I remember many years ago gym training with a friend who was giving me critique of my squats. He kept pointing out that I was twisted from the waist down with my right foot slightly forward even though my upper body was facing forward. I kept telling him that while under the bar, there was nothing I could do to correct this without making the movement more awkward for myself. He kept insisting I should try squatting with my feet and torso level. I couldn't. It was a very frustrating session.

Have you ever been asked to do something you can't do with your body? Something you know humans are capable of but you simply can't do?

I couldn't squat with my shoulders, pelvis and feet square. Not surprising seeing as I couldn't stand at rest like this. Nothing anybody told me verbally would change this, however hard I tried to follow their instructions.

Some movements are open to conscious instructions. If I were to ask most people to lift a light stick from their shoulders to the overhead position, they could do it. Of those people, the majority will not be able to lift the stick in the 'ideal' way. The stick when overhead will not line up vertically over the shoulders, hips and ankles. Most people will arch their lower back more than their structure requires to make up for a lack of flexibility around the thoracic spine and some other places.

If I then change my request to have them iron out these inefficiencies, some of the following things will happen:

  • They will not be able to carry them out.

  • They will be able to carry them out with extreme focus and hard muscular activity to fight their current 'natural' pattern.

  • They will perform my instruction and another compensatory action will pop out, a little like whack-a-mole.

Verbal coaching instruction is fantastic for many points and utterly useless for improving movement details like this.

Posture is too complex for conscious control. Every postural change is systemic. We can't effectively make systemic changes with our conscious attention which can famously handle around seven plus or minus two chunks of information at any given moment. This is why following verbal instruction for these types of improvements will lead to nothing, extremely hard work (the results of which will immediately disappear in a demanding environment) or a whack-a-mole compensation.

Posture and the small details of movement are controlled autonomously in an extremely efficient manner. This allows your conscious attention to be paid to other things, keeps your energy expenditure minimal and allows you to operate in even the most demanding conditions.

Deviating from your automatic movement patterns with conscious attention has now been shown to be ineffective. I have linked to a great piece of research on consciously changing running style at the end of this piece. The verdict is that doing so is cumbersome and costly.

The most effective way to change your autonomous movement patterns and posture is:

  • Away from the demanding environment that you want to perform in

  • With methods that aim directly at the autonomous, unconscious, involuntary systems

Making a change to the relevant systems outside of competition or regular training leads to effortless change when you go back to your game. Working with these systems will mean that changes you found almost impossible to implement before you will now find almost impossible not to do automatically.

Make some real changes and stop playing whack-a-mole!

How is coaching often like whack-a-mole?

How is coaching often like whack-a-mole?

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