The Procustean Coach

Procustes was one of the sons of Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea. He was a blacksmith and invited passers by to sleep on a bed he had. If the travellers on the road to Athens did not fit the bed, he either stretched them, bent them into shape with his blacksmith tools or cut their legs off if they were too tall.

In scientific endeavors, researchers can be guilty of finding a ‘Procustean Solution’, one where data is tailored to fit expected or desired outcomes.

In coaching, I often see Procustean tendencies. That being, a rigid model of ‘good movement’ that we try to bend and fit every trainee into. The reality is that by reducing the variability in movements according to anthropometry, we actually negatively impact motor learning. Variable patterns is the foundation of reinforcement learning theory, where trial and error, exploration and learning from past experiences improved motor learning outcomes.

Where does this idea of ‘good’ movement come from and who has the right to say one type of movement is better than an other? It seems to me that the idea of a general, standard movement template is as preposterous as the idea of general program design. At least from the point of view of an ‘individualized’ outcome. We have gyms with general templates for training selling individualised nutrition and individual program design coaches selling arbitrary movement standards as good or bad, irrespective of morphology. How crazy.

Could it be that one person’s good movement is another’s bad movement? Perhaps bad movement is simply underpreparation? It could be argued that strength is a hedge against perceived bad movement. With a 500lb deadlift its as likely that I can pick up 135lbs with spinal flexion and zero bracing, just as someone with a 135lb deadlift can pick up a pencil with the same movement standard. So is it the case that bad movement is harzardous when other factors are thrown into the mix? Speed, intensity and so on? The movement itself being neither good nor bad, just simply being how that person moves.

In fact, there is literature emerging showing that coach driven perfectionism actually contributes to injury risk. At the very least it is counterproductive to progress.

I would encourage you (as I have done) to think about how you might be trying to bend people into our own model of good movement. I would say that I see it most often in the squat. Of course there are things like weight distribution over the foot, which are efficiency issues rather than safety. We have an ideal model of a warpath against gravity, but individual leverages are just as important, if not more. So I would encourage coaches to improve their coaches eye and apply a less Procustean method to how we view movement. Think about what is best for each person to maximise their outcome because this is how both clients and program designers should be viewing training:

Return on Investment = Gain from Investment - Cost of Investment

If the return we get is less than the work we put in, its very likely you will lose this client because you will have broken the first element of trust (perceived ability).

The best approach is to have a mastery of the craft that includes various different approaches to avoid a Procustean Pitfall.