Fluid vs mechanical movement in athletes

Posted on July 24, 2015

(Last Updated On: March 27, 2016)

This started as an email exchange with a client who plays in the Canadian Football League. I added and edited some things to make it into a post.

“Man from a training perspective, do you have any ideas on how to improve general “fluidity” in movement? I think I’ve spoke about this in the past as a limitation of mine, but it came up today again, because I was talking to the DB coach and he said that the head coach was saying how I look fast, but “mechanical.” This has always seemed to be an issue for me, but the catch is that if I am consciously thinking about “trying to be fluid,” then because I am thinking about it, my movement doesn’t look natural anyways.

Since pretty much all performance coaches just focus on measurable things like strength, power etc, I guess it’s never been an emphasis in training and honestly I’m not so sure how to train for it –  apart from repeating a particular movement over and over until it is not consciously done any more. But in a team sport where the play is so unpredictable, I don’t see that as real applicable.

Now personally, I’m not yet convinced that “mechanical” movement results in a decrease in performance. There are plenty of players that would make something look “effortless” but still be too slow or weak or whatever to get the job done. I think I can still be very effective on the field, but it just doesn’t look so effortless. But I’d like to improve on that.”

Good question. I’ve thought about this quite a bit. From a training perspective, I’m not sure there is anything beyond,

1) Having general flexibility

2) Practicing the movement until it becomes habit, and all the aspects that entails. Breaking the movement down, making sure there is no wasted movement, etc.

I think this is much more an issue of perspective from coaches than anything else. Where they let body type / structure dictate their opinion on this too much.

I had a football teammate in college who, when he matriculated, just got done pitching for the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t make it to the bigs, but got relatively close. This guy looked like a bodybuilder. He played defensive end in college, to illustrate how big he was. His baseball coaches would go to the weight-room to stop him from lifting. From there, he got his own gym membership. Hysterically, one coach was assigned to follow him, and confronted him in the weight-room again. He was too big / stiff / mechanical / etc. Getting any bigger would “hinder him.” They wanted him to look more fluid when he threw.

You see this with sprinters, or sports entailing a good amount of running, as well. Those who make it look natural vs guys who look stiff / whatever.

The thing is, by now, coaches should realize strength / muscle often wins. In the least, it is rarely a hindrance.

-My teammate in college made it past 95-99%(?) of other baseball players. Maybe how he looks is an asset, not something to change?

-Bigger pitchers (more muscle) usually throw harder. Justin Verlander for instance, is huge at 6’5″ ~230lbs.

-Barry Bonds went to another level after all the drugs. After the massive increase in muscle and strength. I don’t recall anyone saying he looked more fluid running the bases, or swinging the bat though.

-Ben Johnson was faster than Carl Lewis. Sprinters in general have become jacked. Usain Bolt is not a small dude.

Ben Johnson vs Carl Lewis Size

Usain Bolt muscle

-Terrell Owens is one the best receivers ever

And then I don’t think differences and individual nuances are appreciated enough-

-Mark McGwire didn’t have Ken Griffey Jr’s swing, but hit more home runs per year than Griffey.

-Michael Johnson, one of the fastest humans ever, had an unusual running stride.

-Carl Lewis again had a beautiful stride, but was beat. He may be the most “natural,” gifted sprinter of all-time. Quite a few guys have fun faster.

-Philip Rivers has a shot-put like release. It’s the ugliest thing ever. He’s been to the pro bowl how many times?

-Tim Lincecum won a couple Cy Youngs with a bizarre delivery.

-I’ve seen Verlander’s mechanics questioned too, yet the guy once had a game he threw 101mph in the 9th inning.

-Who knows how many guys had smoother route running than Owens. Jerry Rice was all about precision, Owens was all about manhandling people…even if Owens was faster than Rice too.

-Steph Curry looks like he just chucks the ball in the air, as if he’s doing a half court shot every time. He’s probably going to go down as a top three shooter of all time, with a strong probability of number one.

So 1) I find it rare you hear someone who doesn’t have much muscle on them, or you can’t see as much, called mechanical, but common guys who are more stout, thicker joints, more defined, called that. [Note to readers, this client / player is more the latter.]

