The Art of Training Environments

This was initially a blog post that I wrote for a training company. They had said they wanted to pay me to write about the WITTY light system and how I use it. I wrote it, and they never responded back to me after several attempts. So here’s my newest blog post now on the Apiros site! :-) Enjoy!

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Currently, my understanding of everything is being turned upside down. The feeling in my head is that I have all these presumptions about life based on my past experiences, drawn on an Etch-A-Sketch. Then I started reading Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. He reached out through the book, grabbed my seemingly cemented Etch-A-Sketch lines and shook it violently until all the lines disappeared and the magnetic fragments that make up the lines fell out. I know nothing. I only have my past experiences. Which don't really exist any more than my biased memory of them. Most know “Zen” as a philosophy book. However, it may be more influential on my career than any textbook. Within it, there are simple analogies that everyone can understand and apply to all aspects of life. Pirsig shares a lesson from Henri Poincaré, who was a mathematician, theoretical physicist, and philosopher of science. Poincaré created a hierarchy of facts that Pirsig paraphrases. Simply put, “the more general a fact, the more precious it is. Those which serve many times are better than this which have little chance of coming up again. Biologists, for example, would be at a loss to construct a science if only individuals and no species existed and if heredity didn’t make children like parents. Which facts are likely to reappear? The simple facts. How to recognize them? Choose those that seem simple.” These simple facts are often the hardest to recognize because “you are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in,” says Pirsig. “No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.” 

Evolution is simply cause and effect. The most influential causes are typically the simple ones that are routinely overlooked. Often times, the cause is not even visible. Radiation is not visible yet can cause a litany of effects. Another example, trees will fall over if they do not experience wind as they grow. The stronger the roots, the stronger the wind that they can endure and vice versa. The wind is the very thing that makes trees strong. Without stress, there is no strength or resiliency. 

At this point, a story comes to mind - one of personal loss and failure. I have been training a fourteen-year-old boy with a ton of gumption. Let’s call him Chris. He is willing to put in more work on his own time than nearly anyone else his age. His proportions seem to be 80% legs. A majority of our time is spent teaching him how to control those long levers attached at his waist. A few months ago, I acquired the WITTY SEM lights. Although I am the West Coast Representative, this is NOT a sponsored post by Microgate (the company that creates the WITTY system). The WITTY SEM is a family of “smart indicator” lights. These lights have a proximity sensor and can be programmed to display different colors and symbols. I was so excited to use them with Chris and all my other athletes. Just prior to our first session using the lights, I visually assumed what his body would do based off of our previous training and emphasis on this day. The gap between perception and reality is a cruel mistress. My house of cards came tumbling down. Every time one of the lights required him to lower his center of mass, his knees buckled inwards. Every. Single. Time. All the work we had put into improving his squat pattern and educating him about his movement were not translating to any sort of competitive movement. I fell victim to a cognitive bias since all my other athletes were able to make these changes within their respective sports. However, if Chris wasn’t making the changes, there must be similar gaps of transfer with other athletes. I never thought my training was perfect, but this simply made me realize I had bigger breaches than I theorized. My experience has taught me that transferring training to sport is much more difficult with today’s physically illiterate youth. If transfer is witnessed in them, then transfer is much more likely to occur for professionals. The simple things matter in order to do the not so simple.

Sports are simply how the human brain organizes the body to solve tasks in a gravity dependent environment. Brain, Body, Environment. That’s it. The sum of those things is adaptive behavior. Master these three, and you will be a God among men. Easier said than done. Our environment gave rise to our brain and our body. Therefore, environment is king. However, we are reversing roles and forcing our environment to attempt to adapt to us. Some changes within our environment are undeniably poor, others are not so obvious. We are designed to adapt to our environment more than it is suited to adapt to us.

 

Environment can be broken down in two categories, natural/innate and artificial/man-made. These natural factors have existed since the inception of cellular life. Their importance cannot be overestimated. I repeat Pirsig’s insight, “you are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in.” One can see a correlation to this dependence with today’s relationships to technology - specifically our phones. We depend and rely on them nearly constantly, but the moment something goes wrong the whole world feels like it is ending. People waste no time in letting the world know of their faulty technology. Yet, we never see a Tweet exclaiming, “How wonderful! My phone is working amazing today!” Now, can you imagine if the sun did not come up tomorrow? These factors that we take complete confidence in have been the puppeteers in shaping all life on this planet. 

