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We Can’t Do It Better Than Nature – Physical Education, Pt. 2

I believe any opportunity to educate another human being should be a sacred moment.

In my sports medicine degree work, I was exposed to quite a few physical education classes because Athletic Training Pre-Physical Therapy or Sports Medicine are often taught within the Physical Education Department. When I witnessed the opportunity that physical educators have to develop people, I realized the sorry state of physical education.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 44 of Gray Cook Radio

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tall kneeling PE2

The work of Dr. Ed Thomas and the Jeffco Fitness video I shared in my previous article display the positive influence that physical activity can have on a child’s grade point average. The benefits of exercise in academia, health and self-esteem are clear.

The end goal of an English class, a math class or a psychology class is a state of entry-level competence and functional independence.

What is the end goal of physical education of our youth? No, not the physical education that you had and not the physical education that your child may (or may not) be receiving now. Let’s go back to the physical education that was dropped on our parents—the baby boomers. Are these people physically independent when they make their health and fitness decision or do they basically just surf the internet or migrate to the first professional that seems to have the right credentials?


I have enough math skills to know that if I rely on someone for mathematical problems, they’re at least doing the basics right. It goes back to addition and subtraction, right? Put it this way: I’m not going to get taken advantage of buying a new car.

I have thought that my mom or dad might get taken advantage of at a physical therapy clinic, a chiropractic clinic or in a gym. I don’t think these people are trying to be underhanded—I simply don’t think that they’re the expert my parents believe they are. Every one of us has an ulterior motive for doing what we do, and any time we can sell somebody something that they’re confused about, we win. The insurance industry is built on fear. They charge you now for something you’re afraid of in the future. I want to make sure that health and fitness don’t have to be that way to be successful.

I believe that a Physical Education class, if restructured and rebuilt from the ground up, would physically empower kids to overcome obstacles. Real, physical obstacles. Today we’re going to climb, tomorrow we’re going to skip the next day we’re going to run and then we’re going to throw things, were going to lift things but the first thing we should probably learn to lift is you.


We’re going to experience physical obstacles and create challenges. Those challenges will in turn create failures. Not the kind of failures you’re going to obsess about—we want the kind of failures that tell us the exact type of development that you need.

We know that sometimes the fastest people might have the biggest flexibility problems. We also know that some people with no flexibility problems may not have the acquisition of strength they desire. We should scale the physical challenges away from games and more toward physical obstacles to allow those without an athletic affinity to have a physical presence in their lives. The most rewarding physical activity you can have is one that, by chance or design, is scaled to you—a challenge that involves full engagement. A bested worthy opponent.

Dr. Ed Thomas talks about this concept a lot and he talks about a physical culture, a culture that embraces its physical attributes as much as it’s academic, intellectual, or architectural attributes and I feel the same way. As physical rehabilitation and personal fitness professionals, we need to think of ourselves as educators.  How would we engineer a class to make a child feel independent with basic health and fitness decisions by the time they graduate from high school?

As a physical therapist, I often treat people who have already exhausted all of their insurance money. They come to me out-of-pocket and immediately expect me to do significantly more in one or two visits than the previous professional did after the twelve visits that exhausted all of their insurance resources.


I’ve accepted that challenge and many times I’ve closed their case in three visits spread over three weeks by having them listen to the right advice and do the right thing. Am I an educator or a therapist? Yes, I am. The effects of my treatment will quickly be absorbed into the rhythms and patterns of life, but pivotal education is a game changer.

What does that say for our medical and physical culture? We’re wasting a lot of time and not creating independence in our clients or our patients. Do we want them to be well and go tell others about their experience or do we want them to keep returning as continual consumers?

For my conscience, I would rather create independence, but that independence could easily start much earlier in our educational system. Why are we not independent with our healthcare decisions and fitness decisions? We’re expected to be independent with other decisions we make about finance, communication or business.


