Human movement is a fascinating topic and Player Development Project is fortunate enough to have discovered a group of researchers applying ideas of Taijiquan (Tai Chi) in a football context in South Africa. Researcher, Dr. Laurie Rauch discusses some of the science behind human movement in sport.
An athlete’s movement on the sports field is largely an automatic process. Coordination of movement best left to subcortical brain structures. Thinking kept to a minimum. The only conscious part of movement should be the goal of the intended movement; while the movement itself is essentially a chain of reflexes. This remarkable ‘automated’ process enables world class athletes to move at speeds that seemingly defy the laws of nature often under extremes of pressure.
“. . . and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner. . .”
* Clearly there is little time for an athlete in full flow to think or reason before executing a particular lightning fast/reflexive movement.
Breathtaking to watch and so very easy to appreciate on the sports field, is it even possible to study this ability scientifically? While movement has been relatively well studied in primitive organisms, it is poorly understood in humans because of the massive influence that both thinking and emotions have on movement. As a start we can examine the physiological underpinnings of movement.
Based on his meticulous physical examination of patients, sometimes taking several days before making a final diagnosis, the famous 19th century French neurologist, Jean Martin Charcot, concluded that the execution of movement involves 2 main centres, one seated in the cerebral cortex and the other in the spinal cord. Charcot further performed autopsies on patients who subsequently passed on to pinpoint the exact location of the neurological damage associated with the presenting movement disorder.
Ideally these two centres should work in synchrony, but the question we have to ask ourselves is which of these two centres is the most important for movement? When the chips are down and synchrony is lost, the fight or flight response is activated and the spinal cord becomes the dominant movement centre. This is so, because movement from the spine is highly effective at helping us escape danger. Is it [movement from the spine] equally as good at scoring goals in soccer?
Movement from the spine, known as locomotion, is executed via central pattern generators (CPG) that are controlled by the reptilian brain (R-brain). As the name suggests, the R-brain is complex enough to keep primitive vertebrates, like sharks, amphibians and reptiles alive and thriving in a dangerous world without needing to think much. Examples of locomotion are movements that are repetitive, like walking, running, swimming, pedalling, paddling, chewing, etc. Leg movements themselves do not require any input from the brain so long as there is feedback from the limbs. This can be seen from the horrific experiments that involve disconnecting a cat’s brain from its spinal cord.
These so called spinalized cats are still able to walk normally on a treadmill and to transition smoothly into a jog as the treadmill speed increases, right up to very fast running speeds. Nevertheless, spinalized cats are unable to balance or to step over obstacles. Additional sensory inputs, like vestibular nuclei for balance and vision to see obstacles are needed. The vestibular nuclei lie inside the R-brain and eye nerves provide direct visual input to the R-brain, thus enabling the R-brain to have impeccable control over running movements. Cycling movements are also controlled by the R-brain that coordinates things like cadence, power output, efficiency and smoothness of the pedalling action. The movement center in the spinal cord thus pretty much executes movement independently of the movement center in the cerebral cortex (thinking brain).
In fact, thinking and movement do not go well together at all. Very rapid movement patterns are best executed exclusively by the R-brain, while the thinking brain must be kept as quiet as possible. Nevertheless, it is essential that the modulatory capacity of the thinking brain remain ‘online’ lest last minute movement modifications are necessary. The way to keep the thinking brain online without hampering the highly effective R-brain is via ‘heightened awareness’, rather than by active thinking.
Engaging in active thinking during movement will slow down your reaction time and upset your timing. This is the domain of the right brain – the creative side that is closely linked to the heart. Left brain activities like logic and language are useless for deft passing of the ball or for finding the back of the net. The right brain goes by feeling; does the movement feel good. The left brain analyses and controls; is the movement fast enough, does it look good. Right brain involvement with movement can best be summed up as kids at play, left brain involvement summed up as enforcing movement to lose weight or increase fitness. The right brain cannot function if the heart is beating too fast. This happens if the thinking brain is overactive rather than in a state of heightened awareness. This is because engaging the thinking brain unnecessarily will lead to the over production of nervous energy.
Nervous energy is needed to ready the body for action, however it is crucial that most of this energy be channeled into the muscles and the spine rather than into the thinking brain and the heart. Peak soccer performance is only possible when the brain – heart axis is calm yet focused, while the body is supple yet structured. The best way to keep the nervous energy out of the heart and the thinking brain is by directing the nervous energy into maintaining the correct body structure and joint angles relative to your opponent.
We demonstrated this in a group of professional soccer players who underwent a 4 week movement training program underpinned by the basics of Wu style Taijiquan (Tai Chi), a tool/syllabus to practise feeling the ‘inner’ while focusing on the ‘outer’ by giving the participants key pointers to come back to centre. The pointer used was lengthening of the upper back, with crown lifted and chin in, to allow for softness of chest thereby facilitating abdominal breathing. Participants were taught to be aware of their postures and how to instantaneously fix incorrect structures to thereby immediately follow the ‘outer’ again.
A central component of the program was to teach participants to maintain the correct action line relative to their opponents/competitors. We used individual 2 min mock boxing rounds to place the soccer players under pressure while continually measuring their heart rates and their body postures and joint angles via 3 d cameras. Before Taijiquan based movement training participants felt more relaxed the more defensive they were when confronting the boxing opponent; but after training participants felt more relaxed the more offensive they were when confronting the boxing opponent.
Very interestingly the players felt more relaxed (based on their heart rate changes during the boxing round from before to after training) on the offensive after Taijiquan training than they did when they were on the defensive before the Taijiquan training. In addition the players who had the biggest reductions in heart rate had the best body positions and joint angles relative to their opponent. How did these players control their heart rates? It is no mystery when you consider that the same nerves that control heart rate also controls movement from the spine. This is the main focus of our Taijiquan based movement training.
* Wallace D: Federer as Religious Experience . The New York Times Sports Magazine 2006; 20 Aug.