Last week was the first week of the school holidays for most children and I was (I think), fortunate enough to have the week off to spend time with my wife and kids. As it was wet most of the time I’m sure most parents spent more time than ever trying to find activities to keep their ankle biters occupied while trying to maintain their own sanity. I know that the Pierce family were no different, with play dates, movies, cooking classes and indoor sports activities all used as time fillers. We even resorted to animal towel folding as a family! So how is any of this related to physiotherapy let alone relevant to the reader? Well, I`ll explain by talking about a hit of squash I had with the kids.
I haven`t picked up a squash racquet for maybe over 20 years, but the look my wife gave me on one day last week when my 10 year old son was goading and reducing his sisters to tears, suggested it was going to be that day. “ I think your son needs some bonding time with you “, she suggested in a voice I couldn`t refuse. So off to the squash courts we trudged for a bit of one on one time.
After hiring a ball and a couple of racquets we got on court and I automatically proceeded to warm the ball up by rolling it under my foot without thinking. I then belted the ball up and down a sidewall, again in the interests of getting the ball warm and making it bounce more easily. After that I started explaining to my son, who had never played squash before the basics of the game. Halfway through my explanation I could sense him wanting to ask me something so stopped and asked him what it was. He said, “Dad, how come you can hit the ball like that if you`ve never played before?”. I thought about that for a moment and in answering I realised that there are valuable lessons we can all learn about the way the body works when performing a skill. I said to him that I had played before, just not in his lifetime.
Now I have just told you that I haven`t played squash for over 20 years but how is it that I could just pick up a racquet and hit the ball a few times with reasonable accuracy? I`m not saying I`m Geoff Hunt by any means (although I did have a lesson with him once) but to execute a more complex task like hitting a small ball with a racquet is what we call a motor skill and this must be learned and practised. What`s more it is stored away in the brain and is able to be recalled at a later time. There are things such as “muscle memory” and “neural pathways” involved. Even if I lose my fitness in a musculoskeletal and cardiovascular sense, I could still hit the ball a few times in a row. For someone who is new to squash or any racquet sport this would not be possible as he or she has not developed the necessary skillset to perform the required task. It is the same in many other sports and activities. Take golf or playing the piano. Both require a high skill level that must be practised many times over. However once that skill has been learned a person can go a long time without executing the skill and yet when asked to perform can still reproduce that skill albeit a little rustily.
I mentioned earlier that the same cannot be said for fitness which is sad but true. A classic case in point is the AFL footy legends match that was televised a couple of weeks ago. Here we saw ex players once at the peak of their game now gone to pasture. Having said that, even though most were overweight and struggling to run fast, most could still produce the necessary hand and foot skills to a reasonably high level. This again highlights that those motor skills, once learned are with us for life. Fitness, however can leave us very quickly. In as quickly as 6 weeks in fact. Most people can relate to the rapid decline in cardiovascular conditioning in middle age. It can take months, even years to get back into shape and lose weight.
Getting back to my squash discussion from above, while I could hit the ball ok and move around the court in a timely fashion, I still wasn`t immune from having sore buttocks and a niggly elbow a couple of days later. So the skill was still there, my general fitness from running and cycling was there but I had no SPECIFIC squash CONDITIONING to cope with the LOADS imposed on me. It didn`t matter to me as I only played squash the once and have allowed enough time for the body to recover from these different and recent loads imposed on it, but if I kept playing daily, it might have been a different story. Again we can all learn a lot from this. In physiotherapy practice I often see people keen to take up a new sport and try and perform daily or numerous times a week, before the body can adjust or cope with the load. Alternatively, like me they may have once been competent at a sport and think they can just take it up again but forget to ease into it gradually and thus get injured. They are confusing the SKILL with FITNESS.
So, next time you perform a novel task and get frustrated, remember that learning a skill takes time and practice, but it`s worth the effort. Once learnt that skill will usually stay with you for life even if it gets a little rusty. Fitness and conditioning however need to be worked at a lot more regularly and sadly can be lost quickly.
Michael Pierce is Principal Physiotherapist at Lake Health Group.