Tim Harford wrote a beautiful book called Adapt that focuses on how nature and the environment make us develop. Nature gives us lots of opportunities to fail. Not failing is how nature pats us on the back with success. Great—until you remember that failure in nature can sometimes take your life or injure you severely.

We often try to physically develop people better than the environment can. I want you to embrace the fact that we can’t do it better than nature. Often, when we’ve tried to develop one attribute better than nature, we’ve done it at the expense of another attribute or some other quality. There’s something about the way the natural environment develops us that will not let us go below a minimum accepted level of competency on another metric while pursuing the one of your focus.

That is exactly why we should try to develop a system based on nature. Start by following three simple principles from Adapt.

Number one: Variety. As in nature, you have to be exposed to a lot of variation to develop. Not every one of your interactions with new activity is going to be a success . . . or even rewarding. When you have a lot of variety, expect to have a lot of failure, which brings us to. . .

Number two: Failure. Make the failure survivable. We run into this frequently with the Functional Movement Screen. When I tell someone that I don’t think they should load their squat because their squatting pattern is really dysfunctional, they inevitably say “But tomorrow is squat day.” If your squat doesn’t have enough integrity to benefit from the load why do you persist in the load. I didn’t say don’t work on your squat. I said don’t load your squat.

Many runners misunderstand me in the same way. Their volume of running is so much that it will not allow change to occur in their fundamental movement. They need that dysfunction and compensation to maintain their mileage with all the other issues they have. If the compensation stays alive, then the reason for the compensation also stays. From the movement screening standpoint, we remove that by restricting a physical activity. We interrupt your program, we interrupt your groove and we interrupt your vibe. We steal the momentum from a dysfunctional pattern by not doing it. We interrupt that thing that you want, in order to replace it with that thing that you need. All we really injure is your pride.

Number three: Feedback. Make a clear feedback loop for non-failure and ensure that it follows a systematic development.

nature chart

Remember, the Rolling Stones told us that you can’t always get what you want . . . but you get what you need. If we’re in control of somebody’s health or fitness we should first concern ourselves with their needs. Help them see that addressing the need could get them a little closer to the want.

I’m forty-eight now (you probably figured that out from the Stones reference). I will always take an injury to my pride over one to my body. I’m not necessarily sure an injury to my body will make me better, but most injuries to my pride enlighten me in some way. If the failure doesn’t have a feedback loop built into it, then it’s not nearly as instructional as it could be. If we (as coaches, trainers, teachers, educators and rehabilitators . . . human beings) are going to step into the arena of development for health or fitness, then we need to remember that we can’t do it better than the environment.

I think we can do it faster and safer than the environment if we are principle-based.

I’m not trying to do anything in Functional Movement Systems to circumvent nature. Nature is where we came from and all growth is based on its principles. Physical problem solving abilities and healthy individuals with physical independence is what physical education should generate.

You need variety to grow. You’re going to have failure in order to gain perspective. Make the failure survivable for feedback and continued development.

More on Physical Literacy from Dr. Ed Thomas:


Physical Education: Why Do We Make Kids Move?

Physical Education is losing traction everywhere in the United States, and this is probably a good thing. But let’s back up a little. . .


Physical Education should be the balanced presentation of physical challenges. These challenges are scalable and designed to create a healthy and capable human beingThey are new and varied and produce opportunities for failure.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s an audio version of this article,
Episode 43 of Gray Cook Radio

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

However, it is assured that the failure is manageable. Not only is the failure manageable, but there is an educational path for the student to uncover—a well-planned feedback loop.

The answers are not given, but they are just below the surface. With higher degrees of physical skill acquisition, greater challenges can be imposed, both to physical problem solving and physical strength.

Today’s environments offer asymmetrical challenges to the organisms that inhabit it. A physical presence is no longer necessary to be successful. However, a physical presence is necessary to be a balanced human being.

Balanced human beings do not need to rob from one activity to strengthen another. That only happens when the strength is achieved in an unnatural and unbalanced way. Challenges in every area build the whole in ways far greater than their singular effects.

