From Injury Prevention to High-Level Performance

Most people believe that the road to athletic success comes from working harder. Although there are benefits that come with keeping a disciplined regimen, the toll of stress injuries that accumulates throughout an athlete's life can be nearly incapacitating.   A common routine of athletes is to work hard to get in shape, get an injury, then work in pain or not at all, recover and repeat.

I would like to suggest a different model.  I think it is critically important to work smarter rather than harder.   The best way to improve performance is by moving in ways that prevent injury and the best way to prevent injury is to perform with greater agility.

How can we do that? By learning to move like a child again with non-linear movement.

Traditionally, athletes and active individuals have performed warm-up and flexibility exercises in a rather boring, mechanically linear manner. We have treated our bodies as if we were stick figures drawn on a chart, stretching first our hip flexors, then our hamstrings, moving one side of the joint in one isolated part of the body and then the antagonists muscle group on the other side of the joint.  Most recommended flexibility routines involve a significant number of linear stretches, which are eventually supposed to affect all of the joints and muscle groups in the body.

But how many of us, against our better judgment, have rushed through such routines simply because they are boring? The very attitude of treating ourselves like trivial machines contributes to a body image that perpetuates diminished flexibility and consequently, a dangerous propensity towards injury.

A better approach involves learning to move like a child again. Moving like a child means a complete break with linear exercise.  This means using all of your joints at once in every flexibility and warm-up routine. As children, we learned to develop bodily movements more rapidly than at any other point in our lives. 

© Anton Novozhilov -

© Anton Novozhilov -

We would never think of stretching our babies to increase flexibility, nor would we think of tying weights on their limbs to improve strength.  Instead, the way a baby moves on its own is sufficient to develop very complex movements like tumbling, rolling, falling and recovering, etc.  Imagine performing movements similar to the way a child moves as it develops control and coordination of its body.  Now imagine performing those movements with the understanding of an adult.

Photo by RJ Muna

Photo by RJ Muna

To replace typical stretching, warm-up, and rehabilitation exercises, I encourage "neuro-muscular tune-ups," movement lessons that are intriguing and stimulating, require very little effort and most importantly, teach athletes how to pay attention to themselves with the same high level of awareness required while engaging in a sport or activity.

The awareness that a baby develops simultaneously with its movements is part of what makes us unique in the animal kingdom.  While other animals know instinctively how to walk and run, humans must learn.  Yet amazingly, this attribute of bodily awareness is rarely used, except at a very crude level of operation when we are told to twist a little more to the left or right.  Ironically, athletes and dancers are most aware of their bodies through feelings of resistance, effort and finally, injury.  If most of us as babies underwent this experience while developing motor control- resistance, effort, injury, it is doubtful we would ever want to learn to walk!

The key to injury prevention and improved performance is to learn how to move without resistance, how to become more nimble, agile and deft, and just as importantly, how to develop awareness. Awareness of how we move should be the goal of physical education. 

-Frank Wildman, PhD