As a Masters student and one of the first S&C coaches at UBC back in the early 90’s I had just secured my first paid position with the new NBA expansion team, the Vancouver Grizzlies. By the start of that 1995-96 season I had already spent over 10 years volunteering at the CIAU (now USport) level with Varsity teams and athletes across the country through my work at UBC and Lakehead. What resulted was, by the time I was 30, I felt I was at the top of the game of conditioning for basketball and many sports in the country. I knew exactly what I was doing, how to help build a physical champion and had a bevy of champions across sport to prove it. In other words, I was just beginning and had no idea what I didn’t know.
There wasn’t much I felt I didn’t understand about the traditional development of physical training for North American sport at that time. I had already started to feel the field of S&C, with a solid 100 years of scientific and applied knowledge, had peaked and I also felt we, as S&C coaches, had more-or-less started to ‘trade across the top.’ That is, play with the icing but the cake was the same. The point was, I could feel my own knowledge coming to a head. What was missing was a more intimate understanding of the holistic interconnection of the mind-body-spirit for the improvement of performance. We needed (and still do) to move away from a mechanistic approach to both science and practice. I believed there were new frontiers to explore but I did not know where. Then Eric Butler walked into my office and everything changed.
Eric was a player for UBC Basketball, a CIAU All Star and one of the best players in the country. He was a dream player. Dedicated, disciplined, hard-working, always craving to learn and constantly striving to improve himself. In other words, he was highly coachable. I had worked with Eric since 1992 and we had a special bond between us. That day he came to see me was the end of the 1996 school year. We’d returned from the Nationals and Eric had graduated when he walked into my office at the Bird Coop and asked if we could talk.
He had been contacted by pro teams in the European leagues, had an opportunity to play pro and wanted my help that summer to make the jump to the next level. He wanted to pay me to train him, my second paid role as an S&C. I loved working with Eric and said yes. Always thinking, he asked me what would we work on? He knew he needed to be faster, but this is a relative term in sport. I did not have a clue what we would work on just yet so, seeing he still had hesitations to a pro career I told him to go home for the weekend, think about it, make your decision and if you decide yes, come see me Monday and we’ll start making our magic training plan.
Over that weekend I remember thinking to myself, what the heck is this magic plan? What more can I do with this guy actually? He tested top of the charts in all physical aspects of training. NBA guys weren’t as consistent across all tests as he was. He would have smashed a combine. So, what was I going to do with him? More weights? More plyometrics? More speed and agility drills? It didn’t seem to be needed. None of those would elevate his game. I did not really have a clear idea to be honest, but I thought he may not even decide to go for it so let’s just see what he says on Monday and I’ll wing it from there. Monday rolls around and there’s Eric in my office, pumped by our chat and excited to give it a shot. Perfect, now what? I still remember sitting in my chair, him standing in front of me and thinking I literally have no idea what to do here. This guy is about to waste his money.
And then something happened. As I was watching him talk in front of me, I started to notice little mannerisms that I’d not picked up before. Whenever he talked about playing basketball and things he needed to work on I noticed his shooting/ball handling arm would bend at the elbow, his wrist would go slightly bent and limp and his whole arm would be in the position for basketball just by talking about it. His body was processing the action of shooting and playing in an almost pre-programmed manner that revealed the existence of some level of stiffness. The thought popped into my head literally like a lightbulb going off “Eric can’t dance.”
I found myself fascinated with his arm mannerisms in full detail and my “can’t dance” thought tangent started to flow. Not only can’t he dance, but he is almost robotically stiff in his movements. His mind is so strong he processes every detail and then acts at almost genius level. But sport at the next level works faster than the mind and thought processes can. The quickness of mind processing speed while still highly important, needed to be bypassed at times to allow instinct, reactions and efficiency to take over. This is elite sport speed. Not simply muscle firing patterns and force velocity curves. This is Flow. Eric had a ton of elite pro qualities, had pro-level measurable speed, but he did not have flow (and I’m not talking about just a flow-state here, this is something different).
An idea started to form in my head on what I needed to work on. I could see it as he talked but had no idea how to do it, how to train it. There were no books for this, no videos, no courses, no gurus or teachers. This was a portal of new experience through which I was about to dive and I was on 100% experimental mode. He asked me again what exciting plan I had in store and I remember telling him ‘don’t worry about the plan I’ve got one (total lie). Let me work on it and let’s start next Monday.’
