A nice coaching story

Greg Thompson to me is a world leader when it comes to developing a movement vocabulary with young people. He teaches PE in the Farmington Schools District at Longacre Elementary school in An Arbor, Michigan. As far away as he is I always try to catch up with him via phone or Facetime and invariably I learn something. Today was no exception and he gave me a good illustration of something that I have been working on with coaches in my recent Coach Education brainstorming.

If coaches are to deliver a progressive syllabus of technical, tactical, physical (mechanical and metabolic) and mental (behavioural) elements then they need to be well educated in each of them. Although not easy we seem to have an acceptable language and vocabulary that sees coaches at least get by with the technical and tactical stuff. We continue to implore coaches not to ignore the physical and mental elements in their delivery and there is no doubt that they need better help from their education content. While the Athletic Development (Physical) journey is a huge area to consider it is not the subject of this commentary. The mental journey is the ‘elephant in the room’ – we know it is a vital component; we know we want people to display discipline, commitment, attitude, perseverance, humility, respect, etc; but fail dismally to treat these traits with the same importance as technical and tactical.

Greg illustrated today how he dealt with one of these traits – how to encourage perseverance in a young person. The topic of the movement lesson was locomotion and Greg was getting the class (5 year-olds) to solve the puzzle of galloping while bouncing a ball. One young man was struggling and he finished up in tears when he went to Greg to say – ‘I can’t do this no matter how hard I try’. Now Greg has a system where every so often he selects and ‘Eagle’ who sits for a few minutes on the stage and looks for classmates who are doing the exercise well. It is just a brief job that gives a little task to a person who then has to use their observation skills to choose a classmate who is succeeding in solving a puzzle. He told the young man that it didn’t matter that he could not quite get the gallop + bounce task because he was winning the battle by trying really hard. He was rewarded for his effort by being promoted to being an ‘eagle’ for a few minutes with the job to look for a classmate who was trying as hard or even harder than he had been doing.

Greg rewarded effort not talent; he spent time with an individual who needed help and not just with those who were successful; he saw an opportunity and stimulated behavioural change.

There will be plenty of opportunities to effect behavioural change – you just need to know what to look for and then act. You need to give time and space in the training program to these traits.

If you want perseverance – recognise effort and reward it.

If you want discipline – get them to do the things they don’t want to do.

If you want commitment get them to self-assess and repeat those attempts that did not reach the standard they set for themselves.

If you want to develop respect then be a coach who recognises and rewards those who try hard and not those who are just gifted.

Greg – brilliant as usual.

Some pertinent questions asked of late

Questioning your assumptions about the Development pathway? Here are just a few questions from some recent meetings with a number of National and State organisations:

Is participation on the rise in all age-groups?
What action are you taking at vulnerable age groups for any reduction in participation you are seeing?
Any technical, tactical, physical or mental limitations at the transition stage to senior sport and/or high performance?
Are injuries decreasing?
What injury epidemiology statistics are you keeping?
Do you have a known progressive journey across technical, tactical, physical and mental elements?
Are the majority of athletes mechanically and metabolically efficient, consistent and resilient for their training age?
Are technical models sound at all training ages?
What are your quality control mechanisms?
What is the frequency of your quality control?
Who is in charge of quality control?
Who is checking session content across the nation?
What would be the average Coach:Athlete ratio per session across the training ages?
What coach education / development takes place after the certificates are given out?
How are you measuring the efficacy of your coach education / development pathway?

The Development Pathway – some recent chats.

Since my return to Brisbane I have managed to meet with the leaders of three State sporting organisations to brainstorm ‘Development’ strategies. Each were brutally honest about what they see being delivered in coaching sessions and the effect this has on the older athletes on the cusp of entering senior or high performance environments.

