Prodigies, Child Actors, and Wide Receivers: Biomechanical Borrowing During Development (Part 2)

The Art of Exaggeration

If you’ve ever been backstage after a play– and before the actors take off their makeup– you’re familiar with the concept of ‘stage makeup’. Actors onstage use enormous quantities of makeup (so much so that it looks grotesque up close), so that when seen at a distance in a large theatre, they appear expressive and natural.

stage makeup for an older character

This concept– exaggeration for expressive purpose– applies to every performing art. The amount of exaggeration needed is relative to the distance between the performer and the audience– a stage actor will exaggerate their movements/ expressions far more than a movie actor seen by the camera up close. But in both cases there will be some amount of exaggeration added to help communicate the intended effect to the audience.

Exaggeration is enabled by biomechanical borrowing. Additional areas contribute their force to a movement or expression, heightening its dramatic effect by increasing its suddenness and dimensions. With more areas/ muscles contributing to a singular movement/ expression, large areas of the body move as one, and the power/ dramatic effect of the movement is increased tremendously.

This is in stark contrast to an efficient movement, in which areas operate independently, and movement is minimized. Efficiency looks easy and natural, subtle. Exaggerated/ borrowed movement looks effortful, sudden, and dramatic. A weight lifter benching efficiently will appear relaxed and in control, with loose hips and slack neck muscles. A weight lifter benching above their comfort level will exaggerate the motion, hips and neck straining (and being borrowed against) to add to the balance of forces. Efficiency is subtle. Borrowing looks exaggerated.

But subtlety and ease do not communicate– by definition, subtlety is hard to notice. So if one were filming a movie about weight lifters, one wouldn’t choose the subtle, efficient lifter. One would choose the neck-straining, hips-bulging version– it would far more effectively/ dramatically communicate to the audience that a person is using great strength to lift (even though the subtler lifter would likely be functionally stronger).

So if adult performers need exaggeration– ‘stage makeup’– in order to effectively communicate their art, then what of child performers with their small faces and bodies? For every small bit of borrowing used by adult performers for dramatic effect, a child must use orders of magnitude more borrowing to achieve the same effect. Macaulay Culkin must exaggerate his expressions far more than his adult co-stars in order to effectively communicate those expressions to an audience. So his level of biomechanical borrowing will be far greater. And as a child, it will be happening at a time when his body is still developing.

Advantages of Childhood Borrowing

There is a piano teacher who is known in classical circles as the “prodigy whisperer”. Her students often win the most prestigious youth competitions, and regularly perform professional solo concerts. This teacher developed her school of technique after a car accident left her wrists permanently damaged, and her performing career in shambles. The technique she developed allowed her to resume playing piano, and regularly lifts her students to great professional heights as children.

Her technique is based entirely on biomechanical borrowing– using areas other than thoracic ones to generate force in the hands. By borrowing biomechanically from non-thoracic areas, she biomechanically buttressed her damaged wrists and was able to resume playing piano. And this same borrowing technique enables young pianists to play with far greater power than would otherwise be possible given their age and size.

Particularly in children, biomechanical borrowing can seem magical– enabling small creatures to do things with power beyond their size. And for a while it seems sustainable– while the overall biomechanical system is still growing, borrowing seems limitless– like a string that grows as you pull it.

But eventually the string stops growing. At which point it becomes apparent that the seemingly limitless string was actually being pulled from an adjacent area– which is now pulled taut and to whose motion it is now inextricably linked.

Downsides of Childhood Borrowing

The more borrowing a person does as a child, while their system is still expanding/ developing, the more overlapped their fascial system will be as an adult. If, as a child you tense your neck every time you raise your arm, you will be able to lift your arm powerfully as a child, but as an adult it will be difficult for you to raise your arm without tensing your neck– your fascial areas have grown overlapped, and the muscles have developed to always fire together.

Over time, this developed redundancy of movement– the unnecessary exaggeration even when exaggeration is not desired– leads to overuse. More muscles fire than necessary on a regular basis, and this inefficiency eventually enacts a penalty in muscle health. With muscles constantly contracting unnecessarily, blood/ lymph is diverted to extra areas on a regular basis, lessening the on-demand specificity of the biomechanical system and diffusing blood-flow. Areas that are constantly contracted begin to build up lactic acid, as they burn energy faster than oxygen can be delivered and the acid removed. Tendinitis, and eventually tendinosis, will result if muscles cannot fully release due to being constantly contracted.

The piano students of the “prodigy whisperer” almost all fail to live up to expectations as adults, with most experiencing some level of tendinitis at some point. Even those who escape muscle injuries often do certain things very well– generally the things they did well as children — but fail to develop consistency across their other skills. Biomechanical borrowing is overall a net negative to efficiency, so once the biomechanical system stops expanding– once the string stops growing– there is less slack in the system overall, and less independence between areas. Growth in some areas becomes stunted, and control/ specificity of movement suffers. The former prodigy may still perform brilliantly the same concerto that made them famous. But when asked to play different music, with differing demands, they struggle, working against their body’s tendency toward one particular movement set.

If you study Macaulay Culkin today, you’ll see the same expressions that made him famous as a child. But they’ll seem exaggerated, overwrought. And if you ask him to make a very different expression– to play a very difficult character– he will likely struggle against his body’s inherent tendency towards a certain set of expressions, a certain set of movements.

So how does this relate to the wide receiver position?

(click here for part 3)