Back to where I began . . . Physical Education is losing traction everywhere in the United States, and yes, I said it’s probably a good thing.

Physical Education is dying because it fails to meet its goal: physical independence. Dr. Ed Thomas calls it physical literacy, tying it in to education as a whole.

Why do we make kids add? Why do we make kids read? So that they can develop these essential skills in a way that they will continue to use them to benefit their lives.

But, why do we make kids move?

Think of Physical Education in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Most of the people who were introduced to Physical Education in these decades do not currently know how to manage their health and fitness independently. Many are overly dependent on others for basic health and fitness fundamentals.


It didn’t work.

What was the result of Physical Education early in their lives? Was it designed to promote physical independence and pro-active behavior to manage both health and fitness across a life span?

Or introduce somebody to the different sized balls that can be used in various sports?

If we invoke the best definitions of play, practice and train, we will see that early in life, play is the majority of our activity.


PPT400PlayHowever, most of that play is natural and instructional. It is instructional through failure and often accompanied by pain when falls, cuts, scrapes and bruises occur. Play is also interesting later in life, when retirement (hopefully) brings free time. We are again visited by pain, but not as we engage our environment. The pain is already therebecause of our unmanaged health, play is no longer an option.

Play, the one thing that could probably restore the body into a more harmonious balance and blend is not accessible, because pain alters motor control in an inconsistent and unpredictable way.

The same pain that is instructional early in our life as our environment hones our movement begins to creep back into our life. We choose not to manage it in a harmonious and balanced way. We suppress it, and by suppressing it, we ignore the signal. By ignoring the signal, inefficiency, dysfunction and disability impress their forces upon us. They mold our structure and break down our function.

If this unnatural process happens in a slow consistent manner, we barely realize the erosion that’s occurring. Then one day, an ability that we saw we had in a snapshot or a video is no longer available to us. The memory of it is crisper in the picture than it is in your head.

You lost the ability to move.

Somehow we got into fitness, sports performance, weight-loss, general physical preparedness, tactical training and all other forms of physical conditioning that are focused more on physical appearance than physical function. Had we focused on function, we would not see a consistent, unchallenged functional problem across the landscape in both health and fitness.

exercise bottle

. . . and call me in a month.

If exercise were the beneficial supplement that it’s supposed to be when life’s activity does not create balanced fitness, then why does it create such unfortunate side-effects?

Exercise itself is now a risk factor for injury! People who participate in more exercise are more frequently injured.

We could argue that they had more exposure and therefore that exposure would make them consistently more injured. Even if we count for exposure, I still think we see that movement behavior, when unmanaged and unrefined, could actually be bad instead of good.

That’s right, moving often before you move well could be problematic.

Why? Name one other physical attribute or activity that should have loads impressed and stress impressed on it when it’s not in harmonious balance. Our systems can actually thrive on stress once they are balanced and functioning well. But if they are stressed when they are not balanced and not functioning well, they can actually be challenged for too long, damaged beyond repair, or broken altogether.

Medical science has developed a battery of vital signs that does not involve movement. Why don’t we treat movement the same way we do other body systems?

We realized the importance of blood pressure 100 years before we had the ability to reliably and practically test it . We’re currently at a place in time where we can compartmentalize movement problems consistently and effectively. The skill set can be possessed at all levels of fitness education, and there are healthcare and performance models intimately attached.

The System is designed to generate movement health as a foundation on which movement fitness can be built . . . and movement fitness is the stuff of which physical education is made.

So why no movement vital sign? We can’t afford to continue to get this wrong.

Here’s how Dr. Ed Thomas gets it right:

To be continued. . .sign up for the feed (top right) to receive the next article in your inbox.


For related thoughts, see:

A Glimpse into a Better Future

Play, Practice, or Train

Good Coaching Involves Some Cutting

Flowing water. Wooded land. Abundant wildlife.

That summarizes the time I spend with Neil Clarridge, a local football and track coach, who is also my hunting and fishing buddy.


