Professional and collegiate athletes come into my gym all the time repeating nonsense from their other coaches (or the Internet and social media). They tell me what they think their problem is, “Austin, my glutes don’t contract.”
I ask, “How do you know they are not contracting?”
They realize they’re not sure, “My glutes just — um — I can’t… They feel off, or something.”
Aha! Ignorance. “Let’s investigate why they feel that way.”
Others say, “I don’t know. It’s just what my coaches keep telling me.”
More ignorance. Yes!
I reply something to the effect of, “Your glutes — for sure — contract. Otherwise your nerves are fucked and your butt would be completely atrophied and you’d probably collapse to the floor where you stood now. Did you have a stroke? No. So what’s this nonsense about?” Most laugh with relief. The curious ask more questions. I love when that happens.
Each of our minds make assumptions — without our permission and rarely with our awareness. How rude. You’d think and hope your own mind would consult you when it constructs your beliefs and reality. But that would cost a buttload of energy, so it makes assumptions instead. We don’t need to be right about the world to survive in it, but we do need to be right about some stuff if we are going to help athletes stay healthy and become more skillful. Curiosity is what leads us to discover right from wrong before the world proves us wrong with losses, injuries, failures, and firings.
No doubt, I made some assumptions within this blog. But I hunted them out as best I could and replaced them with the most useful facts I could find. Where I couldn’t find good research, I settled for my best logic.
Now I’m about to point out the most common assumptions I see today, but I want to tell you that I have fallen for most of them too. Even the above example; I too thought butts just didn’t contract for some people. But then my curiosity took hold and I realized that makes zero sense. I want to point out how ridiculous these assumptions are because why not laugh at ourselves as we learn and grow. We can learn from them if we get curious.
Consider the following two pieces of information:
- A hockey player watches a light change from color to color and when it turns green, he hits a puck.
- The scenario demands a quick reaction.
Will this drill make the hockey player better at hockey?
It is easy to assume this practice makes athletes more skillful. It requires them to move fast in ways that look like the sport and there’s a puck and stick involved, but it’s nothing more than a great pantomime because athletes do not react to green lights. They react to other hockey players zooming around the ice, pucks flying at their face, a jumble of sticks clamoring to push the puck into the net, and the feel of their heart pounding when a power play starts. The only athletes who react to Red Light/Green Light are race car drivers on the starting line.
Just because an athlete’s movement looks like the sport does not mean it will make the athlete more skillful. Athletes don’t need to spend time and energy mimicking reactions that look like their sport. But they should practice the situations that cause them to react, like other players, open or tight spaces, and objects moving from person to person.
When we look out into the world of sports practices, we see pantomime-drills repeated over and over. It’s easy to assume they are helpful because they look “sporty,” are challenging, and are so common. But I haven’t found one textbook, research article, or skill researcher that supports these practices in the advancement of skill.
Assumptions and Truth
I follow a strength and conditioning coach who trains some big time clientele. I continually look at his stuff for reminders of what not to do. When it comes to spouting assumptions, his account is Ol’ Faithful. In one post, he’s training a professional soccer player who is turning left around a plastic pole (indoors) to his “unfavorable side.” The coach explains that he will have the athlete repeat this drill around a pole until he no longer has an unfavorable side.
While I appreciate the coach’s intention, there are a few assumptions being made here and some things we don’t know. We don’t know why the athlete or the coach believes he has an unfavorable side, nor do we know if it is a problem, or what causes it. If I had to guess, it’s because people have ideals about symmetrical play that might not be accurate or useful.
Assumption number one: Premeditated left-hand turns on a small patch of indoor turf around a pole will transform his abilities to: receive a pass, read where his teammates and opponents are, see open space, and decide what to do with all of that information. In other words, the assumption is that the athlete can change his turning preferences without the scenarios that invite him to change direction.
Truth: If the athlete does in fact need to turn left better, then he needs scenarios that force him to turn left. He needs opponents to charge at his right side, teammates to pass to his left, or he needs to play along the right sideline so there’s available space on his unfavorable side. Running around a pole does not help his abilities to read the scenario and choose from all those options.
Assumption number two: all athletes need to use both sides equally.
Truth: Elite players have better skills with their non-dominant side than amateurs, but there’s always going to be a preferential side and that’s okay. They may have equal skills with both sides, which is great, but most athletes will still favor one side over the other. What’s more important is whether or not they made the right choice for the play: They kept possession. They made the pass. They scored a point.
Assumption number three: The athlete has the physical capacity to turn left fast enough to compete in professional soccer.
