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Anthropology – wrestling life´s architecture of containment

ImageAs an anthropologist, life becomes embroiled in comparision. Everything must have an alternative context through which we can seek an empathetic or critical glance at a range of aspects relating to what it means to be human. In other words, things are not stable, but constantly in flux – our systems of thought, our political, religious, ideological processes of expansion or containment. We adhere to principles of non-adherance. We do this through a set of (fluid) methodologies which (we believe) enable us to contemplate humanity through holistic understandings. Long-term fieldwork, the sine qua non of the discipline, remains the tried and tested approach to the challenges of alterity, or what we can gauge by comparing the drastic or subtle nuances involved in fundamental human practices. We think, we move, we love, we fight, we create, we acquiesce, we are born, we die, we interact, we destroy, and we seek meaning through a variety of sources. This is what makes the human species so fascinating – different approaches to the mundane, different outcomes – or maybe not. Maybe the longue duree of evolution has become so daunting, that to us, this reflection and its acceptance, thrusts us into increasingly confined spaces where we seek solace in our fear of this awareness and the challenges life presents?

Yes, the anthropologist is the Leatherman philosopher. At once aware of diversity, applying a set of tools in order to unlock life´s mysteries, but always aware of the fragility of their construction, and the imminency of their potential reconstitution.

For most, reflection, and an openness to tackle such fundamental questions relating to ´what it means to be human?´ and ´how might things be different?` are challenges far greater than the confines of a sheltered life of fear or ´comfort´ provide. The great philosophers, stretching back to Plato and Aristotle, all knew this and most subsequent thinkers have sought (albeit in contrasting ways) to unravel these questions, and shed light on humanities´ desire to approach, but mostly avoid, their direct experiential appraisal through action (trial and error). In a contemporary setting, people shy away from questioning their beliefs, their choices, their actions out of fear for the apparent insecurities that will eventuate; What if s/he is not right for me? Is this career fulfilling? Do I believe in science and/or superstition? Is what I am putting in my mouth doing me more harm than good? Could a change in approach unlock certain anxieties that have prevented me from doing z, y or z? The list is endless – as are the possibilities we have for being more human.

People, again in a contemporary sense, reveal signs of what it means to be human, but from within the enclosed space of their anxieties. People are becoming caged animals, yet another tragic case of apes trapped in a sanctuary – made invisible by the ´freedom´of facebook profile updates telling ´the world´of their daring, their dexterity, their knowledge, and their visions through a photo of a plate of chicken and vegetables. People ´travel´ to the far corners of the globe (or the closest place with sun and cheap beer) for their ´experience´of diversity, unwittingly forging their further isolation through reinforcing unreflective dichotomies of ´difference´ – Oh, they we so poor, but all smiling. We helped them out by volunteering, showing them how they can escape poverty and now sponsor a family – it´s so great to be making a difference… etc. Yet back on safe ground, people climb back into their sanctuaries, slumping into their Ikea sofas, updating their profiles, filling themselves with sugar and HFCS, doing as the state tells them to do – reveling in the glory of wealth and hypermodernity.

ImageFreedom, as a fundamental instinct of the antropos, lies elsewhere. It is unbound. It lies not in a set of flow charts or indexes keeping us in a pseudo state of harmony – Oh how lucky we are!

Freedom exists outside any paradigms that cushion our increasingly flabby backsides and stress/diet-related illnesses. Freedom is a curiosity that leads to further awareness of our potentials as a species to live a life of co-existence in the vast glory of our global ecoscape. Freedom is not confined to those with the means to purchase a ticket to fly to the world´s ends. Nor is it limited for those severely inhibited by such structural constrains as war, and tyranny. It exists within a mindset and a moving body. Freedom is not an idealistic realm of the kombucha drinking yoga practitioner. Humans are but a minor aberration when seen from afar, at the mercy of our environments, garnished as we are, with this remarkable opportunity to participate in our stage in evolution. It makes acts of sloth, of adherence to commercialized ´wisdom´, to greed and ignorance of contrasting ways of life, to uncritical use of “better-worse”, “us-them”, or an early retirement of our exponential range of mental, physical and emotional capacities – all seem like such a slight on the winning lottery ticket we have been dealt to share in the vastness of our interconnected pathway. Our ancestors started to get things right, yet we´ve regressed.

Anthropology today works diligently at protecting this diversity, yet struggles to break free of its philosophical grounding in a world of Red Bull-fuelled instant gratification. The pregnancy of life´s meaning struggles to resonate when we turn to so-called scientific “truths” – uncritically rendered to us through multiple medias, states, and religious doctrines – each with their own projects of containment. You see, modern society is becoming constructed through an architecture of containment. We are being watched by big brother from all corners, whether we like it or not. Any attempts to stand outside the boundaries of “normality” will attract unwanted attention (and we´ll cease to get liked on facebook). This suits our further containment, despite our sanctuaries appearing in glossy magazines as expressions of our freedoms.

People need (a more public) anthropology. It remains stuck within itself however, an ironic isolation from the very tenants of the freedom and manifold it seeks to portray.

