Week Five – Rethinking assessments, the mobility myth, and why falling behind can actually get you ahead

Thought for the Week: The Rules of Everything – by Steve Magness

  1. The Hype Cycle: When an idea is new or gains popularity, it follows a cycle of initial overemphasis before eventually leveling off into its rightful place
  2. Research is only as good as its measurement
  3. We overemphasize the importance of what we can measure and already know while ignoring what we cannot measure and know very little about  
  4. We think in absolutes and either/or instead of the spectrum that is really present 
  5. We underestimate the complexity of the human body (and almost everything else)
  6. We look at and analyze things from our perspective, overemphasizing what our knowledge base strength is 
  7. Everything is cyclical

Reverse Engineering from the Skill

Assessments are something I’ve been interested in for a while because of the role they play in designing individualized training programs. Being able to individualize is a critical skill as a coach because your players are akin to snowflakes; not one is ever going to be the same. Being able to give them exactly what they need at that moment of time is an art. Each kid is going to need different thoughts, feelings, cues, drills, and actionable strategies molded into a unified plan that is constantly changing based on their needs. Step one to building this plan begins with a thorough assessment of where they’re currently at, what problems they’re trying to solve, and what’s preventing them from getting to where they want to be.

A good assessment is like an interrogation process; you’re constantly observing, asking questions, and inquiring to find information you need to make accurate decisions about what they are currently going through. If you’re interrogating someone, there is no such thing as a stone left unturned; assessments should be no different. If there is something that is preventing that athlete from becoming the best version of themselves on the diamond, you need to find out about it. You will always be at the constraint of what you don’t know. A thorough assessment makes sure there is nothing you need to know that you don’t.

The recent push in baseball to individualize has helped create some awesome strategies and tools to help build a better understanding of what problems athletes are having and why. High speed video, 3D motion capture systems, movement screening, Rapsodo/Yakkertech, Hittrax, KVest, and force plates have all given us the ability to improve our understanding of exactly where that athlete is at that moment of time. The process of swinging a bat or throwing a pitch has not changed – we’ve just eliminated guess work when it comes to breaking it down. When we eliminate guessing, we improve our ability to make accurate decisions that help us individualize our coaching. Guessing and checking may seem like a good algebra strategy until you’re through your 10th guess and you still don’t have an answer – or, better yet, a plan. When we assess, we skip guess and check and get right to the meat of it. Time is the most precious resource we have. Assessing may seem like a lot of time early on, but having the discipline to do it the right way will save you the extra time and head scratching later down the road. There’s a reason why Abe Lincoln spent four of his five hours sharpening the axe before actually cutting down the tree.     

Out of all the tools introduced for assessments, the one I became really interested in was movement screening. When I heard that your ability to swing or throw was at the constraint of the limitations of your body, I became really interested because I wondered what kind of impact they could have had on my playing career. I’ve personally since been through the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and I thought it provided a lot of valuable information, but it wasn’t quite it. I knew understanding the body was something that needed to be taken into account when building an individualized training program, but I also knew passing the FMS shoulder mobility test with flying colors actually meant you were more susceptible to injury. New assessments like TPI and OnBaseU peaked my interest but I needed to know more about them before I decided to dive in and get certified. 

When I read through Old School vs. New School and learned about Eugene’s thoughts when it came to physical “limitations” (he prefers the word “adaptations”), I had a feeling he was on to something. When he explained to me at the ABCA that using these “limitations” to your advantage was a much easier – and potentially more effective – way to coach, I knew I had to look at movement screens through a different lens. If Eugene had done research and found a large majority of “hip mobility programs” actually increased your chances of getting hurt, what does the role of movement screening actually play?  If some of the best sprinters in the world (maybe the best rotators in the world) all have tight hips, ankles, hamstrings, lower backs, and flat feet, that’s the point in assessing for mobility in these areas? Are movement screens driving the right kind of interventions or are they inspiring counterproductive work? 

