Mattresses to change history
The power of what surrounds us
“The environment is one of the essential parts of a living being.”
Dick Fosbury is one of the big innovators in sport. Remembered as the killer of straddle technique, he created a jumping technique —the Fosbury Flop— which opened the doors of the high jump to many athletes that, at that moment, they saw no light at the end of the tunnel.
Around the 60s, the straddle technique –with Valeriy Brumel as main insignia– was used. At that time, the athletes were landing after the jump above sand and falling on the arms to protect themselves in the fall was necessary. Brumel was jumping 2,28 meters —imagine him falling on his back from that height! I still remember when my First aid’s teacher told me that falling from a height higher than your own can have serious life consequences.
This way of jumping —the straddle technique— required exceptional physical traits such as a height between 1,85 and 1,95 meters and great physical skills such as mobility, strength and power; this caused that very few athletes were able to enter the select group of best jumpers; the requirements were so difficult and precise that there was a very hard natural selection process: many died before arriving, they did not meet the requirements to survive in such a challenging environment.
In the midst of the dominance of Brumel and the straddle technique, a question began to spread among athletes in the United States: “What is this madman doing jumping on his back?" People were talking about Dick Fosbury, a guy that was struggling jumping with the established technique; he didn’t feel comfortable, he was not able to overcome the mark of 1.50 meters. Time went by and “the madman who jumps on his back” became the creator of the Fosbury Flop reaching to jump the height of 2.24 meters. But… the innovator athlete didn’t wake up one day, arrived to the training field and decided to jump backwards landing on his back causing an athletic revolution.
In truth, Dick Fosbury has taken all the merits of a revolution without leaving any for for Debbie Brill —with her Brill Bend technique— and the mattress. The former was actually the first person that started to jump landing on her back but —I guess— for reasons of gender and fame, she was never considered. The later was the main responsible of one of the most influential events in the history of track and field. Possibly, without this one, we would not understand the figure of Dick. The decision to add a mattress to the landing area made the Fosbury Flop possible. What may seem like an action of little importance, ended up leading to an earthquake in high jump. The fact of not having to worry about on how to land way opened a new landscape of possibilities, actions… it was an outstanding opportunity to be creative. There wasn’t a need anymore to fall with the arms.
As Martí Perarnau highlights: the addition of the mattress for high jump was what the freezer meant for the horse-drawn carriage that carried the ice bars from house to house in Boston. The straddle technique would be the carriage, the Fosbury Flop would be the freezer. The Fosbury Flop, a more efficient and simple way to jump for most of the athletes, cornered the straddle technique, which was only for a select few and very complicated. The mattress caused the environment to be less selective, a less aggressive natural selection. The select group of magnificent straddle jumpers was no longer so. Thanks to the Fosbury Flop fewer jumpers were failing along the way, many were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This is what innovation should be: improving the lives of the majority, not a lucky few. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he showed the Fosbury Flop to the world and at the 1976 Moscow Olympics, the straddle technique was almost history.
“Technique” depends on the context that it is applied and it is dynamic along the time, not static. The story of Fosbury Flop, Debbie Brill and the mattress shows us perfectly this, also what Jorge Wagensberg was talking about in the first aphorism of the post and what Rafel Pol defines in the following sentence:
“We are what emerges from our relationship with the environment.”
What surrounds us must be always considered —unless we are talking about machines. Our behaviour depends on ourselves but also on our environment. This is not only the physical properties that surround us but also the abstract ones. This environment that shapes our behavior can be a physical property like a mattress in the case of Dick Fosbury, your family and friends… but also abstract one such as the time you were born, the beliefs you have, your government's policies, or the social class to which you belong. All the characteristics of the person and her environment come together, combine, mix, interact... and the result is the emergence of our behavior.
In such a reductionist and behaviorist world, we have become accustomed to thinking linearly and causally, that for one stimulus there is one exact response, that X causes Y, that every person reacts the same to the same medicine, physical program or sport instruction. And... it's all a bit more complex. Fortunately or unfortunately, our behavior does not depend exclusively on ourselves, the environment plays a very important role. That's why we fail so often when we propose changes in ourselves. We choose simple and linear ways. We base the training on orders and instructions and aim for the players to know how to live with uncertain competitive situations; to improve health we make promises or goals without taking into account the living, social, work environment... which pushes us to behave in a certain way.
