Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"False" Stepping 2

We often talk about the wisdom of the body and I see it all the time with athletes; subconsciously stepping a foot back to put themselves in an optimal or better acceleration position. Is coaching against false stepping going against the wisdom of the body?

There has been some research in support of stepping backwards prior to acceleration, as some coaches term as the “plyo” step. While others are adamantly against the so-called, “false” step. Is there research supporting that NOT “false” stepping is faster than “false” stepping? In talking with elementary educators, they say all young children perform this movement at the necessary times... so is it really a learned bad habit? Or an innate ability to play with the physical qualities of the world in we live? Humans have been evolving and living with gravity much longer than we have been teaching how to move "better"...
How does this change in a reactive environment in which the athlete does not know which way one is going to have to move?

In an open environment an athlete is trying to position themselves quickly and effectively into an optimal biomechanical position (positive shin angle) displacing one’s center of gravity. In order for an athlete to overcome inertia, one has to displace their center of gravity ‘outside’ of their body … along with that, how does the “plyo/false” step set up each subsequent step thereafter?

In a reactive environment in which an athlete might find themselves in an athletic position but not aware of which direction of movement comes next, I have seen many levels and abilities of athletes utilize a “plyo/false” step for advancing forward. (i.e. tennis, infielder in baseball, basketball, volleyball, football). An objective measurement would help settle this long standing debate, but is very difficult to control for in an open environment. The environmental context will change things and I think the “plyo/false” step might at times be an athlete’s most successful option...

The question remains for those coaches that believe you need to coach this instinctive false stepping out of the athlete, how does increasing conscious control in a reactive environment enhance an athlete’s success at getting from point A to a random point B as fast as possible?

In those “oh shit” moments that occur so often in open-skilled sports, it seems that it would be much more effective to allow the subconscious hardware to at least do some of the work. It seems that it is very ‘effortful’ to try to override a subconscious, faster network in a chaotic environment. Technically speaking the “false step” usually/most definitely doesn’t put an athlete in a biomechanically dangerous position; but for those against the “false” step, do what we gain from not stepping back, do we lose during the lag time of the conscious decision to not do so?

Research has shown that activity in the brains motor region can be detected 300 milliseconds prior to the person feeling he/she has decided to move. Lots of research in neuroscience regarding free will is pressing this issue too; regarding subconscious decisions vs. conscious ones and many are showing a delay in the time between the two.

Also, in the forward model of motor control, it’s stated that often the consciousness is alerted to movements/behaviors that are already being planned and performed, and isn’t necessarily ‘causing’ these behaviors/movements. To me, 300 milliseconds is a long time… and every time I line athletes up on the line in an athletic position with feet square to the finish for a 20 meter race (I did it with a group this morning) they all “plyo/false” step on “GO!”. Is every athlete wrong? Or do their bodies have something to say about this interplay with gravity and physics?

If it is a movement error and needs to be 'trained out', what’s the timeframe and payoff? Can it be done in 5 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week? If it can, then why do other skills and physical qualities take so long to develop? Are we again overriding an innate startle reflex that entirely makes up for the “false” stepping, by saving us a few milliseconds in nerve conduction velocity? There is lots going on in the sporting environment, and the body is a big part, but what happens centrally in the brain with inputs and outputs is a large factor too.

Of course context is the key and not every movement in sport requires or should have a false step, but if it happens, most times it’s because it was the most necessary and optimal movement option for that situation.

I personally don't teach anything regarding it. If it happens, it happens. I try to teach good position, expose athletes to multiple different changes of direction (pre-planned and open), and teach them how to position their body to put their COG where it needs to be in order to move effectively. Movement issues sometimes might be lack of awareness, other times it might be a strength issue.

Observe great athletes, because I don't believe they lie; they are great because they are the most successful at accomplishing movement problems and I think there is much to learn from what they do, and I feel that coaching the "false" step out of them would be time better spent on other aspects of athletic development.

It's easy for us as coaches to critique and criticize what we see from the sidelines or stands, but get in a game and one quickly realizes that relying on subconscious processes is the way to go. Too much override from the 'higher levels' of the brain slows things down tremendously. In motor learning, external vs. internal attentional focus shows that external focus far surpasses internal focus in the success rate of accomplishing different skills, along with faster speeds and a decrease in neuromuscular activation… saving both time and energy. (I highly recommend one checks out Gabriele Wulf's research and book, Attention and Motor Skill Learning)

Working against the subconscious to NOT "false" step in certain situations would be an internal focus... less effective than external focus of attention: getting to point B as fast as possible. There are many factors to take into consideration when analyzing and deciphering training plans… in open sports, taking in the sensory information, interpreting, and decision making in the fastest manner possible is all part of the visible physical movements that we see in game action.

Agility/change of direction, acceleration, speed, and jumping are all very interesting movement components to sport and can be a tremendous challenge to prepare athletes who play sport. While certain ‘skills’ look nice to work on in training such as not “false” stepping in situations where it is actually a better option, often very few of these ‘skills’ really occur the way we think they do in a game setting. How much do we try to teach and control movement vs. how much do we let the body self-organize the movement challenges? I’ll share more thoughts later in regards to change of direction in sport. Do what we can in training, give the athlete movement problems to solve, and get out of the way.



Josh Leeger said...

Your final sentence sums it up perfectly! "get out of the way"

Athletes in sports where time/speed is THE critical factor don't worry about the false step. Sprinters' feet sit on the blocks. The O-lifter's feet are planted on the ground.

Technically, in terms of "reaction time" those would be the only places where it would be "critical" in terms of performance not to false-step. You lose time.

In any other sport it would seem that the false step is reactive - something you don't "train out," but "train for." By doing exactly what you said - "teach good position, expose athletes to multiple different changes of direction (pre-planned and open), and teach them how to position their body to put their COG where it needs to be in order to move effectively."

You can also teach athletes how to move well from a reactive place. This is common in the martial arts. The "flinch" is an appropriate reaction to a fist flying at your head. If you freeze up after you flinch, you're done. If you learn how to pattern your flinch so that it's effective, and train to move effectively from the flinch, you've taken a reflex and made it work for you.

Joachim Sundbo said...

Well, there are a few things that cross my mind when I read this. One is that a lot of the 'false step' situations could actually be situations where a real step would potentially help, say for example trying to avoid being hit by an defensive player right after catching the football and landing on your feet. Milliseconds can make the difference.

And I don't think it is something that needs a lot of practice to integrate, I think it need the right kind of practice, and as importantly, the right kind of mindset while practicing it. As a former kickboxer and semi-professional front-paintball player (which requires a lot of fast sprints to get to the right cover before being hit), I've had the correct training to avoid false steps in most situations, and most of it is merely a matter of where you place your feet before taking off.

If your feet are parallell, you often need that false step in order to induce a shift in COG, while if you adopt the athletic sprinter's technique of having one foot behind the other, using this displacement to push your body forward, you avoid the problem.

The same thing is for kickboxing (or basically any other contact sport for that matter), you never see a martial artist with his feet parallell to each other, simply because that narrows down how much he/she can manipulate his or hers COG with simple movements of the upper body. I know this is going a little off of what Josh said, but it makes sense.

By taking the athletes or students away from their usual training regimen, and introducing them to another branch of sports, while explaining the purpose of correct leg-placement, I think this is an issue that could be dealt with fairly easily.

Whether or not it is necessary on the other hand, that is a whole'nother question, and Josh brings up a valid point "Athletes in sports where time/speed is THE critical factor, don't worry about the false step"