2) I just don’t think these things matter, other than in the coach’s eyes. That there is one optimal form for each skill. Where attempting to change a lot of these things is more tradition than anything else. Do you really want to tell Steph Curry to change his release? Because it looks unusual? Did the ball go in the hoop?

Ben Johnson had a crazy start off the line. It was violent, arms seemed wild, but rather than change it, his coach Charlie Francis found it seemed to work for him, so he let it continue. Eventually, Johnson’s start went from weird to wanting to be emulated. It was the best in the world, and perhaps the best ever. The amount of kids trying to emulate Steph Curry is probably innumerable right now. Sometimes individual nuances initially considered detrimental, become yearned for. Steph Curry’s own brother, Seth, has a much more conventional shooting stroke. Steph just won MVP; Seth is trying to get out of the D-league (NBA equivalent of minor league ball).

Good luck predicting this though. Ben Johnson was so slow at first, that once he became faster, Charlie Francis had an athlete quit, because “even Ben is beating me now.” Steph Curry played college ball at Davidson. Who? Where? Exactly.

My view on this is for the most part, if it’s not negatively influencing the athlete -they’re healthy, performance is going well- let it go. More often than not, it’s better to say, “Let’s see how it works for them,” opposed to “They need to do it this way.” Because often the “do it this way” crowd is guessing, or using some odd measuring stick.

“Ray Allen has the most beautiful shooting stroke I’ve ever seen.”

What barometer are you using here? Because THIRTY THREE guys have better career shooting percentages than Ray Allen. Is your barometer some vague notion of what shooting technique should look like? Or is it how often the ball goes through the hoop?

There are nuances you need to appreciate, rather than change. This is part of the art of coaching: Knowing when these things are a problem versus knowing when someone is moving in a way unique to them. A way you toy with at your peril. I wonder how many Stephen Curry shooting strokes there have been the last few decades, who had their shooting stroke coached out of them.

I watched some of the women’s world cup, particularly the USA team. I knew Alex Morgan from commercials, etc. I often research athletes while watching a game, and noticed she acquired the nickname “baby horse” when she was on the team last go around, due to her age and running stride. She “gallops and is able to run by everyone.”

After watching a couple games, it’s true there is something about her stride. It’s aesthetically appealing. I’m not sure if it’s because she has the long hair -many women cut it, I assume for obvious reasons, so maybe she more easily stands out- the fact she’s attractive in general (helps everything), or something about her gait, but it looks “right.” She catches your eye. Most of the time this isn’t a close up, so I don’t think her general attractiveness is too much of a factor here.

Contrast this with Michael Johnson, whose running stride was often referred to as “duck like.”

Nobody would ever say a duck would outrun a horse, but Alex Morgan is never coming near Michael Johnson in a race. Sure, she’s a woman and not expected to run as fast –because she has less muscle/strength- but no male, no matter how “fluid” or “effortless” their stride, has broken Michael Johnson’s 400 meter world record. At this point, 20 years after it was set, it’s safe to say if someone did do it, there would be more reasons than only their stride.

The 400 meters has been around for over a century. The amount of people who have run the 400 meters with what many would consider a better stride, is probably every other olympian (and more) who has done the event. Yet they haven’t run faster.

The ironic thing here is Michael Johnson’s stride was also often referred to as “too upright.” For Christ’s sake look at him. You would never coach someone into this type of running technique:

michael johnson running

The uprightness of his stride is even referred to during his 400 meter world record. (You can see his head bobbing side to side, like a duck, the last 100 meters.)

If you watch Alex Morgan, particularly on the breakaways, you’ll see she’s pretty damn upright as well.

Alex Morgan Running

She has a good amount of extension going on at the mid to lower back…but nobody is criticizing her stride! I don’t think MJ would disagree, she’s better to look at; I bet even most women would agree. But objectively, she’s not as fast.

Considering soccer is primarily an acceleration sport, you again would not coach someone into being this upright. (Acceleration typically entails a forward lean.) But it looks like it came to her naturally. If she’s already running past everyone on the field; she’s doing well health wise, is there any point in bothering with it?