Truth: So this one is complicated and I’m going to keep it as simple as possible. The athlete may prefer turning right because a past injury diminished his ability to turn left; he knows he can turn right and still keep the ball. At least three intrinsic factors will supersede any sort of coaching ideals: his beliefs about his turning, past successes, and his physical capacity to turn left on a dime. Let’s say his capacity is the issue — like one foot’s arch collapses more than the other. If so, the coach needs to address the arch, the physical incapacity. However, if the issue is not as obvious as a foot’s arch, it may be excruciatingly hard to find. The coach needs to help the athlete regain his capacity to turn left. If that happens, then it becomes a viable option in his mind and body. Once that happens, the coach still needs to create soccer specific scenarios that invite the athlete to turn left with his new physical capacities. I know we’re in the weeds here, but I’ve made my point.
Practices that are normal — or ones that are rationalized into making sense — carry a seductive momentum. It’s easy to be swept away by what seems to be true and the current of what everyone else does. If you get curious about your external world, you’ll uncover these assumptions and learn from them.
A CULTURAL ASSUMPTION
One of the biggest and foolhardiest assumptions our culture makes is that hard work, regardless of what it is, leads to betterment. But if that were true then whichever soccer team ran the most miles per game would win; whichever racecar neared its redline the most would finish first; whichever football team with the harshest hell week would be crowned champion, and I would have been a straight-A student. This assumption forces a cause and effect that do not belong together. It is an illogical arranged marriage. Curiosity would dispel such an illusion and replace it with useful information for learning. The curious mind would realize, “That’s right. Those causes don’t lead toward successful effects. So what does?”
Take, for example, the assumptions coaches make about what their athletes should be doing with their shoulder blades. I have not seen many successful outcomes from popular ideas about scapulas. Like the idea that they should be back and down all the time, or that they are safer when pinched toward the spine during lifts… these ideas are the norm in most weight rooms and therapy offices. But we still have countless shoulder and elbow injuries. Doesn’t that seem wrong? That’s because it is.
Many athletes who come to me tried pinching their shoulder blades in everything they do, or always kept them down and back, and yet they remained injured. Those approaches didn’t work because the underlying assumption is incorrect. Shoulder blades do not need to be pinched to be safe, nor do they need to be down and back all the time. That’s not how any shoulder operates in the animal kingdom. Nor does it happen in indigenous tribes — why would they have any idea or reason to perpetuate a posture?
Why did these athletes’ coaches assume these methods worked despite repeated failed outcomes?
All the athletes who found me did the right thing; they got curious about other methods to care for their arms and careers because most of them continued to have problems. They did what you’re supposed to do after repeated failures: learn. They learned that what they did had unsuccessful outcomes. That’s why they found Apiros. “We do things differently,” they tell me. (I think we just do things more sensibly.) When a training program, like pinching shoulder blades together, fails to help athletes, I find what does. I dispel my assumptions in favor of what’s true and useful.
Check out the potential of primate shoulders. Here’s a gibbon not minding the position of his shoulder blades. He sustains huge forces through his shoulders. He seems all right, doesn’t he? Do you think he’s going to get hurt? No. You don’t. He’s a monkey.
Here’s a parkour athlete who is also not minding his shoulder blades, and probably incurring over eight times his body weight on the swing and the catch, at least. Now, do you think he’s going to get hurt? You might. And I’d ask why? Just because he’s human? The comparative anatomy between our shoulders and a gibbon’s is not that different.
Is there risk involved with the parkour athlete? Sure. But after following his account for years, I’d wager his risk is low. The capacity of his arms is immense. If I tried what he did, my arms would do what you’d expect them to do — tear. But if I had practiced like he did for years and years, I’d be able to do something similar. My capacity would grow.
The point of these two examples is to show you the potential of primate shoulders. We are primates. We don’t need to pull them down and back all the time. When we move how we evolved to move, we are not fragile. We are robust. How did we evolve to move? What a curious question.
I admit, there are some shoulder blade positions that are better than others. But pinching them back and down all the time isn’t one of them. Primate shoulders fascinate me — which includes ours. I go into much further detail about our shoulders and how they evolved in my book. Knowing how they evolved illuminates a massive informational gap in today’s movement training. Which means there’s just as big of an opportunity.
Here’s an example of an internal informational gap. An athlete asks a coach a question: “Why do I need to brace my core when I swing my golf club at the ball?” The coach doesn’t know the answer. Many coaches, when presented with their ignorance, jump to a hasty conclusion and inner monologue. Shit. I don’t know. I’m failing this kid and might get fired.
To protect themselves, they make something up, “Just do what I said…and…um…if you don’t brace your core, you’re going to hurt your back.”
