The Well-Coordinated Body

In May, I wrote about developing jump shooters and referenced Moshe Feldenkrais and the well-organized body. This is something that I see, but is hard to explain.

One way to see a well-organized body is to use Gary Cook’s Fundamental Movement Screen or a functional evaluation like this one by Gary Gray.

With my team, I used the FMS. The screen confirmed what I saw with my eyes; that is, several of the players moved very well and everything connected well, whereas others had issues, whether a lack of coordination, lack of balance, tightness, imbalances, etc. A well-organized my body, for my purposes, is one without these constraints. In Vern Gambetta’s terms, this is athleticism:

Athleticism is the ability to execute athletic movements at optimum speed with precision, style and grace in the context of the sport or activity (Gambetta). 

On the court, some of these players with movement issues appear to the naked or untrained eye to be “athletic” in the colloquial sense of the word. Of course, as I have argued many times previously, athletic tends to be confused with power in basketball. Our power forward, as an example, looks athletic walking onto the court; tall and lean with some upper-body musculature, she is an aggressive rebounder and is powerful around the basket. However, she moves terribly right now. She failed the FMS.

Is her not well-organized body visible on the court to an untrained eye? Yes. If you watch her shoot, you see an uncoordinated body: legs going in different directions, an unbalanced position too high on her toes, shoulders and hips moving in slightly different directions, and a hitching motion as she releases the ball. However, most write off the shooting flaws to a problem with the sport-specific skill of shooting. After all, she looks athletic, and she is powerful around the basket, so her shooting woes cannot be movement related, right?

While her shooting may be a poor sport-specific skill, I see movement issues. In the weight room, she is not a well-organized body. She struggles to squat. She is strong, but uncoordinated. She is tight in her hip flexors and calves so she cannot keep her heels on the ground as she squats. She is imbalanced, so single-leg or single-arm exercises give her problems: she noticed this when doing a side plank, and she had a 20-second difference between her left and right sides. One side of her body is tight and weak. These are the same issues that manifest themselves when she tries to shoot the ball.

On the other hand, the well-organized bodies move gracefully. They can apply force properly and efficiently and decelerate those forces. When we do repeat jumps over hurdles, they are light on their feet and spend a minimum of time on the ground. When we deadlift, they have great posture. When we do small side-to-side hurdle jumps, their feet work together. When we do forward hops, their upper bodies and lower bodies coordinate to maximize the distance per hop.

On the court, these players play with balance. They rarely travel. They do not play in a hurry, but they move quickly. They are not out of control because they have the ability to stop and start, whereas other players may move as quickly, but are out of control because they cannot stop.

Another aspect of the well-organized body is the ability to relax. Picture Usain Bolt in the 100m.

He looks relaxed. He looks fluid. He is actually contracting and relaxing his muscles at unparalleled speeds, but because he does so quickly and efficiently, he appears relaxed.

This is another difference between the elite and non-elite, and an aspect of the well-organized body. From an article by Art Horne on the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group web site:

Those that achieved the highest level also had the highest speed of muscle relaxation.  The speed of relaxation following muscular contraction was nearly 200 percent faster than lower level athletes, and those that were classified just below “master of sport” demonstrated relaxation times of about 50% slower! (Dietz, 2012).

Few strength & conditioning coaches or basketball coaches work on this relaxation. In fact, many S&C coaches often stress the opposite: maintaining contraction throughout an exercise. This is the debate in slow vs. fast lifting. Slower speeds (for instance, a controlled take 4, 6, 8 seconds to descend), like in the squats, may be better for building mass, and even maximum strength, but is it best for performance? Is it better to relax and then contract when necessary as opposed to holding the contraction? The ability to shift from contraction to relaxation quickly, and to contract the right muscles at the right time while relaxing the others, is part of the well-organized body. Unnecessary tightness or stiffness inhibits a well-organized body.

Now, even with their well-organized bodies, their sport-specific skills are not perfect. Each of three in my mind has a flaw in her shot. However, unlike the first player, these are shot-specific flaws, not movement-related. These are bad habits, likely borne from years of playing with inadequate organization or movement skills. Because they have well-organized bodies, they have the capacity to change their shots and improve. The first player cannot change her shot until she re-organizes her body and learns to move correctly. These are two different changes; players who need significantly different instruction and practice to arrive at the same conclusion.

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