At the same time, they were cognisant of the fact that they need to empathise with the coaching population involved in the development pathway – recognising that the content of Coach Education had not served them well enough. It was also recognised that there were few, if any, support mechanisms for these coaches once they left the education process. It was agreed that quantity had overtaken quality (due to the fact that the more coaches put through the system the more money was being made) and that little was known about a coach’s delivery methods and content once they left the workshop or certification room.

Some of the implications of this were tabled and included large drop-offs in participation (especially in the 12-14-year age groups; higher injury numbers; more mechanical and metabolic limitations at 18 years of age; and in the Field and Court sports limitations in decision-making and other related ‘game-sense’ issues.

At least these leaders recognised the problems – two other entities informed me that all was well and that no assumptions needed to be questioned.

I have a good feeling that these organisations just might have a chat with each other and see if they can share some of the burden that the required ‘change’ will require. They also agreed that things needed to change at the session / coaching level in the first instance and less at the administrative level. Not for them a new announcement and fanfare about how good the new system will be while none of the coaches feel any of the change. If they are to do something different then they seem to be understanding of the required focus having to be at the coaching session layer first and foremost.

Observation – what to expect

Every stride, jump, throw, kick, catch, strike, bend, rotation, squat, lunge, landing, pull, push, brace, hinge, reach and pivot that you observe during your coaching session is the mosaic of the movement vocabulary that makes up the technical journey the athlete is on. These elements form the basis, the infrastructure, the DNA of the technical model you are seeking.

With each athlete arriving at training with uniquely different anatomical, physiological and neurological components alongside their own different learning, adaptation and recovery rate; all coupled with their unique maturation stage compared to the person next to them it is clear that they will interpret your sought after technical model differently to the person next to them.

If this is the reality of the coaching session then surely the technical model you are seeking should be one that displays variability both in its existence and in comparison with other athletes. Movement variability is as important an issue as everything else in the coaching toolbox. There is no one single technical model that “fits all’. It is no use chasing a movement pattern that does not display some variability (a) as it is being executed (b) in comparison to the previous attempt (c) in comparison to another athlete.

It will never be perfect but it must be excellent in the light of the required components of the technical model. Incessantly chasing a movement pattern for perfection is a waste of time. Chasing a movement pattern for repeatable excellence is a different matter. Different elements will work differently for each athlete so variability should be seen as a useful entity during the journey. You will see little symmetry in the human body so don’t expect to see it in a movement pattern.

For those of you who have a form of OCD about the technique you are seeking, try to embrace movement variability. As time goes by you will realise that some variability is OK to accept as it is a fact of life.

Obviously, you can never accept something that is negatively affecting mechanical efficiency, consistency and resilience but you must ensure that you know what to keep working on and what to leave alone. Remember there is never only one way of doing anything. The athlete’s answer to the technical puzzle you have set them may well look very different to what you might have expected, especially when comparing to the technical model of world-leading athletes. If their interpretation gets the job done and satisfies the fundamentals, then there is a decent chance that you are seeing their unique interpretation which is as valid an anything else.

Home-Away-Home Part 3 – Major Lessons

After 45 years of involvement is all layers of sport and having spent the last 8 years in an advisory / mentoring / supporting role I have arrived at some conclusions. They are not the final destination of all my thoughts as I expect to have a load more experiences that could sway my current judgement but they are going to be pretty close to models and processes that just might be worth considering. Some items are coaching points, others are written as a conversation and others are great words from other people.

Reviews / Coach Education / Development

When de-briefing anything whether it is a nation’s results in an Olympic Games; an individual sport’s results internationally; a Clubs results in the annual competition; an athlete’s annual progression, it is always best to start right at the cutting edge – where the rubber meets the road – the daily session undertaken by the coach and athlete. Too often reviews are undertaken after something goes wrong and these ‘royal commission’ type examinations often look at everything except the fundamental issues. Money is spent on all sorts of pseudo-experts from research, science and academia to get to the bottom of the problem when it is far more effective to start at the sharp-end and work backwards towards the philosophy and administration.