Alternatively, they could enjoy (their perception of) helping athletes so much that they make up an answer to fabricate their helpfulness. “Because when I braced my core this one time, it put five yards on my drive.”
These choices happen in nanoseconds. Often without anyone’s awareness. But their impact can last years, or in bad cases, lifetimes.
Coaches often reply with assumptions to defend their sense of safety, preserve their sense of understanding, or protect their position of authority over athletes or other coaches. These are natural human behaviors — but that’s no excuse. For the coaches in question, any answer is better than facing their ignorance. Not knowing the answer to a question means they don’t know the answer to a question; it does not mean these coaches are bad or threatened. That’s an internal assumption, and a fascinating one at that. Do they know why they are so quick to assume? Why are they so quick to defend themselves?
Curious coaches answer those questions, and they yearn to fill their gaps with knowledge. They tell the inquisitive athlete, “I don’t know the answer but I want to know and I’ll find out.” They wonder why they created so much fear when they were questioned.
QUESTION YOUR ASSUMPTIONS
Below are some of the most common assumptions I see coaches make. Beneath each of them are curious questions, ones that can dissolve such assumptions. Since power still lies squarely with coaches, these questions are their responsibility to ask. They are all simple questions, why don’t coaches ask them?
- If athletes move in similar ways as their sport, they get better.
- “What actually improves skills in humans?”
- Perfect practice makes perfect.
- “Does it really? Where’s the evidence?”
- Athletes understand coaches regardless of what they say.
- “Do you understand me?”
- The relationship between coaches and athletes doesn’t matter. Coaches can treat them like assets and machines.
- “How is our relationship?”
- Athletes get better in practice and training.
- “Do you benefit from the sessions I create? Prove it. Tell me how you have benefitted.”
- Athletes listen, obey, and do not protest against the orders of the coach.
- “Do you fear me? What are you afraid to say to me?”
And then there are uncommon but useful questions that coaches do not ask:
- “Where have you disagreed with me, wanted to ignore me, and/or stayed silent?”
- Followed up with, “Why didn’t you say anything? Did I do something? Did a past coach do something? Is there an assumption we can dispel?”
- “What do you want or expect from me that you haven’t received from our work together?”
- “How am I complicit in my athlete’s injury?”
- Or, more specifically, “how did the staff within the San Francisco 49ers create one of the most injured teams in the NFL in 2020?”
- “How did I help you lose that game?”
These are the kinds of questions that bring informational gaps to light. They make assumptions apparent. However, you might make yourself uncomfortable by the thought of asking them, which begs another question, “why create so much discomfort in yourself?”
Let’s say you’re a volleyball coach who just finished this blog. You return to your practice and the only thing that is changed is your perspective, you’re more curious. You repeat one of your staple drills: your players set a ball repeatedly into a wall. But this time you wonder, how exactly will this drill help them set in a game? Do I know how? What happens in a game? Will this drill help?
Here are just some of the things within one play of a volleyball game. There’s a rich context internally and externally: there’s the momentum and score of the game, emotions, and perceptions of teammates and coaches. This context is distinct and dictates what decisions get made. A serve is made across the net, a passer passes, the setter identifies the pass in the air, and then decides where to put it. This decision includes a step or a sprint, which have (physical) momentums and abilities unique to the person. But other intangible things affect this choice, like the relationships between the setter and hitters. Maybe one hitter is a friend and another a foe. Despite the relational differences, there is a most opportune hitter for the scenario who must be identified and selected while the ball is in the air. The setter must know where she is on the court without looking at the sidelines. Then she must send the ball to a location that she also won’t look at but must predict. Then there’s the rainbow trajectory she must create with a unique arc and speed. Lastly, there’s defense to be played after the ball is set.
The bottom line: there’s a lot of complicated shit that goes on in each and every play.
Curiosity corrects the assumptions of the coach, you, with one question: how does setting the ball into the wall help any of the in-game events?
Oh… It doesn’t.
Wonderful! You’ve upgraded your understanding and get to improve your practices. What was the assumption you made? That repeating the action of setting — into a wall — will improve the several decisions made in any given play.
When you question your assumptions, you clarify what you know from what you don’t, which can develop your curiosity. Nothing is too mundane or normal to be free of questioning. When you create a curious culture, your athletes will explore, innovate, and become more intelligent and creative within their sport. You’ve helped them figure out what they don’t know or can’t do. When you help them explore what they don’t know and can’t do, errors become inevitable and desirable. They create the conditions for learning.
What do you think happens when athletes are surrounded by coaches and adults who never say, “I don’t know;” who repeatedly weasel their way into perceived omniscience, who aren’t curious because they think they know better?
