Moving on – to Movement

The other day i was down at the park practicing and a passer-by stopped and said with animated delight that what I was doing “was so graceful”. I thanked her with equal enthusiasm and said, “I’m so glad you said that because that is exactly what it is about.” How I have come to that conclusion is a long and complex story, parts of which I have written about numerous times and part of which, I have recently discovered, again, goes to the essence of how I want to fly cast. Functionally and self expressively I want to move efficiently and therefore gracefully. 

This is a shortish version of the story. In other posts and pages on this site I’ve covered the mechanics and biomechanics of fly casting. It’s all there in the menu section to the left of this page. That knowledge, together with some basic understanding of sensory motor learning changed my objectives for improving my casting and the revised practice regime I use to pursue those objectives. 

The science led me to look for efficiency gains in my casting technique, a search given added impetus by the need to manage a shoulder problems and thereby extend the duration of my fly fishing career. (You start thinking seriously about such things as you get older.) Science, however, did not tell me much about how to change my movement patterns. It informed the choice of outcomes but had little to say about the process of obtaining them. Experientially, I found that efficiency was the gift that kept on giving and Santa became much more generous after I ditched the idea that casting longer meant casting better.

Fast forward a year or two and back in October last year I announced my complete departure from an “athletic” model of fly casting, choosing instead a qualitative goal of minimising effort to fully replace any vestiges of the quantitative goal of maximising distance. Having done that I wanted to turn more towards the art of movement and away from the science of it. I’m not dissing science but I am saying I have had enough of it for the time being at least. It has ceased to add significant value to my casting.

Parallel to my own casting aspirations I took a plunge into the teaching of other people to fly cast. There is still plenty of work to be done in that area but for now I’ll leave all that to other folks. In exploring the teaching of movement I found myself again researching how people learn movement – what helps and what hinders that process. That led, eventually, to boning up on movement at large – well beyond the playing fields, tennis courts and golf ranges. I freely admit these are early days and very much a work in progress. However, research to date has thrown up a splendidly fundamental idea that seems to owe much to the influential work of Moshe Feldenkrais. It had that bedrock feel about it when my research shovel connected with it.

Feldenkrais’ idea is that efficient movement is made without any superfluous effort. It is a simple idea that, once grasped, sharpens the focus considerably. It certainly had that effect on me. The idea of eliminating all superfluous effort was soon given a field trial in a practice session and…. bingo there it was – more distance from less effort, especially in the finish of the stroke – back and forward. A web search of “efficient movement superfluous effort” throws up some interesting results and one of them is from Todd Hargrove’s blog (the old one)

Hargrove is a manual and movement therapist who has trained in the Feldenkrais Method and Rolfing. Two quotes will give you a taste:

“As applied to the body, efficiency means the ratio of useful work performed compared to the energy expended to do the work. Put another way, efficiency determines how much of the energy you expend by muscular contraction creates a successful movement, such as running, kicking, throwing, standing, walking or breathing.”

“In my opinion, efficiency is an excellent measure of how coordinated any action is. In other words, the higher the efficiency, the more coordinated the action is and vice versa. In fact, I would argue that the optimal way to do anything, whether it is breathing, walking, standing or playing sports, is the way that maximises efficiency.”

Efficient fly casting then is producing the cast you want without superfluous effort. This is much more than a minimum effort casting drill that has been normalised into standard casting technique because the stroke used may or may not be efficient and we might be simply stalling the casts. An efficient casting stroke uses the least possible effort, at every stage, for the given distance and type of presentation being attempted.

Ok then so good technique is smooth, co-ordinated and (comparatively) effortless and that comes from using energy efficiently. That means it is mechanically and biomechanically efficient. How do we get there? 

I can think of two possible answers. First we might try developing good technique and then, as a secondary stage or refinement, we could try reducing the effort used to perform the movement. I’m pretty confident this is what most fly casting instructors would recommend.

However, given what I’ve been doing for several years and reading most recently here is an alternative approach. What if we turn that around and start by deliberately minimising the force used which consequently leads to improving our technique (faster). The first way we might get to efficient casting with better technique permitting less effort. Effort reduction, however, is somewhat of an afterthought or byproduct.  The second way we start with the objective of efficiency, of eliminating superfluous effort. Now the quantitative outcome, like how far we cast, becomes more like the afterthought or by-product. Ok so maybe that’s a big ask for a beginner at their first session but I’m now convinced that if we want to get seriously good, good enough to be graceful, then we need to ruthlessly get rid of superfluous effort – all of it. That becomes the primary objective. Here’s a nifty way of looking at this. Technique does not facilitate the use of greater effort. Technique is achieved by eliminating unnecessary effort. With efficiency as the primary objective of technique, it therefore becomes the key performance indicator of technique. 

One last observation from both the literature and my own experience. Using superfluous effort makes it far more difficult to fix faults in technique, probably because it is at least partly responsible for the faults being there in the first place. This explains why it is preferable, more effective, far easier and much more pleasurable to work on technique at medium distance rather than at long distance. 

In addition to its redundancy, excess effort has a lot of downside and no upside I can think of. It leads to:

  • Greater mechanical and biomechanical inefficiency (eg. slack and SLP problems like over rotation)
  • Impediment of improved technique (eg. poor tracking, tailing, accuracy and yes, even outright distance)
  • Impediment of timing, co-ordination and smoothness of power application

Here’s the pointy end of understanding, practising and teaching fly casting as movement. When I think about what makes movement both effective (outcome achieves goal) and aesthetically pleasing (graceful) it is the flow of the movement, its completion a) as a whole and b) without superfluous effort.  It is not my experience that a scientific examination and analysis of movement gets us anywhere nearer to the wholeness of a movement, its learning and/or its teaching as such. Performance of movement always and rightly has a strong subjective component. Objective science takes an ever more detailed inventory of the disassembled parts identified as contributing to function, efficiency and even fluency. This reminds me of an internal combustion engine with its bits spread out on a workshop floor, no fuel or vehicle in sight. Science has never made a presentation to a spooky fish nor has it driven an F1 car at race winning speed. It can add value to those endeavours but it lacks a big picture of them.

I remember reading a long time ago a piece by prominent Australian biomechanics expert, Bruce Elliot. He made the telling point that “Trial and error are the primary determinants in changes to stroke mechanics”. The first nations people of this country have been around for a very long time – 60,000 years or more – and they were/are very successful in learning to throw things like spears and boomerangs at their food, the animals which fed them. Those skills were passed down very effectively through countless generations without a single peer reviewed article being researched, written and published. 

Diving deeper into movement, my next ventures will be concerned with play and variability as facilitators of skill acquisition. I’ll get back to you on that stuff.