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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Mission 2012: The Functional Movement Screen and the Paralympic Endurance Athlete

Katherine and I have had the privilege of training paralympic cyclist and triathlete Kara Vatthauer.  Kara is a visually impaired athlete with the hopes of making the 2012 Paralympic cycling team for the United States.  Her long-term goal is to compete in the 2016 Games in the inaugural Paraylmpic Games triathlon.  Despite the glorious weather in Tucson, she must complete a significant portion of her bike training on the trainer for safety reasons. If you have lived in a cold weather place and been banished to the trainer for months at a time, you know what a mental challenge frequent indoor riding can be!  Swimming requires multiple bus connections to reach the nearest city pool.

Kara’s journey is an inspiration to everyone in her support network as she confronts the daily challenges of balancing training with her full time employment and raising her daughter Cheyenne as a single mother.  One of the unintended benefits from Kara’s training is that she has inspired Cheyenne to live a more athletic lifestyle.  After meeting Jessi Stensland, Cheyenne’s new goal in life is to become a professional triathlete.  The Tucson Summer Aquathlon series for 2011 can’t come soon enough!

For us as coaches, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) methodology has been indispensable to manage her training. Working with Kara has helped us appreciate the complete sensory aspect of the FMS.  The FMS is not merely a method of corrective exercise, as it is sometimes presented. Instead, the FMS provides a framework through which we can improve overall movement quality.  The specific exercises to correct movement deficiencies are less important than the overall movement panorama in which these exercises take place.

Canadian Sport for Life reminds us that visually impaired athletes typically fight an ongoing battle increased residual muscle tension due to the absence of visual feedback. Close your eyes and walk around a room…do you give yourself the same movement freedom as with your eyes open? Probably not, since we use visual cues to orient ourselves. To some, this may seem like an obvious point, but the motor learning implications are profound when tracked over a long period of time.

The two most critical areas for Kara have been the Deep Squat (DS) pattern and the Push Up (PU) pattern, both of which were scores of "1" on the initial FMS. The Deep Squat is especially important for cycling to prevent the negative cascade of events that result from tension-induced thoracic spine immobility. We must not view the squat only as the sum of thoracic extension + hip mobility + ankle mobility + core control. For the visually impaired athlete, we must pay special attention to the proprioreceptive feedback her body needs. Whereas we might strive for at least a score of 14 with no asymmetries on the FMS for a non-visually impaired athlete, our standards for the visually impaired athlete must be higher.

Here is a typical chain of events in a dysfunctional squat pattern: Tense breathing à Muscular tension à Lose T-spine extension à Lose low back stability à Lose hip mobility

Likewise, the pushup has been a valuable tool to ensure she "owns" relaxed diaphragmatic breathing skills. We have made progress in basic core control patterns by spending time in the push up position, by performing assisted pushups with the FMT band around the core, and by introducing "pulsing" pushups. Rather than cranking out push up repetitions in the hope that a quality FMS pushup will emerge, we have used the skills underlying the pushup as a means to cultivate relaxation skills.

While cultivating other sensory abilities is a critical part of the training process, we also challenge her vision through other corrective methods. Our goal in movement correction is always to create the richest sensory environment possible. On the advice of Patrick Ward, we have introduced field-of-vision throwing and catching drills with a tennis ball. Rolling patterns are also useful to facilitate sensory awareness. Through rolling patterns, we can integrate eye movements, neck movements, and even mouth movements to cue the full pattern. With full ownership of the basic rolling pattern, she is better equipped to handle the demands of dynamic multiplanar movement while standing. You might think that catching and throwing and rolling are useless skills for someone whose primary athletic goal is to go fast in a straight line for a really long time. In reality, these types of drills are carefully selected to improve the upper extremity mobility and coordination needed to support uninhibited movement of the primary motor units utilized in cycling and triathlon.

In terms of basic conditioning, the principles are no different than for a non-visually impaired athlete. We must honor the joint-by-joint approach. Physiological laws still apply. However, in the context of visual impairment, we know that many of our clues as coaches will come from Kara’s evolved compensatory movement patterns. Our objective is to create a more complete sensory panorama within which she can move safely and dynamically. 

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