Updated: Jan 26, 2022
“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization” ― David Epstein, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Before we opened Movement Brooklyn, I spent much of my time in the spring and summer training in McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I'd regularly see an older couple practicing at the same time. They were always putting on different movement hats. They did Tai Chi type movements, stepped on and off benches, played catch with tennis balls, and balanced on the edge of curbs. One day the old man approached me while I was training. He said when he was younger he could do a lot of what he saw me doing. I asked how old he was. The man said, "Very old. My wife and are in our eighties." He went on to explain that he and his wife practice together almost every morning. I told him that I enjoyed observing the work they were doing, and looked forward to a similar practice when I'm their age. Their training was a mishmash of the defined and the undefined; some of the movements had names, but many of them didn't. They explored, researched, and stole from a range of different modalities, and they were doing it at an age when you'd typically only have tennis balls to put on the bottom of your walker. They were generalists.
Who are you? Which team are you on? What is your specialty? We live in a culture, at a time in history, where we are asked to define ourselves. We give credence to the labeled and specialized; and the sooner we label, the better. Space for the undefined, I-don't-knows, and label-less is disappearing. If something doesn't have a name or a definition, then it is often ignored. If someone doesn't know all of the information on a subject, then she is written off. However, we are learning more and more about the value of the generalist; the one who specializes at not specializing. Movement is a generalist practice, as we are not interested in committing all of our time to a single modality. Instead, we want to explore the range of our physical potential. Generalists are adaptable, thus able to move comfortably between more movement modalities. They're also creative, and therefore more likely to have a larger toolbox of physical problem solving skills and a potential for innovation. And, there seems to be a connection between specialization and potential for overuse injuries.
Readers from the fitness sphere might see the word "generalist" and associate it with functional fitness, natural movement, or general physical preparedness. At the end of the day, these terms are just word salad. While general natural movement and functional fitness are an elements of human potential, they are only pieces of the puzzle. Any sort of fitness can be its own specialization and you don't have to be an expert to be a specialist. If you only run, then you are a runner, or a running specialist; even if your marathon time is a deathly five hours long. The same goes for "yogi", "climber", "rower", "swimmer", "Crossfitter", "Soul Cycle...ist?", etc. What I mean by specialist is that the full attention of your practice is on one modality, speaking not to your ability level or expertise.
When I think of movement, and being a generalist, I think of it like speaking different languages. English is my only language. With only one language at my disposal, I can travel comfortably in the US, Canada, and parts of Europe. If I had learned Spanish, I would be able to include Mexico, most of South America, Spain, and would likely be able to communicate a little bit with people in Portugal, Brazil, and Italy. If I had learned a third language, even more geography would open up to me. The more languages I speak, the easier it is to interact with a variety of locations, people, and cultures. If I compare the exploration of languages to the exploration of different movement modalities, a parallel reveals itself. If I only speak Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, then BJJ is the only part of the movement world I can visit comfortably and it is much harder for me to visit a place where they speak rock climbing or dance. I want to be comfortable speaking many of the infinite languages of movement (and not just the ones taught in school). I want to speak the highly defined languages that millions of people speak around the world, and the undefined languages of remote tribes. I want to be a linguist. This adaptability is what allows us to interact with other practitioners, explore our physical potential, and be better prepared for the spontaneity of life. Generalists travel, specialists haven't renewed their passport.
The generalist embraces the defined and undefined, the objective and subjective, the linear and organic, and the classical and romantic. This collaboration, and across many disciplines, is what develops creativity. And, creativity is the prelude to innovation. In past blogs I suggested watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Bo Jackson, and the film In Search of Greatness which features interviews with Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, and Pelé. These are not films about athletes, they are films about creatives and innovators. In fact, most of them identify their performances in professional sports as artistry. And, they all tell a similar story of being generalists through their child and teenage years. Gretzky played baseball, and Pelé did martial arts. Rice tossed the football to himself while laying in bed in the dark, and Bo tried to do backflips in water and jump over cars. Perhaps you are wondering the precise connection between Gretzky's fastball to hockey, and Bo's acrobatics to batting and running. I don't know! That is creativity! Creativity is fostered through a breadth of problem solving scenarios. And, I believe the benefits of creative exploration are not limited to the arena they are practiced in. Creativity is transferable, but much less measurable. Hence, when you watch an event such as the NFL Combine, they focus for the most part on the objective; 40 yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, etc. Gretzky admitted he would have done terribly at the NHL combine had it existed during his time, as he wasn't particularly fast or strong; his gift was creativity. These artists were generalists before they became specialists. They problem solved across many modalities, and they benefited with innovative and successful professional careers. We can all expand our creativity, inside and outside of movement and sport, by developing as a generalists.
I'm a big fan of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel; a monthly sports news magazine on HBO. They've done a number of stories in the past few years on youth sports, specifically the epidemic of youth sport specialization in the United States. Last year I referenced their story on the success of Norway in the Winter Olympics being a product of promoting generalization for youth athletes; a story in line with those of Jackson, Gretzky, Rice, and Pelé. Just last month Real Sports did another story on youth specialization; this time discussing the rising rate of injuries among young specialized athletes. Stories of children, some not even in their teens, needing surgery that you typically associate with people over 40. Most of these children play the same sport year around, without free play or exploration outside their single modality. Robustness is developed through exposure to a variety of modalities, but exposure limited to a single domain leaves gaps in the body armor. Developing bodies doing the same movements over and over is different from an adult. However, whether it is a child or adult specialist, they are both bending the paperclip in only one direction. Or, as my wife Alexa says, "They're never rotating the tires." A number of PT friends have observed the same problems in grown bodies. Perhaps it takes longer, or manifests differently, but can potentially end with a similar fate. Rather than seeking so-called "low impact" practices to prevent injury, I suggest a practice with range and exposure. And, to the specialists looking to supplement their training with other modalities to prevent injury, diversify! Your supplementation shouldn't look exactly the same as your chosen specialization.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that if you're a specialist that you're definitely going to get injured, and if you're a generalist you're never going to get injured. I'm saying that there seems to be growing evidence connecting overuse injuries and specialization, and that injuries appear to be preventable and avoided through a range of physical exposure.
When I took Ido Portal's Movement-X workshop in 2015, one of the teachers explained movement in three layers; first is the human layer, second is the mover (generalist) layer, and third is the specialist layer. Before you can move onto the next layer, you have to address the one before it. If I want to be a generalist, I need to be a human first; walk, squat, and hang. If I want to be a specialist, I first need to be a generalist; breadth across many physical domains. Only then can I successfully explore specialization. As a human exploring my physicality, who is not being offered fat checks for a sport or speciality, the generalist layer is where I'm happy to settle in. I'm happy to be OK, good, mediocre, and decent at many things, rather than great at just one. I want to be adaptable, creative, and less likely to get injured. I want to be like the older couple from McCarren Park.