Well, the athletes learn to make just as many assumptions as the coaches. They explore less. They learn less. They are less effective. They are intolerant of ambiguity. They go into games with unfounded confidence, arrogance even, get trounced and have no idea why. They thought they were so prepared because they practiced so hard. They set volleyballs into walls a million times or shot 1,000 free throws. Without curiosity, they and their coaches return to the same useless practices assuming that more repetition is the salve for losing. Incurious coaches create a stagnant and unlearned sports culture.
How often do athletes ask questions for clarity and understanding? Like, “Why are we setting a volleyball into a wall?”
“To practice your touch,” the coach rebukes.
“Is my touch bad? How does this help me set better?”
Or how about this line of questioning:
“Coach, why should I keep pinching my shoulder blades together? We’ve been doing this for months and my shoulder still hurts.”
“Because that’s a safe position for shoulders.”
“Then why does my shoulder still hurt?”
“Why do I want to squat with weight mostly on my heels?”
“Because it’s good for your posterior chain, son.”
“What’s wrong with my anterior chain? Are my quads weak?”
“Because your glutes aren’t firing hard enough.”
“But how do you know that? I can jump 36 inches…”
These conversations rarely happen. Athletes just do what they are told. That’s how culture defines a good, coachable athlete. But if they don’t ask questions, and coaches don’t question themselves or each other, how well can sports evolve? (Not very well.) As long as coaches claim sole authority in practices, they also claim the sole responsibility for their athletes’ learning and growth. Which also makes them responsible for losses and injuries.
Curious coaches make fewer assumptions and ask questions to athletes and themselves. In doing so, they create better conditions for growth. They share the responsibility with their athletes. They involve them and invite them to try new things. They allow for, or even encourage errors because they know the athletes can learn from them. Like I said, curiosity is one of the key ingredients for what all of us want: to get better.
SPORT REQUIRES CREATIVITY, NOT MONOTONY
Yes, repetitions are important. But the kind that typical coaches offer athletes are too monotonous and often repeat the wrong things. What athletes need to repeat are the predictions, perceptions, unique contexts that motivate movements, and most of all, the things that keep them healthy.
A soccer coach could jump start an athlete’s curiosity with an invitation to a novel challenge, “Roger, within this three-on-two scenario, can you score with two goalies?”
Someone who coaches movement — a strength coach or physical therapist — might ask, “Do you know the differences in your shoulders and elbows when you do a pull-up?” Which is a question to a) determine whether or not they have a gap in their proprioception, and b) how well you’ve coached the movement and their awareness.
A volleyball coach could say, “Morgan, I see that you typically hit between these angles. The sharp angle is open, but you rarely take advantage of the space and the opponents know it. They don’t stand there. Can you see the space and hit it there?”
A tennis coach who’s highly aware might investigate a statistical trend, “Mike, you’ve been great these last few rounds of this drill. You’ve made zero service errors. But I want you to push what you’re capable of, are you okay with making errors? Have you avoided them on purpose? How do they make you feel?” This coach sees there’s a gap between his understanding of Mike, the lack of errors, and his intention to improve the team’s serving. He speaks what he knows, inquires about the unknown, and then learns. He becomes a better coach.
I might say to Mitch Haniger, “How close can you stand to the pitcher in batting practice and still make contact? Go find out. I want to see how well you can predict the pitcher.” By shrinking the time and space for Mitch to watch the ball, he has to predict the pitcher better.
In one clip of Steph Curry’s practices, available on YouTube, he has clearly asked himself, “How high can I shoot the ball and still have it go in?” These shots and other trick shots of his are outliers. They’ll rarely show up in a game, but they are valuable practice because they further his understanding of the trajectories that put the ball in the hole. They are curious and skillful shots.
Here’s another clip of Curry, who is becoming the figurehead of great practice. To those who are new to the field of skill science, this looks like Curry just having fun and being creative. To those who have read a little about skill development, they recognize excellent and well researched practices.
Patrick Mahomes shows an impressive range of abilities in both competition and practice. He often strays from an “ideal technique,” throwing side-arm, behind his back, and underhand, while running away from opposing predators. Starry-eyed announcers exclaim, “That’s unbelievable. It’s out of this world,” as if it’s a fluke instead of a result of curious and exploratory practices. Other quarterbacks could make similar throws if they were allowed or encouraged to explore in practice. He doesn’t need to be the only one in the NFL making such passes, they are learnable skills.