Paramahansa Yogananda, Author of Autobiography of a Yogi, accurately observed this principle and insisted that “environment is stronger than willpower.” No matter your willpower, if you are in a poor environment, behavior is reluctant to change. Analogous to a statement from chiropractor, Dr. Dane Donohue, “you cannot medicate your way out of a health issue you behaved your way into.” You cannot tape and brace your way out of a faulty movement pattern that you behaved your way into. 

What “general facts” exist within human development that we cannot deny? Due to the colossal amount of information that could come from trying to answer this question, I will narrow my focus to sports performance. What does it mean to improve someone’s sport performance and what facts are involved?

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.”
— Ernest Hemingway

Again, too broad of a question. I will continue to taper the question to my essential intent. How do I maximize someone’s potential? Now we are on to something. In order to maximize an athlete’s potential, it would be foolish to think that an hour a day in the gym is sufficient. Upon the start of training, I must begin a discussion about their environment. If the organism lives in a toxic environment, no matter what I do in the gym, the organism’s rate of growth will be that of molasses trying to travel up a hill. Without movement, we die. The sensory motor cortex is the first thing to develop after birth. It is the priority! 

I fear that many do not understand this necessity because they are confident they will always be able to move, despite sitting at a desk for 8+ hours a day. I see this thought process repeatedly with a certain question that I consistently get from recently injured athletes. “Austin, I haven’t done anything new why does my knee hurt all of a sudden?” After observing their movement, there’s typically something that is sub-optimal that could be contributing to their pain. If I scratch my skin with my fingernail several times, no blood will be shed. My skin is resilient to my fingernail. However, if I keep scratching it, eventually I will be bleeding. A similar process with most non-contact injuries.

The main constraint within the human environment is gravity. Gravity plays the starring role in our physical development. So much so that every healthy infant must submit to physics and conform to the same developmental patterns across the world. A baby will deviate from these patterns if a poor environment surrounds it, or it has a congenital issue. If the physical environment is healthy but the emotional environment is toxic, development will be still be negatively affected. We are social, emotional creatures that need movement! During this development, we learn by knowledge of results: we want the toy, we proceed down a process of trial and error to get the toy. Maybe today’s more accurate description would be an iPhone instead of a toy. Or maybe the situation doesn’t exist at all as the parents just hand the baby a screen in hopes that it will shut up and play Candy Crush. 

The physical strength required from undeveloped infants to move their heavy head is such a constraint that it creates a dynamic system of stable points and mobile points to give birth to whole body locomotion. Knowledge of result (KR) is as simple as it sounds. Did we accomplish the task? No? Better try again. This is how our brain is wired to move our body. The greed to accomplish the task is the fuel. Today, it seems that if there is no immediate reward at the end of the task it is difficult to motivate anyone to do anything. Knowledge of result is not the only knowledge that can affect locomotion. Knowledge of performance (KP) feedback can do that as well, however, it is less potent and only available to those mature enough to understand the feedback given to them. KP feedback typically comes in the from a coach and takes the focus inward. Both feedback mechanisms can have massive effects on the human body. Ever seen someone squat with their knees in? Ever seen that happen on purpose? I have, it was a cue from a previous coach. It is actually a coaching cue currently running rampant in the women’s volleyball world.  

Biomechanics professor and author, Frans Bosch, elaborates on KR and KP feedback with a third term called “reinvestment.” In his book, Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach, he describes reinvestment as exactly what happened with Chris. We had created all this change within the gym, but when it became competitive with external foci, Chris reinvested into old movement strategies. This is likely what everyone did in the high school or college nutrition class (if they were offered one). Many people thought, “Well this is great information, but I am still going to go home and eat my Easy-Mac and drink a Coke.” What this person may really need is knowledge of future results, like a picture of them 10 years in the future having to make radical and difficult lifestyle changes because they have diabetes. A reminder, “You cannot medicate your way out of a health issue you behaved your way into.” Again, we are never dedicated to what we have confidence in. We rationalize, “this one donut won’t make a difference!” On the other side of the same coin, “these bench presses will make a huge difference!” 

