Basics of Coordination, Part One
In the previous two posts I talked about flexibility and movement precision as two basic categories of movement quality. The subject of today's post is coordination, which is probably the most important movement quality to have. I am defining coordination as the integrated and organized movement of the joints to create efficient and desirable movement. Coordination is the essence of athleticism and movement health. There is no great athlete or healthy body without it. So the purpose of this post is to talk in some detail about what I mean when I say coordination and how to spot it.
First, coordination means integrated movement - an act of coordination by definition requires the use of more than one joint. This is quite obvious of course, but it is important to remember that the joints are intended to work as team, and teams work better when all the players are on the field. If you want to make a powerful or large movement, you need to involve as many joints as possible. A professional baseball pitcher uses every joint in his body to create a wave of motion that summates forces from the toes to the fingertips. Good golfers will rotate each of their 24 vertebrae to create a full backswing. This way, no one vertebra has to work too hard, and the full turn is experienced as smooth and easy. If you fail to move several vertebrae (perhaps due to sensory motor amnesia), then you have to apply extra force and strain to squeeze as much movement as possible out of the vertebrae that are moving, and the movement will then be experienced as stiff, awkward and even painful. You might even start to think that you need more “flexibility”, or that you should be stretching. But maybe you just need to involve more joints in the movement rather than straining to cause more movement at the working joints. So the first rule of coordination is that it is a team game and you need all the players on the field.
But getting all the players on the field is not by itself enough to have a great team, any more than flopping all your joints around spastically is a good way to throw a baseball pitch. What is essential is that the activities at each joint are well organized. There are several general principles of good movement organization that we can identify.
First is that the big strong muscles of the body should be doing the work of creating power, and the smaller more coordinated muscles should be doing the job of directing and channeling that power to its intended target. To use the team analogy again, this means making sure that Shaq is playing center and Stockton is the point guard and not vice versa.
The big strong muscles are all located near the center of the body - the glutes, abs, psoas, QL, and spinal erectors. They are the biggest and strongest because they need to move the pelvis, the largest bony mass in the body. Movement of the pelvis transfers forces to the shoulders and legs, which then move the feet and hands, which is usually where we interact with the environment. The smaller muscles that connect the forearms to the hands and the lower leg to the foot are weaker but more capable of very precise and controlled movements. As such, they are perfectly suited to channel forces from the pelvis to the hand or foot, and then to the object we want our bodies to interact with, such as the ground, a soccer ball, a baseball, or someone's face.
This dynamic explains why we repeatedly hear from various sports or martial arts gurus that all movement should be initiated or generated from the center of the body, or the core, or the pelvis, or the dantien or whatever. This is something we tend to miss when watch great athletes or dancers, because our attention tends to be drawn to the periphery of the body, where skillful and intricate gestures are made at high speed. But if you want to know where these movements originate, watch the center of the body. The amazing hand speed generated by Tiger Woods or Barry Bonds starts with a vicious hip rotation. Agility starts in the pelvis as well – watch Barry Sanders run or Ronaldhino dribble.
But before we get all carried away with the center of the body and run off and join a “core training” class, let’s talk about how power generated in the pelvis gets transferred to the feet and hands where it can be used. A very common feature of coordinated movement is that it spreads through the body in a sequential or wavelike fashion. Consider the golf swing again. The first thing that happens on the downswing is that the pelvis rotates and moves toward the target. The movement of the pelvis pulls on the abs which then pull on the ribcage and spine, causing each to rotate to the target. The rib cage then moves the scapula, which pulls the arm to the target. Then the right elbow extends. Only then does the right wrist, the weakest but most precise link in the chain finally release into extension upon impact. Each of these joint movements happen in a nice flowing rhythmic sequence. Each successive lever in the movement chain is weaker and smaller, but is moving faster and is more coordinated. If a joint moves out of turn (such as "coming over the top" by moving the arms before the rib cage) then power is leaked and accuracy is compromised. Similar wave like sequential movements can be seen in kicking, punching, throwing, shooting a basketball, or any other whole body movement.
But even small movements involve the whole body when there is good organization. You can notice similar waves of motion in even the simplest everyday actions such as walking, turning a head, reaching for a computer mouse or making hand gestures during conversation. Even the softest and gentlest movements will send small ripples or echoes of movement waving through the body. We recognize these movements in a person that is graceful, elegant and at ease with themselves. When these natural waves are inhibited, the person looks stiff, uncomfortable, and jerky. I won’t mention any names as examples, but the last series of presidential debates presented some striking contrasts.
The third essential aspect of coordination (remember the first two were integration and organization) is that it produces efficient movement. However, that is a whole post to itself, so I will cover it in the next post.