I’ve asked Wes Schwietzer to do a number of curious things. In 2017, I asked if he could lie on the ground and move a bent leg in circles without his back moving. In 2018, I took him rock climbing. (We climb for a number of reasons, they are all laid out in my book.) In 2019, I asked if he could do a handstand against a wall. That same year, we played “Pickleball-Pass-Protection.” I tried to roll a wiffleball past him. He could only defend his territory with the paddle. In the 2020 lockdowns, he could not go to a climbing gym so he climbed the deck of his house. He sent me videos of him climbing it, suspending himself by his fingertips (it was close to the ground). I was proud and impressed with his creativity and autonomy. I still am.
Throughout our years together, Wes and I continually refined how well he accelerates into a sprint. We have both played linebacker and running back as we tried to outmaneuver each other. Our field work leaves me baffled by a question, Why have a lumbering elephant, a typical lineman, running before one of the fastest guys on an NFL team, a running back?
This question forces me to think about another speed sport, and take us on a small but relevant tangent. In Formula One, when there’s a bad crash, flags get waved and competition pauses. As the wreckage gets cleared, the cars remain on the track but follow a pace car. Now, you must understand that if Formula One cars go too slow, they don’t work. This pace car is fast. If F1 cars followed the equivalent to a bumbling offensive lineman, like a VW bus, the cars would falter. So why does the NFL continue to have such slow and unagile pace cars ahead of their running backs? What a curious question.
I used to outjuke and outpace Wes. Not anymore. Imagine if Legolas gained 250–300 pounds and you have Wes today. (I have no idea how much Tolkien’s elves weigh.) Last year Wes was a top ten run blocker and this year he has held the top spot for several weeks in a row, by a large margin.
Curious coaching means Wes and I continue to train his sprinting and acceleration mechanics when no one else at his position does so. Why don’t these big boys work on their acceleration? And why don’t their coaches ask them to?
Every running back on the planet would want offensive lineman who could actually keep pace with and change direction ahead of him. Christian McCaffrey puts up insane numbers (when he’s healthy). Imagine what he could do if his offensive lineman were as fast and nimble as Legolas-Wes.
McCaffrey is a good example of a curious athlete. Note the atypical things in this training montage. Some of the things may look common, like the hurdle drills and various sprints. But the way he moves within those activities is extremely uncommon. Moving this well is no accident. It is on purpose. Meanwhile, countless other running backs and wide receivers dance through agility ladders, which do nothing but garner sweet, sweet double taps on social media platforms. Note his “lizard crawl,” which is a becoming more popular of a move these days, but I wonder, does he know how it translates and benefits his body and skill? Or is he exploring it because it is novel? Maybe he likes how it makes him feel. And how about his gymnastic moves? How might his 360 spins in the bear position translate to spins on the field? Is he aware that novel vestibular changes increase plasticity for learning?*** Such curious training played a role in this astounding play from him in the 2021 season.
So why aren’t more offensive lineman training alongside their running backs since their tasks are so similar? Both must predict where their opponents will be. They both try to create space. The difference is linemen want to move people to create space and running backs want to avoid them.
As far as I know, Wes is the only offensive lineman to ever train similar things to running backs on the field with me. In addition to that, he might be the only athlete in the world who can lift 700 lbs for three reps in the morning and go rock climbing in the afternoon. Not only that, he can do the same gymnastic moves as McCaffrey, despite weighing 130 pounds more and being six inches taller. Wes wants to be the pace car.
Every incurious eye sees Wes’s size and never considers that he can do anything similar to what McCaffrey does. A little bit of curiosity asks the O-lineman, “Can you do that?” And the curious O-lineman replies, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
In these examples, what are all five athletes doing? Acting upon curiosity — theirs own and/or their coaches’. What does it mean for them? It means Steph, McCaffrey, and Mahomes are household names. It means Wes regularly keeps up with, and outpaces, linebackers one hundred pounds lighter than him. It means he is one of the best run-blocking lineman in the league. (At the time of writing this, Wes is the best run-blocker in the league, at the guard position, with a win-rate of eighty eight percent. The next guy down is ten percent lower.) It means Mitch hit thirty nine home runs instead of twenty six. A thirty three percent increase in dingers. Oh, and he was healthy for the first time in two years. Mitch, Wes, McCaffrey, Mahomes, and Curry display what it means to be creative, intelligent, and curious athletes. Their success is a byproduct.
You might be wondering, how often should you follow your curiosity and explore novelty? Surely you can’t ignore the fundamentals. There is a balance to strike between discovery and exploiting your strengths. In the next blog, I’ll tell you what the research says about that sweet spot. I will also talk about the common practices and drills that are incurious and useless, as well as the things that inhibit or foster curiosity.