Frans Bosch on intrinsic learning and understanding attractors

Yesterday we posted the first part of an interview with Frans Bosch in anticipation of his new book coming out next week: Anatomy of Agility: Movement Analysis in Sport (available for preorder in the HMMR Store). In that part we looked at role of perception in agility, how to eliminate errors, developing independent athletes, and quantifying progress. Below we continue to the conversation by taking a look at a few different topics: attractors of agility, connecting training to context, and how this impacts other general training concepts.

Learn more from Bosch

Bosch’s Anatomy of Agility: Movement Analysis in Sport explores these topics in much more detail. You can learn about consulting available from Bosch on the Frans Bosch Systems webpage.

We’ve also had the change to learn a lot from Bosch over the last five years, and put together multiple videos, interviews, articles and more. All of the HMMR Media resources relating to motor learning and Frans Bosch are indexed here. Become a HMMR Plus member to get full access to resources on that topic and many more topics.

Understanding attractors

MB: As you say attractors transfer, fluctuations don’t. I’d like to dive a little deeper into the relationship between attractors and fluctuations. I think many S&C coaches might agree, but have trouble seeing how this looks in practice since we don’t encounter real deep attractors very much. As you mentioned on a recent interview, S&C is a profession that is influenced by fields that do not inherently focus on movement: powerlifting, bodybuilding, etc. It also has influences from track and field, and while movement is key in athletics it is done in a very controlled environment with few fluctuations. You also come from a track and field background. Do you see attractors differently now that you have moved into sports with more fluctuations?

Bosch: If you have attractors in place, you make the body simpler. If you don’t have attractors the degrees of freedom are open and the body is complicated.

There has to be a reason why you want to make your body simple. The reason you make your body simple is that the environment is too chaotic: you can’t have a chaotic body and chaotic environment at the same time. If I want to make my attractors deeper and more solid, I need to do that in an environment that is more chaotic. If the environment is not challenging the complexity of the body, I will add a lot of chaos to this and you see whether you can control it. Otherwise the body will never learn how to be simpler. We have this problem in athletics: we don’t have an environment that is chaotic enough. So if we add things that makes the whole system and context more chaotic, then the body has to become simpler.

This is something you can notice quite quickly when working with athlete from athletics versus rugby players. Rugby players tend to have better ankle stiffness. Why? Because they play on surfaces that are not flat so they have to make their bodies simpler, and that means a more rigid ankle joint that is not collapsing in all directions.

If you want to have the same thing from athletes that are on the track, you have to bring them to environments that bring this less or more. I am less and less convinced that with a simplistic and dull environment of track and field that you can make the body simple with deep attractors.

MB: That’s exactly what I see in the world of hammer throwing. It is a very controlled environment that we rarely try to add chaos too. And the attractors are not very deep as a result.

Bosch: The same goes for pitching in baseball. If you don’t make the environment more chaotic, forget about improvement since the body is not interested.

MB: In chapter 5 of the book you break down agility attractors into several groups: attractors is based on maintaining optimum length, attractors based on reflexes, and attractors in the torso. How can a coach start to determine which group might be the best to use with their athletes.

Bosch: This is an artificial division into subcategories. The body probably doesn’t care about these subcategories itself. The main thing is that if you look at where their main deficits are, you have to go back to the intrinsic learning capacity of the sport.

If you look at trunk control with good cocontractions and the chest out when you rotate, when you play tennis you get that for free since when you flex the spine you cannot hit a ball. In tennis that would be way less of a big thing than in other sports, such as soccer. There you will find only a handful of players with perfect control of their torso. Normally arms are all over the place and the sport itself is not teaching them this. With soccer players I would go more for control of the torso and upper body because you run in this direction and shoot in that direction and want to be accurate. If you have good control of your torso then you have control of the pelvis and therefore the accuracy of the shot. So it depends very much on the sport itself, where the emphasis should be.

MB: You also discuss different variables you can use to strengthen cocontractions. The key three are time pressure, perturbations, and pretension. Again, which variable you focus on depends on need. A tennis player might need less focus on pretension and more perturbations to assist with the cocontractions. Can you provide an example of using one vs. another approach?

Bosch: Again if a sport itself has a lot of time pressure, then if you want to get your bang for your buck, add perturbation to it. If a sport has perturbation by nature but not real time pressure, add time pressure to it.

I would say the quality of learning using these three possibilities depends on how little has been used before. If something has been used a lot by the nature of the game and training, it will have less of a benefit than when it is a new stimulus. Again, you need to balance that a little bit.

If you look at the number of movement patterns there are in tennis, obviously there are less than there are in soccer or rugby. Then you say if that’s the case and there is already a lot of time pressure in these limited number of movement patterns, maybe you add perturbation to it in order to give it a new stimulus to make the attractors deeper. That would be my way of going about thinking about these things.

