How Changing the Environment Can Drastically Improve Performance

I just got back from a Perform Better One Day Seminar in Boston.  The weather was cold and balmy, it was snowing outside, and it sure didn’t feel like the beginning of spring.  However, the presentations and hands-on demos made the trip to the Northeast worth it.

Each presenter brought his best, and everyone did a great job.  I always love going to Perform Better events because the quality of information and presenters invited are top notch.  Nick Winkelman was one of the presenters this year, and his topic really resonated with me.  I’ve seen Nick present before, and he’s always got some good stuff up his sleeve.  Previously, I’ve seen him present on cuing and how to use minimal words to provoke a positive response we’re looking for.  What he talked about this year was similar in nature, but yet completely different.  This year he talked about how changing the environment can produce positive results without having to make one cue or say one word at all.

The presentation started off by talking about how the environment has been proven to change the rate of development and how quickly learning can take place.  Nick pointed out some research done on the development of babies and how quickly they learned to roll, crawl, kneel, stand, and walk.  Basically, in developmental kinesiology, there are certain milestones that babies will hit at specific timelines.  All babies learn to roll somewhere around 5 months.  They learn to crawl somewhere around the 7-10 month mark.

Each developmental pattern is innate and happens naturally.  These patterns aren’t taught.  They are natural to the human race and are hard wired in our brains.  As our brains develop and we explore movement, the patterns are learned naturally and within specific timeframes.  If certain milestones are not hit, it’s not that there’s something necessarily wrong, but you’d want to pay attention to other milestones and see if the child is developing to be a healthy adult.  What happens if the child develops early though?

Winkelman pointed out some research that looked at African children and their rate of development.  This research is interesting because it looked at the same race, same country, and the same people.  The only difference was choosing the environment to look at the rate of development and when babies hit milestones like sitting, standing, crawling, and walking.  Africa was a great place to look for answers.  Parts of Africa are Westernized cultures and share many similarities to what we see here in the United States, however, the other parts of Africa are a little crazier.  Snakes, Lions, Hyenas, and other critters can come from anywhere.  Tribes may have to move on a whim due to their surroundings.  Simply put, these sections of Africa are drastically different than the Westernized sections of this country.  The environment is much, much different.

The research showed us that the rate of development was slower in the Westernized portions of the country.  Why would the same people, living in the same country develop at different rates?  Why are the Westernized cultures developing a little slower?  These questions led us to believe that the Westernized cultures have different lifestyles due to the environment they live in.  We sit a lot in Westernized cultures.  We just don’t have many threats in Westernized cultures.  Basically, the non-developed cultures hit these milestones a little earlier out of necessity and survival.  It seems that the environment changed their rate of development and speed of learning.  They still learn to roll over, crawl, and stand, but they seem to pick up on things about 6 weeks earlier.

Does this work for performance?

Can the environment change the rate of learning in adults?


Let me help explain how you can change the environment without having to be chased by venomous snakes or other dangerous animals.  I’m going to give a couple specific examples, one related to speed development, and the other for motor control and learning how to perform a basic exercise without compensation.

For example number one, let’s imagine a sprinter.  The athlete coming out of their start has good overall mechanics.  They’re not reaching out in front and pulling through the sprint.  This will be the athlete who has good mechanics, but doesn’t get any power into their steps.  I’m sure you’ve seen this before.  The form and mechanics are great, but the speed isn’t quite up to par.  A couple ways we can change the environment would be to move to the sand or add something a little squishy or soft to the ground.

Think about this for a second.

Changing the environment (floor surface) can create automatic changes without one word being said.  Take that same athlete to a large sand pit or on the beach, and they’ll automatically start to learn how to push into the ground to develop power.  If they don’t, the sand will slow them down due to the softness and “give” it has.  It’s a much different surface, and sand requires more power to push through versus concrete or an indoor track.  BOOM!  Changing the running surface gives the athlete the feel of pushing through the ground for power development.  Zero cues were given.  The coach here would get significant changes without cueing them to death, and the fewer the cues generally, the easier it is for the athlete to have the desired outcome actually stick.

Don’t have a beach to run on?  That’s all right.  I don’t either.  I live in St. Louis, Missouri.  And for those of you that are geographically challenged…that’s about as far away from a beach as you can get.  However, this doesn’t mean this exact same example wouldn’t work for you.  Sure, I can’t take my athletes to a beach to get this kind of work done, but I can create an environment that makes the athlete respond and adapt the exact same way.  Simply throwing a couple exercise mats on the ground and having the athlete sprint on the mats can create that soft feel, or “give” that the sand creates.  Sometimes you have to get creative to change environment, but if you’re able to think outside the box, you’ll have a lot of success with this.

The second and final example relating to the environment is on motor control and learning to do a basic exercise.  In this example, let’s look at a Step Up.  The athlete performing the Step Up continues to have valgus (knee cave) on the stepping leg.  Whenever I see this, I always fall back to changing the environment to make long lasting change.  Using a form of RNT (reactive neuromuscular training) to help the caving knee works like a charm.

If you’re unfamiliar with RNT work, I highly suggest learning more about it.  I did an article awhile back on this exact topic, so if you’re not using RNT right now, check out the blog post and implement immediately.  You’ll be happy you did.  I promise!  You can learn more about RNT here:

Using RNT is another way we can change the environment.  Before using RNT, there wasn’t a force pulling on the knee while stepping, but by changing the environment and adding a resistance band to the equation, there is now a force pulling that same knee into excessive valgus…WAY more than they had without the band.  However, you’ll quickly notice that adding the band didn’t make it worse, it made it better.  The body learned to adapt to the environment (band pulling the knee into valgus) quickly.  Without this quick learning adaptation, the knee would have caved so far in, the risk of injury would have spiked up immediately, but the human body is much smarter than that.  Rather than letting the knee cave in so far the risk of injury goes up, the body naturally adapts and fights back.  Changing the environment and adding a band to exploit their weakness automatically corrects things.  Again, the body learned to adapt without saying a word.

When you’re really trying to get things to stick with people, start looking at how you can make the environment create the changes you want to see.  Proper cuing is great, but getting desired outcomes with little to no cuing at all is just great coaching.  These changes will start to be deeply engrained into the brain and will eventually become the new pattern.  This is a great way to coach.  The coach who can get desired outcomes with as few coaching cues as possible will be the most successful.  Start toying around with environment changes to make the body react a certain way.  Think outside the box, be creative, and have fun with changing the environment to change the athlete.