Freelap Friday Five with Shawn Myszka
Shawn Myszka currently serves as a personal performance advisor and movement coach for more than a dozen NFL players each year, where he guides the performance of players to the limits of their potential. Through his frequent presentations at strength coach and sport conferences nationwide, Shawn has become a sought-after clinician and leader in the field of sport-specific power development, and on the transfer of training to sport performance and the development of mastery in the movement of athletes at all levels of qualification.
Freelap USA: What were some reasons for your transition from “physical preparation” into motor-learning-driven movement coaching? What were some important steps along the way?
Shawn Myszka: I would say the first big reason came in the form of a spark of realization that I had back in 2008, when I had my first NFL player reach out to me. Prior to that point, I had worked mostly with amateur athletes at lower levels of qualification and mastery (at least relatively speaking, compared to an NFL player), for whom I typically emphasized physical preparation in more traditional ways familiar to strength and conditioning.
I took this approach with a player who had already been a starter in the league for a few years at that time. We made tremendous improvements in the weight room, as well as on-field (at the surface level anyway) in the execution of some of the common testing means that are almost always emphasized in both the preparation and the identification of talent in American football players. The thing was, however, that although he had taken what appeared to be fantastic steps forward, when he got back out onto the actual football field that upcoming season, there was very little difference between the player he was prior to meeting me and the player he was after we had invested so much time and energy into his preparation.
This discouraged me greatly and forced me to completely reevaluate not only how I defined success for my athletes, but also my training objectives and overall approach. It was through this “Robert Frost” moment that I came to the realization that most athletes have an overall guiding objective that should be intuitively obvious: They simply train to be better when and where it counts within their sport.Most athletes have an overall guiding objective that should be intuitively obvious: They simply train to be better when and where it counts within their sport, says @MovementMiyagi. Click To Tweet
The next important step along the way came after I had taken a more movement-centric approach for the next four or five years. My players ended up being very successful that particular season—at least statistically and in the post-season accolades that they accumulated. However, when I really broke down the movement execution they displayed on the field, I didn’t see many of the efficient patterns we had worked tirelessly and deliberately to improve upon during the offseason.
In the training or practice environment, my players truly stood out by executing in a crisp and clean fashion versus their peers. However, when they were put on a field and required to face contextual problems, I could tell that there was still something significant missing. This became a moment where I needed to further audit my craft and what I would aim to bring to the table for athletes in their preparation for an NFL Sunday.
As I did this, I took another long look in the mirror and decided to ask myself a hard question that I have continued to ask to this day: Are the players performing because of me or in spite of me? I didn’t like the answer that I came to on that day, and so I elected to dive even deeper into certain concepts such as those in ecological dynamics (blended ideas from the fields of ecological psychology and dynamical systems theory). As I did this, I began to further respect the complexity of sport. I set out to focus more of my lens on the performer and environment interacting with one another as my scale of analysis (as opposed to taking a technique-driven, more organism-centered approach that many practitioners view movement as).
With these realizations and further modifications to my philosophical frameworks, aspects of my training and practice environment also began to reflect a shift in focus towards what I now would characterize as being more learner-driven. I attempt to be a facilitator of designing learning environments that aim to ultimately enhance movement problem-solving processes for the athlete. Overall, what I have come to believe is this—as Siff and Verkhoshansky so eloquently put it in their famous text, Supertraining—“Sport is a problem solving activity where movements are used to produce the necessary solutions.” This quote, and what it really means at its heart (the athlete as a movement problem solver!), now drives my thoughts, my methods, and my entire outlook each and every day within my craft.
Freelap USA: Why do you feel that physical preparation coaches have embraced motor learning culture more than many actual sport coaches have (at least, it seems this way), when it seems like sport coaches would benefit from it more?
Shawn Myszka: If I am being completely honest, I feel both populations still have an awful long way to go to embrace motor control and learning topics to the degree that they deserve. No matter what hat an individual may wear within our field, I feel strongly that the benefit of investigating motor learning and, as you say, its culture at a deeper level is far-reaching and can dramatically change anyone’s craft.
