Renaissance Ninja

Context and complexity

Ido Portal uses the phrase, “complexity is king,” when talking about how to become a better mover. The gist being that ascending complexity is required for the nervous system to remain challenged enough to experience growth as you improve.

Complexity covers the what and how of your training, the practical stuff: movement selection, sets and reps, intensity, rest times, etc. All of those details are important, but right now I’m thinking more about the psychology of movement. What helps maintain motivation? Why do you want to be moving? How do you want to be moving?

I’m in the midst of reading the book Ungifted, by Scott Barry Kaufman. The book examines intelligence, giftedness, and how we define and measure them—and more importantly, how the labels effect the kids who receive them. I’ve just reached the point where he discusses how passion and excitement, or the lack thereof that’s common in academics, influence performance and achievement. Part of the problem with say, learning math, can be that the lessons are decontextualized and presented as abstract ideas. But abstraction removes context and makes it harder to relate what we’re learning to how we might use the knowledge in our lives.

We need context. Kaufman cites studies where students were taught math either in a traditional environment, or by embedding the lessons into a context, in this case as games. The students who learned through games were far more engaged, retained more knowledge, and actually enjoyed learning&mdah;even though the material was exactly the same in both cases, only the context changed.

What strikes me about those studies is that this process of abstraction is exactly what is done to movement and fitness. Fitness has been decontextualized (if you want I have a more introspective tangent on this topic over here) to the point where…well, what’s the point of the exercises exactly? What problem are they solving right now?

I believe that by making movement solve present problems, rather than focusing exclusively on future improvement, that motivation, persistence, and even purpose will naturally come from the activity itself. No need for imposing self-discipline that inevitably results in burn-out.

To take Ido’s phrase and tweak it, make context king.

What does making context king look like when applied to movement training? I’m still exploring that question, but from my own experiences I know that parkour (obstacles in the environment), martial arts (an attack/defense scenario), and dance (music or internal impulse) all create an immediate context for movement. In each one the movements have meaning and purpose. That purpose doesn’t need to be grand, logical, or even real. I enjoy creating movement puzzles that rely on imagination as much as real obstacles. In each case how you move is influenced by your present context, with your success or failure being measured by how you addressed the challenges of that context. You can see and feel the improvements in skill and execution right then, as you’re training. In contrast success via exercise conditioning is measured in future adaptation (strength, speed, weight loss, etc.). While both can be rewarding, the daily, consistent, and tangible improvements in skill can help you focus on enjoying the process of training. And if you’re enjoying the process then training consistently will be easier, leading in the end to the best of both worlds: a stronger and more skillful self.

Make context king.

PS: And a focus on skills and context builds an interest in supplemental conditioning, with a specific focus on improving technique and performance. Then physical conditioning takes its proper place, as an extra aid to move and perform better, not to exercise better.