We can all be anthropologists. We don´t need an academic straightjacket. We are all indeed philosophers. There are no rules to this. We have it in us to seek knowledge, understanding and wisdom – but this only eventuates through an awareness and an openness to the fact that we are all unique, only as a species sharing the same planet, with similar desires for a “good life” – but lacking the tools to break free from our confined zoological warehouses.

Great people only become iconic figures because they dare to try (and fail) where others fear. Beautiful movement, creative thought, empathy, love, work, curiosity and our unique capacities to amaze lie alongside our ability to hate, our obesity, our prejudice and our constant social media updates.

It´s the process that separates the eventual outcomes.

We are all unique apes and we could all do with stopping our lazy-arse ways reflecting upon how things might and could be and getting stuck into the pathways that lead us ahead.

 

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Ido Portal – keep moving

Movement nutrition: you get good at what you do, and what you don’t do

IdoHuman evolution has, and will always be, about movement. Evolution requires complexity, and complexity requires movement. Those that don’t move, tend not to evolve as well. They shit the bed. Avoiding the approach of the poop-man, we were constantly reminded, requires nurturing the freedom providing our amazing capacity to move well. Few people however, seek to move, both figuratively and literally, outside their limited zones of comfort. Ido Portal is certainly an exception. Having spent the past years travelling far and wide seeking out knowledge from some of the world’s leading trainers, in order to improve my own game as both an athlete and teacher, the chance to work under the guidance of Portal and his assistants was one I had long awaited.

In short, Ido Portal has devoted his life to exploring movement. With a background in traditional martial arts, he moved about trying to find teachers of movement, but only came across specialists, who, despite imparting knowledge, failed to solve the myriad of elements that comprise movement education – scientific, nutritional, artistic, mental, biomechanical and so on. Portal now travels the world expanding upon a culture of movement. Some short clips of the complexities explored can be found here. I joined a group in Copenhagen who, in Portal’s words, were interested in this “bigger picture”.

Joined by his 2 pupils John Sapinoso and Odelia Goldschmidt, an eager group of mainly athletes, teachers, coaches and therapists experienced first-hand the ‘Ido Portal Method’. This post won’t detail this method, but will provide an insight into the philosophy of movement. We were reminded at the start, that the weekend would provide more questions than answers. I’ve gone away from courses with this feeling before, but not in the sense Portal meant. His teachings were complex, but this is a guy who has spent his entire adult life researching, and practicing, the intricacies of human movement. Being able to perform a strict one-arm chin up is not in any sense ‘easy’. His methods were challenging, but only in the respect that he never once led anyone to believe that beautiful capacities of strength and graceful movement came without years of hard work. Processes were broken down, from the preparation of joints, to the basic building blocks of hanging and pulling, to moving on all fours – in order to convey the process and complexity of movement freedom, and, if performing a one-arm chin/handstand, of bodily super strength. Throughout the demanding series of practical segments, Portal oozed his passion for perfecting form and not allowing us to move on too fast.

A large part of the weekend was as much a lesson is how to dig deep physically to unleash the creativity and complexity of the human body through natural movement patterns, yet I found myself intrigued by the philosophical insights provided into the way freedom might be approached in these hypermodern times. A slight interlude first. I’ve spent much of the past year reading the contrasting works of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard alongside the more contemporary neorealist approaches espoused by Sloterdijk and Latour. Part of this deeper introspection has to do with long-standing questions relating to the reevaluation and questioning of the meaning and purposes of ‘being human’. Whilst travelling to Copenhagen for the course, I was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, my alternative to a Lonely Planet city guide. This masterpiece, however challenging it is to read, is a vision of what we all have within us to define, create, and become the masters of our own existence. Through a highly metaphorical and parabolic style, Nietzsche asks why an encroaching spirit of nihilism has led the world into a state of crisis, an emptying of human meaning, purpose and essential value? The ‘free spirit’ or the Übermensch is a vision of overcoming the passive nature of an unreflective humanity – decomposing (as today) in a blur of YouTube, androgyny and high fructose corn syrup. This free spirit, and will to cross the bridges retaining the anthropos in this hot-tub of sugar-laced apathy, need not dwell in the mind but ought to resonate within the physical being.

For most philosophers, and indeed I must delegate this lack of motion to fellow anthropologists, the investigation into (post) humanism, past and present, has lacked any sense of an active, performative oomph. But, perhaps my diligent return to German thought (a mere aside I thought from the French poststructuralist hold upon my weary reading eyes of recent years) was meant to direct me to Peter Sloterdijk. Very briefly, this brilliant mind, in all his roguishness (Socrates was right – ‘wisdom-roughlook’ – ‘cheese&ham’) sees this transcendence of man Nietzsche prophetically called for, as taking place through training, work, physicality and performance. In other words, practice becomes the ‘athleticism of the incredible’ a repetition of exercises that shape a world in which we take responsibility for self-actualizing our potentials and freedoms, away from the temptations to continue to base life on a Facebook ‘like’ or a belly full of frozen spam (and the $19.99 solution). My reading may have a slight bias, but essentially, philosophers who remind us that we are products of what we do, and don’t do, are welcome downloads to this movers’ library.

Step up Ido Portal.