If we think about the role of movement screens in the assessment process, we need to understand that all they are is information. What we do with that information is what is most important. If we want to leverage that information for effective interventions, we need to look at it within the context of the skill. The skill is not only the most important part about the assessment process; it is the assessment. The athletes that come to us are not concerned about whether their hips are too tight or whether they don’t have enough dorsiflexion in their right ankle – they just want to get better at baseball. Understanding how they’re physically structured can help give you information on how to help them get better, but it must be used within the context of the skill. If you don’t understand the why behind the screen, you lose your ability to make accurate decisions because you become so lost in the details that you forget the most important things: The swing or the throw.

If you can thoroughly and accurately define what the skill looks like, what it should look like, and how to bridge that gap, the new and flashy tools become a slave to the person who should be driving the intervention: The coach. If you don’t understand the skill, you become a slave to the data; and that never ends well. The assessment then turns into a crap shoot where you collect a bunch of data, get lost searching for something that might correlate, and maybe throw some shit at the wall to show off your “expertise.” If you don’t treat the skill as the assessment, you get lost chasing information trying to find something that matters. If you know what matters in the skill you know what data you need to collect, how to collect it, and how to communicate it to so you can help that player improve. Movement screens create awareness for where that athlete is starting, but it is not the mold. 

When the skill is not where it needs to be, it can create the illusion that something physically is off and needs to be changed. This is where the movement screens can come into play – but not necessarily for the right reasons. Zach Dechant, head strength coach at TCU, described a situation on a recent zoom call with Eugene where he was working with an athlete that showed below average shoulder maximum external rotation (MER) throughout his delivery on their motion capture system. If execution of the skill is not taken into context, this can drive some unnecessary (and time consuming) interventions. In this case, just looking at poor MER and not understanding how it was created will make you falsely think there is some sort of constraint preventing them from creating MER. In this case – along with many others – the athlete did not need more MER. They had plenty of it; they just didn’t know how to unlock it in their delivery. When Zach made a few tweaks to the delivery, he unlocked another 10-15 degrees within a matter of a couple throws. He didn’t need mobility work to open up his shoulder; he just need to teach the kid how to tap into what he already had. 

The important thing to understand from this is the data was not wrong; the athlete did need to improve his MER. How you unlock this MER is where the importance of good coaching comes into play. Movement screens provide you with really valuable information; how you use that information is far more valuable. Just looking at someone’s IR deficit in their rear hip is not only stupid (you don’t really need it), it’s neglecting the main thing: The skill. Measuring it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to change it – you just need to know how it affects the movement. Getting stuck on your backside because you have no IR is a problem, but just getting the athlete to toe out (think like a squat) is a much simpler solution than giving the athlete a mobility program they probably don’t need in the first place.  

By the way, how much mobility do elite rotary athletes really need in the first place?

The Mobility Myth – Why we probably don’t need as much as what we think

Before I get ostracized for this one, let’s pull out the common sense card and start with what we know about baseball. We know that a swing or throw requires the creation and dissipation of force in a small window of time. We know that players are competing in narrow windows of time where they don’t have the affordance to gradually create energy; they’ve got to get off their best punch without getting knocked on their ass. Yes I know pitching isn’t reactionary, but I also know you can’t get a 20 foot running head start before throwing a pitch. By deductive reasoning, success in baseball is largely going to depend on your ability to create the most amount of force (rate of force development) within the smallest window of time.

Now let’s get away from the baseball thing and say you’re jumping on a trampoline. If you wanted to create the most amount of air using the least amount of time, what would you want those springs to look like? How taught would you want the jumping mat? Would you want springs that were looser or more tightly bound? Would you want a lot of give or not a lot of give when you landed on the mat? I don’t know about you, but I would want tightly bound springs and I’d want the jumping mat pulled as taught as possible without becoming rigid. If I’m trying to get as high as I can in the least amount of time, I don’t want a lot of slack in the trampoline; I want to redirect energy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The guys who we think “lack mobility” are just like the best sprinters in the world; they have the tightest springs. The guys who have plenty of mobility have much looser springs. Just because the springs are looser doesn’t mean you can’t create the same/more air time, but at what time cost does it come at? If the fittest of a species is able to do the most with the least, are guys with looser springs maximizing their ability to do this? Are guys with tighter springs better suited for this?

