My freshmen football team won Saturday morning, beating Oswego 54-0. For the rest of the weekend, football was the last thing on my mind.
I spent almost 20 hours inside an empty retail outlet in downtown Riverside. At the risk of sounding like I had another “epiphany”, I will have difficulty in explaining the significance of my weekend.
Douglas Heel is hard to describe. Doug is an interesting guy who often surfs in the shark-filled waters of Cape Town, South Africa. A kinesiologist by trade, Doug seems part Tony Robbins and part Eckhart Tolle. He presents without notes or a power point, but he can effectively teach for 20 hours. I usually bore quickly and check my watch often. With Douglas Heel, I didn’t want to miss a word. Whenever I spoke, he looked at me with an unusual intensity. His focus was freaky. Doug spent the weekend barefoot, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, making 20 hours of work look easy. Douglas Heel combined science and coaching with a calm, happy, zen-like passion. I sensed the paradox of tunnel vision combined with an uncanny awareness of everything around him.
Douglas Heel did not come to Chicago to sell stuff. Yes, there were DVDs and “Butt Bungees” available, but there was no push to buy. Instead, it was my take that Douglas Heel came to Chicago to empower people.
There is no way I can recreate the two-day experience for you. I can only summarize and share my experience. As in all life experiences, my lens and your lens are two different entities. My filter and your filter will never be the same. If I make any mistakes in this article, they are mine.
What is “Be-Activated”?
Be-Activated is an attempt to achieve proper sequencing in all movement. When sequencing is correct good things happen.
- Increased performance
- Fewer injuries
- Sensory awareness (muscular, vision, mental clarity)
What is proper sequencing?
- All movement begins with the psoas which is in direct relationship with the diaphragm and the glutes. For all practical purposes the psoas and the glutes must initiate all movement (area one)
- When area one initiates the movement, the muscles of the thigh and trunk are next in the sequence (area two)
- The obvious end of the sequence should be the lower legs and arms. (area three)
What is the psoas?
- The psoas functions in initiating hip flexion (you’ve heard of hip flexors?). All movement begins with hip flexion. Try moving without lifting your knee.
- The psoas basically attaches the vertebrae of the lower back to the top of the femur … from your spine to your upper thigh.
- Tao Yoga describes the psoas as “the muscle of the soul” … it is the deepest muscle of the human body affecting our structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning.
- The psoas is connected to the diaphragm through connective tissue or fascia which affects both our breath and fear reflex. Adrenaline from our sympathetic nervous system chronically triggers and tightens the psoas. This is bad. Most people live stress-filled adrenaline-fueled lives. Most things done in the weight room contract, tighten, and collapse the psoas. This is bad.
If I could pass along one central concept about Be-Activated, what would it be?
- The diaphragm and psoas can be thought of as one functioning unit. Correct breathing is a key to the psoas.
- The psoas can be activated with simple techniques.
- The sympathetic nervous system (adrenaline – “fight or flight or freeze” syndrome) negatively affects breathing and negatively affects the psoas. We need to find our “parasympathetic self” (think of zen-like calmness, confidence, and certainty … no fear of failure … think of being focused and “in the zone”)
- Weight lifting may result in larger muscles capable of lifting more weight. However, if weight lifting results in a contracted, deactivated psaos, you end up with a big strong athlete that functions poorly and often gets injured.
I asked this question to both Doug Heel and Chris Korfist. “Should we stop doing core training as most coaches would define it?” Both guys independently answered, “YES”.
In a blog I wrote a couple of years ago, I was one of those coaches beating the drums of core training. I’ve often told coaches, “the most important muscles are between the rib cage and the thighs”. You only know what you know. I was just repeating what everyone else was saying. That’s what people do. Did I have any evidence that core exercises prevented injury and increased speed? NONE.
Getting pissed off yet? Core training might be a mistake? Weight training might have a detrimental effect? About the time you think you have the game figured out, someone changes the rules. Damn. Welcome to life.