Ido2Marketing yourself as a proponent of ‘movement culture’ takes some follow up. Not like one who espouses his/her skills as a specialist (Yoga, Zumba, aqua-jogging, Nordic walking etc). Portal had clearly gone beyond the ‘course handbook, monthly newsletter and periodic group class’ mandate of many of today’s ‘trainers’ in the world of ‘fitness’. In fact, the detail and variety of insight into the body he provided, was beyond what I had expected. Again, I’m not sure some trainers dumb down their schpeel for ease of flow, or out of pure necessity. I found the anatomy and physiology detail extremely useful, not only in a practical sense, but in the way cognitive processes rely on various ques that one may or may not be aware of. I for one, like to know what’s happening (or not) with my body beyond feeling ‘ok’ or ‘crap’ and small details to concentrate on when standing upside down, or up on the rings are crucial to the process of mastering certain movements. Many fallacies were put to the test, in straightforward, no bullshit ways. Ideas about stretching, nutrition, deloading, programming, safety, intensity to name but a few were presented in ways that I’m sure the majority of the participants wouldn’t have come across before. I certainly found it refreshing to hear a coach talking about the resilience and creativity of both the body and mind, in regards to injuries, complexity and intelligence. Anecdotes were given from athletes and trainers to accentuate ideas, refute others. I appreciated hearing, as an undercurrent to most of the instruction, that it was our own responsibility to find out what works for us as individuals, as opposed to the constant ‘one size fits all’ approach commonly force fed in the boxed-in commercially-driven ‘fitness world’. These ideas were for people who wanted to train, not exercise. I’m just glad nobody asked the fateful question relating to ‘but is it still ok if we eat shit and don’t train much on weekends’? I can only imagine what the response would have been.

For those who have followed Portal on the interweb over the years, you can’t help but notice the air of confidence/arrogance in the way he responds to (mostly) cyberwarrior comments and questions. This could just be an Israeli thing I thought. On the contrary, I found Portal affable, humorous and fully geared to imparting understanding built up over years of research and practice.  To justify the fees and the almost ‘exclusivity’ of his services would require this, but like few others I’ve had the pleasure to work with (Steve Cotter immediately springs to mind) the level of professionalism and the take-out for me personally entirely justifies Portal as being someone you ought to seek out if you’re interested in the ‘bigger picture’ relating to movement. Like a number of the philosophers, stretching as far back at the Stoics through the Renaissance, the revolutionary 19th century, Enlightenment’s secularism and through to the critics of modernity today, Ido Portal seeks to confront the fear of possible freedom, and the instinct for growth, independence and durability. His movement culture, or ‘method’ may be seen as a new realm of physical perspectivism, one seeking to overcome the limits of dualistic thought between the mind and body. We may not all have the desire to move as beautifully as the human is capable of, or even reflect upon the destructive forces of inactivity and acquiescence to external forces. Yet, the perspective Portal gives is based upon movement, and the creativity and joy it can bring. The world is knowable, but conditional to certain interests – if we can place movement at the forefront of a new set of values for the human being, then Portal, like Nietzsche and his prophet Zarathustra before him, will have played his part in the creation of what we might become.

 

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Chelsea FC and the beast of 2012

2012 has been one of the most remarkable years in the long history of Chelsea Football Club. From the sacking of Villas-Boas to the unlikely Champions League triumph in Munich to the demolition of Tottenham in the FA Cup final, followed by court cases and disciplinary hearings to the most recent managerial change – the sacking of club legend Di Matteo and the hugely unpopular decision to appoint Rafael Benitez as replacement. For fans, the year has been a test of resolve – like the thrill of a carousel ride. One moment you feel the body and mind delivering instinctive signals of emotive joy, the next the vomit from the kid seated behind lands slap in your face. So what defines a fan?

The most recent decision to replace Di Matteo with Benitez has caused Chelsea fans to vent their frustrations and anger through social media outlets and throughout pubs and workplaces across the globe. Along with this frustration concerning the ‘disconnect with the support base’ comes discourse surrounding who and what is a ‘real’ fan. This debate is ongoing, and exacerbated during dramatic moments in a particular club’s history. Some feel the need to advertise their allegiance, as if seeking approval for an identity they constantly seek to reaffirm. Some plaster themselves with tattoos, some keep their away ticket programmes, some continually mock opposition supporters, others mock each other due to their comments on particular players. The list goes on. Let’s try to simplify this.

As the global game, football is often seen as a mirror on society. It reveals a passionate and emotive response – a release that somehow gains legitimacy if associated with the beautiful game. It is this ‘living’ engagement that makes one a fan, or a supporter. It enables people to identify with one another, and identify with the ‘other’. It is about separation as much as integration. Generations follow the same team and continue to seek a belonging that reinforces their role as a ‘true fan’. This emotive response however, is as divisive as it is integrative. Just like any aspect of lived reality in a social setting, be it within a family, a community, a club or a nation.

