“The best progression will ramp up the most novice and challenge the most advanced.” – Carl Paoli
Progression is the ultimate focus of the Freestyle Connection framework. It is the act of building a road map to advance your performance. A progression is good if it has a high likelihood of success for maximizing your performance in your sport and also in your life.
We all have an intuitive ability to move and to advance that ability. Take a child learning to walk for the first time, for example. When babies are born, they can only lie on their backs and move their arms and legs. Eventually, they acquire the ability to sit, helped along by adults moving them around. From there, all babies go through the same progression: rolling, creeping, crawling, kneeling, squatting, standing, stepping, walking, climbing, and finally running.
Let’s look at the stages of how a child learns to walk. As she transitions from crawling to squatting, she gains the strength to pick up her hips from a crawl on hands and knees to a Downward Dog position on hands and feet. She looks for something to hold onto and begins to stand upright. That “something” she looks to hold onto is you, specifically your hands. You begin to pull her around a little and teach her how to pick up her feet, even though she naturally does it on her own. As she takes these assisted steps, she gains the strength to walk.
Our experience as parents or family members of young children makes it easy to see that a child naturally progresses from a more elemental state of movement to a more advanced one. A child’s parents and community formally facilitate this natural progression to help her adapt more quickly. This formal progression is an instinct we carry inside us from millions of years of evolution. The sooner the young become self-sufficient, the easier it is to survive. This urge for survival is not something we consciously think of; it is part of who we are.
Our bodies are in a constant state of evolution, both as a species over millions of years and at the individual level in the span of one lifetime. The human body has evolved specifically to survive. Over the years, humans have become well-engineered systems in which our minds direct our bodies to move in order to protect ourselves and each other and ultimately to continue the propagation of our species. Historically tough living circumstances have driven the development of how we move to accomplish these tasks. And those tough conditions helped keep the body in check physically.
Unfortunately, this is not the case today. We have ready access to all of life’s needs—all the food we need can be found at the supermarket, and long-distance travel is effortless thanks to our vehicles. Ironically, the modern body pays the price for these comforts and technological advancements.
Thankfully, the human species is smart enough to acknowledge this fact. We have even developed ways to engineer tough living conditions back into our lives by creating facilities dedicated to progressing our physical abilities for health, higher-level play, and sport. As these facilities multiply and grow, a structured system to mimic the demands for survival is being put into place. Never before have we had a more formalized “physical education.” As time has gone on, though, the motivations behind why we created these artificial facilities have been lost.
If we want to keep advancing physically, we must remember where we came from and how the human body has evolved. This is especially important if we want the full use of our knowledge and experience, as well as modern science and technology, to find new and creative solutions to continue our natural adaptation to our environment and the potential survival demands that we may be exposed to in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, the way we formally address movement at these facilities is influenced by who we are, which in turn is a product of millions of years of evolution. To further adapt, we must understand this important truth.
The million-dollar question we ask at these facilities has become, “Why do we move the way we do, and are these movements ‘correct’?” Why are we doing what we’re doing? Is it to get ourselves to improve a movement for the sake of it, or is that movement a stage of a larger progression?
My objective as a Physical Education Coach is to teach essential tools for answering these questions and building successful progressions. I organize progressions into three types: natural, formal, and creative. These types give us a larger context to appreciate the purpose of creating road maps for enhancing movement. Then I share the principles and methods I use to understand and develop progressions. Understanding these principles is crucial not only for developing progressions yourself, but also to fully appreciate the progressions seen in the rest of the book.
We can improve our understanding of how to advance movement by considering the three different ways we can progress: naturally, formally, and creatively.
Natural progressions are based on the ways we evolve to move in response to the demands and purposes placed on us. In the natural progression of a child learning to walk, we see the same steps taken all over the world. Parents don’t have to do much to encourage those steps.
Formal progressions are purposefully constructed, usually based on natural progressions, to train and advance movement and make it more efficient. As a gymnastics coach, I may teach you the steps that the community has evolved in order to raise your chance of success at learning to perform a Handstand.
Creative progressions come from the drive to “surpass our current limitations and share that progress with others. For example, think about a freestyle skier working to create a new trick or jump that takes his sport to the next level. There is a natural cycle among these progression types; once at least one skier has discovered a new creative progression, it often turns into a natural progression as others learn of its existence and attempt it themselves. As I’ve already described, this now-natural progression informs and shapes the next formal one in an effort to get more skiers to learn this new trick.