“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Douglas Heel didn’t care if you accepted his ideas or rejected them. He wasn’t a salesman. I can only speak for myself, but the product sold itself. This is not a business model. This is the science of empowerment and taking control of your life. This is the science of getting your body to work the way it was meant to work, in sequence. This is the science of finding your “parasympathetic self”, so you can live “in the zone”, mentally and physically … mind, body, spirit.
Douglas Heel ended the two days with, “I’m not going to do the work for you. You get to be your own psoas.”
Brian Weiss of Triad High School attended the two-day event. Here are his observations:
- Psoas activation is key to proper movement.
- Our emphasis in athletic training, particularly strength training, may be the wrong emphasis.
- Getting “activated” made me feel the most physically powerful and aware that I have felt in years.
- Many of the key things we want to see in athletes (good posture, good hip position) seem to be achieved quickly, using activation.
- I will activate myself, everyday, from now on.
- I will think about my breathing and how I breath for the rest of my life.
- “Be Activated” can be used as a team builder by athletes breathing together and in advanced situations, activating each other.
- Being self-aware and in a parasympathetic state or “in the zone” will create optimum performance. The “Fight or Flight” state is not what we want. In the parasympathetic state we can control ourselves because we have a certainty and trust in ourselves, so much so that even in extreme situations, we will not change who we are. We will be certain of ourselves individually and we will be certain of our team collectively.
Eric Kramer of Bartlett High School also attended the two-day event. His observations:
- I took my first breath (I’ve never taken a correct breath)
- I discovered my deficiencies, compensations, and blocking patterns. Now I know why I was not fast and flexible. I’ve struggled with certain movements as an athlete and in everyday life.
- I have not been able to straighten my elbow for 15 years (half my life). I could fully extend my elbow after one session with Douglas Heel.
- I learned how to evaluate a person’s driver for hip flexion.
- I learned how to change the body’s compensations and patterns to decrease the risk of injury and improve quality of life.
- I gained the knowledge/understanding of activation techniques to enhance performance (compared to the bigger, faster, stronger type programs that ruin athletes and increase risks of injuries).
- My entire coaching staff for boy’s track and field will be at the workshop in February.
Let’s return to what Coach Kramer said. “I have not been able to straighten my elbow for 15 years (half my life). I could fully extend my elbow after one session with Douglas Heel.” What? Yes, 30 people witnessed Douglas Heel help Eric Kramer to straighten his elbow.
And how about this, “My entire coaching staff for boy’s track and field will be at the workshop in February.” Eric Kramer and two of his athletes visited Chris Korfist recently after reading “Speed Never Sleeps“. You don’t have to take a leap of faith to believe in the results. The results are observable and quantifiable. The more you see, the more you want.
Unlike Eric Kramer, Brian Weiss had never met Korfist. Brian followed the lead of his old coach (me) and signed up for the workshop. “Getting activated made me feel the most physically powerful and aware that I have felt in years.” Brian goes on to say that he will focus on breathing every day and will activate every day, from now on. Isn’t that the definition of a life-changing event? And now, Brian Weiss can empower others. I think that’s called “coaching”.
Are coaches taskmasters? Are they tyrants? Are coaches playing a game of chess against other coaches using their athletes as pawns? Should athletics be a classroom or a source of entertainment and revenue? I’ve heard many coaches speak of their “program” like it was ordained religious doctrine. “No player is bigger than the program.” Gag. “My way or the highway.” Do most coaches want to empower kids? I believe most coaches intentionally trigger the sympathetic response from their athletes. Coaches yell and scream at their kids to trigger fight, flight, or freeze. I’ve had four kids go through high school sports and my view of coaches is mixed at best.
Twenty million kids register each year for youth hockey, football, baseball, soccer, and other competitive sports. The National Alliance for Sports reports that 70 percent of these kids quit playing these league sports by age 13 — and never play them again.