Now let’s revisit the baseball thing: Are you sure your guys need more mobility, or do they just need a better movement solution so they make can better use of their current mobility?

One of Eugene’s favorite one liners is, “Things become a thing when we do the opposite.” When strength and conditioning started to become popular in baseball, a lot of experts noticed how tightly bound some of the best players in the game were. The initial response to this was to try and open them up so they can increase the window in which they can produce force and prevent them from developing injuries. While it was well intentioned, the performance results were not uniform across the board; some guys got better, many saw no change at all, and plenty others got worse or hurt. Mobility programs became a thing when we did the opposite of what we were observing in the field – a lot of really tight guys. The questions then becomes this: Were some of the best players tight by accident or by design? When in doubt, I try to use logic. Logic would tell us the best players in the game are probably really good for a reason. In other words, they probably didn’t have tight hips for the hell of it.

The game of baseball hasn’t really changed that much. We still like guys who throw the ball hard, hit it far, and run fast. Players who are really good at these are some of the tightest, twitchiest guys on the planet. They don’t use a whole lot of mobility because they probably don’t need it for elite rate of force development. This is part of the reason why strength training took such a long time to gain traction in baseball – some of the best players were already naturally tight and didn’t like the feeling of adding muscle mass and getting even tighter. Their springs were already tightly bound enough; throwing a blanket strength training program into the mix probably didn’t help the cause.

I do think that opening up some guys can be a good idea in certain cases, but I also know opening up ranges of motion without assessing the individual can add slack that the system doesn’t really need in the first place. This is not a great strategy for long term health and performance. We know that the spine doesn’t like aggressive rotation in the first place. Why would we want to open up the lower extremities so we can rotate over a greater arc? What do we think happens to the raft when we add 30 feet of slack to the rope and have the boat take off at full speed? Did guys develop tighter hips because it was a more beneficial movement solution hat allowed them to produce the most amount of force without placing their body in compromised positions? Did executing the skill under a time constraint influence this? I don’t know about you, but I think these all played a role. 

Tight may not be bad after all – tight may be a beneficial adaptation that we started to get away from when we started to dive into mobility. Just like anything, the sweet spot is usually somewhere in the middle. Everything is great until it becomes the only thing.   

If we go back and pull out the common sense card, the whole reason behind adding mobility is so we can get better at either throwing or hitting a baseball. If adding mobility helps you do either of this, it is beneficial; if it doesn’t, it’s not. If you’re looking at mobility without doing it in the context of the skill you’re trying to hit the dartboard blindfolded; you might hit it every once in a while, but it’s a largely ineffective strategy. Certain areas are going to need to stabilize and mobilize throughout the course of an efficient sequence. If the sequence isn’t where it needs to be, the athlete can’t possibly tap into the mobility they already have. This is why you have to work backwards from the skill: You can’t determine an athlete lacks something if they don’t really know how to use it in the first place. If the pelvis can’t anchor down and create stability for the upper half, adding thoracic mobility is not going to fix the problem; creating a better sequence will.

You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe – unless it’s anchored down from both sides
Luis Severino using his feet as anchor points for his pelvis so his trunk can mobilize and throw the ball

Now this doesn’t mean we should throw mobility out the window with cookie cutter training programs – we just need to understand it a lot better. Some guys may present with mobility constraints that impact the way they are able to sequence and those must be addressed in coordination with the skill. Everything we do off the field must transfer to what we do on the field. If guys who are increasing their hip mobility are becoming more prone to injury, we need to rethink how we assess athletes and determine how much mobility is sufficient for them. Elite rotary athletes are different; there’s a reason why they represent less than one percent of the world’s population. Trying to fit them into a mold based on how they perform in some bullshit movement screen isn’t enough. We need to understand how those ranges of motion influence efficient movement patterns. I don’t know if we’ve really figure that one out yet – but it’s something we need to figure out if we want guys to perform and stay healthy for a long period of time.

For now, do yourself a favor and think before you start adding mobility – it might do a lot more harm than good if you’re wrong.  