Strength training was a big part of my daily routine when I was a kid doing gymnastics. As kids, though, we don’t give much thought to why we are doing whatever it is we are doing. We just do! I vividly remember doing Pull-ups and getting tired and starting to swing and kick in order to get my chin up over the bar. This was considered cheating, of course; it was not going to increase my strength as a gymnast. But this style of kicking and swinging, called a Kipping Pull-up, has become a legitimate style in the CrossFit world. I probably wasn’t the only gymnast struggling on the Pull-up bar. This innate tendency to swing and kick demonstrates how one style of movement can naturally progress into another style when influenced by fatigue, stress, or desperation.
Natural progression happens constantly in life and sport. Often it is a simple result of having to go from point A to point B, only faster, farther, or more frequently. If I were walking and had to get to my destination faster, for example, the walking would eventually turn into jogging, running, and sprinting.
Imagine that I’m a creative coach and I see one of my athletes start to adopt the Kipping Pull-up style as he fatigues. I make a mental note of the fact that despite being unable to do one more strict Pull-up, he could kick up another ten without much difficulty.
So I might allow my athlete to kick up during the Pull-up. In fact, I could encourage it by saying, “I don’t care what your form looks like; just get your chin over the bar as many times as you can.” Then I would record the commonalities between the athlete’s Pull-ups using the observation and description language covered in chapter 1. Seeing the abilities that it seems to impart based on the demand—in this case, doing as many Pull-ups as possible in the allotted time—I formalize this Kipping Pull-up as a new style of movement, and I begin instructing other athletes on how to move this way. And thus a formal progression is born.
Studying natural progressions is a powerful tool for developing movement. The act of taking a natural progression created by the body’s instinct to perform a “movement, developing a new style based on those natural tendencies, and creating a road map with formalized steps to teach that new style is what I consider a formal progression.
The late Shane McConkey, who was a skiing and overall action sport legend, had the bright idea of using water skis rather than regular skis on the mountain for deep-powder days. Because a water ski is wider and fatter than a regular snow ski, it provides a different experience, allowing the skier to float on top of the snow rather than sink into the snow and slow down. The word on the mountain is that with this simple idea, McConkey influenced the ski industry, introduced a new way of looking at the experience of skiing, and changed the game.
We all have a creative side that we can express through making art, performing, innovating, or exploring answers to difficult problems. In the world of physical performance, creativity is an essential part of continually developing and adapting our bodies and coming up with new movement progressions.
The creative aspect can blur the lines between the different types of progressions. A creative progression could be called an accident or a natural adaptation. For example, in 2008 a video of a new style of Kipping Pull-up appeared online and became popular within the CrossFit community. This style is called the Butterfly Pull-up today. To me, it seems to have come about naturally because of the demand to perform Kipping Pull-ups at high speeds for long periods of time. I refer to this movement progression as creative rather than natural because there is a strong component of originality to it. Only a few athletes had come upon this Butterfly Pull-up; it was not a style that others naturally progressed to as they did with the Kipping Pull-up.
Creativity doesn’t just happen in the world of fitness. I have also seen it in b-boying. This style of dance, which is a branch of hip-hop that originated “in the Bronx, is heavy influenced by gymnastics and kung fu, and it was the ability to pull from and implement those different disciplines that made it original. This process, though it may seem natural in retrospect, required creativity and therefore developed creative progressions.
Similarly, one of my favorite gymnasts of all time implemented the windmill seen in b-boying into his gymnastics floor routine. Not much later, another gymnast implemented the airflare, which was without a doubt an original movement created within the b-boy community. The originality that I assign to creative progressions is not solely an act of creating a new way to move; it can also involve borrowing and repurposing a movement for use in another discipline or area of life.
Signature movements are original and specific movements or styles of movement that belong to unique disciplines, such as the Butterfly Pull-up in CrossFit, the knuckle ball pitch in baseball, and the high jump in track and field.
The creative process is fueled by our ability to see natural progressions, explore the frontiers of human ability, and ultimately push past the boundaries of what our bodies are able to do without having to stay within the formal standards that someone else established. Looking beyond the rules of a game or sport helps us inject originality into our performance and allows us to come up with new ways of improving our performance. Creative progression is the act of taking an original movement, formalizing it, and introducing it as a unique style or new discipline.