Why Movement Behavior needs to be a priority for Athletes and Coaches

The NFL is a brutal sport. Grown Men, most over six feet tall and over 200 lbs, running full speed into each other in the hopes of one of them falling to the ground. Preferably the one holding the ball. That doesn’t even take into account the times that three or four of these men converge at once.

The obvious, and necessary, concern is the occurrence of concussions. That concern is real and pervasive. But, when it comes to pro athletes, there are other concerns to their bodies and health worth looking into.

Beyond contact injuries like broken bones and torn ligaments as a result of the collisions and play on the field, there are injuries that occur because of deficiencies in a player’s movement patterns.

View the below video (courtesy @CKparrot). This is Philadelphia Eagles Running Back Jay Ajayi. He was traded from the Miami Dolphins on November 2nd, 2017. It was a surprising trade. Just one season before he had rushed for over 1200 yards for Miami and had quickly become a fan favorite for his tough running style and sporadic big plays.

He was drafted by Miami in 2015 in the fifth round (out of seven) despite a very productive college career and obvious talent. The big concern was his knees and how that might lead to a premature end to his pro career.

He had torn his ACL in 2011 and by all accounts recovered just fine, evidenced by his college career 2012–2015. However, leading up to the draft, there was a report that team doctors discovered the condition in his knee was that beyond a repaired ACL, there was also “almost no cartilage” in his knee creating a “bone on bone” condition according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

After the trade this year, speculation out of Miami was the Dolphins were going to move on from him in the off season due in part to his attitude and relationship with the coaching staff, but also because the Dolphins saw what is evident in this video, Ajayi is on borrowed time.

The pattern of Ajayi’s gait is concerning, to say the least. He runs laterally rotated in his hips. This means every step he takes his foot hits the ground with his toes pointing outwards. Same with his knees.

If you look at his leg path with each step and follow the pattern of his foot, his foot almost does semi-circle, coming inside of his mid-line upon coming back and circling outside of his hips before returning to the ground.

When is foot is up and behind him, if you drew a line from his hip to the middle of his glute, and then from his glute to the middle of his heel, I would bet the angle is at around 150 degrees or smaller. Ideally you want to be as close to 180 degrees as possible. His gait is severely inefficient.

The top of his femur bone is passing through his hip joint in a way that is putting extreme stress on his hip tendons and ligaments.

And because the body is connected (you remember the song: “the hip bone is connected to the...”), his knees are experiencing an immense amount of stress making an injury and/or risk of permanent damage more a matter of when, not if.

The problem is with his hip, not his knee though. Yes, it is the knee that has sustained the damage, but the error in movement pattern begins with his hip.

It appears no one has identified this with Ajayi and worked on this with him (though that is pure speculation).

Movement Behavior

Tim Tebow with three of the four teams he played professionally for LEFT to RIGHT: Patriots, Jets, Eagles

This movement pattern is behavior that can be shaped and changed with proper training and control of environmental conditions. What is not clear is what environmental conditions led to Ajayi’s pattern in the first place? Was it the ACL injury in 2011? The constant contact he endures in his sport? Did he develop it from childhood?

Movement patterns are shaped in the way all behavior is: it is reinforced due to a possible number of environmental conditions. With Movement, it is usually the body taking the path of least resistance when recovering from an injury and trying to omit pain, a type of negative reinforcement.

However, it can also be a case of simply being taught incorrectly when doing an unnatural movement such as throwing a football, or shooting a free throw.

Tim Tebow (yes, that Tim Tebow) is a classic example of the latter. He learned to throw a football mechanically incorrect. However, he never received undesirable consequences from that through high school and college (even winning the highest individual award in college, the Heisman), and it was never corrected.

He then goes pro and it becomes a huge liability. After being cut from several teams, he finally works with a Quarterback coach to correct the problem.

It never took however, because when he was practicing it, he did it under environmental conditions vastly different then the conditions he would experience in a live game (namely having a 6’4" 260 lb defensive lineman bearing down on you). He quickly reverted to his already established pattern, thus, bringing his pro-football career to an end.

How Behavioral Science plays a Crucial Role

Applied Behavior Analysis from “The Effects of Form Training on Foul Shooting performance in Members of a Women’s College Basketball Team” by C.N. Kladopoulos and JJ. McComas, 2001, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, p. 331.

The above graph is an example of using applied behavior analysis to improve a specific movement pattern in sports to improve performance.

Here, behavior analysts worked with a women’s college basketball team on improving the form of their free throw shooting, in the hopes of improving free throw shooting performance. What the graph shows us is that behavior analysts were able to demonstrate that with consistent form training using behavioral interventions, free throw shooting performance also rose.

This is not a unique case. By treating movement patterns like behavior, athletes and coaches can use a scientifically proven method to help athletes perform better, and stay on the court or field longer.

Now exactly what an intervention or treatment looks like inevitably varies from case to case. It is specific to the needs of a particular team, who share common environmental conditions, or an individual athlete with whom you can manipulate or reproduce needed environmental conditions.

One case I was personally involved in revolved around a starting offensive lineman for a top 25 division 1 college football program. We were working on exploding out of his stance more efficiently.

During the collection of baseline data, I noticed his right leg was positioned in his stance so that when bent, his knee tracked inside of his foot. I cautioned him that in the long term that could lead to hip pain, and in the short term, he could experience structural issues with his ankle.

Now one thing about my work with athletes is that I am not their coach. I am a behavioral movement specialist. I do my best not to interfere with X’s and O’s, as well as do what I can to not contradict a coach.

In college, coaches control everything for an athlete from playing time to scholarship status. The last thing I want to do is cause trouble for my athletes. So I do my due diligence in explaining the risks but leave the choices to them.

So when this athlete told me “Coach specifically told me to do it this way”, I told him I understood and we moved on.

However, I was not surprised after several games into the season, during a game, exploding out of his stance, he did damage to that same ankle. I felt horrible.

However, it helped me understand that educating people on the importance of movement behavior goes far beyond the athletes themselves. It has to start with coaches. They need to understand that their “old hat” techniques put players at risk of getting hurt and missing time.

And as former Super Bowl Winning NFL general manager Bill Polian famously said, “The most important ability is avail-ability”. Behavior analysts can help coaches of all sports work with their athletes to create healthy, efficient movement behaviors. Then their athletes can decrease risk of injury and improve performance.

For athletes, their most important tool is their bodies. The most frequent thing they do with their bodies is move. The actual coaching needs to start there.