Though I don’t claim to have it all figured out by any means, I have found that, at least generally speaking, both population groups often just don’t know what they don’t know! Thus, they just do what they’ve always done or set out to follow others who have come before (or the ways that they were coached when they were athletes). There is great danger in this, as professionals then find themselves clinging to these ways as the traditionally held thought processes drive so much dogmatic thinking.The benefit of investigating motor learning and its culture at a deeper level is far-reaching and can dramatically change any coach’s craft, says @MovementMiyagi. Click To Tweet
That all said, I am blessed to have come across a growing number of individuals within both of those population groups who do realize that there is more to movement skill in sport than what has traditionally been offered. They are passionate in finding the ways that these ideas can apply within their craft to dramatically impact their athletes.
When it comes to the lack of adoption of the ideas across the field(s), I do believe that much of the apprehensiveness is caused by a reality that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon: Sport movement IS complex. As one of the founding fathers of contemporary movement science research, Nikolai Bernstein, stated, “No natural phenomenon can be understood without carefully considering how it emerged.”
To build onto this and trace back to an idea that I unashamedly stole from Keith Davids and Duarte Araujo (from an article that they wrote in 2011), movement or sport skill acquisition is really about the emergence of an adaptive, functional relationship between an organism and its environment. At the heart of this relationship, we can place an equal emphasis on the problem to be solved and the emergence of a self-organized movement solution to match the constraints that interact at that moment in time.
This is an overly daunting endeavor for many, as it means we must take a more systems-oriented approach in order to get closer to the answers we seek. This will enable us to be more concerned with the integrated process of movement execution and its underlying dynamics (the relations between the component parts of the system). This is where ideas related to information-movement coupling start to come into play. We find that perception, cognition, and action of the athlete are highly integrated behaviors that have circular causality and underpin the movement execution in response to the key sources of information specific in a performance environment.
As ecological psychologist James J. Gibson stated, “We perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive.” These two processes go hand in hand at all times in sport, no matter what type of motor problem we are investigating. Thus, this framework of motor control must then be considered in the design of our practice environments, where tasks that allow the performer to maintain the coupled relationship between the sources of information and the movement actions created (i.e., how the degrees of freedom of the movement system will self-organize into a movement solution during goal-directed activity) should be presented.
Freelap USA: What are the key tenets of how you coach movement from a motor learning perspective? How might this make your coaching different than what is “typical” team sport movement coaching?
Shawn Myszka: Due to the perspectives offered by many of the traditional motor control and learning theories within coaching (namely, those that fit in either “information-processing” control ideas and/or linear pedagogies with stages of learning that are often more coach-centered), I find that movement coaching in most settings is often very technique-driven. There is an emphasis on acquiring some putative and idealistic technical model of movement with rules that are often implied to represent the way for all performers to execute.
Quite simply, many coaches often overemphasize biomechanics and/or the hypothetical storage of an entity of a movement pattern execution within the brain. Because of this, if an athlete isn’t getting “it” right yet (“it” being the technical execution), it is proposed that they just need to accumulate more repetitions of practice tasks that are often watered down and over-simplified so that the movement patterns can be completed in a closer-to-perfect fashion. This can sometimes be seen as analogous to “beating a trail of movement” to imprint and store it somewhere in the brain (known as the “generalized motor program” or a “schema”).
Overly frequent instruction and feedback from a coach and near-constant analysis and comparison of technical execution to those viewed as experts usually go hand in hand with this. Additionally, so does the inclusion of non-contextual practice methods where motor patterns are performed in isolation with decoupling of the performer from the environment in which they must ultimately perform (and lacking connection to the problems that they will need to solve). Overall, this abovementioned approach is a very asymmetrical one that leans toward the organism, clean biomechanics, and a program being stored in the brain.
This is an approach that I am all too familiar with, as it was one that I lived and breathed when I took my first foray into being a movement coach. That is, until I began to see the limitations of this approach and it forced me to evolve. Thus, my current view and the tenets that form its foundation are now quite different from these traditional views often held as truths.
