There are many ways to teach and learn movement skills. Teaching methods and pedagogy have changed almost to the point of being unrecognisable over the past century. It is now unthinkable to most people of my generation to use physical punishment as a means of bullying children into behaving.
And yet, some aspect of this still remains in how many of us speak to ourselves in our self talk, especially when it comes to fitness and training. The idea of right and wrong, of “don’t do this”, and “do more of that” is enforced by a tidal wave of pseudo-scientific articles. As I am not a scientist either, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that these ideas are mine, and that I hope you can take what serves you and leave the rest.
Today, I’d like to start by talking about feedback loops, and the difference between positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. Essentially, positive feedback loops are about expanding possibilities. Negative feedback loops are about narrowing, making the result more precise.
When we work towards refining a movement, we can use either of these methods and we will get very different results from them.
In coaching and fitness there is usually a lot of emphasis on cueing, on telling people how to do a movement right. For example, there is a huge amount of literature out there about how to squat correctly (not all in agreement either). You should never let your knees rotate in, you should keep your spine completely straight, you should drive from the hips, not the knees, etc. There is benefit to this, as it proposes an optimal set of guidelines that work well for most people. However, these parameters do not fit the complexity of life or of movement outside of the gym. Endlessly refining a single strict shape or pattern will make us very good at this pattern. It will not however make us very good at being adaptable.
This is an example of negative feedback loops, each repetitions narrowing the lines so that the movement becomes more and more precise and exact each time.
Excessive cueing can lead to a rigid understanding of movement. An idea that I have to move in very precise, strict ways, “colouring within the lines” to not get injured or burnt out.
Cueing also makes movement complicated: there is so much to think about! Is my pelvis in a posterior pelvic tilt? Are my knees straight? Did I initiate from the arm or the head? Where was I looking? Did I externally maintain scapular elevation? Etc…
While this can be useful to help introduce beginners to movement in a safe way while training their awareness of how they are moving, in the long run I believe this is disempowering. Beginners who lead very sedentary lives may need support in understanding the difference between a straight, flexed or extended spine position while squatting, and in understanding how to brace the spine to maintain a straight spine but that doesn’t mean that moving in a different way is wrong, unhealthy or dangerous! A person who trains to only move in the right way will only be able to move well within a very simple context. They have to work very hard (it’s complicated) but they will move in a simple and limited way.
There is no wrong movement, there is only a movement you are not prepared for. There is also no right posture, there is only movement. (Ido Portal)
To get away from excessive queueing, one could work with task based propositions. This means we have a proposed outcome (eg. Climb to the top of this tree, balance on your hands for 10 seconds, knock out your opponent before they knock you out, etc.) but create space for creativity and adaptability in HOW we get that done.
Suddenly the task is less complicated: we only need to think about one thing: did we succeed? at first, this will still be a negative feedback loop: each failure will give us information that will help us find a different pathway until we eventually solve the problem.
This is a great first step. Already, we are learning to trust ourselves and to develop confidence in our body and our ability to figure things out. We are learning how our body responds and adapts to the task, we are developing physical intelligence. If we look at this in a narrow frame however, we may still find ourselves thinking of right and wrong ways of moving. So the next step is to seek to widen the net.
Once we have figured out how to answer the problem, the job is to find new ways of solving the same problem. How many different solutions can you find? By doing this we will be learning to move in a more complex way, our movement will be richer, more diverse, our bodies more capable and adaptable.
The question becomes “what else is possible?”
This question (alongside other open questions like it) takes us down the road towards expansive thinking, and ultimately towards a sense of physical empowerment that says “I can do more” rather than the message of “don’t move like that”.
My dear friend and movement teacher John Sawney puts it something like this:
Step 1: notice something
Step 2: imagine how it could be different
Step 3: try it out!
I want to finish by restating that there isn’t anything wrong with negative feedback loops (that’s how we solve problems!) but rather that our society is already geared towards endless problem solving. It’s not that we need to do away with it all together, but that we need to restore balance. solve the problem, develop the skill, master the basics, sure. Then think, how else can I do it? Can I move differently? Can I let go of moving in the “right way” so I can let my body and mind guide me towards an inner exploration and true freedom of movement, physical empowerment and self confidence?