Reversibility, a Key Determinant of Movement Quality

Reversibility is a key concept in the Feldenkrais Method. I will introduce it by way of relating an amusing anecdote.

In my second year of Feldenkrais training, the instructors made the unfortunate decision to encourage an atmosphere of playfulness by throwing a whoopie cushion to the students for their discretionary use. As I detailed in a previous post, I’m all for play because it will definitely encourage learning, but in my mind there is a difference between play and regression to nursery school. I was appalled. But on to the real point of this story.

One day some students covertly placed the whoopie cushion on the stool of our instructor, Richard. As Richard unsuspectingly lowered himself to sit on the cushion, the perpetrators prepared themselves for nerd ecstasy. I rolled my eyes in disgust. Fortunately for me, Richard began to dexterously rise to standing at the first moment that he grazed the cushion, without triggering its simulated flatulence. While the stunned students looked on in puzzled awe, Richard whirled on his would be attackers with bright eyes, and, sensing a teaching moment, pointed his finger and triumphantly said: “Now that is reversibility!” Yes it was. I was proud to be in his class. This man truly walked the walk. In this post and the next I will describe what he meant.

Reversibility defined

Moshe Feldenkrais said that reversibility was a key criteria for determining whether a particular movement is done well. Reversibility basically means the capacity to stop a movement at any point and then go in the opposite direction with a minimum of hesitation. At first glance this seems like kind of a bizarre criteria for evaluating a movement, but on closer inspection there is a good deal of logic here.

One aspect of reversibility is that its presence implies a more general and important skill  – the ability to move in ANY direction with a minimum of hesitation or preparation. In other words, if you can go back where you came from, you could probably go in any other direction as well.

Feldenkrais considered this quality of preparedness to move anywhere as the ultimate goal of movement training, an ideal state of affairs which represents the highest level of physical organization. So, when I refer to reversibility in this post, it doesn’t just mean going back where you came from, it also refers to the general ability to always have a wide variety of movement options available to you at any particular time. (For those interested in the work of Nikolai Bernstein, this quality appears very similar to what he called “dexterity.”)

Reversibility in sports

The importance of reversibility is particularly obvious in sports that require an athlete to react quickly to a changing environment. This would be any sport with an opponent, especially team sports such as soccer, basketball, and football. In these sports, your ability to change movement direction with a minimum of delay is one of the primary skills of the game. This ability of course depends to some extent on power and strength, but it is also dependent on straight up coordination.

Players like Gary Payton, John Stockton, Steve Nash, Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, Barry Sanders, and Lionel Messi are not the biggest, strongest, fastest players, but they play at the highest levels of the game. This is because most of the time, performance in a ball sport is not about how fast you move, it’s about how little time you waste before moving. To take one absurd and highly speculative example, I hereby declare that I can beat Usain Bolt to a soccer ball 5 yards away if I am leaning the right way and he is leaning the wrong way. (Maybe make that two yards). The point is that the guy who wins the ball is often the guy who is balanced and ready to move first, not the guy who can move most fastest once he finally gets started (don’t get me wrong, speed helps too.)

Jerry Rice was probably the greatest wide receiver of all time, in a position where sprinting speed is thought to be the holy grail. But Rice’s time in the 40 yard dash time was a very unimpressive 4.71. The average time for a defensive back in the NFL is about 4.5. Darrell Green, one of the best defensive backs ever, recently smoked a 4.43 – at age 50! Yet Rice consistently left these guys in the dust, even on long routes.

When asked to explain Rice’s peerless performance despite his medicore speed, players remark that Jerry had “game speed.” Perhaps a better explanation was simply that Jerry always had a head start, because he was always free to redirect his movement with less hesitation than his opponent.

So what allows reversibility in sports? One obvious requirement is that you always need to be in balance as you move – your center of gravity must never move too far outside your base of support. If you move very fast, there will probably be some times when your center of gravity will go too far forward, back, left, or right of your base of support. Once this occurs, you are committed to keep moving in the same direction for a short time until you can reestablish your balance. This is the brief interim during which your more balanced and reversible opponent will eat your lunch.

Imagine you are dribbling a soccer ball and approaching a defender. You need to go around him or her, to the left or right. As you move forward and make some fakes from side to side, your defender is carefully watching you to determine your movement options. Are you leaning right or left? Do you have the proper body orientation to pull the ball back immediately if the defender tries to steal it? In essence, they are assessing your reversibility.

A good defender can tell exactly when a player’s movement is no longer reversible, i.e. when he has committed himself to a particular direction. In that instant, the defender has won the battle. By contrast, a defender watching the body language of an excellent player will have no idea what they are going to do. The ultimate deception is simply to have all your options open at all times.

That’s it for the first half of the reversibility discussion. In the next post, I will talk about reversibility in the context of everyday movement, clarify the meaning of Richard’s amazing escape from the whoopie cushion, and relate my own personal errors when confronted with a similar assault.

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7 Responses to “Reversibility, a Key Determinant of Movement Quality”

  1. I liked this Todd. Looking forward to part II.


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