As mentioned above, I now more closely identify with an ecological dynamics-oriented framework. If I am going to help facilitate more effective movement problem-solving, I must first investigate an athlete’s movement behavior in context (in the sport and on the field, in situations and circumstances that they routinely face) to determine how they currently organize movement. This will offer me greater insight as to what gaps may exist in their movement toolbox.
Once I go through their film with a fine-toothed comb, I can then begin to design and set up learning environments that contain more representative tasks. This doesn’t mean that the athlete will just play their sport or that I always need 11 versus 11 to recreate movement problems. Instead, this principle simply states that I will aim to manipulate constraints of the task, environment, and organism to create a problem for the performer to interact with and couple their movement to.
Thus, I attempt to facilitate more opportunities where problems contain information that looks, acts, feels, and behaves more like a game does. This information is where the so-called “affordances for action” will live. I’ve found that if the problem has fidelity in this way, it becomes more likely that the solutions that emerge will also have enhanced fidelity. As a result, it makes it more likely that the work we do could potentially lead to greater transfer to game circumstances.
A few important aspects of this approach add layers to this. The first one is that of the concept portrayed in the ever-famous words offered by Bernstein when he coined the idea of “repetition without repetition.” As stated back in 1967, “repetition without repetition essentially means that when practice is properly undertaken, it does NOT consist in repeating a means of a solution of a motor problem time after time (rote repetition) but instead it will exist in the process of solving that problem again and again by changing organizational aspects of the solution each time we face it.”
If there’s one idea that gets to the crux of what I do, it’s repetition without repetition. Quite simply, when an athlete faces a more frequently changing problem, they end up searching their movement toolbox for the organization of an adequate solution. I feel that frequent exposure to this requirement leads to the enhanced coordination and control of more abundant, yet equally functional, movement solutions.Repetition without repetition means that when an athlete faces a frequently changing problem, they will search their movement toolbox to form an adequate solution, says @MovementMiyagi. Click To Tweet
This is the very essence of what Bernstein recognized as the hallmark quality of movement skill and expertise: dexterity, or “the ability to solve any emergent movement problem in any situation and in any condition.” Thus, I focus on ways that I can add greater realistic complexity to the tasks within the learning space to force the expansion of the grip of one’s movement solutions.
For example, I often set out to create environments that test the movement skill with certain psychological key performance inhibitors like pressure and anxiety, while also aiming to move more effectively under physiological factors like fatigue. Additionally, I frequently change the activity by manipulating constraints like the number of opponents, the exact opponent(s) being faced, the initial layout of the opponents, the shape or size of the workspace, the goal intentions of the performer, and the surface we play on, among many other things.
Each of these constraint manipulations will obviously impact the spatial and temporal demands of the practice activity. Truth be told, I don’t believe that a movement skill has reached sufficient stability and flexibility until we have truly tested it in each of these ways.
Freelap USA: What’s your take on movement coaching and the role of the physical preparation coach at varying levels? What’s the bandwidth here?
Shawn Myszka: Well, maybe you’re sort of setting this on a tee for me to a certain degree here or maybe it’s happening inadvertently, but either way I will take it. Quite simply, I believe that anyone who works with athletes in any capacity would be well-served to refocus their efforts on being a better movement coach by diving into ideas of motor control and skill acquisition. Obviously, I am biased, as I shifted gears many years ago by gravitating towards this type of niche. It’s why I am as passionate as I am about the topic, and it’s also the reason I have brought calls to action for all athletic performance-related professions to unite for a paradigm shift…a movement for movement!
