We all have that one friend who is just all-around good at everything. Besides being annoyingly good, this superstar makes you wonder how it is possible. If you asked him about his background, you would probably quickly realize why he is so good.
I have been fortunate to work with one of these athletes very closely. Her name is Annie Thorisdottir, aka Iceland Annie. She has won the CrossFit Games twice, and I was lucky to be a part of her team. When I first started working with her, she was that person—she just got it! And even though she felt that her learning curve was slow compared with everyone else’s, she was actually far better. She was unstoppable.
As I got to know her, I began to understand why. Her track record was insane. She grew up in Iceland on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. Her family was extremely active; Annie practiced several sports and liked to dance and perform. She did artistic gymnastics for many years and eventually went into track and field and focused on pole vaulting. Her training involved rigorous metabolic conditioning in a boot camp type of environment. It wasn’t a fluke that she was able to learn new things faster than everyone else: she had the movement foundation, had an amazing engine to do work, and was always mentally ready to learn.
Annie’s story of athleticism relates to my own coaching story. When I first got into coaching, I coached noncompetitive gymnastics to a group of young boys. Eventually, their parents wanted to participate as well, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I had to put a strength and conditioning program in place to help them survive the challenge of doing gymnastics as adults. After failing several times at implementing a good program, I found CrossFit. The implementation of the CrossFit method made a big change in the way my athletes performed. Even though I understood the movements and challenges, I had a voice in the back of my that kept telling me, “Carl, you still don’t have a clue!” Truth was, I didn’t, but it was working anyway.
We must learn to move so we can move to learn!
A few years later, I was listening to a neuroscientist from Sweden talk about child development, and he said, “Kids need to learn the basic skill of reading so they can later use this skill to learn new things. You need to learn to read so you can read to learn.” BINGO! It hit me right there and then. That’s what I do! This is who I am! I teach people how to move so they can learn to use that movement to learn new things. We must learn to move so we can move to learn! This is what the concept of skill transfer is all about: learning how to move so that we can use movement as a tool to progress and optimize our life and sports performance.
I coached “Iceland Annie” Thorisdottir during the 2011 CrossFit Games. I knew that being able to climb a rope was going to be one of the challenges, especially after seeing everyone struggle and fail miserably in 2010. A couple of days before the competition, I decided to spend five minutes teaching Annie a very basic rope-climbing technique. This technique was an adaptation of how I had taught her to perform a Muscle-up on the rings, which is simply the act of getting over an obstacle by rotating around the rings. Because we had worked on this Muscle-up technique for so long, the rope-climbing technique came easily to her.
On the first day of the competition, Annie had a difficult start. Toward the end of the day, the final event was announced, and of course it included rope climbs, which were combined with heavy Clean and Jerks. This was the moment of truth: we hadn’t practiced the rope-climbing technique, but would Annie be able to apply what she had learned? The answer was yes. She didn’t just apply it and win the event; she changed the game. Annie introduced to the world of CrossFit a new style of movement that served a purpose and didn’t require specific training, just a foundation of performance and an understanding of how the body naturally moves—a clear example of skill transfer.
If movement strength is the physiological capacity to move your body and skill is the application of this strength to your movement performance, then skill transfer is your ability to use your foundation of strength and skill developed on some movements and apply them to other movements, sports, or disciplines. Skill transfer can also mean creatively enhancing a particular technique.
If we go back to the physical aspects of fitness as defined by CrossFit, there are ten of them. I use four of them to define movement strength:
I use another four to define skill:
The remaining two are Speed and Power, which in CrossFit are referred to as the result of the other eight aspects. And this result always occurs and is learned through movement.
Without skill transfer, I don’t believe that we can take advantage of the gains we make in movement strength and skill and use them to fully express speed and power in the broadest circumstances.
With skill transfer, one of my goals is to show you that regardless of the style or discipline of movement you choose for your training, if you master the basics of human movement, you will maximize your ability to translate your performance from one discipline to another, or simply from the gym to the field of sport and life.
The sum of all movement styles is Freestyle, and the ability to connect these styles through training is the most important benefit of my Freestyle Connection framework.
Without an understanding of the concept of skill transfer, we can’t maximize training the basic movement patterns for the purpose of athleticism. The physiological adaptations are important, but the movement patterns are king! Freestyle is connected by skill, applied through skill transfer, and expressed as athleticism.