While more and more financial resources are spent on bureaucracy and administration and more and more special positions with elaborate ‘titles’ it is easy to miss the point. There are four critical elements of repeatable excellence that are consistent (a) a committed athlete willing to sacrifice (b) a well-educated, open minded coach who is skilled across all 4 pillars of performance – Technical, Tactical (Arena), Physical, Mental (Behavioural) (c) a long term system of development from Community Well-being through Development onwards through Transition and on to High Performance (d) a reservoir of well-educated and open-minded service providers from Sports-Science, Sports Medicine, PE Teachers and Administrators. Unfortunately, I have never see all four co-ordinated optimally in one place.

With regard to items (a), (b), (c) and (d) the quicker people stop thinking that they already have everything in place the better. Firstly, people and organisations often fail to ‘change’ because they are not hurting enough yet. By the time they decide to change it is often too late to fix things quickly. Secondly I am always amazed that the people who created the problem in the first place expect to be part of the solution.

Let us please stop thinking that we truly understand and have resourced appropriately the aforementioned stages from Community Well-Being through to High Performance. The physical well-being of the younger generations is certainly at risk through the sedentary living they experience; the lack of ‘physical’ in PE; the poor nutritional elements of their existence; the lack of ‘grit’ we see in and expect of them. Instead of an appropriately progressive journey you will often see a fixation on early specialisation and a focus on the early maturing athlete. You will see a ‘fast-tracking’ and ‘quick-fixing’ strategy at the transition time from junior to senior sport. No – we are miles off in this respect.

“Give them the physical competence to do the technical stuff and the technical competence to do the tactical stuff – in that order.

“If your child could only study one subject at school you would worry about their development & missed opportunities for them to learn new skills. So why, for some coaches, is Early Specialisation perceived as acceptable?” (Toms, 2014)

Let us please stop kidding ourselves that we have the right Coach Education content when we clearly do not. ‘What they learn they will deliver’. Just examine the content of training sessions from the warm-up onwards and see if all 4 pillars are being dealt with. You will see competition-specific actions and postures coupled with loads of drills and other ‘explicit only’ coaching. You may see (not a guarantee) coaches capable in technical and tactical elements to win the next game but all at sea when it comes to the ‘physical’ (athletic development) and mental aspects of the training regime. Too often the coach calls upon the Strength and Conditioning world to look after the physical development of their athletes simply because they don’t have a clue. Still think that Coach Education content is up to speed? If they are lucky they get a practitioner who is an Athletic Development specialist who understands movement efficiency, consistency and resilience. On the other-hand they can get a weight-lifting zealot who will cause more problems.

Also let us also stop kidding ourselves that we are creating coaches who are advanced in the ability to coach; who are students of pedagogy and who understand the human element of the required delivery. We see more and more scientists trying to become teachers / coaches as opposed to the opposite.

When assessing the efficacy of your Coach Education program please stop using raw attendance numbers to justify your process. It is irrelevant how many people attend the course and get the certificate. The only quality that needs to be measured is the effect of your education on the quality of performance in the given sport technically, tactically, physically and mentally. Every athlete enters a sport with an intention to get better at it. If your Coach Education is not doing this then change it.

Remember that 99% of the coaching population are volunteers. Make it as easy as possible for them to learn and deliver the right stuff.

Happy to report that the world is full of practitioners who can ‘mend ‘em’ when they are broken’ and monitor them when they are training. Sports Science and Sports-Medicine practitioners, as long as they are open-minded, are in fine shape for any strategy. I cannot thank enough all those sports-medical practitioners and scientists who have helped me towards better decisions over the last 30 years in particular. They are vital cogs in the strategy but they need to be ‘on-tap’ and not ‘on-top’. What I am seeing in the last decade is the birth the practitioner with a foot in both worlds. I can name a small number of practitioners who have gained great experience in coaching and then embarked on their science journey to then finally return with an understanding of both worlds. Few at the moment but thankfully on the increase.