Additionally, if S&C coaches, physical preparation coaches, and sport coaches don’t take a more movement-centric focus in their craft, they will certainly be doing their athletes a disservice in both the short and long terms. This is one of the main reasons for my pleas to NFL decision-makers since 2013 to consider hiring a movement skill acquisition coach as part of their staff in order to help facilitate this new way of thinking and go beyond the “way we have always done it.”Anyone working with athletes in any capacity should refocus their efforts on being a better movement coach by diving into ideas of motor control and skill acquisition, says @MovementMiyagi. Click To Tweet
I believe that having this type of expert within an organization would allow for the design of more enhanced learning environments, along with the inclusion of practice activities that present more representative movement problems to the athletes. Additionally, this individual could assist in the guidance methods utilized by all parties, with the intention of improving the ownership and optimization of the athletes’ movement skills when and where it counts. Ultimately, I believe this type of role would also begin to more fully bridge the gap between those entrusted with physical preparation and those in charge of putting players in the positions to succeed on the field.
I understand that many people are apprehensive of abandoning the methods they believe have gotten them to this point. Because of this, they may scoff at many of my recommendations, as well as the feasibility (or even the need) of taking this movement-centric approach. However, I offer famous words by the late, great, martial artist Bruce Lee, who stated, “Research your own experience: absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own.”
On this note, I do not desire or expect individuals to follow the recommendations blindly. Instead, I implore individuals to think more deeply about sport movement behavior, while determining even small steps that they can take to gradually modify their art to be more conducive to enhancing the contextual movement skills of their athletes within their respective sport.
Freelap USA: What is your inspiration for finding the ultimate movement pattern for each athlete? What are roadblocks that tend to keep athletes stuck in movement ruts or the inability to display their sport skill optimally?
Shawn Myszka: As mentioned earlier, I believe that when assessing movement, we must think of the deeper connections within the entirety of the human movement system. This helps us look beyond the athlete finding the ultimate movement pattern and instead aim to assist them in organizing the most optimal integrated movement solution. As Bernstein once stated, “A movement is correct when it perfectly fits a motor problem just as a key easily opens a lock.”In attempts to find the most-effective movement solution, we must think of who that athlete is at that moment in time under the constraints they face, says @MovementMiyagi. Click To Tweet
These words and the idea they convey then guide and offer constant inspiration for how I not only view movement behavior in sport, but also attempt to acquire enhanced movement skill for any athlete I partner with. In attempts to find the most-effective movement solution, we must think of who that athlete is at that moment in time under the constraints they are facing and strive for the athlete’s ownership and authenticity of the movement to fit their personal features. Of course, the roadblocks that could rear their ugly head and keep an athlete from finding their most functional fit with the problem could be any number of things, depending on the exact contextual problem they aim to solve.
Though I have briefly discussed many of these factors in the answers above, a few of the main ones that come to mind would be shown in an athlete who:
- Tries to adhere to an overly restrictive technical model with little bandwidth of variability (not just motor system variability, but also perceptual and cognitive degrees of freedom). This mentality in movement execution could bring heightened stability (predictability) to the movement patterns, but may also lack flexibility, adjustability, and adaptability to the dynamic needs of the problem-solution interface.
- Exists in an overly sterile, non-organic practice environment where the athlete is not invited to search their movement toolbox to discover the strengths of their movement skills.
- Attempts to be overly controlling of their movement execution in times of higher complexity, pressure, and fatigue. This could lead to what some would refer to as “reinvestment” or “constrained action” (forms of paralysis by analysis).
- Becomes dependent on augmented guidance in the form of both explicit instructions and feedback from a source outside of themselves (such as a coach, teammate, or video review) and, as a result, could lack the kind of intrinsic, kinesthetic sense often necessary for full ownership of their movement behaviors.
- Hasn’t “pressure-proofed” their movement system and its solutions through testing within anxiety and stress, which often leads to an athlete reverting back to movement behavior nuances of old.
For Further Reading
Araujo, D, and Davids, K. “What Exactly is Acquired During Skill Acquisition?” Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2011;18(3-4): 7-23.
Chow, J, Davids, K, Button, C, and Renshaw, I. Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.
Davids, K, Button, C, and Bennett, S. Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.
Latash, M, Turvey, M, and Bernstein, N. Dexterity and Its Development. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1996.