The Physio Controversy

February 23, 2022 22 min read

The Physio Controversy

Recently, a YouTube channel helmed by Theo Tanchak has caused a stir in the community, with some hailing him as a provider of valuable athletic analyses, a scientist speaking on the biomechanical and anatomical principles of parkour, and illustrating the physics behind the movements of the sport’s greatest athletes. Others have assailed Theo, accusing him of making speculations based on unsubstantiated evidence, performing evaluations of athletes without consent, and performing his evaluations in a manner that is inconsistent with current sports science standards. 

 

Unfortunately, few of Theo’s critics have opted to speak with him personally, and so I took it upon myself to sit down with Theo for a conversation. I can’t consider myself unbiased without also involving Theo’s critics, and so I also spoke with Kevin Soter (@scientific.bouncing) and James Adams (@parkourclinic), as well. In this article I will explore this mild controversy and, as parkour athletes are wont to do, share some unsolicited advice. 

 

After brief introductions, Theo and I quickly dove into his background.

Me: So the first thing I want to approach is your parkour career.

Theo: Well I started parkour on the first day of 2010, so I’ve been training for 12 years. It’s a long time when you put it like that. I started when I was 19, so maybe a little old for parkour. I used to do a bit of mountain biking, but then I lived in the city, and I was broke, so it became harder to get out and go into the hills, and my friends had moved on a little bit. So I was like, “I’ll jump on stuff, that’s a sport.” 

Me: Which came first for you, the interest in physical therapy or parkour?

Theo: I’ve always been a very active person, but the more anatomical side of things didn’t come around until after I’d started parkour. There was never a defining moment or anything like that, I was just the guy who struggled with perpetual injury. I’m 6’2” so I’m not small, and when you’re a larger person performing these activities, you’re dealing with higher forces. You just are. You have a longer spine, longer arms and legs, etc. If you look at gymnastics, the highest performing athletes are all quite short. But there would likely not be a Theo Tanchak as we know it without my height and the other factors leading to my chronic injuries.

Me: How long have you been practicing physical therapy?

Theo: I am doing my own thing actually. I am not really defined as far as my method of treatment, and so I’m just a guy, talking about bodies.

Me: So how much schooling do you have?

Theo: Many years ago now I attended school for an exercise science degree. But, I actually still have not finished, I still have a semester to go. But I do plan on finishing my degree this year, so that when people ask me what my qualifications are, I can say, “I have an exercise science degree.” I’ve also almost finished a degree in psychology, and will be completing that as well. I’m thinking of completing my masters in psychology actually.

Me: Currently you specialize in posture analysis, is that correct?

Theo: That’s probably the closest term that describes what I do, yeah. So, the best way to explain what I do, is to look at how I got there. Back when I was doing my parkour training, I was experiencing really bad chronic injury, like really bad. I was having pain in my knees, my ankles, my shoulders, my shins as well, and they would all switch around. Basically it got to a point where I was in pain all the time, and so I would take periods of six months off of training, just rehab and rest. But as soon as I came back into parkour I would start experiencing pain again. It was a fairly difficult time in my life because I was like 21, 22 years old and all my friends were doing parkour, and were mostly fine, but I might as well have been decapitated. I started bouncing between different treatment professionals, I spent tons of money and saw maybe 10 different physiotherapists, as well as osteopaths, tried sports massage, and even started trying other holistic alternatives to see if they would help. I was just in a lot of pain, and people were telling me that maybe I just wasn’t built for parkour, or some people are just like this, but I guess I’m just a very stubborn person. I didn’t want to believe that this could be what defines me, I just thought, “Well this is ridiculous.” I was so young, there couldn’t be something wrong with me, it just didn’t make sense to me. So I eventually started reading books on anatomy, physiotherapy, checking out books from the library to try and understand for myself. I kind of got obsessed. I just tried to understand what was going wrong, why what I was doing was hurting me and not my friends. I would film myself and look at myself moving more and more, and the more I looked, the more I realized that my movements just look weird. Like my friends and I were doing the same things, but my movements just looked very different. So I started trying to change that, basically. Not just doing strength exercises or rehab. I experienced pain in my shoulder, and began studying how my arm looked when raised above my head, and I thought, “Well that just looks wrong.” And that’s sort of what started the obsession with appearance. It doesn’t just feel bad, or look bad, the feeling and the appearance go together. You can just tell when something’s wrong. Like when you have a bad landing, you can see the knees and ankles collapse, and it hurts. It’s obvious. 

