Harnessing handicaps to amp up creativity, challenge, and turn the mundane into the extraordinary
This post originally appeared as a guest post on Instinctive Fitness. Yeah, I went a bit overboard with the headline length. The ideas here are a refinement and expansion upon my What if…? Limits and Play article I wrote close to a year ago.
I’m terrible at planning. When I feel the urge to start a movement session (most would call ‘em workouts, I’m weird) the frustratingly easy excuse to do nothing is that I don’t know what to do. Either the spot I’ve picked is rather featureless or there are just a handful of obstacles to play with; none which are super compelling.
When you’re out moving and practicing on your own, it’s hard to maintain the motivation to keep going if it’s not fun. Sure, if you’re short on time, it’s always possible to work on some techniques in isolation, or do some bodyweight conditioning. However, if you have more than ten minutes, then I believe there should be something to do so engrossing that time slips away.
First we have to solve the dilemma of not knowing what to do though. How? Turn your movement/training session into play.
Let me be more specific, make a game out of the session. I’m not talking about keeping score or winning here. Games have rules, right? Limits, that’s all I mean.
Placing limits on what’s available to you, handicapping yourself, sets constraints on your possible choices. Constraints, paradoxically, can help creativity flourish. The goal of our movement shifts from practice and repetition towards creative problem solving. I dunno about you, but I love fixing problems and puzzling out how to make things work. Using games to transform training and practice into a challenge to figure out keeps me entertained endlessly.
Whenever you’re feeling paralyzed by a lack of options, or even by having too many, the solution is simple. Handicap yourself, set rules to what you can or cannot do; what you can and cannot use. If you do this and engage your imagination, even a blank floor or piece of sidewalk can become your movement canvas.
Okay, now time to get specific.
As a beginner in Parkour the first way I learned to set limits on myself was through a simple game. I played it as a kid, I’m sure you did too.
The floor is lava
There’s nothing like liquid hot magma for making clear what is and isn’t off limits. Imagining a field of molten death forces you to immediately get creative and search for routes that allow you to traverse your environment with singe free feet. The rules of the game are plenty flexible. If you’re dealing with just a floor or limited obstacles you may need to create arbitrary rules about what is actually lava and what isn’t, but once you do even a bland and boring sidewalk becomes extraordinary.
My personal favorite way to use this game is to pick a place to reach and try to get there with little to no slips into the lava. With this variation precision, control, and fluid movement trump speed and power. Here are two recent examples using the floor is lava game—including some utterly appropriate volcanic rocks to jump around on, after all, I am in Iceland._The floor is lava _could easily be the only limit you need in most situations. It can carve out clear routes and offer compelling challenges for you to play with, whether you’re dealing with near featureless spaces or epic places littered with infinite combinations.
Still, why stop at just one game?
Handicaps, sometimes literally.
Photo credit: Clara S.
So the floor is lava game is now in your repertoire and it will serve you well. That game is best suited for creating routes to move through your environment. Sometimes you might be lacking in space or perhaps today just isn’t a day to imagine imminent fiery death - though if that’s the problem, you could always try Colin’s alternative of picturing the ground covered with adorable baby kittens, landing on them would get you PETA hatemail, and we wouldn’t want that - ahem, anyhow.
So what other sorts of handicaps/limits/games are there? Well, there are a lot of options…okay okay, that’s not helpful. Here are a couple flavors of them that you can try out.
Bloody: Remove (figuratively!) a limb from the equation. See what you can do with one arm or one leg. Feeling brave? Take out two limbs and see what you can do. Trying to do things with one arm or no arms is useful to try in any case. Often times you might be carrying something and cannot reliably use your arm(s) to assist you in navigating your environment, so imaginatively amputating yourself is rather practical to practice.
Box yourself in: Limit where you can move to a certain area. What can you do inside a small box? Imagine arbitrary paths, shapes, or patterns that you have to either stay within or avoid touching. I like this particular method when I’m dealing with rather featureless spaces or don’t have much room to work with. Using this trick opens the door to a lot of creative situations. Make up a context for why you have to follow the path you set - practical (slipping through a narrow passage) or ridiculous (a deranged army of pandas is chasing you across a narrow and winding chasm) - which can add a sense of urgency and purpose to your movements.
Flip it and reverse it: Do one move then try to do it backwards. Do the same thing with a string of moves. Did you run a route or course? Switch the start and end points with changing any other rules. Having to reverse engineer your movement is a great way to make you think about _how _you’re moving, plus it can be super challenging, even with simpler movement patterns.
Move by numbers: How many steps/moves can you use to navigate a few obstacles? Can you do it in fewer? Bonus variation: dictate exactly where each step has to go over a series of obstacles. Both of these versions force you to think about how you can move more efficiently and also less hesitantly. It’s easy to accidentally take a lot of half-steps and stutter when we’re unsure of what we want to do. Try these out to make your movements more deliberate.
Gratuitous crawling: When you aren’t busy traversing an obstacle, crawl. This option is guaranteed to be exhausting, which is mostly the point. Moving about with various crawls/QM patterns keeps you low to the ground, which changes how you have to transition into different techniques. Only do this one towards the end of your sessions, as even five minutes of this is grueling.
The Ninja option: How can you move while creating as little sound as possible? _Bonus: _how about while staying out of line of sight (of an imagined or actual observer)? Quiet movement is good movement. Working on moving silently brings all the subtle nuances of your technique to the fore. When you become quiet your awareness of your surroundings, the sounds, feel, and appearance, all expand. Silence is serenity.
Shuttlin’ objects: Mix in any of the above games (including the floor is lava) with carrying an object. It doesn’t (probably shouldn’t) have to be heavy; even light weights can create significant changes in technique and balance. Alternatively try it with a backpack.
Even with this brief list you could keep yourself engaged in play for perpetuity. There’s no wrong way to use these ideas. Modify them to suit your desires and manipulate them to work with what you have available. The best part about learning to use handicaps and games to guide your movement and training is your creativity in their use improves with practice just as your movement does. It’s normal for using these games and handicaps to feel unusual and awkward for a while, that too goes away with practice.
Whenever the excuse of “I don’t know what to do” rears its head just ask yourself the question “What if…?” Fill in the blank with any of the options from above. “What if everything but the cracks in the pavement are lava?” - “What if I try to get over that wall with just one arm?” - “What if a mime imprisoned me in an invisible box and forced me to dance for coin?” …Stuff like that, yeah.
Or try what if’s partner question: “How do I…?” to engage problem solving mode. “How do I do this in the fewest steps possible?” “How do can I move silently all the way over there, without feeling like a slug pulling a tank?” and other questions of that ilk.
Use these questions, “What if?” and “How do I?” Set limits and treat your workout, movement session, or whatever you want to call it as a game. If you do I’m certain that you will discover something compelling to engross you in movement and play. Keep asking these questions often enough and it won’t be long before you’re constantly spotting opportunities for movement wherever you go. The urge to stop and play might become irresistible, who knows?
Go dodge around some lava or (metaphorically) shoot yourself in the foot today and explore your movement. Come back here after and share what you did in the comments. What did you try, how did it feel?
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