Category Archives: Sports Science

More on Affordances

A major focus of mine in both Movement Science and fighting/self-protection skills training is the concept of affordances. Below is an excerpt from the book that first introduced me to the concept, which contains a great introduction to the concept as it applies to fighting skills:

“The theory was put forth in the 1960s by an unorthodox psychologist names James Jerome Gibson at Cornell University. Gibson, who died in 1979, said animals and people view their environments not in terms of objectively defined shapes and volumes but in terms of their own behavioral potential. In other words, you immediately apprehend what you see in terms of how you think you can interact with that you see. You see affordances. Affordances make possible and facilitate certain actions. So, handles afford grasping. Stairs afford stepping. Knobs afford turning. Doors afford passage. Hammers afford smashing…

Martial artists see a different set of affordances than people untrained in hand-to-hand combat. Lapels and shoulder fabric are gripping points that afford all sorts of leverage. Elbows and wrists afford a variety of locks and twists. Highly trained martial artists see these affordances directly, as inherent parts of the concept of the body, just as an accomplished pianist sees not just individual keys but whole interrelated harmonic complexes brimming with possible melodies that can be extracted from it’s wholes, not as individual finger and hand movements (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007).”

Blakeslee, S., & Blakeslee, M. (2007). The Body Has a Mind of it’s Own. New York: Random House, p. 106-108.

Linked Article: Before Reaching War Zones, Troops Risk Concussions

Considering that concussion risks are compounded by repeated injuries, and that the risks of concussions can include slower reactions, impaired cognition, and even changes in mood this should be something that concerns non-military self defense athletes as well.

A new military study suggests that some soldiers suffer mild traumatic brain injuries even before they go to war. These concussions, as they’re also called, can come from taking “combatives” classes that teach hand-to-hand fighting during the soldiers’ training…

The study looks, in part, at soldiers at sprawling Fort Hood, Texas, one of the Army’s main centers for basic training. The preliminary findings, which NPR and ProPublica have obtained, suggest that a soldier got a concussion in those classes every other day, on average, over nine months.

“The more hits your brain takes, the less likely it will be that you will have a full recovery,” said Dr. Alex Dromerick, director of neuroscience research at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. Dromerick, who has studied brain injuries with the military, didn’t work on this new study on concussions. But he says that based on our description of the findings, they raise a troubling scenario.

Click here to read the article.

Shoulder Stabilziation for Striking: are you Focusing on the Right Muscles?

When considering upper body striking, martial artists tend to focus on the pectoral, triceps and deltoid muscle groups, and the glenohumeral (GH) joint, which is the most obvious shoulder joint. The GH joint consists of the humerus and the glenoid fossa of the scapula (the “socket” of the shoulder blade). Since this joint is essentially like a ball resting on a shallow dish, and not a deep socket like the hip joint, ligaments and the attached muscles provide most of the stability. There are also three other joints in the shoulder complex that play important roles in maintaining stability for the GH joint, with the scapulothoracic being most prone to abuse in combative training. This joint is formed by the fibrous connection of the scapula to the posterior torso wall, which allows the scapula to glide and rotate as the GH joint requires.

The serratus  anterior and the trapezius provide the ability to adduct (pull close to the ribcage), retract, depress, and upwardly or downwardly rotate the scapulae.  They maintain alignment of the glenoid fossa  with the head of the humerus.  A strong, reasonably flexible rotator cuff group is important, but the trapezius needs to be able to provide rotation and stabilization so that the GH joint stays centered and the rotator cuff isn’t impinged. The trapezius and serratus need to work synergistically with the GH joint movers. Striking in general requires the same coupling of scapular and humeral actions that has been reported for other overhand actions  (Kibler, et. al., 2007) such as the tennis serve.

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Specificity of Conditioning in Fight Activities: Basic Concepts & Application

Specificity of training is the basis on which all modern physical training rests. Briefly, to produce a desired physiological adaptation, a training program must place sufficient stress on the physiological systems in question (Willmore & Costill, 2004). In training environments this is commonly referred to as Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID).  Adaptations to training are limited to the physiological system overloaded by the program. This includes neuromotor, morphological, hormonal and metabolic elements. Fighting activities (encompassing both combat sports and fighting/self protection scenarios) present a unique programming challenge, requiring a range of adaptations to all systems.

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Training Tip: Don’t Just Train to React to Visual Information

One of the greatest programing challenges for instructors and coaches of fight and self defense athletes is coming up with training ideas for the recovery or injury prevention periods of the training cycle.

