Robert Lewondowski is a Bundesliga record-breaker. In 2021 he beat Gerd Muller’s single season goal scoring record held since 1972. Furthermore, over the past ten years only a goalkeeper, in a less physically demanding position, has played more matches in Germany’s top flight (Coleman, 2021). Meanwhile, Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is scoring goals in his age 39 season. He played in over 30 matches while competing in Serie A, one of the world’s top leagues. This analysis looks at each player’s movement to determine what enables them to perform to such a high standard for an extended period of time, with limited injuries. Furthermore, it questions whether the answer could be found in their multi-sport background.
Both Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic have multi-sport backgrounds in martial arts. From an early age Lewandowski was exposed to martial arts with his Father competing in Judo. Later he married a World and European karate champion – who he now trains and kick-boxes with. Whereas Ibrahimovic completed classes in taekwondo as a youngster, achieving a Black Belt. This early participation in multi-sport has been found to be beneficial to athlete development, as there is a transfer of skills and less burnout and injury due to fatigue. One of England’s top football academies, Manchester United share this approach. They incorporate multi-sport participation in their players’ development programmes, including martial arts (Austin, 2018). The similarities in Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic’s movements, combined with their ability to stay injury free and performing at such a high level late into their career suggests that incorporating martial arts into a training programme is of great benefit.
As you can in the analysis above, rotation and weight transfer is a key element in effective martial arts performance. This started at the feet and worked up through the body from the feet to the head; each being very integrated and working collaboratively. Consequently, it ensures balance and control in their movement. Participants can change direction quickly to attack and defend. Furthermore, it helps generate torque and power to their shots. Another key element in this is their weight transfer, which is also very evident. Each performer uses their whole body in each movement, which ensures control rather than the strain being placed on one body part. As a result the integrated body systems combined with the effective weight transfer, reduces the injury risk to the performer.
Another noticeable aspect in the clips is the effective counter-rotation. This is particularly noticeable in the clips of Jade Jones’ training with resistance bands. Her body returns to its previous position on exactly the same path it moved away, which is a technique used in Movement LessonTM. Each performer maintains control through their counter-rotation. Being able to generate so much force, yet quickly return to their neutral position. This allows them to defend themselves from any attacks while maintaining their vision. As in so many sports, this allows performers to scan the environment to identify any dangers or opponent weaknesses.
The range of movement that is available at the hip is also noticeable. Clear pelvic strikes are evident, which enable effective head control and counter-rotation. A lot of movements start at the hips (particularly in taekwondo) generating torque that allows the feet to whip through; the hips initiating this movement and the feet follow, rather than the legs driving. This provides more control, accuracy and less strain on the legs reducing the injury risk.
The performers are also able to get their feet above shoulder-height without having to fall back to compensate. They maintain their vision while being free to move their feet to defend and attack where required. Anna Lewondowska, is a nutritionalist and personal trainer. On her website she highlights the importance of fundamental movements in exercise programmes; with rotation one of the most important exercises listed (Healthy plan by Ann, 2019). This is something that is certainly evident when analysing her husband’s movements.
As you can see from the embedded video analysis, Lewandowski displays these multi-sport movements. Firstly, he has a strong pelvic strike. This can be seen on his right-side and when heading the ball. Following contact with the ball he continues his movement forwards, which gives him an advantage over defenders as he is moving to receive the next ball. Furthermore, he is renowned as an excellent header. This would not be possible without that pelvic strike and rotation throughout his body. Rotation allows us to oppose gravity and the better an individual’s ability to rotate the greater their leap. Consequently, Lewandowski can rise above opponents. He appears to hang in the air, before landing and quickly being in position to move forward again. In contrast the defenders are off balance, allowing him to steal one or two steps for rebounds. This explains why Lewandowski is considered a great poacher in the penalty area.
You can see this ability to rotate in the clips where Lewandowski can spin around effortlessly. In several clips he spins and hits shots 180degree from where is facing. Rotation is very evident through his feet, legs, hips, spine, shoulders and head. This allows Lewandowski to receive the ball back to goal, turn and shoot before defenders have chance to respond. Significantly, this all occurs with Lewandowski maintaining his balance and his vision. At no point does he lose sight of the ball. He remains upright with an ability to scan his environment, maintaining a relationship between his eyes and the ball, the opponents and the goal. As his body systems rotate in-synch his hips, chest and head work as one; allowing his eyes to focus on stimuli.
It is not only Lewandowski’s ability to rotate that maintains his balance but his ability to effectively counter-rotate too. Another skill transferred from his multi-sport background. A slight flaw in Lewondowski’s movement is that his pelvic strike is not as effective on his left side. As a result when strikes the ball there is a slight collapse of his pelvis. However, because his counter-rotation is so effective he can return to an upright position, without losing his balance or vision. If he was unable to counter-rotate on the same rotational path the body would compensate – leading to injury.
Another significant aspect to Lewandowski’s play is the range of movement available at his hip. As can be seen with the no-look pass (in the analysis below), he is able to effortlessly get his foot to shoulder height, whilst maintaining an upright position. He does not need to adjust or fall to bring his foot up. He maintains balance and vision allowing him to remain in control of the ball, finding his teammate with a pass.
Like Lewandowski, Ibrahimovic’s rotation and counter-rotation is key to his success. In fact, the benefits of his multi-sport background are even more evident. As he changes direction he is able to quickly return to a neutral position; he does not lose his balance and is able to maintain his vision. This allows him to be more accurate and effective when shooting. Whereas if he lost his balance he would be more likely to shoot too close to the goalkeeper or off-target. Furthermore, integrating and effectively rotating each body system reduces the strain on the body, helping reduce any injury risk.
Ibrahimovic’s hips play a key role in his rotation and counter-rotation. The range of movement available also means he is able to score some spectacular and unique goals – as can be seen in the video. He is able to get his foot up to volley balls that would not be possible to other plyers. Not only that but he gets his foot up while maintaining his vision, balance and therefore his control. He never has to adjust his eyeline to compensate, meaning he can track the ball easier and scan his environment. His vision is stable and his movement controlled, despite his foot being around head height.
The emphasis in Movement LessonTM sessions is all about creating and enhancing functional movement. Consequently, a great emphasis in sessions is on rotation and counter-rotation. Starting at the feet and working up through the hips and spine will lead to increased rotation and integration. Before then incorporating the shoulders for added balance and the eyes for improved vision.
The benefits observed from successful footballers extending their careers due to participation in martial arts can also be observed by participating in Movement Lesson sessions. Exposure to a variety of different skills as seen in a multi-sport approach is beneficial. Improving the efficiency and functionality of these movements through targeted sessions will further benefit sports performance.
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