Movement Variability and Resourcefulness


I have seen a lot of interesting research and discussion lately on the issue of movement variability. The ability to make small adjustments to a basic repetitive pattern like heart rate, brain waves, energy use and movement seems to be a good indicator of health and function. Experts who perform the same repetitive task (say hammering a nail) display more variability than novices. This has something to do with dynamic systems theory, which Nikolai Bernstein used to explain the complexity of motor control. And it has a lot to do with the rationale of the Feldenkrais Method, so I would really like to write about this in much more detail soon.

But first I have to finish my book, which is almost done!

Until then, here is a brief excerpt from the book which touches on these issues (minus the complicated stuff about dynamic systems theory.)

Variability and Resourcefulness

Good movement is not just about harmonious interaction or coordination between the different parts of the body. It is most fundamentally about how the system interacts with the environment, particularly in response to unexpected changes. In other words, good movement implies a quality of adaptability and responsiveness to a changing environment.

One can imagine building a humanoid robot that can walk with flawless symmetry and grace. But if the robot cannot adapt its gait pattern to accommodate changes in the terrain, it will fall each time it steps on a rock, and its movement skill is essentially useless. True movement intelligence therefore doesn’t exist so much in the movements themselves, but in their interaction with the environment.

The graceful stride of the deer isn’t useful unless it can be modulated to jump a log and avoid a wolf. A soccer player who can execute technically brilliant ball handling skills in solo practice does not face the real test until she performs those moves in a game situation against an opponent who is trying to steal the ball.

We would not say that someone is fluent in a language if they have only one way to communicate a particular thought, regardless of how perfect that particular communication is. Similarly, one is not fluent in the language of movement unless he can accomplish the same goal in many different ways.

A person who can move from standing to sitting with perfect smoothness, but through only one particular trajectory, has less resourcefulness than someone who can modulate their descent to the floor in many ways. The power lifter who can perform a squat with perfect form is not necessarily prepared for a day of gardening, where the squatting movements need to constantly adapt to the environment  - slightly off center, with the feet in different positions. (To be fair, the gardener is probably not prepared to squat 800 pounds either.) Thus, we cannot always measure good movement by its adherence to some ideal form, but rather in its capacity to adapt to many different situations.

This capacity for adaptability and resourcefulness does not apply only to competitive sports. Our everyday lives constantly present unexpected movement or postural challenges.

  • A long plane ride in a cramped seat
  • A night on the couch or in a strange bed
  • Walking in shoes that are uncomfortable
  • Carrying groceries in one hand while loading a baby into a car

In each of these situations, solving the motor problem might require a departure from what is normally considered “good” posture, proper form, or the most beautifully harmonious way to move. The ability to find a motor solution to all these unexpected problems is part of what we should consider to be motor intelligence.

So what does this mean in practical terms? One take away is that motor intelligence is developed through facing a variety of motor challenges. This is true even in sports that involve almost no element of unpredictability, randomness or variance during actual competition.

Louie Simmons is one of the most successful powerlifting coaches in the world. This is a sport that requires only three simple movements in competition: squat, deadlift and bench press. Despite the very small movement vocabulary used on game day, Simmons trains his athletes with constant variety in the way they perform these movements - different bars, different weights, different speeds, different foot placements, etc. Part of his rationale is that: “As soon as your body thinks it has all the answers, you need to start asking different questions.”

In modern life, most of us are not asking any interesting questions of our bodies at all. There are few constraints that place the nervous system under demand to find creative motor solutions to problems. In fact, all of the intelligence to solve motor problems has been exported to the engineers and ergonomics experts who design our chairs, couches and beds!

In a natural environment, just finding a comfortable place to rest for a few minutes is a significant motor challenge. The ground may be too wet or rocky for sitting, so you need to squat. If you sit on the ground, hip mobility and trunk stability is challenged in multiple planes. The hardness and unevenness of the ground requires constant shifting of position and posture. When exposed to these challenges, many people will experience discomfort in less than 10 minutes.

In the modern world, the challenge of simply sitting and resting is removed. We don't need any movement variability or resourcefulness to solve the problem of how to sit comfortably for 30 minutes in a row. In fact, we can rest for eight or nine hours in a row in complete comfort without using any motor intelligence at all!

The lesson - find a way to challenge your movement variability and resourcefulness. Use it or lose it!


Here are some posts that address similar subjects:

Play, Variability and Motor Learning 

Developmental Movements, Part Two

The Greatest Athlete in the World, Part II