As a leader, you can choose to be a person who orders, who shouts... or one who adds mattresses and lets the awesome things, creative behaviors... emerge. Rafel Pol —with the collaboration of other great professionals— explains it very well in his article: let's be environment designers instead of solution prescribers. Follow the lead of the Fosbury Flop, a pattern of movement that didn’t came because of coach’s instructions but from the interaction of an athlete with a specific environment. As human beings —so, as complex systems— we are, we have a “power” called self-organization that allow us to adapt, to survive… in challenging environments without orders or instructions, without external control.
Football coach Thomas Tuchel understood it well. The “mattress” that he added in the training environment of his team was the modification of the training ground by eliminating, or cutting, the corners. The field became diamond shaped. He no longer needed to shout the right wing to move diagonally into the area, he did not have to force the players to behave in a certain way. He simply let the players do it in a different environment —which he conditioned— so that they would be creative, adapt and make new behaviors would emerge. The players chose the "how" and if they had problems, the coach stepped in to help. A world-class environment designer. Basketball, tennis, padel, athletics… coach, the same process can be carried out in your sport. Think about what “mattresses” you can add, how to shape the game environment to make the players more creative, functional and independent.
Ice hockey coach Rick Charlesworth also gave us a good example at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In a sport so characterized by short and explosive efforts, the humid conditions of the American city complicated these types of efforts. The coach, interacting with the environment, began to practice in such a way that each player could play more than one position allowing faster rotations since there were more players who could perform more tasks. They were able to develop the explosive pace of play that characterized them —high humidity conditions were no impediment— taking the Olympic gold medal.
Why didn't Real Madrid water the field when they played against Guardiola's Barça?Because a dry grass in which the ball did not travel as fast as usual, harmed the game of the Catalans, did not favor the functional behavior of them, their comfort zone. They intended that the interaction of the Catalan team in that environment was not so good, that such functional and spectacular behaviors would not emerge.
Having defended and talked so much about what surrounds us, now we can fall into the trap of thinking that the environment is the most important thing, that it is what deserves all the attention. That we only depend on the environment. No, the most important thing is neither the person nor the environment. It is the interaction, the relationship between them, both give and receive, both guide and are guided. It is like and agreement between the person and the environment is reached, then appears the person's behavior. Carlota Torrents explains it very well in her book "A mi musa me la invento yo". She was dancing tango with Rafael when he asked her: “Do you guide me or do I guide you?” Carlota didn’t know what to reply when, suddenly, Rafael answered himself: "It could be that you guide me, or that I guide you. My body to yours, and yours to mine." Who was the guide? No one controlled the other, both interacted... and from that connection the movements emerged. A similar phenomenon happens when we compete in a sport: I can't make happen what I —a single player— want, but I have some skills, some tools, that I can use according to what the game asks of me.
Don’t be the coach that sits on the bench shouting and demanding the team to run fast or more effort, put them in that situation and they will find their best. I remember how Jordi Coma —my university professor— said that the best thing that can happen to you in a new job is that you arrive on the first day and have no idea and you will learn more in the first 10 days than in your entire life. I confirmed this in Finland where most adult people speak English: I didn't really learn Finnish until it was my turn to coach a group of 10-year-olds; until that moment, the environment had not demanded it from me. If you want to take the island, you have to burn your boats. If not, at the slightest problem, you will leave.
This is what François Jullien was talking about in A Treatise on Efficacy. Courage and cowardice are a product of the situation rather than qualities of our own. A person can act bravely or cowardly, it depends on the situation which behaviour may arise. The Chinese general seeks success in the situation rather than demanding it from the army under his command. All he needs to do is to put them into a dangerous situation from which the only way to survive is to fight as hard as they can. Since they have no retreat option, the soldiers are forced to fight as hard as possible. He does not ask —like Tuchel or Charlesworth— his troops to be naturally courageous but forces them to be courageous by placing them in a risky situation in which they are forced, despite themselves, to fight bravely. He also considers this for his opponents, he always leaves them an escape route to never face their best version. We are so good at completing tasks at the last minute because from the necessity arises our virtue.