Having supported Chelsea since I used to walk about in the 80s with Kerry Dixon’s #9 retro Le Coq Sportif strip (full kit of course) I’ve had ample experience of the fan experience. Being the best team was oddly not the initial draw to the club, it was the swagger of the style. The players in the 80s (Pat Nevin and Dixon aside) were not particularly good, but they optimized the lion on the badge. These days, if not in the family, it seems kids pick their team based on success and commercial exposure. I’ve experienced the wave of new fans following Chelsea since the 90s when Hoddle, Vialli, Zola et al began to deliver some real chance of success to the club. And into the 2000s when the titles (and Mourinho+Abramovich) were delivered. I moved to London specifically to attend home and away games, doing all it took to survive each week until the next match took place. It was about participating in as many experiences related to the club that mattered. I felt the nerve of being caught in the wrong back street in Nottingham one grim November, the elation of witnessing my first FA Cup final victory, the misery of a cold night out in Southampton having lost my way, in more than one sense. I considered myself an active fan. Over the years, my views have mellowed.

Moving away from London, chances to see Chelsea live are limited to the odd excursion (most recently ending up among the Barcelona supporters in the top tier of the Camp Nou to witness us reaching the Champions League final). Still, from afar, one has access to all the games online. Like human rationality in general, I sense that supporters will forever be split between the ‘success-based’ and the ‘club-based’ camps. The former set of fans I find more frustrating to deal with, but perhaps it reveals deeper characteristics related to unease and short-termism. These are the fans that slag a player off one week, and revel in his success the next. These fans are the ones who tell us we must back a player or a manager ‘no matter what’, as failing to do so shows our disloyalty. These fans buy the merchandise, attend the games, popularize the social media sites, slag off the opposition and in many ways become the public face and voice of the club. These fans are the ones who told us to ‘shut it’ when we expressed our displeasure of having AVB and Torres drag our team down, only to come out later saying how relived they are that things have moved on (the latter shortly I presume).

Then there are the fans who perhaps don’t voice their support as loudly, but make up the spirit of what initially drew me to the club some 30 years ago, and continues to hold a firm grip upon me. The ephemeral nature of football support is a lesson on how to face challenges, suffer, revel in the glory, and wake up each day knowing it will not change. Your shirt will always be the same. It is a lesson in life, how knowledge is gained and filtered through a myriad of experiences. It is each to his or her own as to how one defines a ‘true fan’ or a ‘plastic’. I don’t particularly care, and certainly do not see a fellow wearing Blue as an automatic friend. It may well be a quick avenue to that, but I’ve met some of the most heinous individuals who are supporting our club. Also some of my dearest friends. Chelsea will always be a big part of me, and I will continue to learn from the experiences the great club throws upon me. But like any aspect of life, one has the opportunity to choose their level of buy-in, and call that their form of commitment. Just like a family, a career or a philosophy one lives by to experience their own set of emotions.

#KTBFFH

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2012 in Chelsea FC, Football, Sport, Thinking

 

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MovNat Trainer Certification London 2012

Ask most people what their main association with “training” is and you’ll get a variety of answers. Some will refer to fitness, conditioning or strength gain. Others for goal-oriented performance or weight loss/gain. Most will compartmentalize their associations with physical fitness to “the gym” 3x per week, or a run on sunday, or maybe a course learning about a new product that “best” achieves one or more of their goals. Few, if not any, will tell you their “training” is about optimizing movement patterns for the contextual demands of their environment. Enter MovNat.

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Philosophy

I’d been following this fledgling physical education system from its initial beginnings a few years ago, impressed by the way it represented so much of what was missing from the increasingly specialized (and confused/unhealthy) element of modern day training methodologies. MovNat was not representing anything new, it was merely establishing a framework for focussing training as a way of being, or as a condition that has always allowed our bodies and minds to thrive through an evolved sense of adaptability. This non-specialized physical sense of being, through natural movement, allows for an optimized condition for whatever task we may encounter, rather than focussing on specific targets of weight loss or strength, for example. But what is natural, as opposed to unnatural?

If something is unnatural, does that make it less effective in our daily lives? Of course not. Modern humans are continually evolving in so many ways, but more often than not, in specialized ways. We seek a career, a hobby, maybe a partner and routines that give our lives a structure that allows us to forge our own path. But do we do things efficiently? Is being “fit”, “healthy” or “successful” etc a sign of our effectiveness in achieving certain goals? Maybe we can learn how to be more efficient with our lives, understanding at the same time the factors that make things less efficient or effective. Maybe we need ques to help us become more aware of how much potential we have.

MovNat explores these, and numerous related questions by providing ideas for expanding our enormous potentials, primarily through the teaching of ‘evolutionary natural movement aptitudes’ that are imprinted within us. These principles that include various locomotive, manipulative and combative skills based upon balance, posture, timing, relaxation, tension etc are often lost upon our newly adaptive physical condition that requires far less natural movement than we need as functioning animals. We sleep, we sit, we drive, we sit, we lie down, we eat poorly, we slouch and in between we make the odd effort to physically exert ourselves thinking we are making a huge difference. Our lack of quality movement is interconnected with other realms of life such as the way we nourish our bodies through food, through friendships, connections and visions of an integrated human nature.

