"Steph was a natural athlete," his wife said. "You hear this a lot but I don't think
it is always true. But Steph could just do stuff," his wife told me when they came into the clinic. They had gotten together in college, she said, and when Steph did things, even for the first time, they looked good. He just moved well. One time at a college basketball game he got to attempt a halfcourt shot at halftime and he made it and got free pizza for a semester! He never cared for team sports but was always climbing, breakdancing and the like. Parkour didn't exist then, but Steph was kind of doing it anyway. The guy currently sitting in my clinic looked different than this. Current Steph had an office job, a history of back pain, and was carrying around more body weight than he cared to. He had started playing softball with his office team but flared his back pain up on the first game. "I wasn't even running fast! I just took a bad step." He started a gym program but flared his pain up after his second week. He was close to giving up when his wife convinced him to come see me.
Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast
Another way to say this is the glacial pace is the breakneck pace. Now before you brush that off as some kind of inscrutable pseudo-Zen mumbo-jumbo let me explain. Another way to say this is mastering the basics of anything is essential, even though it is soooo tempting to skip ahead, thinking "yeah I got this, I want to get on to something challenging that seems more like my end goal." Here's why I believe this is wrong:
It is MUCH harder to unlearn bad technique and replace it with good technique than it is to take the time to learn it right the first time.
Our bodies take time to adapt to changes in activity level. Aside from traumatic injuries like car accidents, almost every injury I've seen and treated was linked to a change in activity level. Our joints and connective tissues respond more slowly than muscle and they need more time to adapt. Your body is smarter than your ego, learn to listen and you will be richly rewarded.
I've listened to elite level experts in their field wondering what their secret was. Across all domains it started to sound like a broken record. "Master the basics," or "You can never be too good at the basics". This applies to running, gymnastics, martial arts, computer programming, language, and anything else I can think of.
Focus On Moving Well
Steph was a good mover initially, but these good patterns had deteriorated into compensations. Interestingly, these compensatory patterns don't just go away when pain disappears or decreases. They need to be retrained.
Learn what good looks like. We all have different proportions, levels of strength and flexibility but there is still usually an ideal pattern of movement. A big part of my job is helping people learn what a good pattern looks like, whether related to squatting, running, doing a pull-up, or picking up groceries.
Zero in on the sticking points. Just like a musician playing a tricky section of a song will benefit from isolating the tricky part, slowing it down, and using randomized practice to train it, so will an aspiring athlete learning a new way to do things.
Strive for the 'perfect rep'. Regress and modify the movement until you can perform it through your full available range of motion with good control and awareness.
Look For Everyday Opportunities
I call this 'guerilla fitness'. The patterns used in the gym are the same used in life. Look for random opportunities to apply what you are learning. There are several reasons this is beneficial:
In motor learning randomized practice leads to better retention and transfer of a skill. Just the process of having to recall the deadlift technique you did in the clinic when you pick up those grocery bags makes the technique 'stick' better. Just be sure to do a 'perfect rep'!
It is efficient. By the end of the day you may have been able to accumulate a few dozen reps without having to set aside any workout time!
The things you learn in the gym only have real value if they help you in real life. So practice them in real life!
Enjoy The Journey
I'm saying this as much to myself as to you because it's easy to say but harder to do. This might be the number two thing that I've heard lots of experts in lots of fields say. It might take some mental gymnastics but it helps to look for reasons to enjoy the moment. Here are a few reasons to try to shift to this mindset:
The early learning curve shows the most improvement. Going from 'a complete train wreck' to 'typical incompetence' is actually a huge jump in ability. Celebrate these initial gains!
It helps you focus on what you are gaining rather than what you don't have. Don't get me wrong it is good to have goals so you know where you want to be in the future but if the goal is the sole focus it's a sure path to misery.
It helps you play the 'long game'. Profound change never happens overnight. You are retraining your nervous system, your connective tissue, the way you move through the world. Enjoying the journey is the best way to have the patience and commitment to get to your goal.
If you stick with it, someone might give you an awesome nickname, like "Hurricane"
But What About Steph?!
Steph was able to embrace these tips and became a master of 'guerilla fitness', finding opportunities at work to sneak in movement breaks, exercise snacks. He took the stairs, got a sit/stand workstation, did plank rows on a bike rack, push-ups on a park bench. He joined a gym and happily the only time I saw him after that was in Fred Meyer where he reported he was moving pain-free and doing all the stuff he wanted to do. I was glad to hear it but not surprised. The way he moved through the store said it all.