ROCKY TO THE RESCUE
How the heck to teach, train and coach flow? As I pondered this over the week, I kept thinking the only reference I had, literally was that scene from Rocky where Apollo Creed tried to teach Rocky how to move with rhythm, grace, beat, relaxation, and feel to break that stiffness Rocky had. I started to formulate a very experimental training program, at least the first few sessions, to find out exactly how free his mind, body and instincts were.
That summer changed my complete understanding of everything I knew about movement, conditioning, and training. I began to understand that us strength and conditioning coaches really do live by the old saying ‘to a hammer, everything is a nail”
Often, we see the tools in our toolbox as the solution to most movement problems. We throw our physical conditioning exercises, training variables, and prescriptions at people’s movement problems with the same ignorance and blindness as some doctors who throw medicine at people’s health symptoms. Not really understanding the actual holistic person, the core problem, or the disease.
What that summer taught me, was that I, with my traditional S&C toolbox was not Eric’s solution. His was not simply a physical conditioning issue. If I spent that summer working him in some form of extended conditioning program, he likely would not have made the jump. Eric and I are still close friends and we have spoken about that summer often. He swears that what we did changed the way he played and paved the way to a very successful pro career.
This experience led me to begin thinking about movement problems in sport very differently. I wondered ‘How did Eric become so pre-programmed?’ Why do some people not? At what age do these things start to develop? Are there critical periods where instinct must develop? When and how much systematic training movements should we use? Do different people respond differently to these things? What is the role of the mind, the body and feeling in movement? Do we have a movement character in the same way we have a personality character, that we are predisposed to? If so, can it be trained?
Basically, I realized I needed a much more holistic view of the human athlete so-as-to develop a better understanding of the key issues and clarify what we can and cannot do. Not everything needs a gym session, a plyometric, a speed workout, motivation, a stretch or a recovery solution. Maybe there was a point when we needed to actually ‘un-train’ certain attributes that had developed and were no longer part of the solution. Maybe we needed to understand what blocks movement as much as what helps it. Eric’s mind and body were exceptionally strong, but what had the development and focus on those strengths done to the rest of him?
At that same time at UBC we had another player who was one of the most talented natural players we knew. That summer I found myself thinking a lot about he and Eric. What made these athletes so strong and what made them weak? Eric needed some of what his mate had, and visa-versa. I was acutely aware our ability to assess movement weakness as a function of a complex organism was very limited.
This player, call him J, was the quintessential natural athlete. Gifted movement, natural instincts and wildly talented. Not keen to spend much time in a traditional S&C program and disliked training that did not involve being on the court, preferably with a ball. Eric was different. He knew the conditioning helped and adopted it as a necessary evil and gave it full focus. J on the other hand, never lost sight of its evil part. He would do the bare minimum needed in the gym. I believe on some instinctual level he felt that pre-programmed training could damage the way he moved just as much as it could help him. Something we coaches may lose sight of at times. Good movers reject things that are unnatural to them and that may push their bodies natural feeling out and replace it with something foreign.
I started to see these different character traits emerging in these two athletes. As I continued to work with and explore Eric’s movement weaknesses, I continued to think about other players, who had aspects that Eric needed. How is J so free and Eric so rigid? Is there something more to be understood here? A third UBC player who started to become part of my internal conversation at that time was one of UBC’s all-time best players, who seemed to have a very healthy dose of natural ability, thinking for the game, and a genius for hard work.
Player K was our leader on and off the court. Consistency was the hallmark of his game and hustle his mantra. I have had the opportunity to work with many Australian national and professional programs and have observed they have an uncanny ability to pull a win off in the dying moments of a losing game, maybe better than any other country. They do it by shear belief and hard work. They call it ‘winning ugly.’ K must be part Aussie. When something was on the line, he was a beast. He could just find a way to win, and it wasn’t always pretty. Many people can work hard and handle pain, but he could do it on a genius level. At the heart of the hustler is a warrior mentality and fierce competitive spirit. In American running folklore, I suspect those who knew Steve Prefontaine would have agreed on this archetype.