When the Risk becomes the Reward: What we all can learn about skill acquisition from skateboarders

“Rarely is it a question of talent or technique at those levels, it’s just one of belief.” – Rodney Mullen, former professional skateboarder

I was able to catch up with Lantz Wheeler earlier this week and pick his brain on a couple of things Eugene and I have been talking about over the past several weeks. One of the things that Lantz shared was the brilliance of skateboarding when it comes to learning new skills. Watching these guys in action is a brilliant insight into the skill acquisition process: There’s a goal in reach, a methodical process to get there, trial and error, experimentation, failure, resilience, palpable belief, and a relentless drive to make it happen. Feedback is required, it’s immediate, and a lot of the times it is painful. However, it doesn’t deter these guys one bit.  

To me, that is one of the things that makes skateboarding truly unique: Failure is really painful. When these guys miss, they get hit hard. Every fall puts wear and tear on their bones, limbs, and challenges them in ways that are impossible to describe without actually ever experiencing it. However, none of these falls prove to be fatal. The resilience that these guys have created through years of trial and error is so much that they are willing to put their body through great lengths of pain in order to achieve a desired goal, objective, or outcome. When the guy in the video from above fell, he didn’t complain about how it was too hard or how he was too tired or in too much pain. He got right back up, dusted himself off, and reaffirmed his belief by using phrases such as “next try is it” and “I’ve finally got it.” There was no doubt in his mind he was going to nail the trick; it was only a matter of how much time it was going to take him. The risk of falling didn’t create fear – it fueled his belief. The risk no longer became the thing he was trying to avoid. It became the reward.  

When we’re building a skill, we have to treat the consequences of failure just like skateboarders: We need to turn the risk into the reward. Instead of avoiding the thing that seems fatal, we need to crave them because they give us rich feedback to perform the skill better next time. If skateboarders can put their body on the line with every single move they make, we can do the same thing as baseball players; especially since we’re not worried about breaking bones if we fail.

If you can create an environment in skill development where the risk becomes the reward, adversity no longer becomes an obstacle – the obstacle becomes the way (pretty good book, by the way). The returns on this are limitless.

How falling behind can help you get ahead

“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyper specialization.” – David Epstein, from Range 

Tiger Woods was seven months old when he first picked up a golf club. By two, he entered his first tournament and won the 10U division. By three, he was shooting 48 on par nine and practicing in sand traps. Just one year later he was spending his entire days on the golf course without the supervision of his father and hustling grown men. He could beat his father by eight and by 18 he was a standout golf athlete at Stanford University. After two years at Stanford, Woods joined the PGA tour in 1996 and started his professional career. By 21 years old he was the best golfer in the entire world. At 44 years old he is one of the greatest golfers this game has ever seen and has amassed 109 professional victories in 24 years on the tour. Tiger’s destined story to greatness is the epitome of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule: Mastery of any domain requires 10,000 hours of focused practice. Tiger’s dad sure didn’t waste any time getting him started.

Now let’s look at a different story. This young man wasn’t really interested in sticking to a specific sport early on. In fact, there aren’t too many sports that he didn’t try – as long as they involved a ball. While his mother coached tennis, she wasn’t really interested in teaching him because his return serves weren’t normal. In fact, the only advice she really gave him was to stop taking it so seriously. When his tennis coaches asked him to move up a level to play with the older boys, he declined because he was more interested in hanging out with his friends afterward and talking about pro wrestling. When he finally gave up the other sports, his competitive peer group had long been working and refining their craft with performance coaches, strength coaches, and nutritionists. However, starting late didn’t really seem to hamper this young man’s long-term development. In fact, Roger Federer managed to develop into a fine tennis player; he’s not too worried his peers got a head start on him. 

The comparison of specialist’s path (Tiger) to the path of a generalist. Don’t think the path below doesn’t work – we see it more often than the one above (from Epstein’s TED talk).