Often times, we have complete dedication to old school rudimentary tactics because we have a biased respect towards a mentoring teacher. Other times it is an invisible cause. We are insecure in ourselves and our methods so we reinvest into old habits and unfounded knowledge. This feeling can certainly be warranted. Coaches are responsible for the future of many athletes’ future, career, and/or livelihood. 

Al of this is routine human behavior - how the brain and body change over time within their environment. Understanding behavior can be a secret weapon in maximizing an athlete’s potential. 

Let’s gather our things before we move on. 

  1. We must understand the physical and emotional environment of the organism in question. 
  2. We must understand feedback mechanisms. 
  3. We must understand dynamic systems and developmental kinesiology. 
  4. We must understand human behavior. 

Ok, got it? Now we have the perfect recipe for maximizing potential. Right? Oh, how I wish it were that easy. 

The next questions are, How do we maximize sport specific training? And how do we safely overload the athlete to create a future adaptation? 

How I garden my athletes to cultivate their potential is not the only way. There are many paths to Rome. There is this notion beginning in my head that I am more of an artist than strength coach or even movement specialist. My medium? The athlete. I will entertain this idea going forward.

These are my current brush strokes based on past experience. First, I observe. I must understand what I am working with. Am I molding clay (highly malleable)? Molding steel (malleable only under high intensities, also very resilient)? Blowing glass (fragile)? Or some other medium. I then test the materials to see where their most fragile points are. Then I familiarize myself with their desired outcome. Are they a glass marble that is about to go in a pinball machine? If there is a mismatch between the art observed and the environment it will be displayed in, we have a lot of work to do. 

Next, I see how can the art change itself. I will use the WITTY SEM lights for this process. I try and have as minimal input as possible within this process of organic development. I will give the athlete rules to a game that serve as a mold that will encapsulate the art. that it must adhere to while reacting to the lights. Then I watch and see how the art behaves and changes. I continue to change the mold until I start to see the masterpiece take shape. Then I pour on a layer of positive reinforcement. I follow this up by putting the art in the gallery for a short preview of what the show may look like. Then back to the process. Sometimes my strokes are very specific because I know the position the art will hang in and what kind of lighting. Other times my methods may seem generic, but that is simply some of the foundation of my art or they are facts that continue to reappear. Either way, I am now able to create controlled, yet random variability within my art projects. Allowing them to develop more organically with some guidance from me. At some point, we start creating the art together. They gain an understanding of their own medium as well as my technique, and the process really takes off. At this point, we both have the same vision and we frequently trade places as who is lead artist. Then they continue to create art outside of my studio. 

These lights give me incredible insight into how they perform within their sport. The limits of these lights are my creativity with their positioning, programming, and library of movements. However, they are just another tool in the toolbox. 

One reason why I am so fanatic about learning is pretty generic. I am endlessly curious about the brain, body, and environment. I am not confident that my or any current methodology is the best. I am confident there is always better. My checklist when I start an art project:

  • What do I want the outcome to be? What does the athlete want the outcome to be?
    • What is the material of the art and what environment is it currently in? What environment did it come from?
  • How can I build a strong relationship with the art? 
  • Be patient. 
  • Shut up!
    • Listen.
    • Observe. 
  • Periodically step back from the individual "brush strokes" to see how the art piece is coming along. If the image you want is not starting to shine through, search for the reason. 

If you’re interested further in the reason “why” I do this as well as the environment I create for myself go to http://www.apiros.team/education/blog-1/austinswhy. There you will learn why I have no chairs or couches in my house, why I never wear sunscreen and many more things. Furthermore, I plan to release a video series regarding my training. Subscribe (at bottom of page) to get updated upon its release - http://www.apiros.team/team/  Or email me directly - austin@apiros.team

Thank you for your time,

-Austin Einhorn

Austin Einhorn