Coach Education Content. I finally realised that it was daft to wait for someone to change things so I made the relevant changes with some like-mined people. It has taken 5 years but there is now an Athletic Development course structure in place that can be married to any Coach education / Recruitment pathway. I finally came across an NGB that recognised item 5. They invested in a re-working of the Technical journey for Athletics and supported the creation of a parallel Athletic Development journey. They were willing to question their assumptions on the Technical journey rather than blindly continue with what had gone before and then ‘grasp the nettle’ and add the powerful element of Athletic Development to the mix. It is wonderful to see the content of training sessions nowadays compared with what had gone before. The process across all the training ages looks far more appropriate and the pathway is indeed a journey for the individual.

The Physical and Technical Stuff

Develop athletes who:

Have appropriate body awareness and proprio-ability (this is a word created by my mate John Perry – it means the person is in control from toenails to fingernails wherever they are in time and space – nice eh!).
Can solve locomotion, non-locomotion and manipulative movement puzzles.
Can do actions: at the right time; in the right direction; with the appropriate amount of force
Have no ‘energy leaks’ along the entire kinetic chain
Then teach them the sports-specific skills, and tactics.

Speed

Track Speed
Applying insane forces in the correct direction (from above) over ridiculously short periods of time is a trademark of the fastest people. (M. Young)

If the foot contact and recovery is right – the Knees will follow; the Hips will follow; the Trunk will follow.

Football Speed
Once they have the basic movement vocabulary (in every plane, direction, speed, amplitude and complexity along the entire force continuum) and developed the appropriate skills of running, jumping, throwing, kicking and passing then develop their reactive speed. Football speed is the execution of a decision.

All Speed

‘The longer the foot is on the floor the more bad things can happen’. ‘Project the Hips not just the Feet’. (Jim Radcliffe)

Get them strong – then get them fast – then get them fit. If it is all about ‘force’ then get strong enough to carry out the postures and actions of this ‘force’. Then use this force to get faster. Stop commencing the next annual cycle with slow, ponderous, vomit-based endurance to get them fit. A few weeks prior to this they were at their sharpest, fastest and most accurate when they were competing. Build on that – don’t go from slow to fast. Start at the speed you reached. Develop the quality then learn to endure that quality. Volume is not a bio-motor ability.

Endurance

It is not how many miles but the quality of each mile that counts. Running efficiency at (a) cruising speed (b) maximum speed is required by the distance runner so do what the sprinters do in terms of running mechanics. Getting them tired doesn’t guarantee that their endurance has progressed.

Get the quality first then learn to endure it e.g. Speed under speed, fatigue and pressure; Power under speed, fatigue and pressure; Agility under speed, fatigue and pressure; Get-up-ability; Decision-making under speed, fatigue and pressure; etc

Strength

It is not how strong you are but how much strength you can use.

The way sprinters apply force onto the ground (technical ability) seems to be more important to sprint performance than the amount of total force they able to produce (physical capability). (Morin et al, 2013, IAAF)

There is value in creating journeys that see general to related to specific being cycled.

General strength sees relatively simple movements usually done e.g. one plane e.g. two footed, two-handed triple extension and flexion like Clean, Squat, Snatch. These exercises can usually handle the largest amount of external resistance when done correctly. These high resistance movements are usually the slowest ‘Put a weight on an athlete’s back and you will slow them down’). The sole use of barbells can be limiting as is the sole use of machines. Think multi-joint – plane – direction at every speed, amplitude and complexity along the entire force continuum.

Related Strength sees movements that are more complex and that resemble some of the movements and forces seen in the competition actions and postures e.g. Single Leg Clean and Step Up, Walking Lunge, etc. Speeds are a log greater.

Specific Strength is seen in the actual competition movement itself or with little or no external resistance e.g. Throwing a heavy implement; pushing a light sled; sprinting uphill, bounding.

