2017 Year-in-Review

As the end of 2017 is only days away, I’m taking some time to reflect on the year that was and to look forward to 2018. In the spirit of the holiday letters that several of my friends and family like to send out, I thought I would do my own year-in-review for 2017.

It’s been a long year.

In the name of making this a useful read, I would like to frame my thoughts in terms of the larger mission—the reason why I take the time to tap away at the keyboard, spilling out my rambling thoughts.

At the start of the year, it felt important to remember the role that circus can play in our lives.

Copyright: wisky / 123RF Stock Photo

We all found our way to circus somewhat differently. Whatever the reason, I’m assuming that you’d like to keep doing it for a while. The key to being able to do circus for any length of time is being able to do circus. Injuries tend to get in the way of that.

And that’s why I’m here: to change the way we look at strength and conditioning for circus.

Injury Prevention in Circus Arts: an approach we need to talk about more…still

For the patient and/or speedy reader, I began 2017 by writing three rather lengthy posts (part one, two and three) about how the value of functional strength training as a way of balancing your body and reducing your chances of suffering a nasty injury.

In particular, I believe that circus artist-athletes looking to build resilient, mobile and strong bodies need to do the following:

Copyright: vertolet / 123RF Stock Photo
  • Have a qualified professional take you through a full-body assessment and movement screen.
  • Strength train in a way that helps to balance the forces acting on your joints while progressively improving physical capacity. I call this Functional Strength Training. (I did not make this term up).
  • Strength train with weights. Yes. Do all of the above with weights. It’s the best way for you to get stronger than your circus-discipline-of-choice needs you to be, which is the best way to keep your body healthy in the long run.
  • Approach mobility training (you could call it active flexibility, but I’m not terribly fond of that term) in a similar manner to your strength training (see below).

So much learning!

I have such a long list of courses that I want to take and things that I want to learn!

There’s just so much, really.

Among the ways I earned my CEC’s this year included Dean Somerset’s Post-rehab Essentials, a great workshop with Emily Scherb (My Big Takeaways from The Anatomy of Circus with Emily Scherb) and an amazing business mentorship at Cressey Sports Performance (for when Theresa and I open our own gym, preferably right next door to a circus school).

One of the courses that was high on my list was Functional Range Conditioning, taught by Dr. Andreo Spina. When I saw that he was doing a course out of his home base near Toronto—which is also my hometown—I leapt at the opportunity.

For a long time, something about the more traditional ways that I was seeing people pursue “flexibility” just didn’t add up.

But, stretching is the thing that everyone knows:

  • Does it feel “tight”? Stretch it.
  • Does it feel sore? Stretch it.
  • Does it hurt? Stretch it.
  • Want to get more flexible? Stretch it.

Actually, I really don’t like the term flexibility…but that’s because it’s the term that most folks use to describe the full, active ranges-of-motion that circus arts demands.

What most people are really talking about when they say they want to become more flexible is actually a combination of mobility, stability and strength—and in particular, strength and control at the ends of the range of motion of the joint(s) in question.

Increasingly, folks are becoming interested in active flexibility…but that term doesn’t quite cover all of the bases for me either.

Enter: Functional Range Conditioning.

This course was a game-changer for me.

Why? Because it provided me with a method for safely improving joint ranges of motion while developing strength and control throughout those ranges of motion. Functional mobility.

The course was also pretty science- and research-heavy, so I loved that as well.

What I thought was great about this was that it prompted me to take some time to train with the system myself and to reflect on where and how these new techniques would fit into my existing approach to athletic development.

[Sidebar thought: still, the idea of “athletic development” remains absent from many of our conversations about progressing and developing circus artists. That’s problematic. File that under “Things we’ll work on together this year”.]

Consequently, I have found I have a much clearer idea in my head about how to prepare each of the athletes under my care for safely developing the kind of mobility they want and need for circus.

It was this course that inspired the series on managing hypermobility for circus artist-athletes (part one, two and three).

It’s also worth sharing that my introduction to Functional Range Systems re-affirmed a core belief for me: if you’re good at your sport/activity/circus-discipline-of-choice, but you don’t do ‘human’ well, that’s almost certainly going to lead to problems down the road. Note that by ‘doing human’, I mean having the ability to perform fundamental human movement patterns—which requires having appropriate mobility in each of your body’s joints—with integrity.

Also note that by ‘problems’, I mean injuries. If you don’t have adequate range of motion in—and control over—your joints, and then you engage in some physically demanding activity (you know, like silks or trapeze or lyra or handbalancing or rope), then chances are pretty good you’re going to hurt yourself.

Again: capacity >> load = real prevention

The big Online Strength Coaching for Circus experiment!