MovNat has not reinvented the wheel. MovNat does not ask for 3 easy payments of $19.99 for the ultimate answer to be send to your postbox. Ideas of efficiency and adaptability have slowly become eroded by the rapid onset of commercial, complex and specialized life pathways so many of us are drawn into. Our bodies often respond in ways we are visibly aware of, but often in elusive ways; stress, discomfort, fatigue, sadness and so on. Does MovNat suggest that we all turn the clock and drop all our modern ways for a return to small foraging bands in sparcely populated areas? Of course not! This will never be the reality, so why live with such romanticism?

The teaching of natural movement is intended to give us all the competency to perform a whole lot better in practical life situations. Not just in our living room or in a hot and crowded gym, but outside in our natural environment. We need to run, to carry things, to jump, to throw, and in some cases maybe even to climb and defend ourselves if faced with danger. Why not learn how to do these things efficiently, and become aware of non-physical aspects of our lives (nutrition, mindfulness, kinship etc) that can be improved at the same time? MovNat is not competing against any system, other than our inability to seek an awareness of our deeper human potentials.

London MovNat certification

So, as a lifelong practitioner of a multitude of physical pursuits and nature lover, the chance to learn the MovNat system and incorporate it into my own life, but also teach it was always appealing. The London trainer certification lasted almost 3 full days. Candidates from all over Europe were in attendance, mostly with a trainers background in various sports, some already incorporating natural movement training. Vic Verdier and Joseph Bartz were the instructors and provided a wealth of knowledge and experience in an organized, relaxed, and at times amusing way. Joseph has a background in parkour training, and provided numerous examples of incredible body control, strength and grace of movement that left us amazed. His teaching was clear, methodical and humble. You could tell he was about natural movement, and both he and Vic were the kind of guys you would want to have on the sinking ship.

Without giving away too many of the “secrets” (hey, it’s more than $19.99 you know!) the days were spend inside the East London Gymnastics arena in Beckton and at the local park beside. We went through the skills and techniques that are encapsulated in the foundations of movement, including running, climbing, lifting, crawling, balancing and carrying. Days were indispersed with some of the more theoretical and philosophical aspects of MovNat that taught us the essential nature of adapting our movement to the environment we encounter.

Basic skills were shown in their stripped down version (something that is seemingly lost in most modern training settings and among most trainers) and more complex and challenging variations. Vic gave very interesting short lectures about lifestyle elements that most of us were familiar with, but somehow felt happy hearing reinforced once again. What stressors you place upon your body, and you abilities to recover have enormous consequence. Practical application of movement skills was always reinforced. Why do something? What use is this type of movement? People need to be told over and over again why they are training a certain movement. And it shouldn’t be about being “cool” or not, it should be practical.

Of particular value was the testing day where we were put through various skills tests, as well as placed in a teaching situation where we were tested on our abilities to impart knowledge. This is an element missing from many training camps I have been to – what use is the knowledge if you cannot simply and effectively relay your underatandings to clients? None. We spoke about methodologies, class structures, and the inevitable questions about how to cope with “that annoying student who wants to get wiped out at each training”. We know that our weaknesses first must be assessed, then efficiently transformed through proper programming and implimentation. Many of the participants were highly skilled individuals, but we all had our shortcomings. As a trainer, we need to be made aware of this. Through my kettlebell training, I know how important breathing, tension, balance and relaxation becomes when working longer sets with heavier loads. Again, I struggled with the almost instinctive use of strength to overcome these deficiencies I have in my own game. But I am aware, and was made more aware during the course, and will continue my path towards efficient movement.

The way ahead

Our bodies are not designed NOT to move. We can all improve through an awareness of how our cognition is embodied within us and is stimulated in so many positive ways through healthy movement. Our bodily kinetic intelligence is slowly being eroded by technology, convinience, disease, laziness and a general confusion as to how we can optimize our health. In all but extreme cases, the answer lies not in medical intervention, but in a sense of awareness and willingness to get outside and move to the beat of nature. We must move away from a reliance on the logical and rational side of our being, towards experimenting with the unconscious and intuitive. We have the choice to adapt to our office chair or tv-stare, or to extend our incredible potentials to see things differently. Natural movement is a great start, MovNat is waiting for you.

Special thanks to all the great course participants who, despite different backgrounds, shared an obvious passion for natural movement. Humans are social animals, and you all showed how this is such an integral component of enjoying the benefits of sharing knowledge in a training environment.

For more information on MovNat training in Bergen or elswhere in Norway for your business, family or training facility, please leave a message and I’ll get back in touch.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Thinking

 

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Alexander Dale Oen 1985-2012

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Alexander Dale Oen jokingly told me that he´d happily have my calf muscles to improve his starts, even though they may cause some drag in the water. I was telling him how his physique would suit kettlebell sport, more specifically the snatch, with his long arms and explosive hips. After the Olympics in London, he said, I could teach him more about kettlebells, but until then his coaches wouldn´t be too happy. I explained some of the movements and could tell he was genuinely interested.

Dale Oen had recently returned from Shanghai where he was crowned 100m breaststroke world champion. We occasionally met at my local gym, shared stories, joked and had a mutual appreciation of the science behind training. When I last spoke to Oen, we briefly mentioned London 2012, where he offered to try and sort me out tickets to the aquatic centre. I´d followed his progress from a shoulder injury and he seemed quietly confident he would be back in top shape come July. Sadly, just last week on April 30th, Alex suffered a suspected cardiac arrest whilst at a national team training camp in the US, and died, aged 26.