Much of my focus has been on coaches but we were outnumbered last weekend. In attendance were personal trainers (two from Canada), athletic trainers (one from Palatine Fremd), Pilates instructors, and several medical doctors. I got to know two of them, Dr. Eric Janota of Sandwich and Dr. Tom Nelson of Westchester. Both doctors have D.O. after their names. I looked it up … “doctor of osteopathic medicine”. These guys have a focus on muscular and skeletal systems.
Dr. Tom Nelson is the team doctor for Nazareth’s 6th-ranked football team. Nazareth is healthy, performing at a high level, and undefeated. Nazareth beat Marist 37-21 last Friday. Before the game, Dr. Tom activated 30 players. Dr. Tom told me he slept well Friday night.
Dr. Tom Nelson sees activation’s benefits every day.
- Treating injuries
- Injury prevention
- Enhanced performance
Three years ago Nazareth started with simple zone-one activation (psoas and glutes). Breathing is now first priority. Remember, the psoas and the diaphragm functions as one unit.
The injury statistics for Nazareth indicate they are doing something right. Concussions may end football as we know it. At Nazareth, concussions are rare. In 2013, Nazareth sustained only 37 injuries in the entire football program. Some teams have 37 injuries at the varsity level alone. “Be-Activated” began at Nazareth in 2012. Lets look at some of the before and after averages.
- Fractures per year … 7.0 before, 1.5 after
- Knee injures per year … 10.5 before, 5.0 after
- Shoulder injuries per year … 7.5 before, 2.5 after
This year’s Nazareth injury statistics are not on the spreadsheet above. The season is not over. However, let’s just say 2014 has been a very good year. Last week (week #8) when most teams are the “walking wounded”, Nazareth had only two varsity players out of action. Wow.
If you are looking for reading material, you may want to check out recommendations from Chris Korfist.
- “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- “The Rise of Superman” by Steven Kotler.
- In addition, you may want to check out Kotler’s “Flow Genome Project“.
Let me close with my personal story.
If you read my earlier articles on this subject, my focus was on injury prevention and injury rehabilitation. See “Hamstrings, Activation, and Speed“, and the sequel “Speed Never Sleeps“. If you read those articles, you will see my evolution in thinking. In my first article I quoted Mark Twain, “Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”
Here is what I have learned since. Activation has more to do with performance than injury prevention. When athletes are sequencing movements correctly, they become high-level performers. When they are NOT sequencing movements correctly, those athletes are reinforcing the wrong sequence. Have you ever seen an athlete with a big strong body who failed miserably? I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds. Many coaches talk about the “it-factor”. “Whatever it is, that guy has it.” The “it-factor” is the mysterious observation that some guys amazingly and inexplicably overachieve. Could it be activation? Could it be the correct sequencing of movement? Could it be the parasympathetic state? I think yes, yes, and yes.
A good friend of mine, Coach Lawrence Wayne loves to use the phrase when describing football players, “Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.” What? Tarzan has ripped abs, large deltoids, tree-trunks for thighs, blah blah blah … and still can’t play? Oh, and by the way, Tarzan is a star in the weight room.
Ok, so I’ve established “Be-Activated” is something that prevents injuries and improves performance. Great. But here is what I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to be personally transformed.
At the end of the two days, Dr. Tom Nelson was saying his goodbyes. He told me, “You look ten years younger. When you walked in yesterday, you looked like an old man.” Instead of getting defensive, I smiled. I expected to learn activation, I didn’t expect to be activated.
I warn you. Many of the activation techniques hurt. It’s amazing how much pain a finger or a thumb can cause. Douglas Heel once stopped my gyrations on the table and asked, “Are you going to die?” When I said no, he told me, “Then take the emotion away from the pain.” Then he started torturing me again. Four days later, I am still bruised.