Here’s a suggestion; use the time to practice established skills in new ways. Mastery of athletic skills requires the ability to adapt them to a variety of environments and conditions. Many established skills can be regressed allowing safe, low-intensity practice in ways that would have been unproductive, or needlessly difficult during the initial skill acquisition phases of training.

Many fight athletes— especially those who have not practiced sports that emphasize attending to non-visual information in their youth have some difficulty reacting quickly and appropriately to auditory, proprioceptive, and tactile information.

Quick and appropriate responses to non-visual information can substantially improve performance and reduce the risk for injuries. Including training to enhance reactivity to non-visual information can substantially enhance skill mastery while contributing to performance.

Ideally this type of training involves progressions from very simple and not particularly reactive, to complex and substantially reactive— while allowing the student time to experience the differences in performance represented by each step along the way.

Two very basic grappling skills that we practice at FSRI are mount escapes and guard sweeps. Because these are simple, yet crucial skills that when practiced slowly and carefully represent a low risk for injury, and because most of our students have significant experience practicing them they are great candidates for this sort of training.

These can each be rehearsed a few times as “dead” drills requiring no reactivity whatsoever. After that the person affecting the escape closes their eyes and performs the drills as before. Once they are in the superior position, they reopen their eyes. This is done slowly without much intensity.

Excessive coaching here is not productive. Their partners and their coaches watch the environment for hazards and intervene only where there may be a danger to the participants. The intension is to allow the participants to experience the drills in new ways.

Next coaches should introduce some small degree of reactivity. The partner in the mount position (for example) can change their weight, or post with a particular limb in a way that requires the person practicing the escape to find an appropriate response. This is also practiced far below performance speeds or intensities.

Finally the environment can be manipulated through a variety of means. A simple one involves blindfolding the person practicing the escapes and placing them in unusual locations on the training floor-such as near a padded wall then asking them to perform the drills. Small pillows can also be randomly placed around the mat and the person practicing the escapes can be coached to scoot around and avoid them as they practice.

Valleys can be created in the wrestling mats by placing pillows or cushions under it in places. This can be especially relevant for people interested in practicing escapes from attacks that might occur on compliant surfaces such as beds, car seats, or couches.

Being “stuck” in a valley can be an especially difficult challenge so coaches should watch this one carefully as frustration may result in the intensity escalating beyond what is appropriate for blinded training during the recovery phase. Coaches should avoid making the engagements too difficult in this phase. Slight elevations in the mats can significantly change the experience of the drills. Remember that the goal is to enhance spatial and positional awareness and improve reactivity to non-visual information at this stage, not to needless frustrate students or increase the risk of injury.

Basic Thoracic Spine Injury Prevention for Fighting Arts & Combat Sports

The actions of fighting arts (including combatives and self-defense systems) and combat sports place regular high stresses on the spinal column. I’ve previously mentioned the anterior-posterior compressive and shear forces that affect the lumbar spine, but not the transverse rotational (torsional) and lateral compressive forces that actions like punching, kicking, throwing and falling places on the thoracic spine. Basic fighting postures, such as a standing guard or striking can encourage thoracic kyphosis and lateral asymmetry.  Left unchecked, torso actions can become plagued by dominant muscular patterns of imbalance to one side or the other, as a result of a favored limb or ingrained movement compensations due to faulty stabilization or movement system activity. Over time these muscular imbalances  can lead to vertebral facet degradation and arthritis, disk herniations and ruptures, nerve entrapment and bone spurs (typically in the direction of excessive muscular tension), all of which translate to reduced performance.

Curvature of a healthy spinal column. Note the lateral symmetry.

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Using the Overhead Squat Assessment to Identify Reductions in Punching Quality

The overhead squat assessment promoted by NASM (Clark & Lucett, 2011) provides a useful evaluation of the functional status of the latissimus dorsi during a common movement (video example here). The OHS requires that both trunk extension and shoulder flexion occur simultaneously, either or both of which may be altered if the muscle has become chronically shortened and tight. When the lats are hypertonic, shoulder range or motion (ROM) is altered due to excessive internal rotation and depression of the humerus, which further affects the actions of the scapula. This can be seen when an individual’s arms habitually fall forward past the line of the torso during the eccentric phase of the squat in an OHS evaluation, which is an indication of the arthrokinematic (joint movement) compensations needed to accommodate functional ROM as the muscle attempts to maintain a shorter distance between origin and insertion (for an excellent visual of how this occurs, take a look here).

Rear view of the latissimus dorsi. Note the broad connection to the pelvis, and the insertion on the humerus. An overactive (hypertonic) lat will cause alterations in shoulder and hip function, impairing good technique by reducing strength and mobility, while increasing the chances of an avoidable chronic injury.

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