The art of efficiency in sport isn’t as easy as it looks

25 Oct 2016 4:40 PM -

Did you watch any Olympic events this year and think that the athletes were making it look too easy? Commenting on the rowing like “They would’ve placed better if they were sharper with their blade-work!”, the gymnastics with “She should have done a triple flip, rather than just the double!” or the table tennis “He should’ve added some more top spin to that last one”… Yeah, we might’ve been guilty of that too!

In most, if not all, sports there is a degree of skill acquisition that requires the athlete to be powerful, strong, accurate and/or fast whilst expending minimal energy. The outcome is that it looks easy, almost effortless. But it isn’t.

This is the art of sporting efficiency; using only the muscles absolutely required, the exact amount they are needed, no more. Using more than what is specifically required is not only a waste of energy but can also lead to decreased performance and even overuse injuries. It’s a trained skill to be efficient and accurate; it’s how Olympians make super-human feats look like a piece of cake!

We can think of it almost like a monetary budget: athletes should be aiming to cash in all their energy-budget for what is going to give them the biggest return for their investment, rather than wasting it on tense shoulders, excessive gripping or toe-curling, especially when the lactic acid or fatigue kicks in, for example. Most people require immense training to enforce this near-perfect muscle and nervous system relationship in a pressured system like elite sport competition. It takes time, feedback and a complete network of healthy muscle and nervous tissue working well to achieve that one perfect sporting moment!

At Prevent though, we often find that people forget that learning a new physical skill in adulthood in sports (or otherwise) is actually incredibly challenging. It is the same process you might have gone through in childhood trying to learn a musical instrument: playing the whole song may be out of your reach on the first try, but you can hit some of the notes right. In fact, it might take you several weeks of trying before you can play the entirety without making a mistake. Whilst piano playing is a coordination of your upper limbs and fingers, sporting activities are just big, whole-body movements and coordination feats of the same nature. Consider the theory of three stages of motor learning:

Image result for 3 stages of learning

table sourced from:

In this theory, let’s compare it to when you learnt to drive, and in particular turn the corner:

Cognitive stage: you needed prompts to indicate, place your foot over the brake, brake slowly, turn the wheel and then accelerate through.

Associative: you were able to consider the turn ahead, then simultaneously perform the above steps fluidly like a chain-reaction.

Autonomous: you left your house and arrived at your destination without consciously considering the cornering at all.

Every time we learn a new physical skill, we step through this same process. However, if we need to refine a certain skill or change it slightly we need to step back to the Cognitive Stage again. Repeating the cycle as necessary until we meet a new Autonomous Stage. This is why bad habits are hard to break: we need to un-write a whole series of neural patterning and muscular activation.

Our top tips for making a technical change, and moving through the cognitive and associative stages of learning are:

  1. Get feedback: have someone watch you, video yourself, get a mirror or use props (a wall, Theraband, tape or a seat) to feel when you have performed the task differently. Counterintuitively, If it feels or looks wrong, different, even unusual, then you’re probably doing it right! If it feels the same, it probably is the same…

  2. Part-practice: break big movements into little, bite-sized pieces. They are much easier to digest this way. It can also help you to hone in on what exactly is causing your technique to falter. This can be a good way to identify small muscle imbalances or tissue length issues too.

  3. Repetition is key: especially if you’re looking to break a bad habit! Do it once perfectly and then do it again and again. This is not so much challenging the muscles themselves, but more the muscle-brain relationship. Get that brain working hard to instil and maintain the change!

  4. Progression is vital: Once you feel confident, you are able to maintain form and you do not have any injury concerns- up it. Do more repetitions, make it heavier, slower or faster, further and higher. The body is fundamentally designed to be pushed; all our tissues respond to physical stress by getting stronger. Start with little progressions, keep a rest day between training days and make sure you can maintain form in the progression.

It’s Golf Month this month in Adelaide. So if you are having issues with performance or injury, consider where the fault may lie in your technique. Because Golf requires so much from the whole body, it really can be anything along any part of the system. And at first, it may not necessarily be an obvious technical or physiological change. Golf is all about efficiency and coordination.

By Suzannah Michell