For a small nation like Norway, Oen´s death came as a massive shock. Few athletes have made it to the top of genuine world sports, and his humility and humble roots made for an extra outpouring of grief. He had, the nation well remembers, dedicated his world title last year to the victims and families of the terrible tragedies tat struck Oslo and Utøya on 22 July. In Bergen, the town he was born in and raised close by, the feeling was one of losing its most illustrious son.

As one who has dabbled in sports psychology, I had a particular fascination with the mindset of those elite athletes who seemed to handle the enormous pressures of training and competition to make it to the very top. I once shared a coffee with Alex after training, having recently returned from Solomon Islands where I had been working with elite footballers. There were many ways those players handled pressures, and I was interested in finding common threads, using previous studies of elite rugby league players in New Zealand as further comparison.

Dale Oen spoke of his continuous search for movement patterns that could make him swim faster. Training hard was something he had always been used to, and enjoyed. But his recent rise to the top of world swimming was due to new discoveries which he was sure put him at an advantage over his competitors. I had heard elite athletes talking about “that something extra” before, and even though few had given me a clear definition of what that was, I assumed it was connected to an unconscious pattern of moving beyond conscious and habitual performance. The skills elite athletes posses are often expressed in effortless ways, almost as a transcendence of the self. I had pondered a lot on this so-called “zone”, and never wanted to bore or confuse the athletes I´d spent time with all the literature. I was simply interested in what the “feel” was like.

With slight, but continual changes in his training and technique, Oen told me that on certain occasions (usually in training) he felt so effortlessly fast. This wasn´t the case when he won the world title surprisingly. “Not the perfect race by any means”, he said. I asked him what was unique about world champions, and I sensed his typical modesty when he explained that some athletes simply had a better capacity to eliminate inhibiting movement and interference that would slow them down, at the same time as they had found an optimal balance of training technique, volume and ability to fire at a very important moment. Hard work, he added, was a necessity even for those with supreme natural abilities.

ImageWe spoke about other sports and joked about my experiences in Norway, and my lack of swimming ability. Could I become a world class swimmer without shaving my body, I asked?. “I know a good waxer in Oslo”, Alex replied. But what about my chunky legs?, I said. “Just enter the 50m, jump from the blocks so hard that you reach the end in one breath!”.

I sensed Dale Oen had reached the top not only because of his natural talent, work ethic, and top coaching apparatus, but also his open mind when it came to learning how to possibly go faster. “I´ve met swimmers from all over the world, and listened to the way they talk about training and preparation. There is no single way to train, or do anything well. You just have to keep thinking, keep doing things, and learn when things go wrong”.

Dale Oen was optimistic and excited about London 2012, just as he was about getting some food after our chat, and finding out about my ´secret´calf-training methods. We parted ways, and said we´d keep in touch. Sadly, it was the last I saw of Alex. I will remember him as a champion not just of the swimming pool, but of the human spirt. He possessed qualities of warmth, humor, humbleness and humility and was fiercely proud of his birthplace and nation. He will be sorely missed by all who were lucky enough to be touched by his presence, but whose legacy will last for generations to come.

 

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Barcelona vs. Chelsea and the changing ontology of football

Jose Mourinho summed it up well when asked about the criticism levelled for Chelsea’s remarkable semi-final victory over two legs against Barcelona in this season’s UEFA Champions League. He also spoke to what we may begin to speak of as a new ontology of modern football:

They know nothing


Some people think they are the masters of the game and they will criticise Chelsea in the same way that they criticised Inter two years ago, but they know nothing. Nothing.They know nothing about character and personality. They know nothing about the effort or what it is to resist physically, emotionally and technically, with 10 men. They know nothing about organisation. They know nothing. That’s why my heroes at Chelsea are in my mind and why Chelsea deserve to be in the final. One of the great things about football is that it is unpredictable“.

The Bayern Munich coach, Jupp Heynckes, whose side will meet Chelsea in the final following a dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the second semi-final, admitted he was surprised Chelsea had reached the final but praised them for a “tactical masterpiece” against Barcelona.

Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech simply stated that… “this is why everyone loves football: things happen which you just cannot explain“.

The Guardian’s Richard Williams wrote

On one side there was delighted admiration for a revelation of character under supreme duress, on the other a scathing contempt for a team who were considered to have abdicated all responsibility for playing the game in a way that might entertain the multitudes and inspire impressionable children. You really would not believe we had witnessed the same match“.

Explaination, or our thoughts and emotions, are constructed in the language we use to express our understandings of, in this instance, football. We might hear that a game is a masterpiece, a travesty of justice, or, in the case of Petr Cech, unexplainable. Those that try, says Mourinho, know nothing. For philosophers, interest lies in the world of experience and explanation outside often beyond our language capabilities. In other words, football can only be explained through the way we understand our conceptions of the world. This dogmatic language we repeatedly hear through the media channels and on the streets around the world is merely a reflection on the way we conceive the world, and the game of football.

What alternatives do we have?. Why do we know nothing? Have we witnessed a different game?