If I could, I would just go and be a little bit of everywhere. I would spend a few weeks with folks, assessing where they’re at now and designing a training plan for them. I would coach them through how to execute each movement with good form and proper technique. And then, once their bodies had learned the fundamental principles of strength training, I could leave them with a longer-term training plan and they could ‘have at it’, so to speak.

But I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

Enter: online training.

Admittedly, there is a compromise that I have to make: in person, my preference is to be rather involved as a coach—especially in the beginning. I want to make sure you know the nuances of each movement, developing an awareness of muscle engagement, which joints are moving and which ones should be doing the work. But, I simply cannot be there with each client, watching them move through their workouts, providing them with real-time feedback on the various things I see when watching someone move.

However, the distance coaching format still provides me with the opportunity to do an initial movement screen and to design a program based on their needs and their goals. The videos that people send me still allow me to provide technique cues and corrections. And sometimes, we can even go through certain movements via Skype—and that satisfies the “real-time feedback” need.

It’s not perfect, but it’s worked out so much better than I’d hoped, so next year, I’m planning to take on more clients. I’ve learned quite a bit from my first set of trainees and I’ve found a number of ways to improve the quality of their experience and I’m looking forward to sharing that with more people.

One step closer to the Dream Scenario at Esh Circus Arts!

This is the thing about 2017 that I am perhaps most proud of and most excited about…

If you’re one of those wonderfully patient types and/or you can read very quickly, you may have read about my Dream Scenario, where your local circus arts school has a sports medicine team and a strength and conditioning coach on site. This, of course, means that circus artists get to develop the way that athletes should: with the opportunity to get preventative movement check-ups from the sports medicine staff and regular and proper strength and conditioning is built into the programming options.

As you may or may not know, my delightful partner-in-crime (and in life), Theresa Racicot (of Aerialibrium fame) is not only a pretty fantastic aerial coach, but also a knowledgeable trainer/strength coach. (We have the geekiest conversations at the dinner table). This summer, we began collaborating with the team at Esh Circus Arts, where Theresa has been teaching for several years now.

The result of that collaboration is something I am giddy with excitement over and the master plan is unfolding in stages. This fall, we began working with the students in the Professional Preparatory Program. We took each of them through a full-body assessment and movement screen and followed with individualized warm-up plans. The exercises we gave to each student were aimed at optimizing how they move, based on the findings from our evaluations.

For some, we’ve taken it a step further and we have developed strength and conditioning plans for them.

This has led to a bit of a shift in my thinking. The key lesson:

“Corrective exercise” (as normally conceived) is useful as ‘movement prep’, but to really make those changes permanent…you’ve got to build strength. This is where the weights come in.

To take things a step further, we have affiliated with the sports medicine department at a local hospital to get ‘fast track’ appointments with their orthopedic team when we need them. (It’s an added bonus that this is the same sports medicine team that cares for Cirque du Soleil’s artists when they’re in town, so that means the doctors our athletes see understand circus). Theresa and I have also established working relationships with several physical therapists in the area, which has proven really helpful because it means that we can help to make sure that the work folks are doing in the studio supports the work they do in the PT clinic.

Speaking of Physical Therapy…

Not only did I return to physical therapy for my shoulder—not because it hurt, but because it was time for it to move better—but earlier in the year, I also made a return to performing—twice. Theresa and I had the opportunity to perform a partner acro act twice this year. The first was in February at Aircraft Aerial Arts where the staff got together to put on a show called Love Will Persist and it was pretty magical.

And my shoulder continues to get stronger, albeit slowly…but without any significant pain, so that’s been pretty darn amazing.

Looking ahead to 2018

There is a lot to look forward to in 2018.

My physical therapy experience provided me with the opportunity to connect with the rather inspiring team at Champion Physical Therapy, just outside of Boston. Following on from Dan Pope and Dave Tilley’s Peak Shoulder Performance program, Theresa and I have begun working on a set of strength and conditioning benchmarks (protocols? I’m not sure that’s the right word) aimed at “bridging the gap” that exists between the end of physical therapy and the full-on return to circus. We’ll be introducing that to the local community soon.

I’m looking forward to sharing with whoever wants to listen/read some of our progress/adventures in integrating strength and conditioning and movement optimization into the community at Esh Circus Arts. It’s new, it’s a work-in-progress and we’re excited to have the opportunity to help folks to build strong, resilient circus bodies.

There’s probably more…but this is already a very long post and only the most superhuman of you will have read this far. So on that note, I would also like to express my gratitude for you, dear reader. This is an ongoing exercise in me rambling on about the things that swirl around in my head about circus, and I probably wouldn’t be writing nearly as often if no one was reading this stuff—so thank you for reading.

Here’s to an amazing 2018.