This is where the criticism Tiger Woods has received for changing his swing is misplaced. Up until 2003, Tiger emasculated the PGA Tour to such a degree, pundits still do not understand why he ever changed his swing. Much less why he would do it multiple times.

The guy has had four left knee surgeries. The first one all the way back in 1994, at 19 years old. There is a lot of differing information about Tiger’s swing. It’s easier to know what’s happened in his personal life than what’s happened with his swing. But, by 2002, after he has the second left knee surgery, I bet he understood he needed to change something, or he wasn’t going to last. He was killing the tour, but also his health. This is a golfer needing multiple knee surgeries before 23 years of age.

Look at his left knee:

Tiger Woods swing comparison

Notice how much more hyperextended it is in ’97:

Tiger Woods swing comparison left knee arrow

He couldn’t keep doing that. He looks to have extended his left knee less and less throughout the years. Whether intentional -he purposely changed this, or out of necessity -pain made him.

If you look at his lower back, the thing that’s been bothering him the last couple years, you can see clear differences as well. In ’97, he has an insane amount of bending going on at his lower back. In 2015, he has that bending, but he also has a lot of extension. His shoulders are leaning behind his hips. He doesn’t get the extension from his knee as much anymore (after so many knee surgeries, he may not be able to even if he tried), so instead he’s getting it from his lumbar spine. Stand up straight while keeping your knees bent => you extend your back more than you otherwise would.

Bending and extending the ever-loving-crap out your lumbar spine, with what is probably over hundreds of thousands of times, is a good way to piss it off. You can sometimes get away with this type of activity if you’ve had enough time to acclimate, you have some advantageous structure, or you started early enough. Like from the age of 10 months (Tiger). But to then change how your back is loaded in your ~30s; it’s going to take some time to acclimate, if it’s even feasible. Sometimes you end up in spinal surgery instead (Tiger).

Early 2000s = left knee issues; currently he = lower back issues. His swing as likely dictated his health issues. The Tiger of back then is, literally, gone. And it’s not coming back. It’s not possible for him anymore. Swing like the year 2000 again likely means tear up the left knee like that again.

If you’re coaching him in ’97, particularly with the knee, you can’t feel good about what’s going to happen to that leg longterm. Predicting issues is hard, but you already know he’s had the one knee surgery, and hyperextending a knee that violently, innumerable times, probably isn’t a great idea. So, for him, it’s not that hard of a prediction. Plus, I’m sure it’s not like one day he went, “my knee hurts, I need surgery.” Rather, over time that thing barked at him louder and louder.

Every critique I’ve seen of Tiger’s swing can’t help but mention how “free” or “fluid” his old swing is. His old coach is even saying he’s too muscular now, that he needs to be smaller. (Again- lankier you’re somehow fluid; more muscular you’re not.) I find it unlikely the pundits know something Tiger doesn’t. That Tiger walked away from his old swing, and hasn’t gone back to it, for a reason other than he cannot do it anymore. (And he doesn’t want to say that publicly. Too much ego.)

  • He went on a run in the late 90s to early 2000s, but had some significant knee issues. This happened to coincide with a swing change.
  • He went on another run in the mid-2000s, eventually having more knee and other issues. Changes his swing again.
  • Gets back to number one in the world for a while, with a much less “fluid” swing, but has significant back issues. He’s in the midst of another swing change.

I don’t think Tiger is trying to find his old form, or find a “free” swing again. Or that he’s all screwed up mentally. I think the guy is trying to figure out, “How the hell do I swing this thing over and over without causing pain?” He’s done it before, he’s his own example of skinning the cat different ways, but he may be running out of options. He’s about a year into this current change. Based on his past, we should know if he can pull this off again in another year or so. But sometimes technique is not the problem. Sometimes the body can’t do the task.