I think I’ve lived most of my life in the sympathetic state. I have always wanted to be the hunter doing the hunting. Even when I read, I read intensely. I love the buzz of coffee. I have grown accustomed to fight or flight. All my life I dealt with winning and losing. As a coach, I have always sweated the small stuff. I tried to control all the moving parts. Sometimes it felt like I was herding cats. I don’t remember ever taking a normal breath. I didn’t know what a normal breath was until October 19th, 2014. You see, we adapt to how we live. We compensate and learn strategies for dealing with how we are. The fast-paced world makes us evolve to accept the fast pace and we adapt to the new normal. When Douglas Heel tortured my ribs and sternum with his thumbs, I took my first breath. Breathing should be done with the diaphragm and not the chest. Since the diaphragm and psoas can be considered as one functioning unit, correct breathing is essential for a healthy psoas, the muscle of the soul. Maybe you can understand the emotional response that activation can cause. Or maybe you can’t.
The reciprocal muscle to the psoas is the glute. I’ve always taught that the glute is the most important muscle of the body. I wasn’t far off.
I was the subject of a very long activation on day-two of the event. 30 people watched as Douglas Heel worked on me for what seemed to be a full hour. I was diagnosed as a 333-leg; meaning that I initiated movement with my lower leg, instead of the psoas. Everyone needs to be a 123 to be properly sequenced. Had I suffered from calf cramps in my past? Yes, once I walked the last four miles of the Chicago Marathon stiff-legged. Ankle sprains? Yes, almost a dozen major ankle sprains on each ankle in high school. I eventually had reconstructive surgery on my right ankle. Shoulder problems? Yes. My football career ended with a severe dislocation and eventual surgery. All these problems are consistent with 333-leg.
Because I was laying on the table, I could not see many of the foot and ankle issues that Doug pointed out to the crowd, but there was a lot of nodding going on. I guess my deficiencies were obvious. After activation, there were many oohs and aahs. Apparently the change was rather spectacular. When I stood up, Doug asked me to describe what I felt. First I noticed my vision had changed. Everything was in high-def. Next I noticed I could “feel” my calves. When I was told to walk, I noticed I could feel my feet, for the first time. By “feeling my feet”, I want to be clear. My feet have never felt numb or dead. After activation, my feet felt “alive” or “awake” … or “activated”. It would be fun to re-do my athletic career with proper sequencing.
In a forum recently, activation was dismissed as “parlor tricks”. There are many people with their own agenda. Whatever. “You only know what you know.”
By the way, ART (Active Release Technique) and MAT (Muscle Activation Technique) and “Be-Activated” are three totally different things and should not be confused with one another. Peyton Manning’s MAT guy, Greg Roskopf, has received lots of publicity lately. Be-Activated has nothing to do with Greg Roskopf or Peyton Manning. ART is practiced by my jumps coach, Dr. Brian Damhoff (Elite Performance Institute). Both ART and MAT must be great things, I’ve not experienced either. “Be-Activated” is not MAT or ART.
Douglas Heel has lots of stories about professional athletes he has treated. Many of them I failed to recognize … I’m not much of a rugby or cricket fan. However, I do know Jack Nicklaus. Doug was talking about his work with a player from the Miami Dolphins. Doug knows about as much about football as I know about rugby. Anyway, Doug was telling a story about working with an injury-prone high draft pick of the Dolphins. Doug thought his name may have been “Rodney Burke”. We quickly decided that it must have been Ronnie Brown the 2nd pick in the 2005 draft. Doug said, “Yes, Ronnie Brown!”
When it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter what celebrities Douglas Heel has activated. It doesn’t matter who subscribes to “Be-Activated” and who doesn’t. What matters is the fact that I am breathing differently and Monday I ran my fastest two-mile since I competed in the 2012 Chicago Marathon. I want to live in a more parasympathetic state. I want to be my own psoas.
Head Track Coach
ADDENDUM: Douglas Heel will have another two-day session this weekend in Riverside. Contact Chris Korfist at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Douglas Heel hopes to come back to Chicago in early February. I can’t wait.
ADDENDUM #2: Dr. Tom Nelson has suggested an article featuring the head football coach from Nazareth, Tim Racki. Dr. Nelson explained to me that “Be-Activated” would never work on a football team without the head coach experiencing activation personally. Stay tuned.