Strength can also be explained as a set of derivatives e.g. Strength for Speed examples

1. Exercises with the highest transfer such as Acceleration, Max Velocity for Sprinting strength and Take-off drills for Jumps strength

2. First Derivative might be Special Exercises – Sled Pushes, Weighted Jacket sprinting, Short-contact Plyos

3. Second Derivative might be Supportive Exercises – Clean and Drive, Longer-contact Plyos

4. Third Derivative might be General Exercises – Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Hinge , Landing at differing speeds, amplitudes, etc.

Ensure that all layers are being trained and not just one.

It all starts with becoming efficient at handling bodyweight by being able to answer a series of movement puzzles at different speeds, directions and amplitudes. These movement patterns can then be exposed to light resistance (Medicine Balls, Sand Sacks, Weighted Jackets).

Once these movement patterns have been consolidated against the varying resistance so the rest of the force continuum can be experienced e.g. Maximum strength and power where prescribed external forces are introduced.

The key must always be the speed of movement so maximal strength against the greatest resistance is only one element of the journey.

Maturation

During PHV the long bones grow faster than the connective tissue and musculature. Tissue surrounding the relevant joints can naturally be placed under ‘load’ by this. Add external load (plyometric activities in particular) to this phenomenon and injury risk increases. The ‘growth spurt’ phase is temporary and relatively short (18-24 months). During this time ‘stay in the middle’ in terms of frequency, density and intensity of training. Keep away from the ‘edge of the envelope’. When in doubt – do more ‘general work’.

Stability

The body’s ability to create ever-moving platforms that support the transfer of energy between body parts. It ain’t just doing a plank for 5min!

Warm-Up

The most poorly coached part of the session. It is a time to prepare for ‘what is yet to come’; an opportunity to coach; an opportunity for progression; an opportunity for assessment. It is an integral part of the session not a separate one. It is not simply a time to stretch or lie over a foam roller – it is a time for action.

Behavioural

If they don’t handle their lives outside the sport, they won’t handle the sport. Your coaching doesn’t stop at the end of each session. They can’t lead two lives. Where are your reps and sets for developing these behavioural elements?

Science / Monitoring / Planning

Coaches must be able to prioritise all the interventions that Sports Science will encourage.

As technology increases, due the extraordinary growth in Sports Science provision in tertiary education, so will the ability to measure performance and training in all sorts of attractive and glamorous ways. There is an entire industry out there waiting to sell you the latest spell, potion or gadget – BEWARE. Their approach will often be stealthy, brilliantly presented and often nearly irresistible. There will be testimonials, graphs, videos and the dreaded ‘Special Deal’ just for you – BEWARE!

The best monitoring / recovery protocols can’t undo poor planning, poor periodisation and poor coaching! If you don’t have all the ‘techie’ stuff to monitor things then why not simply ask the athlete: How do you feel? Sleep OK? Eating OK? Anything hurt?

Home-Away-Home Part 2 – Team Sports

This conversation has been designed to support all those I have met in a consultancy capacity in recent years as we brainstormed ideas and concepts towards improved performance in a team setting. The operational reviews I have been honoured to conduct always needed to go beyond the actual written review report and it is the ongoing sharing of information that I find to be the most helpful to all concerned. This conversation is one of those ‘sharing’ episodes.

Just a reminder of why I write all this stuff – I am no author or research specialist and my professional development has been mainly due to watching and talking to other practitioners so I tend to jot these thoughts down more as a conversation than an official document. I have learned a lot by listening to those who have made decisions based on experience and especially those who have made mistakes and learned from them.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to chat with my colleague Dean Benton and listen to Dean and Grant Duthie explaining some of the principles and processes they employ when creating their team based performance enhancement system. A word about Grant – sure he has a PhD but he cut his teeth on practical coaching in some really demanding environments before doing all his ‘science’ stuff. He quickly returned to the sharp end of things while gaining his academic status. His practical coaching is the thing that makes him great – not the letters after his name. He and Dan Baker are renowned for their practical delivery and not just their hard-earned qualifications.

