“Just do what works for you.”
I have heard some version of this phrase spoken or written by coaches or pundits many times, in many different sports. It can be alarming to me because:
- I doubt the average (citizen) athlete understands the context of principles in which that advice works, or
- The adviser does not seem to have principles clearly framing this advice.
In its best use, that phrase means that you should, after mastering the essential principles or rules or requirements of the art/sport, realize you’ve got room to personalize what you are doing to fit your own unique circumstances. It means you should not follow false rules which are not based on universal principles that everyone should follow, which will not cause you any consequence if you break them.
When this advice is given to those who have not first learned to follow the essential principles or requirements of the situation, it becomes an excuse to avoid mastery of fundamentals first. Under-developed students can stay locked into inferior movement patterns and feel justified about it. When you break genuine universal principles that everyone should follow there are costly consequences in terms of energy waste, extra drag, premature wear-and-tear on the body, and heightened risk of injury.
But when you have followed the genuine universal principles that everyone should follow, then, by all means, within that principled framework, you should look for ways to make it work even better for your particular body.
No Single Right Way?
There is another variation of this phrase: “There is no single right way for everyone to [name the complex movement activity]”. I’ve seen this phrase used particularly in the context of swimming and running to acknowledge variations they see in admired athletes. But the fact is, there are fundamental positions and skills in these sports that every human being needs to master before they can, upon that foundation, improvise in a personalized way.
The most beautiful, the most powerful, the most creative artists and athletes are those who first invested the years to master the fundamentals skills of their art or sport. Though there are some incredibly gifted professionals out there who seemed to have skipped ahead, these fundamental skills are non-negotiable for citizen athletes. Only those who master the fundamentals first are in position to activate individuality and create something extraordinary.
Imagine going up to the masters of these activities and declaring:
- There is no right way to play the violin. Just hold it and slide the bow in whatever way works for you.
- There is no right way to throw a karate punch. Just strike your opponent in whatever way works for you.
- There is no right way to hit a tennis ball. Just hit it in any way that works for you.
- There is no right way to ride a bike. Just get on it and start cranking hard.
- There is no right way to do a triple axle in ice skating. Just launch in any way that works for you.
- There is no right way to do a gymnastic vault. Just run at that table, jump and twist in any way that works for you.
Master The Fundamentals
In these arts/sports, these statements are absurd to the masters because…
There are laws of physics that govern how forces flow and are transferred. The body position and movements must conform to those laws to produce superior results. When you work with those laws you are able to produce more work for less cost in energy. And vice versa, when you work against those laws you produce less work for higher cost in energy, or you get nowhere at all.
There are structural principles that apply to every standard-equipped human being. All human bodies must conform to the same general positions and movement pathways in order to minimize internal conflict and tissue damage, and to maximize efficiency, strength and endurance. There are a wide variety of ways the body could be positioned and moved, but they are not equal to each other. In order to produce the safest, strongest movement there is usually one way that is superior to all the rest, and at the top of each sport the athletes and artists are brutally testing them to find the best. The best trainers will guide you into those patterns and only into those patterns and will not tolerate you moving out of them, for your own good.
Only certain ways of holding the violin and sliding the bow enable the sound to be created and the violinist to play with precision for hours a day, day after day, year after year without destroying her body. And likewise, there is a right way to move for martial artists, for tennis players, for cyclists, for ice skaters, and for gymnasts. All other ways are inferior.
And, it is the same for swimmers and runners.
For each event, there is a right way to swim (each stroke) and a right way to run, and you had better master the fundamentals of those before you try to personalize the stroke or stride to fit your unique circumstances.
If a coach or pundit says, “There is no single right way to swim. Just do what works for you,” you should inquire further to make sure you understand the context in which they are making that statement . If they give you the impression that there are fundamentals that should be in place first, then that advice depends on you having those fundamentals in place. If they do not give the impression there are principles that come first, then you should consider backing away and ignoring this advice.
Addressing Personal Physical Circumstances
If you want to consider this more carefully, you may read my more extensive argument in Judging Stroke Advice Part 1 and Part 2, and in Judging An Efficient Stroke. Good stroke construction must first take you through Universal Physics, and through Universal Physiology.
After working on those and bumping into inevitable shortcomings in skill, you and your coach need to consider your personal physical circumstances – some parts of your body don’t work as well as they should, like less-than-ideal body dimensions, age-related limitations, mobility restrictions and lack of strength or coordination.
Those issues are then divided up into two categories:
Features That Are Not Improvable
There are circumstances you can do nothing about, such as less-than-ideal body dimensions, aging-related limitations, permanent damage to body parts. For these, you just need to learn to adapt to the demands of physics the best you can, and learn to love the unimprovable features of the body you’ve got.
Features That Are Improvable
There are circumstances that you can do something about, despite the resistance you face in your mind about doing the hard work required to break through. You can do something about less-than-ideal body composition, mobility restrictions and lack of strength or lack of coordination. This is what training is all about – training those parts of your performance system that will respond to training.
And, this is the stage where that “Do what works for you” statement becomes dangerous. It can become an excuse for people to avoid training their body and mind to conform to Universal Physics and Universal Physiology.
Locally Efficient versus Globally Efficient
Why is it hard? Because it feels easier to stay where we are at rather than do the hard work to break through.
When it feels better to stay with the pattern you have, this may be described as locally efficient (to borrow a useful concept from Complexity Theory). An athlete will in fact feel more efficient with the body position and movement patterns he already has because his body has grown accustomed to them and the performance system has built some homeostasis around it. If he were to attempt to make a significant change to those patterns it will initially be uncomfortable and expensive in energy to do this. It will be more uncomfortable and more expensive the more deeply he has ingrained those old habits.
It is no wonder more experienced athletes and the coaches who train them are reluctant to make big changes in an athlete’s patterns, especially if the athlete has experienced some success with those already. Even if the athlete senses he’s reached a limit with what he has, and a convincing argument is made about the superiority of another pattern, it costs a lot to change and it feels risky to slow down so much before they can speed back up again and test out the potential of the new pattern. But this is the only way an allegedly better technique can be genuinely tested on that athlete.
A swimmer can be locally efficient and fast with the movement patterns she has right now, but could be a lot faster, stronger and safer – what we could call more globally efficient and fast – if she paid the price to retrain her body for movement patterns which conform even better to universal physics and physiology.
A coach or therapist with an eye for Universal Physics and Universal Physiology can point out the ways your current pattern produces excess drag outside and unnecessary conflicts inside your body. They can show you where your loyalty to local efficiency is blocking you from superior results, if only you would change the patterns. But you need the courage to follow their advice to change.
When To Take The Advice
“There is no single right way for you to swim (or run)” easily becomes a misleading statement. It would be better to avoid it altogether when speaking in public, because, no doubt, most people hearing that statement have not come even close to mastering fundamentals and dealing with their improvable physical circumstances. This statement may discourage those who need hope that there is a principle-based pathway of skill they can acquire to swim better, rather than tinker with changes by guess-work. This statement may distract those who need to get to work on that pathway but want excuses to avoid it.
“Do what works for you,” is advice that should be given only after the athlete has:
- Mastered fundamental skills that respect Universal Physics
- Mastered fundamental skills that conform to Universal Physiology
- Improved through training, the improvable limitations presented by his personal physical circumstances.
Then, in the relatively small space left to personal creativity after physics and physiology have had their say, then he can consider doing what works for him, unique to the other human athletes around. It is in this very small space that truly extraordinary performances are constructed.