Me: Callum Powell touched on that on the Storror Podcast, that an aesthetically pleasing landing and a technically sound landing are the same for a reason. (The actual quote is, “We like the way that [a good landing] looks because of this dogma that it is better for you, they kind of fuel each other in a way.”)

Theo: Yeah, and that’s the rabbit hole that I went down. What I learned was that it wasn’t just what I was doing in parkour that was causing issues, it was what I was doing in my daily life. I was sitting with deeply rounded and raised shoulders, all the time. It wasn’t just my movement, it was all the time. So I started sorting out how to eliminate the pain from my daily life, and then apply those principles through to my parkour as well. I was thinking about my center of gravity. What’s my spine doing, and where’s my weight shifting? Having developed this idea of why bodies work, I wondered why I hadn’t read about anything like this. I started studying exercise science, and the information wasn’t there, then I started meeting professionals in different fields, not as a client, just to talk to them about their process. I wanted to know if there was anyone doing what I did, but spent 30 years perfecting it as a method. I was lucky enough to run into an ex-physiotherapist who I learned a lot from. I spent about three years studying with him. A lot of my story is deeply influenced by him, his name is Nick Curry, but he’s not really published on the internet. He basically has the same philosophy but has been practicing for like 20 years at that point and still meets and helps clients today.

Me: So we’re getting into the criticisms of your videos a little bit now. On the Storror Podcast, Andreas Lorentzen seemed to disregard the practice of athletic analysis via video footage as “circle jerking.” Saying that, “You take the chain of causation and theorize, and it’s really unsubstantiated by evidence. I think it’s a cool thought experiment, but it’s no more than a thought experiment.” What are your thoughts on athlete analysis and its potential benefit?

Theo: This is something that I’ve heard a couple of times now, and I think it’s a really strange premise that you can’t analyze people via video. If I met with a client, all of my analysis would be done with my eyes, but since this is viewed through a screen, it’s suddenly less valid? Fundamentally you’re just looking at things and explaining what you see. So, for instance, looking at the Storror videos, if you want to see 12 hours of Callum Powell moving, you can do that. You can see him moving through equal ranges of movement, from multiple angles, over a period of 10 years, in various physical forms, etc. It’s not always the perfect viewing angle, but with the substantial amount of footage they have, if you wanted to analyze Callum doing a standing precision, there are thousands and thousands of examples, from any angle you could imagine. You can see where there are and aren’t inconsistencies. The other side of that is, “Well could you be blowing smoke?” And well yeah, there are some people who would use such a practice and blow smoke, but that’s why analyzing movement in this way has to be grounded fundamentally in an understanding of how bodies work and how to use the body. 

Me: I do agree in the sense that video analysis seems sort of intrinsically linked to parkour, thanks to the thousands of hours of parkour tutorials all over the internet, everyone performs some level of movement study in order to learn. 

Theo: You’re right. So what I want you to do is stick your chin forward as far as it goes, and go do some jumps, and you’ll feel what I’m talking about. Your body position is off and you can tell, and your position really does matter. People study parkour tutorials and think, “That’s the shape I need to make, that’s the timing I need for this skill, whatever it is.” So I feel the parkour community has a stronger grasp of the body than other movement communities in a lot of cases. And there’s already an established culture of studying the position of the body, so that’s why I feel like my work has resonated with some of the community already.

Me: One of Callum Powell’s chief complaints appears to be that your claims are presented as “matter-of-fact.” If you approached your videos as being based on educated opinion, would anything change on your channel?

Theo: The reason I’ve presented my views as fact is because I’m generally extremely confident in my knowledge and what I’m talking about. To be in a public sphere and share this information with others, and be open to criticism, you can’t do that unless you’re 100 percent sure of the information you’re providing. I care about the parkour community. I’ve seen some facebook posts and things calling me a “snake oil salesman.” And all I can say is that you may disagree with my approach or my methods, and that’s okay. I think it’s a question of, of course I believe what I’m saying. 


