Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Beyond Hamster Fitness

There are some great ideas that bubble up under the paleo framework.  Recently I have come across a few threads and posts discussing 'information' and 'signalling'.  The idea that the meta-data around how the dose is delivered is as important as the payload itself.

I try to incorporate these ideas in to my training with mixed degrees of success.  By substituting exercises and changing reps and sets - all within a broader structure, I try to 'inform' my body and stimulate it, rather than trying to 'hammer it' in to improving.

For sure we all know that if training could be reduced to a single word it would be 'specificity', but even within that narrow parameter the experience can (and should be), information rich.  We are an adaptive and multi-sensory animal, and have evolved in a complex and dynamic environment.  It should be obvious that it is to our detriment to insulate ourselves from sensory feedback, the corollary of which is that we should develop our ability to filter information as appropriate. 

It is this approach that is being developed by Belgian football (soccer) coach Michel Bruyninckx reported in this article, where mental stimulation is seen as central to physical development.  Or as Professor Grahn of the Centre for Brain and Mind at the University of Western Ontario puts it,
  • "We can't do anything without our brains 'doing it' for us, so absolutely everything we train at involves changing our brains."
Bruyninckx outlines his philosophy as follows:
  • "We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body,...Skilfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player. 

    "Cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning."
This philosophy informs some unconventional training ideas,
  • His drills start off simply but become increasingly more complicated to challenge players' focus and maintain their concentration. 

    Sometimes players train in bare feet to make them more "sensorially" aware; at other times they would play simple maths games while doing physical conditioning work. 
    Bruyninckx emphasises teamwork ahead of individualism, while aggression is frowned on - players do not wear shinpads - with tackling seen as the last solution to recover the ball.
    "You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers,"
 He seeks to take advantage of the brain's plasticity.  Some of these ideas remind me of Art Devany who recently posted the following,
  • We humans can never be satisfied. Nor could satisfaction rest on a specific accomplishment or object. I think that it comes from the fact that we humans must be supremely adaptive. That means we must have a kind of generalized, non-specific attraction or yearning for more that can be applied to novel situations. If we were attracted to a few things only, how would we deal with choice and adaptation when we are confronted with something completely new? Humans must always have a kind of unfulfilled need or yearning for "something more." Nothing can fully satisfy us or we would not be prepared to make choices in the next novel situation.
    It is the unpredictable that we must be prepared for and this requires an open-ended attraction or yearning for "something more". The general feeling that there must be something more to life keeps us open to the next situation. For that reason, we can never be fulfilled. To be fulfilled means the journey is over. We have to love the journey, not where it ends.
Bruyninckx approach is not wholly unique, building as it does on the idea of "differential learning" which was pioneered by Professor Wolfgang Schoellhorn of Mainz University.  Schoellhorn carries more than a hint of Devany's First Law; 'there is no failure, only feedback',
  • "The idea is that there is no repetition of drills, no correction and players are encouraged not to think about what has gone wrong if they have made a mistake,"
And Bruyninckx himself moves close to that self-same position,
  • "I create players that can play to win at the right moment, but firstly you have to explain that learning is more important than winning games,"
As edge-dwellers we seek out novelty and challenge.  It is hard-wired within us.  In a hostile world of fugitive calories, dominated by physically superior species in direct competition with us, we survived and thrived by the advantage or our superior intelligence.
It is nice to see evolutionary perspective brought to the mainstream, even if the mainstream is unaware of it.

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