Bringing movement back to the sport

MB: In listening to your answers, in many cases you have to look at what the sport does, see what is missing, and focus on that. So in one sense you go away from the sport. At what point, if any, do you move back towards the sport? At the Welsh Rugby camp you had such short periods with your athletes that you often just tried to isolate what was missing from the sport. If you had more time would you have tried to bring it all back together more as well?

Bosch: I think there is a big point in bringing them back together. In fact that is what we did with Japan Rugby quite a bit. First you have 7-8 minutes working on the basic attractors: hip lock or something else. Then you would have 7-8 minutes in which you start applying them in more rugby specific and closed-skills situations: how you provoke hip locks in catch-pass and high speed running catch-pass. Then they would go into 7-15 minutes of game like situations where this should be applied. I think that approach is extremely valuable.

What you see a lot is that people don’t stick to that high intensity and pressure in the starting exercise such as hip lock. When you go to slow passing exercise where you have all the time in the world you see the movement pattern collapse immediately. So stay within those themes and add more stimulus to it, both reactive and decision making. Then the system starts to understand if it makes the body very simple then it has more capacity left for decision making. It can scan and perceive the environment, make decisions, and understand the game plan.

MB: Leigh Egger visited us last year and had some great input on how we were implementing some of your ideas. For example were doing some toe-off drives into the wall with my rugby group. He recommended combining those with some sprint variations immediately after each set. That really helped the athlete take that attractor and bring it more towards the sport’s context.

Bosch: The body has a good capacity to have an overall picture of movement. Tell the athlete to take that feeling you have against the wall with the aquabag and try to get that into your acceleration. Do they see a mismatch? The body can’t compare certain angles, but it can compare the overall pictures and that is valuable for overall learning.

MB: All the more reason that S&C coaches need to get out on the pitch. Working in isolated environments will likely lead to more isolated results that have less transfer.

Bosch: In any sport that is complicated in the sense of motor patterns, the quality of what an S&C coach does depends on how he knows to link it with the technical coaching.

General training concepts

MB: Due to the magnitude of the forces that go through the body during change of direction tasks, do you see more of a role for classical resistance training in the development of agility than say top speed running? 

Bosch: Actually not really. I don’t see really why someone in agility should do more classic strength training than a sprinter. It is just that the emphasis is a bit different. For a rugby player or a soccer player or someone who has to be very agile on the field, the torso is under much more pressure since you are working much more rotated positions than a sprinter does. That is something you do not get from classic strength training; you need something with peak forces that hit you in those angles and rotations.

A sprinter obviously is even more dependent on the very quick and active rate of force development than someone who has to do agility. That might be one reason a sprinter also should be carefully with classic strength training because that can have an adverse affect on the rate of force development at relative low external resistance. For instance, the horizontal component of the ground reaction force is small and there hardly is something to push of against, since the ground moves so quickly underneath you. Producing that component in a very short time probably goes backward if you do a bit too much of heavy resistance training

I don’t think you can find more reason for one or the other to do classic strength training. I think it depends much more on the individual.

MB: This might not be a fair question, but hypothetically, if you got asked to write 15 minutes worth of training that all athletes across a range of sports would follow, what would this contain based on your extensive travels and experience around the world? 

Bosch: This is a shit question anyway, but if I push in one direction I might get something out of it. One of the things I state in the book is that sensory specificity is probably much more restrictive than motor specificity. At a level of sensory information, especially from the environment, there are higher walls between different types of information you can get. The more complex the sensory information required, the higher the walls. Therefore you have to stay very much within a specific setting.

I think the nicest example is baseball: compare how a pitcher and batter should train. The sensory information for a pitcher is quite simple: just the glove of the catcher is where the ball needs to go. Therefore there is not a big problem in the sensory department and you can vary much more in your training than anyone else. Strange enough, pitchers don’t vary enough in their training.

Then you can look at a batter. With a batter the biggest constraint there is are these walls in the sensory information because a 85 mph pitch doesn’t prepare you for a 95 mph pitch since you have to read different sensory information from before the ball is released. So that means that when training batters you can’t deviate from the context that much without losing relevance.

The interesting thing is, with pitching you see them not vary enough, but in batting they vary way too much. In batting practice where someone tosses a ball from behind the screen it is completely irrelevant. Then when you go back to the action-perception-perception-action cycle you see that the action they do such as the loading phase becomes completely irrelevant when comparing the batting cage to the game.

So if I were to say what would by the one thing I first look at when looking at an athlete training for any sport, I would look at how much of what you do can you take out of the sport without losing context completely.

MB: Thanks for taking the time. As we mentioned before, if people are interested in learning more they can pick up a copy of your new book Anatomy of Agility: Movement Analysis in Sport.