexed, but rather ribcage pulled down, abs tensed.
As coaches and athletes we are obviously aware of the dangers of loaded flexion (see above). However a typical response to this when deadlifting is to go too far the other way, throw back the head and arch as hard as possible in extension all segments of the spine- where the head goes, the rest of the spine will follow. However this is a self defeating strategy as I have found it causes a big loss in stiffness and tension in the torso, and transfers excessive load to the soft tissues of the lower back as the athlete slips into hyper extension.
My preferred trick to correct this is to place a tennis ball under the athlete’s chin, with the goal being to keep the ball there throughout all reps. This prevents the head from being thrown back, dramatically reducing the chances of hyperextension elsewhere in the spine.
Poor shin angle or not lowering the centre of gravity when cutting/changing direction
Conservation of momentum states that whatever direction the body is going, it wants to keep going that way. When we change direction, force has to be produced in opposition to that force vector to firstly decelerate the body, then accelerate in a different direction. Two major flaws one sees in cutting/CODs is poor (more vertical) shin angles, or a high centre of gravity. This is a problem because it corresponds to inefficient force application and rotation of the centre of gravity over the base of support.
A quick workaround for these errors is place a cone over the line/end point of the drill. Whereas it is possible to commit the above errors in a regular change of direction, the use of the cone makes it far harder to perform the pattern incorrectly. This is also a great way to keep competition consistent and fair when performing races that involve a COD, which forms a good chunk of how I approach agility development with my athletes.
Poor residual movement of the thigh and foot during top speed sprinting
For the uninitiated, the goal of sprinting can be summed up as follows:
“Produce maximum force in minimum time, ensure the greatest possible proportion of your force is horizontal propulsive force i.e. the stuff that moves your forwards faster. Avoid long contacts with the floor or applying force in inefficient directions”
Amongst the variety of “WTF?!” statements I have read in Frans Bosch’s work, one aspect that I am fundamentally in agreement with is the action of the thigh and foot when the body leaves the ground during top speed sprinting, which has important implications when considering the above statement.
Bosch states the thigh should be vertical when the athlete toes off from the floor during the stance phase of sprinting. Likewise the first movement of the foot should be forward and up. However a common error amongst poor sprinters is “pushing out the back”- excessive rearward movement of the thigh either during or after toe off.
Another error is an upward movement of the foot after toe off in the absence of forward motion. The end result is much longer time on the floor for not much more force, forces that push the athlete up rather than which propel the athlete forwards, and poor mechanics for subsequent steps.
Wickets are an extremely useful tool I have stolen from Stuart McMillan, Dan Pfaff and Altis to correct this error without coaching intervention. Instead the athlete is simply tasked with running over the hurdles without touching them. If the athlete “pushes out the back” they will soon know about it, as they will probably kick the hurdle when leaving the floor. Wickets are also similarly useful to prevent over striding in the front side, as an error results in treading on the hurdle, which can sometimes spring up and hit the athlete with hilarious consequences!