The Importance of Flexibility During The Life Of A Roller Derby Skater Part 1: Mobility And Learning New Motor Skills
Flexibility is the biggest section of the exercise pyramid (see the below diagram, they have named it Musculoskeletal Resiliency/Flexibility).
Flexibility is the ability to move joints through their entire range of motion, from a flexed to an extended position. The flexibility of a joint depends on many factors including the length and suppleness of the muscles and ligaments and the shape of the bones and cartilage that form the joint.
In sports it must be the base from where all athletes must start, it is the initial controlling factor as to how we can perform any skill.
For example if an athletes joint does not pertain the ability to move in the range it is being asked the athlete will be unable to achieve the skill.
We all would have experienced this during our roller derby careers, my personal nemesis is side surfing. My hip flexibility range is not sufficient enough to enable me to perform this skill as I would like. However it has improved and is something I have worked on increasing.
This is fairly obvious and a lot of you will now be thinking yeah but stretching is boring.
I agree it can be, but mobility work is necessary and I am now going to explain why and hopefully by the end of this post you will be inspired to start looking at your own flexibility and how it impacts your performance.
According to Paul Fitts (1964; Fitts & Posner, 1967) there are three stages to the learning process, cognitive (verbal), Associative and Autonomous (motor) (see Table 1.1).
When we learn a new skill we will watch the coach perform the task and probably talk it through, that is why the verbal is mentioned.
The skaters ability to perform the skill at this stage requires a large amount of thought process as it is far from second nature. During this stage the skater will encounter the first limitations set by mobility.
Table 1.1 Stages of Learning
|Stages of Learning||Characteristics||Attentional Demands|
|Cognitive (verbal)||Movements are slow, inconsistent, and inefficient||Large parts of the movement are controlled consciously|
|Considerable cognitive activity is required|
|Associative||Movements are more fluid, reliable, and efficient||Some parts of the movement are controlled consciously, some automatically|
|Less cognitive activity is required|
|Autonomous (motor)||Movements are accurate, consistent, and efficient||Movement is largely controlled automatically|
|Little or no cognitive activity is required|
When learning a new skill the information is taken in via the senses to the brain then via the neurological pathways the brain transmits signals to muscles telling them switch on.
As well as mobility, the skaters ability will be bound by their bodies ability to send and receive these signals.
As we practice the muscles become more in tuned and so our success rate increases.
However, if we lack the flexibility in the muscles the signals are being sent to, it (the signal) will have to either be altered meaning different muscles try to compensate to recreate the skill, or we can simply not re create the skill.
This provides us with two problems; firstly that we think we are recreating the skill but due to our bodies dysfunctions, it is in fact our own version of the skill and is not correct. Secondly being that we are unable to recreate the skill (which sucks).
On top of this issue, we are also very much bound by our own ability to asses our success.
We can only rely on our own perceptions of if our body is recreating the action we are asking it to. The skater will tend to rely heavily on the coach to determine success, through verbal feedback.
This also ties in with the body making alterations and using different muscles because of the lack of flexibility.
We believe that what we are doing is the same as what we observed from the coach, when in fact its nothing like it.
Our bodies are very clever and will do what it thinks is right. So our perception of the execution is success when in fact we are doing something different.
For example, if the skater lacks mobility in the hip joints and torso, they may struggle with keeping the hips forward whilst executing a plough stop in a wall and so they would resort to turning their hips to slow the jammer. This would mean that the wall formation was lost and their team mates would not be too happy.
This skater might argue that they could adapt to their dysfunctions, I am still solid when I turn and I can control the jammer that way just as well. But this is also making an excuse for their lack of mobility and as a team mate it would be better to work on this weakness and have multiple options as a blocker.
Or this skater may be unaware that they do this, their perception of what they are doing in that moment may be keeping their hips forward when in fact their body has adapted to their dysfunction.
Our perception of what our body is doing and our actual execution is often very skewed. Yet this is number one way that we learn things. Through copying others and relying on our perception of our capabilities.
There is actually an easy solution to increasing our abilities however.
Through increasing our flexibility and range of motion we can actually increase the connection between the brain and the muscle. This helps the brain signals recruit the correct muscles to execute the skill and improve our awareness of what our body is doing.
Through mobility training we not only get an increased range of motion but also a better understanding of our bodies capability and an increased signal strength from our brains to the muscles. Therefore a better feedback system and so a better perception of what we are actually executing.
So “stretching is boring” you say, maybe we just need a different approach to flexibility work. The reason stretching is boring is because we are not understanding the impacts it can have for our performance. The main problem we have with stretching is that we don’t often see an instant outcome.
But perhaps we are just looking for the wrong outcome.
Flexibility isn’t just about becoming uber stretchy and being able to contort our body like a gymnast or ballerina.
Its about being able to move our bodies into the positions we require to do the skills we want and for roller derby that is actually a lot of positions we don’t need for our everyday lives.
In part 2 I will be going into a little bit more detail about the weird and wonderful ways we use our body for roller derby and how important mobility is for our progression as a skater.
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Derby can put immense strain on your body especially the delicate areas like your knees, hips, back and shoulders.
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- Rehabilitate from injury
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