Me: That’s one of the things that irked me about the criticisms of your videos, is that people appear to be talking about how they don’t agree with you, but most of those critics aren’t including you in their conversations. They just talk to the open internet and hope you hear it. Or at least that's how it seems. 

Theo: People in this industry have a vested interest in their own health and well-being. I think it’s very difficult for people to consider that they might not be on the correct path for themselves. And I think the people who have the most vocal opposition to what I’m saying have their own established narrative and explanation for how and why things are happening in the body, so they have a little bit of knowledge and have based their worldview around that. It’s completely understandable, and I don’t think that makes anybody wrong. If we can get to a place of healthy disagreement I think that’s fine. I’d be happy to make an argument for my point of view anytime, with anyone. I’d be happy to speak with Callum Powell if he were interested, though he doesn’t seem at all interested in speaking to me, but that’s fine. And of all of the criticisms, I mean, I wasn’t surprised by some people, but I was most hurt by Callum’s. He talked recently about how hard it is to make a living in parkour at all, and that it’s important when people make content that they receive helpful and constructive criticism, and then he turns around like, “Oh he’s shoveling shit.” I honestly respect the Storror guys so much, with the success that they’ve had making online content and pushing parkour as a sport and an industry. I’ve always felt like if it had to be someone to earn that level of success, then I’m glad it's them. I truly admire them, and don’t want to be seen as throwing shade at them in any way.

Me: Another criticism that I’ve seen of your content is a matter of athlete consent, do you get consent from athletes before making content about them?

Theo: That’s an interesting point. In the early videos I got implied consent, not explicit consent, later on I got explicit consent. I tried to reach out to Callum before making the video but he did not respond to my requests.

 (Writer’s note: When asked further about what Theo meant by “implied consent,” Theo produced two screenshots, one from YouTube where Tim Champion suggests a video be made on his lache distance, and a direct message on Instagram where Max Cave agrees to help Theo acquire footage for a video. In my opinion, going forward with a video about Callum while lacking consent from him, was ethically questionable to say the least.)

Me: James Adams, @parkourclinic on Instagram, made a video about your methods and referenced “perspective error” in regards to the footage chosen for your evidence. Specifically, he had an issue with the lines that you draw across the screen, combined with camera angle and other things, which he says makes for unreliable evidence. 

Theo: So, in all of my videos, I have to choose a clip to illustrate my point, it’s just the clip I chose, not the only clip that I’m using to make these analyses. The viewing angle for the clips that I chose in the Drew Taylor video may not have been ideal, but what I’m reflecting on is an observation that I’ve made based on 10,000 other clips. I agree it would be better if I had the benefit of a perfect viewing angle to illustrate my points, but we aren’t always blessed with that when looking at training footage. Thankfully what we do have is thousands of different angles in the case of the Storror guys. But I agree, if I was basing my entire observation off of the single clip that I chose for that video, that would be absurd. I would love it if people would go and watch three hours of Drew’s movement, because they will see that my observation is based on an established pattern. And people accuse me of cherry picking, then they look at Callum’s Instagram for 10 minutes and say they don’t see what I see, and that’s cherry picking! That’s the definition of cherry picking. People should really take the time to evaluate the years and years worth of footage that we have at our disposal. Going forward, I’m asking athletes for clips of footage specifically for the video, rather than choosing myself, so it’s easier to translate to the audience, and you get the athlete involved. Not so I can analyze those clips specifically, just so I have something nice for the audience.

 

I found Theo to be very forthcoming about his views and experiences, and was open to the criticism he’s received from the community.  When I asked James Adams, @parkourclinic, for comment, he had this comment and question for Theo:

 

“The main criticism I would level at him is that his approach, while probably well intentioned, is a remarkably outdated and narrow minded approach to sports injury and treatment that places vast overemphasis on posture and biomechanics. He also employs very unsuitable techniques in using video clips from YouTube to perform his analysis. Finally I also do not think it is ethical as a therapist to publicly dissect and analyse athletes and their injuries when he has never met them, had a conversation with them, or sought their approval to discuss them in a YouTube video. There’s plenty I’d like to challenge Theo on, but it might be difficult via a third party, so I’ll stick with: Is he aware of the criticism of him from people like myself, Oliver Thorpe, and now Callum Powell, and if so, why isn’t he engaging with the wider scientific parkour community considering he’s positioning himself as a voice of authority in that space?”

