24 October 2017

All the right moves: Understanding the fundamentals of movement mechanics

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

Elite athletes did not get to where they are by winning a raffle ticket. They have dedicated their lives to eking out every ounce of ability and talent they have through hard work and unbridled commitment. Sure, some work harder than others and some are more naturally talented, but every athlete at the top is an athletic marvel in their own right. However, as bizarre as it may seem, some have never learned how to move their body correctly. That's when they call in the experts. 

Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer who has ever lived, hurdles a slide tackle as he makes his way up the field. His ability to manoeuvre his body has helped compensate for his dimunutive frame. 

Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer who has ever lived, hurdles a slide tackle as he makes his way up the field. His ability to manoeuvre his body has helped compensate for his dimunutive frame. 

Certain athletes seem to exist in alternative dimensions to their peers and make even the hardest working opponent seem slow and cumbersome by comparison.

Take Lionel Messi as an example. The “Little Flea” just about touches 170cm and yet glides across the turf effortlessly. It’s almost as if he is taking gigantic strides invisible to the naked eye such is the ease with which he ghosts past would be tacklers. 

He’s not out sprinting them. Very few with knowledge of the game would argue that Messi has ever possessed express pace. No, Messi hovers just above the face of the earth when he has a football at his feet as if he were a water strider bug conscious of the surface tension underfoot.
But put Messi in plain clothes and he looks anything but athletic. He’s by no means out of shape, but a cursory glance at pro footballers without their shirts on (Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in particular) makes the Argentinian, a strong contender for the title of greatest ever player, look a mere mortal.

How can such a seemingly ordinary frame move so effortlessly around the pitch? For Gareth Walton, a strength and conditioning coach who is now a performance consultant for the human performance company EXOS (formerly Athletes’ Performance), physical literacy is a skill that is learned and honed over years rather than a gift bestowed upon the few.

“Messi would have learned from a young age how to place his body into different angles, how to change position, backpedal and accelerate,” Walton says. “He may not appear to be the most physically capable athlete but his body intelligence more than compensates for any disadvantages he may possess.”

As Walton explains, the best athletes have learned how to get the most out of their physical constraints. At EXOS, the company founded by the well renowned coach Mark Verstegen who has worked with, amongst others, the German national football team, elite athletes are taught how to efficiently use their bodies.

“It may seem counter intuitive, but so many professional athletes do not know how to maximise their athletic output,” Walton says. “What’s more, most of them are unaware that they’re performing the simplest tasks incorrectly and these deficiencies can have serious repercussions.”

For starters, an athlete who is unable to get his or her body in the right position in time to make a play will inevitably be left behind by an opponent who can react quicker and more effectively. 

To continue to use Messi as an example, defenders are often left bamboozled at the diminutive forward’s apparent ability to bend time and space in order to wriggle out of a precarious situation. With the drop of a shoulder or the pivot of his hips, Messi is able to outmanoeuvre a defender who has the metaphorical high ground.

“That’s not because he’s necessarily faster or fitter,” Walton adds. “It’s because he possesses that innate physical literacy that is the bedrock of all athletic output.”

It’s not just on the field where physical literacy counts. Landing a leg in the wrong position or twisting one’s back incorrectly for years on end can result in sustained and debilitating injuries that can keep even the most robust performer on the sidelines and curtail lucrative careers.

As glib as it may sound, elite athletes are prized assets for team owners and managers and repetitive injuries to star players can be the difference between securing a title and fading into obscurity. And because of the value of those assets many elite teams and organizations have turned to EXOS to help them raise their athletes’ and overall team performances.  It just may not always be so simple.

“There are a lot of egos in sport, not just with the athletes but with backroom practitioners too,” Walton says. “However our goal in working with a manager or backroom staff has always been about working together to support the needs and performance goals of the athletes, and in turn, upgrading the performance of the team. For us it isn’t about who is right and who is wrong – it’s about what solution is best for the athletes, team, and the outcomes we collectively want to achieve.”

And while there are many successful stories of the EXOS team integrating into a team’s staff, including the work with the Germany National Team since 2005 which includes a World Cup and European title; supporting five straight U.S. domestic league champions in Major League Soccer; or supporting 60+ Chinese Olympic Committee medalists – there are also times when a relationship with a team or organization does not work out.

“Sometimes it’s due to a management change, an ownership change, a a cost-cutting measure, or a difference in training philosophies,” said Walton. “But whenever a relationship ends with a team we just hope to see the athletes continue to be successful and healthy. Whether we spent years, months, or just weeks supporting them, we hope that whatever we were able to teach them about proper movement mechanics, nutrition, or recovery sticks with them and helps impact their performance.”

So what exactly does EXOS do? Founded in 1999, EXOS has a portfolio that includes over twelve thousand athletes with World Cup winners and Olympic gold medallists among them; this is an organisation that clearly has clout in the strength and conditioning industry. They also play a key role in helping the United States military get the best out of their troops.

In the words of Walton, EXOS is, “An organisation whose main principle is to get athletes to move really well and have solid foundations and scaffolding that all movements can follow on from. Integrating elements across our four pillars of Mindset, Nutrition, Movement, and Recovery, we help  athletes become more powerful, stronger, and more robust. Ultimately our goals is to help them become more successful on the field and prolong their careers and we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success helping many athletes achieve that.”

They do this by breaking down every movement the body makes and scrutinising over every muscle and tendon twitch. Walton explains that EXOS will first observe how an athlete moves through various exercises that demonstrate his or her explosiveness, agility, flexibility and speed and then reverse engineer a programme that will improve every facet of his or her output.

Using acceleration over a short distance as an example, Walton will note, among a wide range of variables, the angles of the athlete’s forward moving leg, the angle of the standing leg, the angle of the athlete’s back, the stride length that is taken and the positions of the knee and shin and the flexibility of the athlete’s hips. 

As Walton says, “We work in steps. We start with the back leg and work our way through the rest of the body because each step is reliant on the one before it to work properly. We look for restrictions and seek to rectify them. No athlete we encounter leaves us without improving in some meaningful way.”

Ultimately, what makes EXOS so successful is an ingrained culture that permeates throughout the global organisation. They are not beholden to the multitude of variables that distract general managers and head coaches such as transfer negotiations, contract extensions, on field strategies or interpersonal dynamics within the team.

Free from all the noise, EXOS is able to narrow their gaze towards a single purpose – upgrading performance. With all their resources and man power behind this unified vision, Walton is confident when he says, “A team’s goal becomes our collective team’s goal. When we support an organization, our team goes all in to work together and create the ultimate solution to help drive those athletes, that team, and their support staff. Our only goal is to make them successful.” Fighting words indeed.