The Rise of the 'Movement Specialist'

Practitioners and coaches working in the field of performance sport will have noticed the emergence of a new job description in recent times. A casual search on sites such as LinkedIn will reveal a burgeoning number of people describing themselves as a 'movement specialist', 'movement coach', or some variation thereof. Here I attempt to explain this phenomenon.

On a recent visit to Phoenix I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Shawn Myszka who is one of the few in this new field who has a genuine claim on the title of movement specialist. Shawn was presenting to a group of track and field coaches on what he describes as the science and art of movement mastery.

Those who are familiar with Shawn will attest to the fact that he is certainly a vibrant individual, perhaps befitting his 'guru' status. In person Shawn's enthusiasm does however come across as quite genuine, as is his keen interest in the area of athletic movement which has led him to explore the areas of kinesiology, neurophysiology and motor learning. It was apparent that there is depth of knowledge and understanding behind the hype in this particular case. Shawn's success as a consultant to collegiate and professional American football players similarly attest to his coaching abilities.

Few could argue with the message that there is a need to better understand athletic movement, as well as the processes by these capabilities are acquired and expressed in competition. The growth of the movement specialist field is also indicative of a need that is currently not being adequately addressed, even in the realms of elite and professional sport.

When I spoke with Shawn I applauded him for bringing the spotlight onto movement skills coaching; however, I did suggest is that surely what he describes as a movement specialist is simply a practitioner (or sports coach) who has an eye for movement and pays proper attention. Whilst Shawn freely admitted that this should be true, he pointed out what he had observed in professional sport in the United States was that this role was typically not being fulfilled by the support staff or coaching team in many instances. More specifically, too often the weights room strength coach, the positional coach, or indeed the athletic trainers on staff do not provide the necessary attention or expertise in this area.

Given that I had presented earlier in that week on 'The Yin and Yang of Technical and Physical' in the context of track and field athletics I had to concede on this point. Track and field athletics is a sport that exemplifies the critical importance of attention to detail with respect to movement execution, and technical development is an integral part of athletics coaching and the training undertaken in the sport. Indeed one of the key messages in what I had presented was that physical preparation is so integral to technical development and ultimately performance in track and field that it must be undertaken by a practitioner who possesses a complete understanding of not only athletic movement in general, but also the technical model for the event.

Turning our attention to developing performance in other sports (notably team sports), recent studies also highlight the importance of specific training to develop the particular motor abilities that underpins the performance attribute. For instance, a recent study investigating speed development identified that the most effective of the training modes employed to develop speed qualities was the specific training for the movement itself - i.e. sprinting. This has clear implications for practitioners who work in these sports.

Particularly, these findings beg the question how well equipped are the strength and conditioning specialists in particular who are most often charged with delivering the specific movement skill training that is most efficacious in improving performance. If they are lacking the requisite skills and expertise in this area then clearly this is a major issue that will adversely affect the athletic development of the athletes concerned.

The areas of injury prevention and rehabilitation also illustrate this point quite clearly. The effectiveness of screening for injury risk is entirely dependent upon the ability of the observer to detect and correctly interpret any aberrant movement patterns demonstrated by the athlete. Moreover, as 'live' screening in a real sports context is arguably the most illuminating, the practitioner should ideally be able to observe and interpret the movement behaviours demonstrated by the athlete in their training or practice environment. Clearly this requires a very highly developed 'eye' for movement, in combination with an awareness and understanding of the sporting context. This is not something that is typically provided for in the standard education and practical training of practitioners who work in the area of sports injury.

Movement skills instruction and associated training is an integral aspect of injury prevention interventions that are shown to be effective in reducing injury. Once more this does have implications for those who design and deliver this training in the field. Do those involved possess the knowledge and expertise to adequately provide the quality of coaching and feedback required to elicit improvements in the movement skills involved (jumping, landing, changing direction)?

A final example comes from the management and rehabilitation of running injuries. A number of studies and authorities in the field point to the fact that the most potent interventions involve some manner of gait retraining. Clearly this implies that the practitioners responsible for treatment and rehabilitation must possess a detailed knowledge and deep understanding of running mechanics, and the ability to effect the necessary coaching intervention to retrain running gait patterns observed in previously injured running athletes. Once more, these are areas in which many practitioners working in sport at all levels are likely to be found lacking.

In closing, the rise of the movement specialist provides indirect indication of the need for specific knowledge of kinesiology and specialist expertise in athletic movement. We have seen this need in the numerous instances described, in the contexts of both sports performance and sports injury. So perhaps there is a requirement for movement specialists, albeit the competencies involved must be defined and assessed in order for this title to be meaningful.

There is certainly a need for greater recognition and awareness of these critical knowledge gaps. These areas should be provided for in the preliminary education and ongoing training of practitioners who wish to specialise in sports performance and sports injury. Ultimately it will be up to the practitioner to hold themselves accountable and take individual responsibility to devote the necessary time to observing and understanding athletic movement in general, as well as the specifics and nuances of the sport(s) they are involved with. As practitioners in sport we should all be movement specialists.

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