Theo responded, “I’m not active on social media, so maybe I don’t see a lot of the things that go on, but no one has ever contacted me directly. It seems that people’s intentions are not to enter into discussion, but rather to outright dismiss and disparage. It doesn’t seem like an appealing space to enter. I’m happy to speak with anyone who would speak with me directly.”


Personally, I think James makes some very compelling arguments. I also searched social media for anyone who had reached out to Theo directly, and found one person who had attempted an actual discourse. Kevin Soter, @scientific.bouncing on Instagram, had posted about Theo on his Instagram, and tagged Theo directly after seeing Theo’s first YouTube videos. Theo reached out, and they decided to record themselves having an in-depth discussion and debate about Theo’s methodology. The video is extremely long and the topics can be a bit dense, so I will not publish the video here, but should anyone want to watch it, they can reach out to Kevin Soter directly. I spoke with Kevin about his background and their conversation, and I found his opinions refreshing. 


Me: So what exactly is your academic background?

Kevin: I have a bachelor’s degree in sports science, and am currently working on my masters degree. My bachelor’s degree was very open, but I would consider my specialty somewhere in the realm of biomechanics. I’m trying to publish my first paper and am working on my second. It’s a lot of self education on top of academics, and I don’t think you can get everything with a degree.

Me: What made you reach out to Theo in the first place?

Kevin: It was one of his first videos, the one about Drew Taylor and his foot slipping. I hadn’t heard of Theo before, but I watched this short video, and it didn’t fit with what I’ve learned. I was confused by a lot of the wording of the analysis. I wrote a lengthy comment about it which never appeared on YouTube for some reason, a comment length restriction or something. But we chatted a bit and decided to record our talk, but it ended up being an hour and a half long, and rather than cut and edit it to death, we decided not to publish it.

Me: I want to get your take on Theo’s videos, what are some of your key criticisms?

Kevin: To be open, I haven’t seen his last however many videos he has now, I have distanced myself from his viewers. Because we just disagreed on a lot of points, and found it hard to discuss it in a scientific way. The first video, I made a response on Instagram, it’s a story highlight called “Response To.” In this story highlight, it’s like 5 slides long, but I go into it there. I think my main problem with the video was that he’s taking cherry-picked videos, which are shot in a parkour-specific angle so it looks good, to analyze the posture on a global scale. So he tries to look at a video and say, “This is wrong, this is right.” In every scientific study you would use reflection markers, a force plate, a 3D motion capture system, to see the slight changes happening. To actually make a recommendation without these tools, is a lot of speculation involved. So I don’t actually know if he’s right or wrong. I would never actually say that he’s wrong, but that this isn’t a good way to perform a biomechanical analysis. 

Me: I appreciate that you wouldn’t just call him wrong, based on his observations. 

Kevin: I think if you read my comment back then, the tone is slightly different, more accusatory. But this was before I met and spoke with Theo. Even though I might think he’s wrong, it doesn’t make him a bad person. I would even love to talk with him again about these subjects, even though it would likely end the same way.

Me: You said you struggled to speak about this scientifically, what do you mean by that?

Kevin: First of all, I watched the video around 100 times, and I found a few points which were very confusing because they were stating the opposite of each other. I pointed out that his logic seems to change, I still think so, but he says that isn’t the case. Afterwards I went into what the science has to say about posture, and moving posture, and standing posture, and pain. Because this is a big claim of his, is that the posture is the point that makes the movement break down. In my opinion it would only be bad if the posture leads to pain. Every other way you would have full potential to get movement done and get it done efficiently. He also… unfortunately I have to say it like this… discredits all the science done on posture. That made it very difficult to talk about. He said that the methodology of all the studies is wrong, and that the scientists performing the studies aren’t looking at posture the way it should be looked at.  I countered with a question, “The scientists who have been studying posture for 20, 30, and 60 years are all wrong?” He was of the opinion that the experts in the field don’t know about posture as well as he does. 

Me: You’re right, that’s a tremendously bold claim. 