THE TRI-FECTA OF MOVEMENT CHARACTER
You can see how the general personas of The Hustler/The Thinker/The Natural had come about. For years, I was working with 100s and 100s of athletes across all sport and levels. These observations were building across an enormous range of characters. Eric’s case study was the first time I was forced to completely step out of my trained field as a traditional S&C coach to understand something bigger. It was this case study which forced me to re-examine not just our tools, but the way we approached movement problems. I had no direct skill or training to coach what Eric needed. Years of training and University, thousands of hours of study, 100’s of high-performance training books/journals/articles, dozens of world class instructors and not one source directly addressed how to understand ‘movement’ in a complex being that went beyond the standardized physiological, psychological, biomechanical, and sport skill assessments at the time.
In Eric I saw all three traits in different doses (we all are a combination of all three). His strongest was his mind, the Thinker. Next, he was a Hustler of the highest order. He obviously had good natural talent, you don’t play that level on hard work and intellect alone. But as my assessments were put into place it became evident that he over relied on hard work and his mind to solve and meet all movement problems he faced. I knew I had to try and find a way to retrain his understanding of movement and release what was blocking it. This was his weakness, the part of his game that was missing and the part I had almost no tools to help. We had to get creative quickly.
With dominant Thinker/Hustler traits, Eric intellectualized and threw sweat at problems rather than feel them out. I’ve observed that many coaches focus on these two traits and I have also observed many coaches especially S&Cs are themselves dominant Thinkers & Hustlers. Gym nuts hammering nails. This is at the core of my thinking now – when we put something in, what are we pushing out?’
That summer together we developed a system to analyze his movement character. To find the style and type of movements he was comfortable with, uncomfortable with, which senses he relied on, at what times, the intrinsic and extrinsic queues that triggered him, that he may be able to use as strategies in an actual practice and eventually a pro-level game. What made him feel comfortable, what made him uncomfortable, his understanding of space, spatial awareness, timing, and temporal awareness. Between Apollo Creed, my own rapidly expanding awareness of movement and some tricks I picked up in a Dance Therapy practical from my undergraduate PE degree, I started to piece together a program. By the end of that summer, I’d learned some very valuable lessons which guide me still. I first presented this idea at the NSCA conference in 1997 and was pleasantly overwhelmed by coaches wanting to understand more and share their own experiences with the exact same phenomenon.
THE TEACHER BECOMES THE STUDENT
LESSON #1 – Un-training something is way harder than training the correct thing in the first place.
Eric’s weakness was flow, timing, feeling, and reaction. He was stuck in a pre-programmed version of the game that restricted his ability to feel what works. The first thing needed was to stop focus on all traditional training that I believed was blocking him. Weights, plyometrics, agility, etc. We didn’t do one single session of these together that summer. I simply told him do as little of that as possible on your own to maintain what makes you feel strong. The more of that you do, the less we will be able to improve what is holding you back.
LESSON #2 – never go back to basics, our weaknesses hold us back not our strengths, move forward.
When people don’t know what to do, they often rely on what they used to do. When we want to make jumps forward, so often we in some way refer to things that worked in the past. This again was why I knew we had to stop focusing on doing what Eric was good at and figure out very quickly what he was not good at and how to train that. I think anyone who has a had a few years of coaching under their belt and has had at least 1-2 full consistent Olympic cycles of experience understands this point. Young coaches, I’m not saying to stop doing the fundamentals, but what you did to get to one level, is rarely what will get you to the next level.
LESSON #3 – Know the problem
Ultimately, this was my discovery. The awareness that there are different aspects to our makeup that influence our movement. The Hustler/Thinker/Natural. Everyone has them all. The questions are – which is out of balance, either too strong or too weak?
To close out this story, I had no real way to know if what I was doing was working with Eric. There was no testing battery to assess what was being developed. We were yet to have the performance analysis systems that are commonplace today. The only thing I had was Eric’s belief that he was changing on court. But one day near the end of the summer something magic happened.
On the west coast they had ‘summer-league’ where all the top University and pro guys would come back and play against each other. Everyone being excited when guys like Steve Nash and Joe Vickery showed up. One late August day I was in my office at the Coop and legendary UBC basketball Head Coach Bruce Enns walks in with a big smile and says “Joey, I gotta ask ya, what the hell have you been doing with Eric all summer? I don’t know what you’re doing but keep doing it. I just got back from watching summer ball and he’s not playing basketball out there anymore, he’s dancing!” – Thus endeth the lesson.
Note: In Part Two I will review the general movement character traits I’ve observed in each of the three arch-types, describe ways to analyze/assess them in a training and competitive setting as well as provide a description of the program we used that summer, the evolution of programs I’ve developed since and how you can adapt this into your training practice, should it have value. Cheers!