Neil and I pride ourselves in creating the best possible environment out of what we’re given. We cultivate food plots and take other measures to benefit the wildlife. We can often be found walking the woods, finding the most desirable trees and working to eliminate unwanted competition.

If we have a tree that produces a certain type of nut or fruit, it takes precedence over a tree that may be too abundant to thrive or unnecessarily disadvantageous to the rest.


A lot of the timber property in Virginia has already been cut once or twice and it’s common to see a multi-prong tree growing from one old stump. If we cut some of those saplings and leave only the largest, healthiest and straightest specimens, then we actually make the tree stronger by focusing its growth in the most beneficial direction. We help it live as its ancestor did—a large, tall, well-producing, single trunk tree that lived for 200 or 300 years.

white oak

We’re coaching up the land.

There are some great parallels to the way we should look at our roles as coaches or trainers.

By managing your exercise programs and even your exercise choices by a series of data points and personal goals, coaches can create a much better competitive model focused on first managing your weak links and then expanding your physical capacity. (The order is intentional: manage weaknesses first, then expand physical capacities.)

First of all, you need to know the group you’re competing against, whether it’s head-to-head with another athlete, or trying to be the best time or the best lift in your age group.BXP135671

What’s the average body composition of that group? What’s the average sleep of that group? The average nutritional requirement? The average vertical leap ? The average one-mile run time, sprint time or specific lift of that group? Do you know? Should you know? Unfortunately we often know much more about specifics than we do about general fitness.

If you knew the information about the group that you were getting ready to compete against, then you would know what was above average in every category for that group—strength measures, flexibility measures, endurance measures and body comp.

As long as you’re above average in those, then the best investment of your time is probably specific work on the skill that you’re trying to beat them at. However, if you fall below average in endurance and you’re above average in strength compared to the group, endurance could be a key factor for you. The more endurance you have, the more you can practice your skill and the better you can get.

Even in the world of strength, endurance has its role. Endurance offers you a wider time slot to learn your lifts and perfect your technique while managing fatigue. A good coach knows the group, knows the minimums and will eliminate unwanted competition in the weight room by focusing you on what you need—not on what you’ve already mastered. A good coach knows work capacity.

Every now and then, good competition in the weight room is healthy. Goals are good. But a record in the weight room means nothing on the football field, the obstacle course, a high-school wrestling match or in combat.

So we must make sure that the weight room is always a benefit and never a risk factor. That’s right. There are a lot of sports coaches who are petrified of strength-and-conditioning because they’re fearful of an injury. Why? Exercise has become a competition—and competition involves risk

There’s quite a bit of evidence to support their fear—the numbers of military personnel or firefighters injured in their attempt to stay fit in their recreational activity, in their sports or definitely in their weight room workouts. You could argue that some of these are unavoidable, but I know that some are - legpress

Training and practice, in most cases, are to develop you for the competitive arena—to enable you to best the environment or the opponent in front of you.

If your competition is in the weight room, a good coach will limit and constrict unnecessary competition. They logically and objectively keep their athletes focused on their goals and hold them personally accountable for any minimums in physical capacity and movement patterns (like a ‘1’ on the Functional Movement Screen).

Back to the outdoors. When I cut down a tree so it won’t compete with another tree, I’m completely removing that undesirable tree from the environment. When I restrict an activity or type of competition for someone, whether it’s in rehabilitation, athletics or simply training an exercise, I have a good reason for doing so.

I can now allocate your precious resources of energy and time to your weakest link so that you can manage your minimum. I often completely cut an activity because it has no benefit and could even offer complications.

I can also ‘prune’ people. ‘I don’t want you doing your deadlifts that way anymore. We are going to do them this way.’ The exercise can continue, but we’re going to go backward in the progression. Own your press in tall kneeling before you try to do it standing and before you convert it to a push-press and then a push-jerk.

The restriction of activity is one type of cutting and the modification of activity is another type of cutting. Anybody who works with trees will tell you that pruning the right thing at the right time will actually promote sustainable growth. Eliminating unwanted competition at the right time does the same.