Forgetting the environment when considering individual and collective health also has serious consequences. In developed or first world countries, as amenities increase, cardiovascular diseases, obesity… does it too. We live in a comfortable environment that invites us to be sedentary, not to move... and what emerges from our relationship with it is not good at all. In the end, we end up creating diseases that only exist in certain countries. We continue to treat obesity as if it were an individual choice without taking into account that we live in an environment designed for food and eating, where it is easier than ever to get poor quality fast food. An environment in which food companies are not rewarded for providing quality of life, better health… but to make more and more money at any price. I hope we don't privatize health systems, making it a business. Nothing good can emerge.
This happens in large settings, such as society, and small settings, such as family or friends. Habits —active or sedentary—, the way of socializing —partying with alcohol or through sport—, values... also have an impact. Many times a certain social environment can largely condition our behavior. We are social beings and this need has a great effect.
Thanks to Manuel Arjona I came across two great documents. In the first it was discussed that, in most medical trials, the results are due to a greater extent to changes in the environment than to the person himself. The same explained in this other one: during pregnancy, an environment with pollutants, hormonal and endocrine disruptors... seriously harmed their future development. Another one, pointed out that by improving the biodiversity of urban soils we improve people's health.
“It makes sense that Scandinavia should be famous for furniture design, since people in cold climate spend more time inside their homes.
Similarly, Italy is renowned for designer apparel; it makes sense that people in a warm climate should pay more attention to how they appear outdoors.
Where you live shapes you.
Do you live in a place conducive to the pursuit of your dreams?”
Let's set it on fire: person-environment relationship. It determines everything, let's not forget that. I liked the example that Carlota Torrents used when talking about why people danced around the fire in prehistoric times. They didn't have a heated room or thick coats as we have now. The environment conditioned them, the heat of the fire was needed.
By modifying environments, adding "mattresses"... we can achieve wonderful things. We can save ourselves headaches. We can understand much better because we behave the way we behave. As coaches, doctors, fitness trainers, husbands, spouses... we can think of modifying "environments", of putting "mattresses". We can stop making demands on our players, on our partners... and create environments that allow everybody to be the best version of themselves. Put a mattress that, like Dick Fosbury, takes away their fear and gives them security and confidence... very beautiful things will probably emerge. If you lead groups of people, you can be a wonderful pillar in their development. Don't condition their path, shine a light on it and let them decide how to move forward. Following Tuchel’s lessons, change the football field of your life, give it a round, diamond or triangle shape... and help the people who believe in you to find their best version, the best possible behavior in that situation specific. Please, next time that you —in your context— see a Dick Fosbury o a Debbie Brill, don't clip their wings; let them break with the established. Remember that no two people or environments are the same. Therefore, the outcome of this relationship will always be uncertain, variable... don't try to get ahead of it. Two people can behave in completely different ways in similar environments, like Valeriy Brumel and Dick Fosbury.
To finish, I really enjoyed writing this article. I guess it's thanks to my environment. I came across Dick Fosbury thanks to Martí Perarnau and his book Herr Pep. Later, when my model and mentor, Natàlia Balagué, mentioned it in class, it fascinated me even more. If I had not been a Barça supporter due to family influence, I suppose he would reject the figure of Guardiola and I would never have read a book that talks about him. If the family had not fostered a critical spirit in me and I had seen in them great writers, an amazing people... I would not have been able to develop a critical spirit to embrace Natàlia's lessons. Without all these mattresses —and many more that is impossible to mention— that have made my way of being emerge, I don't know if this blog or article would have emerged, if I would have been able to link the story of the Fosbury Flop with coaching, health and life, if I wouldn’t have questioned my way of thinking and ideologies throughout my life or if I would develop this passion for writing.
Thanks to all the Fosburys and Brills of sport, health and other fields who, without fear of breaking with the established, have contributed so much to development.
Thanks to all those who have been, are and will be part of my environment. I owe you a great debt.
Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop
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