While many know about Tiger’s destined route to greatness, very few known about Federer’s unique path to stardom. When we look at both paths, Woods and Federer represent two opposite poles when it comes to the development of mastery. Woods is the poster boy for early sport specialization; Federer is the example of the benefits of late specialization. Both represent the elite of the elite in their respective sport, but each took a completely different route to the top. While it’s easy to romanticize with Tiger’s story, it doesn’t mean his route is the most optimal path for everyone. In fact, some would argue that Federer’s path to the top is more practical and optimal. One of these guys is David Epstein.

In his recent book Range, Epstein dove into Federer’s unlikely path to excellence by examining the amount of deliberate practice elite performers engaged in growing up as compared to their non elite counterparts. When he looked at the research, he found that elite athletes actually performed less deliberate practice early on. The elites only surpassed them when they reached 15-18 years old.

Deliberate practice of elites compared to near elites (from Epstein’s TED Talk)

Instead of diving into deliberate practice earlier, elite athletes underwent what researchers call a “sampling period.” This sampling period is where kids tried a lot of different sports in an unstructured/lightly structured environment in which they were able to gain a wide range of physical proficiencies, get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses, and use these experiences to eventually narrow in one something later in their life (remember the study on the 2014 German World Cup team?). This sampling period is not just specific to sports; Epstein found it in plenty of other fields too.

When researchers compared the earnings of postgraduate students from England who early specialized in a specific field and students from Scotland who delayed their route to specialization, they found the English students had a short-lasting head start. The English students earned more early on because of the advantages of their specialized knowledge base, but the Scotts surpassed them in the long run as they were more likely to figure out a field that best matched their interests and strengths. When they found an environment they were more likely to succeed in, they showed higher interest levels, were more likely to persist through challenges, and ended up making more money in the long run. The English students who were forced into a career path early on could not sustain their head start – they hadn’t given themselves enough range to figure out what best made sense for them.

The Scottish students and Federer are not the only ones who have had success using the generalist/late specialization model. Vincent van Gogh had gone through five different careers – all unsuccessfully – prior to his 30th birthday. It wasn’t until he picked up a book in his late twenties called The Guide to the ABCs of Drawing that he started to figure out his true career path. Gunpei Yokoi used his passion for various hobbies to develop lateral thinking that lead to the creation of the cutting-edge technology behind the Nintendo Gameboy. When researchers examined what separated the best comic book creators from the rest, they found the amount of comics created, experience, and the resources at their disposal all had no impact at all. The only thing that mattered was how many different genres they worked in. “Where length of experience did not differentiate creators,” said Epstein, “Breadth of experience did.”  

“Parents want their kids doing what the Olympians are doing right now, not what the Olympians were doing when they were twelve or thirteen.” – Ian Yates, British sports scientist and professional sports coach

So if the majority of fields need an early sampling period for success later on, why did Tiger’s route work? Epstein explained this by dividing learning environments into two different categories: kind learning environments and wicked learning environments. Kind learning environments deal with consistent and repeatable patterns where the feedback is immediate, extremely accurate, and rapid. There are defined boundaries, consequences are quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly. Examples of kind learning environments include golf and chess. They’re coined as “kind” because learning is pretty straight forward. Improving your short game isn’t too complex – just grab your club, a bucket of balls, and head out to the green. The more you practice it, the better you are going to get at it (assuming the practice is focused). When you combine a generational talent with an insatiable work ethic, a clear route to the top, and thousands of hours of practice, you get Tiger Woods.

Wicked learning environments are the opposite; the rules are unclear, there aren’t repetitive patterns performers can consistently rely on, feedback isn’t always obvious, can be delayed, or is inaccurate as a whole. Entrepreneurship is a great example of this – there aren’t any rules or boundaries you need to work within, your efforts early on won’t always yield subsequent results, and you don’t have any previous patterns to rely on to guide your future decisions. It’s demanding, it’s chaotic, and it’s anything but kind. It’s also what most learning environments actually look like. Golf and chess don’t turn out to be the majority; they are the exceptions.