Good coaches look at the short and long-term consequences of cutting, whether they’re pruning athletes or basically advising someone that they’re not ready for the level of competition that they’re considering. Remember, we can select a person into or out of a program or we can choose to modify the current program to best develop the individual.

Either way, the coach is not being cold, callous or insensitive. They’re simply protecting you from an environment for which you’re not ready. If you flunk out of military basic training due to a lack of physical conditioning, you’re not ready to protect yourself or the person next to you when it counts the most. You become a liability to the group.

Injury rates sustained during exercise while physically preparing for competition have probably reached an unacceptable level. It’s our fault, because as people enter the weight room, we must understand that it’s a time for personal exploration, the management of movement and physical capacity minimums, and ultimately the pursuit of better performance outside of the weight room.

If our physical conditioning does this for us, then we don’t have to tell people how much we bench press or how much we squat. We don’t need to post how long we were on the VersaClimber or how much wattage we generated on the rowing machine.

If I eliminate an exercise for you, it is a direct performance enhancement measure. You’re wasting time and not bringing benefit to yourself or honor to the action or activity. I am not restricting, modifying or cutting activity to hurt the entertainment value that your exercise program has come to provide. I want you to enjoy a higher level of entertainment value, which is excellence in your particular sport, hobby or competition.


Good Coaching

If you have the Assessing Movement DVD of the event at Stanford with Stu McGill and Craig Liebenson, you know I talked about coaching. Okay, I talked a lot about coaching. Recently, at my first StrongFirst event with Brett Jones, we taught many correctives . . . and we coached them a lot.

Coaching movement is where the science meets the art but I think most of us pride ourselves in the style in which we coach—probably a unique style that has contributions from many important people.

GC coaching2

An elite coach can use a verbal cue, a touch or even a nudge and we miraculously see their desired response, we can’t wait to go apply that in our own situation.

As a novice, we take that wonderful observation and apply it to our biggest bag of problems and our most difficult individual, hoping that the magic bullet will aim itself directly at their weakest link and make us look amazing.

Fortunately, the elite coaches and teachers among us go through a filtering process before they dispense their coaching advice.

A long, long time ago, a guy named Harvey Penick wrote a book about golf called the “Little Red Book” and it is a perfect example of elite coaching. There are no graphs, charts or biomechanical analysis. There’s simple instruction that’s filtered by an expert in strategically targeting the weakest link of a golf swing or even golf strategy. Supposedly, it’s the highest-selling golf book in history.

weakest link4Golf fitness and golf instruction have become complicated. TV shows, magazines and entire organizations have been developed to improve an individual’s golf ability and the fitness that supports it.

Yet, long before much of the science was available to Harvey Penick, he was the premier coach, choosing his words sparingly and making each one profound with an almost immediate and tangible result. He demonstrated his expertise not by his authority but through a quick analysis of an issue and observable resolution of that issue. He knew that his pupils’ confidence in him would be built upon the outcome of his first instruction.

This ability to instruct change is why I’m so passionate about movement. It takes time to lose weight, gain hypertrophy and develop strength, endurance and sport-specific skill.

Movement can change in a single session. Check it, screen it and test it, and this truth will be revealed to you.

Find the weakest link. Identify whether it’s a motor control or a mobility problem, because only one will respond to direct coaching—direct observation of movement.

From the coaching perspective, there’s a huge difference between mobility and motor control problems. It is almost impossible to coach a true mobility problem directly. If you’re able to change mobility with your words alone, you were probably observing a motor control problem that presented itself as stiffness.

Think about it. When the body feels vulnerable and out of control, it’s not concerned with efficiency and effectiveness. It is concerned with preservation and integrity of the structures that may not be ready for the loads you’re trying to impose.

A true mobility problem can be directly addressed with a hands-on technique by a qualified individual and this usually involves somebody with a clinical background. I am not suggesting that clinicians have better or more intuitive hands than some excellent body workers and massage therapists. I’m saying that a clinician has at their disposal a thing called a differential diagnosis.

