Mirror Neurons and the Scourge of Social Media Coaching
A big pet peeve of mine is all the crappy videos on social media of people performing some heavy exercise with abysmal technique. No, I’m not the guy who chimes in and gives technique corrections to someone on their own feed. And I’m not going to get into some kind of philosophical discussion with someone who is posting these videos with no regard to how they appear to a third party. Let’s face it, they probably don’t care. The only thing that matters is pulling that bar, no matter how rounded their back is, and then to get the video up on Facebook as fast as possible.
These videos are a testimony to how little most of these folks know. Even more, they are an admission of how little self-awareness they have. I’m convinced that many of these folks don’t even review what they are about to post when they log in to upload their videos. It’s a shame, because if they watched themselves, they might have hesitated. They may have even learned something.
My problem with these videos has much less to do with the person in the video, and more with the potential people who are watching it. I am so thankful that I came up in this profession when I did. In college, I used to go to the library and read the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in the evenings—nearly every night. I was a total nerd. The internet and email and cell phones were just gaining some traction back then, and social media wasn’t even a thing. I didn’t have my view of training and technique ideas perverted by what I was seeing on a computer screen. I was able to construct my ideas of what constituted solid technique in a gradual, systematic way.
Everybody’s Copying Everybody
Did you know that everyone is watching? Did you know that every soul in the weight room is, in some form or another, evaluating how you are moving? Everyone is constantly assimilating their own technique tendencies by watching everyone else moves. Perhaps most important, they are subconsciously altering how they move as an attempt at congruency to how you are moving. It can’t be stopped. We are hive creatures by nature, and many of the funky things that appear in our own lifting techniques are manifestations of something we have seen someone else do.
How many of you golf? How many times have you been told to not watch a person in your foursome swing their clubs because of some nasty swing error they were making? Could it be that by watching so-and-so, you took on even the minutest percentage of their technique, and now your game is screwed? Is this a fairytale or is there something to it?
Is the technique you model the one you want others to do? [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]
With all the awful weight lifting videos that we have at our fingertips, we are all being immersed in the weight training equivalent of the Charles Barkley golf swing. It’s horrendous.
The reason this is troublesome is because of something called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are clusters of nerve material that are responsible for the action that ensues once we observe something. Think of it as software being loaded via Bluetooth straight to your hard drive. You observe something, in this case someone’s attempt at a lift, and on a very subtle level, your brain begins to download movement patterns into your wiring. Over time, the observer becomes increasingly likely to repeat that movement pattern, good or bad.
Kettlebell Swings and Mirrors
I already mentioned my first example of this in a previous article. I had a senior offensive lineman who was the clear leader of our team a few years ago. He was the one who fired us up before games and at halftime, and was the guy we would turn to when things began to unravel. He was our leader. In the weight room, he developed a bad habit of letting his arms bend at the top of his kettlebell swing. I let it slide for a few weeks, until out of nowhere, I began to see the entire group he was training with adopt this technique flaw. It was my first real encounter with this phenomenon. This guy was the alpha of the group, so his influence, even unspoken, was enormous with his team.
The second and most profound example of this phenomenon was with my own children. My wife and I do about half of our own training at home with kettlebells. We typically train together in our garage around four times a week. My kids are 8, 6, and 4 years old. They join us every time we train outside, riding bikes, dribbling basketballs, and playing. About a year ago, my son Elogious picks up an 8kg kettlebell for the first time and begins to swing. Now, if you see this kid swing, he’s really solid, technically. Hips come in hard, gets a rigid tall posture at the top, feet stay planted and his pace is aggressive. The craziest thing is, we’ve never coached him. He’s not sneaking down to the garage when we all are asleep to train on his own. He went from having never messed with a kettlebell to swinging with considerable technique within a few reps. All of this technique came from observing his mother and I train, night after night.
Not to be outdone, his sister (5 at the time), picks the bell up and has nearly the same aptitude her first time out. Again, zero coaching—just pure observation.
Do You Know How You Move?
The point is that everyone is paying attention to how you move, whether you are a coach or an athlete. So my question to you is, how do you move? Have you seen yourself perform that exercise? Because if you haven’t, you might want to take a look at your own technique. Does it display the exact movement patterns that you are trying to teach? If it doesn’t, don’t demo it.
One of the greatest successes I have had as a coach is I know who I am. I know what I’m good at. Likewise, I’m also aware of what I suck at. My assistants and athletes will tell you that I don’t demo everything when we are teaching. There are some things I’m just not smooth with. So I will grab an assistant or a solid lifter in the group to be the person to show how an exercise should be performed.
There are three things that are mandatory when I am teaching something new to someone. First, the whys. Why are we doing this? Why is this going to help you in your sport, keep you healthy, and make you a better athlete? And why we are doing this over something else? Second, the hows: all of the intricacies of technique, and how we are going to attack this movement. Then last, I grab someone who is as close to perfect with the technique as I can find to model exactly what I want. I want my lifters to see what I’m expecting. Seeing things done well is mandatory for someone else to know what successful looks like. Now we have a name and face as to why this is a good idea.
Beware Your Models, and Your Modeling
Becoming highly proficient at many exercises is really, really tough. Movements like the clean and jerk, the snatch, pistols, kettlebell anything, mace work, club bells, and more all have very specific techniques that are required to milk the exercise of the perceived benefits. I get it. The problem is, there are a lot of bad examples of how to do things at your fingertips. More importantly, much of the stuff volunteered on your newsfeed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is littered with funky techniques. Know the difference. Learn the exercises from the experts. Watch really high level athletes move and study them. And then scroll right past that random guy’s video from some box in south Florida.
Lastly, if you are a person who likes to post his or her lifting attempts online, watch your videos. Does this video show close to perfect technique? If it doesn’t, is it worth risking my reputation within the community to post a successful attempt with admittedly poor technical execution? It just takes one crappy video to be labeled as someone who has no idea what they are is talking about. Think about it.
Where is your head, before you ever touch the barbell?