My car is a fourteen year-old Toyota Corolla. After fourteen years, you can imagine how a car looks a bit beat up. I had an accident five years ago, which beat up the front of the car even more, but required no repairs. My door handles are different colors, I use a nylon strap to insure the hood is secure (I make sure it flaps in the wind so people can see it), I use a bungee cord to keep one of the front lights in place, I’m debating painting the next chipped area a completely contrasting color just to annoy people. I always have duct tape nearby. My car is often referred to as a “piece of shit” by my peers.

In that time frame, everyone I personally know who has given me a hard time about the car, including my mechanic, has driven, I’d say on average, three vehicles. Their car broke down, they got tired of taking the BMW in for repairs every three months, they failed smog, they wanted better gas mileage. My car has lasted fourteen years, has never needed more than reasonable maintenance, has just as good sound quality with the tape deck (that’s a cassette player people) I plug into my iPhone, and gets ~33 miles per gallon.

And I’m the one who has been driving a piece of shit?

This was essentially the thesis of Moneyball, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book. (Book has more details.) Billy Beane finally said ” I don’t care how they look. I care how they play.”

“His swing is ugly.”

“I don’t care. He gets on base.”

“He throws underarm.”

“He gets people out.”

“He’s got a soft body.”

“Oh, you mean like Babe Ruth?”

“He can’t throw.”

“He’s playing first base, he doesn’t need to throw.”

“He’s overweight. Not sure about his running ability.”

99% of baseball is jogging.

“He’s slow out of the box.”

A baseball player hasn’t sprinted out of the box in at least a decade. That could cause sweating, and baseball players avoid sweat like A-Rod avoids body hair.

“His 60 yard time isn’t great.”

Any MLB player who runs 60 yards would have a heart attack. I’m not sure a MLB player runs 60 yards in a week.

Ok, a few were from me. I can’t help giving baseball players a hard time for how non-athletic they are, and can be, yet still be successful.

Beane changed the perspective to measurable performance in the context of baseball, and as he said, “understand, when we stop trying to figure out the perception of guys [what they could be, what we think of them], we’ve done better.” “Who’s that fucking guy we took last year we had to release because he robbed a bank?” (Actually happened!)

While some sports seem to have at least partially come around on this, football seems ingrained in this type of thinking. For instance, all the guys are looked at like cattle at the combine.

tom brady combine

This still goes on in 2015.

I thought Moneyball made another point in the book that hasn’t been talked about: Trying to change certain things past a certain age, is almost assuredly an act in futility. (I’m talking about high level sports here. Not everyday people.) Billy Beane said we aren’t here to develop players. “You don’t change guys. They are who they are.” By their early 20s, they’re developed. They have their mechanics. You’re not going to change 20 years of something in an off-season or two. Improvements can be made, yes, but you’re not reinventing someone, or changing someone’s swing. (Actual suggestions by scouts in Moneyball.)

Either the way they play works for them, or it doesn’t. If they play well, it works. If it they don’t play well, it doesn’t, and you’re probably not going to change that at this point. Regardless of how good or bad they look, how fluid or mechanical. In the least, it’s very, very hard to manipulate some of these things, if not impossible. How many people tried to swing like Ken Griffey Jr? “A lot. Probably every kid who grew up in the ’90s.” Ok, and how many people have actually done it?

Tiger Woods is different. Unless you are an incredibly coveted athlete, it’s unlikely you are going to be able to have lesser performance for a year or two (if not longer), like how long it took Woods to modify his swing, and still have a job. Even Peyton Manning got cut! (Woods didn’t have to worry about a team cutting him. He just had to accept he wouldn’t make as much money for a couple years.) Two years is an eternity in something like the NFL. Most teams will have moved on.

Not only is it incredibly hard to change these types of mechanics, but if you sign an athlete with that intention, you are pretty much guaranteed to, at least temporarily -again, could be years worth- decrease their performance. This is the type of thing you do when you’re not interested in keeping your job as general manager. Tiger dominated again, but a two year drought intervened. Give or take six months, that’s half the average career of many sports! Why would you bother with this when there are hundreds of other guys, who are younger, healthier, and probably cheaper, ready to play? When there’s no telling if the athlete will come out positively on the other side? One of the great intrigues of Tiger is will he or won’t he?


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