Athletes often have underlying limitations as to why they struggle to move the way a coach may want them to. Muscle length isn’t always the answer to developing better movement. More times than not, we as coaches evaluate a poor movement pattern and begin to prescribe stretches when the problem may be alternative to that. Flexibility often isn’t the only answer to movement dysfunction. Many times, there are multiple reasons to why your athlete’s body can’t figure out what you’re coaching. This list is not exhaustive of all possibilities but gives the three issues we see the most that contribute to movement inefficacy.
Motor control in a movement is often a large problem with younger, untrained athletes but we see this continually with our incoming collegiate players as well. Motor control can actually be quite an easy fix at times. Younger athletes will often figure out the answer as they move through a pattern more. You can literally watch the growth in movements from session to session with minimal interference. Their body discovers how to organize itself optimally. Older athletes with a training history can pose more difficulty. They can often require a more specific, and focused approach. There’s nothing better than when it clicks and you can see the complete shift into the ability to do the movement the way it should be done. One of the primary aspects we teach with our incoming athletes is pelvic control. The glutes, obliques, rectus abdominus, etc all aid in controlling the pelvis and we often see a lack of the ability to control one or many of the muscles in the grand scheme of movement. Retraining proper firing patterns and integrating into movements will light up new movement ability.
Athletes often have underlying limitations as to why they struggle to move the way a coach may want them to as well. An easy one to see is the squat pattern. We as coaches bang our head into brick walls to get kids squatting correctly but many times their body won’t allow for it. Lack of ankle mobility, which may actually relate to the bony structure can be a huge cause for problems in movement. Everything follows the ankle up the kinetic chain. The ankle needs the ability to move into dorsiflexion to squat properly. An ankle that can’t will cause problems up the chain, most notably in the low back. An athlete lacking dorsiflexion will have to bend way forward through his low back to keep his weight centered and the result ends up looking like a half squatted good morning which you can imagine isn’t a good position. Many times we will hammer soft tissue work through the Achilles, and gastroc for this type of athlete but I have personally seen athletes that have anatomical limitations in the way of bony blocks through the talus, and talocrural joint. You can do all the soft tissue in the world and not make a dent in movement.
Along the exact same lines are structural limitations at the hip. Some athletes hip joints just aren’t made to squat. I have had many athletes who lacked significant internal rotation at the hip. After all, in pitchers it’s actually a somewhat expected adaptation of the one-sidedness of the sport. When we began to look deeper with x-rays on one of our athletes we discovered what we thought all along which was the bony anatomy of the acetabulum was such that he would never have increased internal rotation. The structure of his hip joint acted as a bony block into internal rotation. Continually stretching this athlete to gain IR would’ve been an absolute waste of time and possibly even caused more issues. Stretching isn’t always the answer to movement. Length, or capsule restrictions aren’t always the issue for a joint not being able to move.
A great video shared to me by one of our former interns, Drew Mitchell at UC Irvine this week shows Stuart McGill discussing the differences in bony anatomy of the hip amongst different areas of the world. They’ve found that even nationality can be a factor in the ability to squat. This is a highly interesting video and raises a lot of questions about squat depth, necessity of the squat in a program, and even raises awareness as to why some countries are better suited Olympic lifters, and some are better suited as throwers and rotational athletes all based on the anatomy of the hip.
Length tension relationship
Length issues can often come packaged with one or all the reasons mentioned here. Motor control can cover up the issue of what looks like a length restriction. Stability, which relates back to motor control, can be a primary cause for a length issue. We often see athletes increase hip mobility from nothing other than learning to stabilize the spine, and pelvis. A notable example of tissue restrictions we see often are in the hamstrings, and lats. We often see athletes with hamstring limitations roll their hips under themselves when attempting to sit back in the squat. As they lower themselves they begin to roll under with the pelvis and shift the knees forward into a more quad dominant approach. It can start to look like a dog taking a dump. Again, we can have some or all of the listed reasons involved in this but assessing the situation can often help in devising a plan of attack moving forward.
The lats are often a culprit of much needed soft tissue work to decrease tone or facilitate length as well. Athletes may lack overhead flexion and compensate with low back arch, and rib flair to get overhead. Again, it can be more than just length, including bony anatomy of the acromion process, but assessing the athlete can go a long way into correcting the issue.
When it comes down to it these reasons don’t function in isolation. Length issues are intertwined with motor control problems. An athlete who has lived with soft tissue restrictions may also lose motor control due to positioning, firing patterns, etc. Simple stretches aren’t always the way from dysfuction to movement mastery.