Movement as a Skill – Part 2: Athletic Talent and Levels of Skill

My roommate is a constant source of wonder for me. Although he was a fairly active individual in his high school years, he now spends the majority of his time playing music and video games. A nasty knee injury and some poor medical calls deserve the blame there, but the point is I could take him outside today with an agility ladder and he would probably land every drill I threw at him, not to mention run circles around me.

Many athletes are simply naturally gifted movers, excelling in many sports with little effort. They pick up movement skills very quickly and can put them into practice outside of training. A gifted athlete who truly dedicates themselves to their training is a force to be respected, and one of the toughest opponents to face.

Some individuals find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum and have a rough time getting even the basics down. The fitness industry has bestowed the unfortunate title of “motor morons” on this group, which I frankly consider flat-out mean. I’m probably never going to muster the artistic ability to sketch a beach ball, but it would still ruffle my feathers if somebody called me a moron for it. It seems to me that this label probably deters a lot of people who truly need a little movement in their lives from exercising because they feel judged for not being as kinaesthetically-minded as everyone else.

Most of us, however, are somewhere in the middle, and if you look at movement as a skill, even people who aren’t natural athletes can still become more athletic with practice. With enough hard work and ambition, those individuals can even excel. As UFC fighter Mike Easton proudly displayed on his shirt at UFC 148 “hard work will always beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

It works both ways though. When you take a long hiatus from fitness, your return is probably made less glorious not only because of a loss of fitness, but also some degree of decay in your skills. You’ll be able to dust them off and get back into the swing of things quickly enough, but those first few workouts will require more focus. If your hiatus resulted from an injury, you may have to do a little work just to reclaim the skill you once had and deal with all the compensations that come with pain. But we’ll talk about that another time.

So now we’ve established movement is a skill that you can get better or worse at. From that, we can suppose that more skilled movers are going to be able to do more complicated exercises, right? Then why do I see so many athletes trying to copy the professionals’ workouts?

If you are guilty of this, I’m going to go ahead and ask you to give yourself a firm slap on the wrist, and we’ll put it behind us. I’ve certainly done it in the past, and I have the injuries and tension to prove it. What you have to understand is that a professional athlete’s training is highly refined, addressing that athlete’s unique conditioning needs at that particular point in their competitive season. Not only that, but with years of athletic experience in the bank, that athlete is going to be training at an advanced level. This doesn’t just mean that they are lifting heavier stuff, or sprinting harder, or jumping higher; it means that they can safely and effectively employ different movements or combinations of movements than the novice.

It is unlikely that your individual training needs are going to match those of your professional role model closely enough that you can effectively borrow their workout scheme; heck, they might not even match the training needs of your peers. You have to walk that fine line between emulation and imitation. Pay attention to how the professionals train and draw from their approach and attitude, but do what is appropriate for your level. If you were new to the piano, you wouldn’t try to learn the same pieces as a concert pianist; neither should an athlete necessarily try to follow a professional’s training regimen. As TRX coaches are fond of saying, “Earn your progression”!

So there you have it. Gifted athletes, don’t look down on those who lack your talent for movement. Think of something you are terrible at, and it might grant you a better perspective on how challenging athletic pursuits are for them. So-called “motor morons”, don’t resent natural athletes for their quick gains; it is easy to take for granted that which comes naturally to you. Everybody just play nicely, and we can all enjoy the uncountable benefits of an active lifestyle.

Next time, let’s talk about one of those major, and oft-overlooked, benefits: the mind-body connection. Things are gonna get crazy in here.

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2 thoughts on “Movement as a Skill – Part 2: Athletic Talent and Levels of Skill

  1. Grace says:

    As you so aptly put it, I found my inner athlete over our year of training together, and I am doing everything in my power to keep her strong and active during this pregnancy. I don’t want to be back at level zero after I give birth, so I’m doing everything I was before I was pregnant (including plyo and agility drills) and just taking longer rests between sets to keep my HR a little lower, and feeling out my RPE as I go. I am taking more restful rest days, but my days at the gym are as hardcore as ever!

  2. Mitch Tate says:

    Grace, I have been very proud of how well you’ve stuck to your guns since we finished training. In fact, I talk you up to anyone who will listen. The child will no doubt be born with rippling muscles and a keen understanding of nutrition.

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The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

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