Kevin: I think part of the problem with this is that he has a lot of success with his clients, which obviously is really really great. However, if you are a coach or a physical therapist, or in this area, the people who you work with and who want to work with you select themselves. You have people who don’t like your style, and so they don’t come back. And you have people who like you, and they come back. Because they like you, there’s a lot of communication, and even some placebo effect that could be at work, which does not necessarily have to have anything to do with the assessment you are doing. Especially where pain is involved, because pain is so subjective.

Me: I feel like Theo is really trying to provide legitimate value for the parkour community, even if it’s a little misguided.

Kevin: I agree, I think he does what he does because he thinks it’s very valuable. I think the only problem with it is that it’s subjective. And I think we as coaches do enough subjective guiding, maybe to bring the sport further we bring it more into the objective area, and see what is actually being said, what we can actually see, and the science that we could implement.

 

After my conversation with Kevin, I felt like the complaints he had about Theo’s views were well substantiated, and I respect that he raised his concerns with Theo himself. I even agree with Kevin’s points of view specifically. Having seen the video conversation, I feel like they agree on some very important points, particularly the lack of practical knowledge provided by a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. On the part of their discussion of biomechanics, there is a definitive disagreement that I am unfortunately not well versed enough in these subjects to attempt to mediate, though that’s not what I’m here to do. Kevin and Theo both place a lot of importance on self-education, as does Callum Powell. In fact, Callum and Theo have very similar academic backgrounds, in that neither of them has a university degree, which clearly isn’t a weakness.

 

Oliver Thorpe, who wrote a blog about Theo’s videos (which is unfortunately not readable due to website issues) was never sent to Theo, nor was Theo consulted for comment. Oliver’s blog link was left in the comment section of one of Theo’s videos, unfortunately though this link is now broken. However, I did listen to Oliver Thorpe’s podcast on the subject, and he makes some points worth considering. Specifically that “the burden of proof rests on the person making the claims.” The burden rests squarely on Theo to prove his claims, using adequate evidence, and if he cannot due so, then he may be misrepresenting his content.


I think that the clear issue here is a lack of communication in the parkour community. From my research, I concluded that Kevin was the only person to directly involve Theo in the conversation about his own videos. James Adams, who posted a lengthy Instagram piece on Theo, even using Theo’s face, didn’t tag Theo, or attempt to reach out for comment. To his credit, James offers to speak with Theo personally in his video response, though it appears to have gone unheard. Finally, Callum Powell, who the parkour community seems to consider the utmost authority on matters of the human body, decided against an adult conversation with Theo, instead opting to disparage Theo’s work on the podcast and social media platforms of the single largest parkour team in the world. 


While I personally agree with many of the admonishments against Theo, I also believe in the grassroots values of the parkour community. Values that Callum preaches to his followers; parkour is a difficult enough sport, let alone industry, and to chastise people for trying to make content that they feel has value, is a backwards step in my opinion. This isn’t to say that criticism cannot be levied against those who deserve criticism, but only that critiques should be provided in a constructive manner, and allow the person to grow and learn, and avoiding speaking with the person in question doesn’t help that issue, regardless of how constructive the critiques are. Criticism should be framed as an opportunity to improve oneself, and unfortunately, that isn’t what happened in this situation. I would liken this to some of the events surrounding the Breach film, about which Callum had this to say, “It’s not in our best interest to put a barrier between this viable option for people to make a living and parkour, because it’s a barren wasteland of an industry, and we need all the help and support we can get.” 


As far as I am concerned, all of us are putting in an effort to improve the sport that we love, and reducing someone’s efforts to “shoveling shit on social media” is an unnecessary and unfair characterization from someone as well respected and as influential as Callum Powell, someone who I consider to be a brilliant mind in parkour, and a real supporter of the community at large. He is of course entitled to his opinion, I just feel that if he’s going to speak about people this way, that he should bring them on the podcast, and have it out.


Ultimately, I think that we as a community need to open up the dialogue and include the people that we criticize, so that all of us have the same opportunity to improve, and so that we avoid unnecessary animosity. As far as Theo Tanchak’s videos are concerned, I need to be perfectly honest; I don’t know enough to say whether or not Theo’s content is truly helpful, but listening to him couldn’t possibly be any more or less useful than listening to Callum Powell.