Firstly, let us consider the possibility that a football match is more than merely a game. That players are more than purely men running about looking to control a ball. Our language has become accustomed to thinking through, and representing what we see via the categories of understanding that we learn through our conceptual ideas about the world and the game. We may agree or disagree with the way Chelsea overcame Barcelona, but what lies beyond this disagreement?. If we move beyond the category of representation then we enter the realm of what might be?.

For Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher of the metaphysics, the way the game might be represented is the result of two essential functions: Distribution, which it ensures by the partition of concepts (common sense) and hierarchization, which it ensures by the measuring of subjects (good sense). So, a game may be exciting or boring or unjust or confusing. We use our ideas of representation to clarify our thoughts, just as Plato, Aristotle and Kant have done in the past. When the game is viewed differently, it is because different people draw upon categories of explanation (common sense) that are stable, rather than offering porous possibilities. What if we consider dropping the (common sense) categorical identities we use to think about the game, and help us explain it, and instead look beyond recognizable conditions that dictate our judgements of the game?.

Bear with me, as I quickly identify the elements we use in representing our thoughts (thanks to Aristotle, who, should you ever find yourself in a philosophical quandary, usually has the answer). We judge things and conceive our world in terms of: identity, analogy, opposition and resemblance. We adopt common sense, and try to use this through the rationale of good sense. Language and our conceptualizations about the world dictate our expressions and actions in other words. So why can we look to football as a way beyond the conformity of thought?.

Ontology, in traditional analytic philosophy, refers to the study of what there is. This could be very general (what constitutes the universe) or specific (what constitutes a football encounter). Or, what makes up the psychology of the mind, the body in social interaction. Another take on ontology, looks at the study of being. What is being or what is it for something to be?. For Foucault and Derrida (yes, French philosophy can be useful in this instance) ontology of the human being is fraught with bias based upon the historical conditions of our existence and the language used to explain it. The ontology Deleuze refers to, takes a new approach to many before him, by looking at the question of how things might be, rather than continuing attempts to explain the fundamental nature of the universe (and football) which in itself is bound by the limits and categories of our explanations.

Football then, rather than being a project of explanation (of our thoughts, emotions or technical analysis) can be seen as an ontological project of creation. We need to create and employ different concepts which will enable the game to be seen in a different light. We need to see the potentials in the game that open up a multiplicity of perspectives, free from the categories of representation we see employed (often frustratingly) today. We need to look at the differences apparent in the very elements mentioned above we use for making sense of our world. By sticking to rigid conformity and mechanical repetition (as fans and as reporters/thinkers of the game) we continue to immerse ourselves in the very structures of judgement that confine us to scratching our heads on a regular basis when things don´t make sense. Football, like ontology, need not provide answers, but can be seen as an arena for thinking about future possibilities that extend into all aspects of our lives. We can look at the differences taking place on the football field, easily highlighted in the semi-final matches between Chelsea and Barcelona, rather than using stable conceptual identities to form and fabricate our analysis of the game.

Philosophy, ontology and football do not provide answers, if we continually try to place ourselves in coherent frameworks of understanding. By describing a game as good or bad, or a team as extravagant or adopting anti-football, we are adopting concepts that are interlinked with a multitude of difference, yet we represent them as static categories. Difference then, ought not to be something we can easily represent, or we step back into the same old realm of dogmatic thought. Difference as represented through football, is what lies in the unexplained (Petr Cech mentions this) beyond the conformity of the various representations and reactions to the game. Football is not about finding answers to easily stated problematics. A victory is a victory (and to some, but not all, the most important thing) but there are many ways of achieving this. The solution, or the result, can often take precedence in defining the way the game is played. A new ontology of football then, seeks to stretch what everybody knows or perceives, and enters into a world of the unknown that is full of potentials. It is like feeling ill, and having a confused doctor poke about on your stomach. There is an issue, but it is hard to define despite our best efforts (whether it be poking or representation through language).

Mourinho was right in saying that “they know nothing“, as was Cech in saying the game “cannot be explained“. Perhaps they are aware of newer ontological ways of thinking about football?. Representation cannot capture everything about football. How then, does language help us with this new ontology that seeks to broaden the questions surrounding what the game (life) might be like?. Language will always be an asymmetrical representation of the way we conceive of our world. Just as thought will always involve both conscious and unconscious elements. If we accept what we hear and read, and find ourselves making judgements on a game of football in an uncritical way, then maybe the task of thinking through a football game will not take up more than the odd 90 minutes of your time. If, however, you see others as knowing nothing, yet cannot explain things yourself, then you are a mere mortal (like Jose) and a new ontologist. Football is often spoken about in terms of models and prescriptions, but needs to be viewed beyond the comfort zone of our engrained bias. There is more to the game than we know, and we are yet to see what it may be like.

 
 

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Contrasting measures of movement and performance

I often wonder what the point is of aiming to quantify athletic performance through sole adherence to numbers/time, if you are totally unaware of how your movement patterns and technique are progressing. It makes little sense, for the 99.9% of the population not involved in elite-level performance, to quantify performance in a numerical fashion, if the qualitative indicators of what drives mobility, strength and overall movement health are left to somehow take care of themselves. I´ll explain further what I mean, not so much as a criticism to people going hard with their training, or setting high benchmarks in their performance, but for people to think about performance and health longevity and how this relates to much of the totally wasted and often dangerous activity I see in the gym these days.