Very seldom do we engage in activities where there is a clear and defined route to the top. Most learning environments are very challenging (not saying golf or chess aren’t), unpredictable, unforgiving, and they require more than just deliberate practice to figure out. Some of the greatest discoveries we’ve ever seen happened in the absence of prior knowledge, patterns, and thoughts. Kepler didn’t have any previous research to help guide his theory that planets further away from the sun moved slower. He had a hunch that he brought to life using empirical observation, logic, thinking across different disciplines, and connecting the gaps in his understanding through the use of analogies. If your understanding isn’t robust enough to withstand the rigors of a wicked environment, it will be exposed when you’re placed into a situation that is unfamiliar. The best chess players in the world perform no better than novices when they’re placed in situations they don’t recognize from previous experience. Learning isn’t about going through a checklist of procedures; learning is what happens when those procedures get thrown out the window.

While learning in wicked environments is difficult and can be frustrating early on, it provides great long term returns. To understand this, let’s think about the differences between learning math in a blocked/repetitive environment (kind) and in a variable/unpredictable environment (wicked). When learning in kind/predictable environments, you’re able to lean on previous experience through pattern recognition. It’s easy to figure out 6×6 using previous recall when all you’ve been doing lately is hammering down on your multiplication tables. When learning in variable and unpredictable environments, you can’t rely on previous recall. Going from addition to division to multiplication is a hair trickier than just honing in on your times tables. Instead of just spitting out information from your short term memory, you need to actually create a strategy where you differentiate types of problems and design actionable strategies to attack them individually. Instead of memorizing procedures, you have to build long term strategies. The returns on these strategies are significant; especially when the conditions for the problem inevitably change.

So what’s the point of all this?

The point is this: Deep learning is slow. It takes time to build a robust skill set and a thorough base of knowledge required to become an effective problem solver. We praise the Tiger Woods of the world who get off to an early head start, but what we don’t realize is how rare these cases actually work out. Imagine if you forced Roger Federer to just play tennis as a kid and stripped him of his ability to play other sports and spend his free time hanging with his buddies after practice. He’d probably grow to hate tennis so much that he’d quit before he even got into high school (hint: parent-induced burnout is real). The generalists and the late specializers who take their time to dabble in different fields early on are the ones who usually find the best fit in the long run. 

If we think about it, our greatest advantage as a species over machine learning is not the ability to narrowly specialize; it’s the ability to integrate broadly. When we’re dealing with open-ended real world problems, we crush machines. Machines can specialize in ways that we cannot but they also cannot browse through a wide range of fields, draw parallels between them, and find ways to solve problems by using experiences from other domains. Our ability to navigate various disciplines and make connections between them is a large part of what makes our learning systems incredibly unique – you’d be wise if you took advantage of it.

“Some tools work fantastically in certain situations, advancing technology in smaller but important ways, and those tools are well known and practiced. Those same tools will also pull you away from a breakthrough innovation into an incremental one.” – Andy Ouderkirk, material engineer at Oculus Research

While some activities like golf and chess have more direct routes to success, the majority of careers do not. Our ability to navigate wicked learning environments comes back to our ability to effectively solve problems. Building a wide range of knowledge from multiple domains gives you the framework you need to see the big picture, break things down, and defer to other domains who can provide you with more detailed expertise. Specializing in one area early on may delude you into thinking you have a head start, but in reality it blinds you from other areas of benefit and ultimately prevents you from getting out of your own way. Charles Darwin’s greatest breakthroughs represented “interpretative compilations of facts first gathered by others.” He was, in Epstein’s words, “A lateral-thinking integrator.” When the path is no longer clear, the same routines will no longer suffice. This is where the generalists reign king.   

Epstein’s greatest piece of advice can be summed up in three words: “Don’t feel behind.” He said, “Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren’t you. Everyone progresses at a different rate, so don’t let anyone else make you feel behind. You probably don’t even know where you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.

“Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise. Research on creators in domains from technological innovation to comic books shows that a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.”  

Conversations with Coaches

Lantz Wheeler

Why interpretation trumps information 

Why prescribing drills isn’t enough 

One thought on “Week Five – Rethinking assessments, the mobility myth, and why falling behind can actually get you ahead”

  1. Got to rember that, if nothing else it will make a kid feel better about himself. With a little luck work a little harder.

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