Before publishing the article, I sent it to all of the included parties, and I received these comments:

Theo Tanchak: “[Kevin’s] comment: ‘He discredits all the science done on posture,’ Is definitely not representative of my view point, I just think it is limited, there is obviously some good stuff out there, but the overall conclusions from some of the meta analysis that have been done seem incorrect to me. I am a fan of the scientific process, and all claims must eventually be supported by it.”

James Adams: “Theo is giving HEALTH advice in his videos, advice on pain and injury, that go far beyond a general level of opinion or advice. Videos on health and injury have a far, far greater potential for harm and must, as a result, be held to a far higher standard of quality and evidence. And unfortunately, the very foundation of Theo's work - the link between posture and injury - is unsubstantiated and his approach actively discouraged by modern physiotherapy practises. He has not once provided any shred of evidence to back up what he claims. It's important to note here as well that none of the substantive criticism of Theo, from myself, Kevin, or Oliver, consisted of personal attacks, but only ever discussions of the videos he has put out and his advocating for a strong link between posture and injury. It was absolutely fair and open criticism given in the same spirit as I'm sure Theo intended originally for his videos - as an attempt to provide education to the parkour community. You say at the end of your piece that criticism should be seen as a chance to grow. Instead, the strong impression is that Theo does not seem interested in genuinely responding to his critics, and even outright says as much in your interview when he says it does not seem to be an appealing space to enter. That is not how he should be approaching criticism of his work.
I will concede that some people were quite rude about Theo in the conversations about him, but I was always careful not to join in with those and have always maintained that I have no issue believing Theo's intentions to be good.”

Kevin Soter: “I believe that Theos own words "I think it is very difficult for people to consider that they might not be on the correct path for themselves" also applies to himself. Without making any further assumptions about the correctness of his analyses he still bases his opinions on a link between posture and injury which in the scientific consensus of sports and exercise science has failed to show any meaningful association, let alone any causal relationship, for decades! Additionally, Theos advice for the parkour community, which is made without any evidence aside from his individual and his clients experience (known as n = 1) can very well have the consequence of a nocebo-effect and thus do more harm than good for the community. I would be more than happy to further discuss these issues with Theo or any other person who is interested in it (in private or public) if any substantial evidence will be brought up and examined as the basis for such a talk.” 

Callum Powell: “So, I wanted to touch on the “100% sure” bit. This is absolutely arrogant, especially coming from someone completely unqualified! I didn’t see his message to me until now unfortunately, but If he’s so certain, then why is he asking for how I specifically injured my back??! If he’s so sure about his narrative - that it’s all biomechanics, then why the need to hear about the milieu of complex things that are at play that resulted in my pain? The simple fact is, you can’t know about pain mechanisms from watching videos of technique. It’s too simplistic approach, especially as it’s still extremely difficult for clinicians to find the cause of pain in person with a patient after questioning them for an hour about habits, sleep, stress, injury history, training background, load management, then screening their movement, their posture and seeing any MRIs or other imaging if they’re to hand.
It’s so obnoxiously arrogant and completely unscientific to make these “100% sure” claims on a platform that he’s created, where he’s formed a narrative where he’s considered an authority among people that have no idea what they’re watching to be able to dispute it.

I’d like to get him on a podcast and have this out. James Adams criticism is fair. He is absurdly outdated with current research, and as Andreas states in our podcast, the biopsychosocial model for pain has been built upon since the 90s.

I just want to add one last thing:
There are many healthcare professionals who are specialists in particular fields. If you go to a sleep expert they may attribute all of your pain or lack of athletic success to a lack of sleep. A nutrition expert may put it all down to insufficient macro or micronutrients. A biomechanics and posture analysis “guru” is likely to say that it is all about your biomechanics and they must be fixed before returning to sport. Each specialist expertise views pain and performance, which are immeasurably complex things (because people are complex, and not cars or gadgets), through such a narrow window and are unable to view the complex situation beyond the scope of their speciality. But there are more modern, evidence-based physios out there who view things more holistically (not in the new age airy-fairy way) to narrow down each contributing factor which might be sensitising the effected tissue causing pain symptoms.” 

 Pictured below: Callum Powell’s personal notes on the work of Greg Lehman.

 



Images herein provided by Theo Tanchak, Kevin Soter, and Callum Powell


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