For gymnasts, martial artists, olympic weight lifters and those of us involved with girevoy sport – technique comes first. It´s mastery takes up the majority of training time, and attention to detail can seem hard to grasp for most not so well versed in the respective disciplines. The attention on harnessing tension and relaxation requires a complex combination of speed, power, timing and extraordinary mobility. Those who achieve greatness in these disciplines have a unique ability to control muscle tension through strength and power and to relax sufficiently (in the case of girevoy sport in particular) to allow speed, flexibility and endurance to be sustained whilst competing. None of this is achieved without proper training and understanding of fundamental movement patterns.

Movement however, in this modern world of instant gratification and impatience for change-driven objective results, is not a quantifiable measure of performance, as we see with time and numbers. Movement is a qualitative measure of health which cannot be reduced to a competitive exercise. Herein lies the challenge for fitness professionals working with the mainstream or in rehabilitation:

How to teach quality of movement as a performative aspiration before quantifying results through numerical benchmarks?

You see it everyday at training facilities, on the boards, on the web forums; ways to achieve quantifiable results in the quickest possible time: “My goal is a 400lb deadlift”, “I wish to run a sub-3hr marathon”, “I want to complete FRAN in under 4 minutes” etc etc. Most would not care so much how they got there, however ugly it looked. They would simply take the time and add the weight. Professional athletes are usually exceptions to this rule, as their livelihood is based around clearcut objective results. But then again, at the elite level, movement is usually of the highest level as well. But does less that 1% of the population really want to achieve  certain objective standards of performance to the detriment of movement quality or efficiency?. Do we actually think in these terms and concepts when training?. Probably not.

This is where trainers and fitness professionals (or whatever the name you choose to use) need to step up the mark and wise up. Most average people exercising for enjoyment and other health benefits it provides should be encouraged to work within parameters of proven programs that gradually increase performance through smart periodization and measurable feedback. It is simply too much to ask the amateur gym-goer to be able to adjust their training each day based on multiple variables affecting daily performance. But it must be the prerogative of trainers and gym owners to ensure a baseline of movement quality is instilled into members before starting on with pushing rep counts, loading the bar or holding the clock in your face.

We are all born with amazing flexibility and mobility, but reinforce bad habits and patterns of movement as we age. The common ankle, knee, hip and shoulder mobility issues are all too plain to see, as is poor core stability and spinal weakness. No one has a place, or will gain long term benefits by stacking plates on a bar until these essential areas of mobility are trained back to their intended function. To do this, especially if you have been hurt, poorly trained or very inactive, takes time for many, and to reinforce bad habits and certain asymmetries by loading weight only leads to certain unspecific injuries caused by inadequate foundational movement conditioning.

What happens when poor mobility is overlooked for objective gains in the weight room?. Compensatory form takes place, often unilaterally, which reinforces already bad mobility. Commonly seen in the squat, push up or press, shoulder and hip weakness makes for awful looking movement patterns, especially on those with heavily weighted bars on their backs. One overlooked solution is to teach control of movement through bodyweight training. Teach the integrative form of each movement and reinforce this until weaknesses are ironed out, strength is gained, and a platform is laid out for more specific functional progressions.

Instead of looking at your strengths, look at your weaknesses, and build upon them to integrate your body and mind into a strong unit. Isolating body parts or movements, because you are strong at them, is simply nonsensical. Kettlebells, in this regard, are outstanding aids not only for screening poor movement but for strengthening symmetrical and proprioceptive awareness throughout the entire body. Foundational movements such as the swing, Turkish get up, press and snatch cannot be performed without this “core” awareness, and balance, or you will simply fall over in a heap.

I firmly believe in the kettlebell being of huge benefit to the future of mobility awareness and injury rehabilitation for the huge proportion of the modern population who struggle to perform basic movements with ease and efficiency. Spinal shortening is all too common with the aging process and the cumulative effects of compensatory measures to counter back and hip immobility has disastrous consequences. Remember also, that our body works are an integrated unit, so structural and muscular pain, as well as a struggling metabolic state due to stress and poor nutrition has carry over effects to our mental health – an oft-overlooked causation.

The way we move and interact with our environment are fundamental parts of our integration into all forms human life. If we are forced to inhibit ourselves in any way from moving freely, it has a spinoff effect on our whole performative sense of wellbeing; physically, mentally and emotionally. Movement patterns were given to us at birth and are a primordial part of the cosmologies of us all. We owe it to ourselves to avoid dysfunctional limits that come about by lethargic modern lifestyles as well as looking too readily for quantifiable objective results that bypass fundamental movement patterns that are at the essence of true qualitative health and fitness and performance standards.

Some of the most progressive and open thinkers in the movement/health/performance industry:

www.maxwellsc.com 

www.rosstraining.com

www.8weeksout.com 

www.graycook.com

www.cathletics.com

www.ikff.com

www.mikemahler.com

www.movnat.com

 

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