A differential diagnosis is what we do first to make sure that another disease process is not actually the underlying cause of the musculoskeletal disharmony that we observe through faulty movement, mobility and motor control problems.

A differential diagnosis is the first filter that a clinician should employ. Mobility problems can be attacked directly but when you have a frozen shoulder, there is no coaching technique on earth that I can use to talk you out of that frozen shoulder in an efficient or effective manner.

Pilates, Yoga and Feldenkrais have all offered techniques to gain movement through verbal instruction and cueing but when needed and appropriately applied, a manual technique to restore range of motion and mobility at a stuck segment or a high-tension area like a trigger point is one of the most efficient and effective ways to break through a mobility problem.

Recently, we’ve enjoyed a huge amount of self-help information for these same mobility problems. We use foam rolls, balls and sticks to manipulate the soft tissue, work through sore and tender muscles and even release some tension prior to workouts.

My critique: if you continuously use these methods, then they are not changing anything. They are simply placating the problem so you can assume that your training is more effective than it naturally is. A true change in mobility should have a program behind it that sustains the mobility and reduces the necessity of the direct technique.

move well2

A coach improves mobility by appropriately identifying the location of the restriction and advising the athlete or trainee in a series of techniques to use as a warm-up in preparation for an activity that should help sustain the mobility.

When there is no underlying mobility problem but we see the knees collapse or the feet cave in or the back round under load, there is an opportunity for direct coaching. Remember, they’re doing this thing because of a lack of control—not because they’re forced to do so in compensation for poor mobility elsewhere.

There are three levels of direct coaching that occur when a motor control problem is objectively identified and observed. (My word ‘objectively’ there means that you have a test). The three levels are quite simple:

1. Coach the pattern without load—Mimicking the exact pattern that will be loaded or coaching the pattern with some degree of assistance. This could be as simple as a Goblet squat with a heel lift or it could be a complete change in body position like an overhead press from tall kneeling.

2. Assist the pattern—We often work with individuals who, because of a motor control issue, cannot even roll to one side. The verbal cues aren’t enough to get them to find the coordination path to perform the roll. However, a few Airex pads under the side of their body that they’re rolling away from enable rolling. Reduce the assistance to gain functional control.

3. Load the pattern and observe—Let them feel the correct pattern—that is learning. Verbal cues are a last resort to get them to the correct pattern. They’re learning from the movement, not from your cues.

Remember, both direct- and indirect-coaching fall under corrective exercise. Unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s a mobility or stability problem, you may be bringing an excellent coaching cue to an inappropriate position.

Elite coaches use filters but it took them a long time to build those filters and gain that wisdom. Objective tools like screening, testing and assessment help us gain those filters early in our career and achieve a level of expertise at a much younger age than those who came before us. All we need to do is identify good coaching when we see it and then find the filters that enable us to get there quicker.

For more on coaching movement for correction and improvement, watch Assessing Movement: A Contrast in Approaches and Future Directions.


This event took place in early 2014 at Stanford University, where Craig Liebenson moderated a day-long conversation between Stuart McGill and me. Dr. McGill is a back pain expert and researcher who has reviewed the current science covering the FMS and related movement screen research.

• Full event video—5 hours & 40 minutes
• PDFs of the lecture transcripts
• MP3 audio files of the full lectures
• Presentation slides PDFs
• Research material
• Pre-event study material
• Post-event reflections from the participants
• Bonus lectures from
• PDFs of the lecture transcripts
• MP3 audio files of the full lectures
• Presentation slides PDFs
• Research material
• Pre-event study material
• Post-event reflections from the participants
• Bonus lectures from

The FMS is the Entry Point

A screen sends you in one of two directions, up the pyramid toward skill, or into assessments to determine what to do next. The FMS is the entry point to discover which direction to go. People seemed to really enjoy this simple overview.

Click here for more information on the Assessing Movement digital download or physical DVD, and more preview clips.