I have also been lucky enough to be part of some of Team GB’s Olympic team sports as they prepared for the tournaments in London and Rio and competitions in between. It has been a refreshing time listening to the thoughts of all these people and I view this episode in my on-going education as a mighty step forward. When I view their interpretation of ‘best practice’ I see it in the context of what other practitioners are doing in their own unique environment. In recent years I have also been greatly impressed by people like Jim Radcliffe, Ray Verheijen, Phil Moreland, Andy Thomson and Mick McDermott as they have battled their way to finding the best solutions for their team-sport environment. They have had to find the most appropriate solutions to the quest for a program that balances the technical, tactical components with the specific physical requirements of the sport.

Mick McDermott is certainly a practitioner who impressed me enormously and continues to be a source of inspiration to the present day. I joined Mick at the Al Ain Football Club in the UAE for 6 months as Performance Director which allowed me the opportunity to see him deal with the equation of Technical, Tactical, Physical and Mental. He understood the ‘technique is the execution of a decision’ and at the same time understood the need for a ‘movement vocabulary’ – both elements vital in the quest for performance enhancement and injury reduction. The key issue that he became a master of was how to satisfy these two major elements in a sport that was stuck in a paradigm of ‘everything with the ball’.

Toolbox thought

Knowing the correct stuff is not always the issue. You will also need the diplomatic skills to open and change people’s minds. You will need to try to gain an outcome in the most limited of timescales. You will need to ‘find a way or make one’.

• In 20 minutes of a well organised Warm Up you can do 300 movements. Do this in the 5 sessions of the week and you can do 6000 movements in a month. In 3 months you can achieve a lot in terms of movement efficiency, consistency and resilience. No excuses folks!

When I add this information to my own experiences as a coach and my working with and doing operational reviews for a range of professional Clubs and being influenced by the creativity of team-sport practitioners like Lachlan Penfold, Jeremy Hickmans, Jason Weber, Steve Jones, Bill Knowles, Suki Hobson, Mike Dalgleish, Brynley Abad, Julie Hayton, Charlie Higgins, Damien Marsh, John Pryor and Fergus Connolly (I know – I have forgotten someone!) I get a little more comfortable with what ‘best-practice’ for field and court team sports might look like.

First thoughts are that some of this is a challenge to the “logic that quality (specific preparation) only appears after large amounts of quantity (general preparation).” – Bordman & Villaneuva, 2014. Challenge though it might I would certainly not use that argument for the early training / development years (6-18 years). I agree with the sentiment of Bordman and his colleagues for the elite layer of performance where (and if) the senior player has arrived at the elite level with no (or few) limitations technically, tactically, physically and mentally then they can embark upon a very game-specific journey. Safe to say that very few do arrive at the senior layers with no limitations and so professional Clubs must consider reviewing their talent development pathways.

Toolbox thought:

Guarantee that players arriving at the cusp of First Team action have few, if any, limitations in the fundamentals of technique, physical and mental development.

A Reminder of the Foundations

• Develop movement efficiency in Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Hinge and Landing.

• Develop these in every direction and plane; at every speed, amplitude; along the entire force continuum from plyometric to maximum strength.

• Let the load progression be appropriate to their maturation stage (biological age not chronological age).

• Allow them to experience all the energy-release mechanisms as their metabolic ability increases.

• Let them learn using all the processes from implicit to explicit. Use outcome based learning as a major tool.

• Through implicit learning in their skill acquisition and movement efficiency development allow them to improve their decision-making speed and accuracy; anticipation and their pattern recognition.

• Use all these components to progress locomotion, non-locomotion and manipulative skills.

• While all this ‘physical’ development is taking place ensure that they are learning high behavioural standards e.g. attitude, commitment, discipline, perseverance, humility, respect.

I began my experiences with team sports back in 1986 when I was working with some of the Canberra Raiders Rugby League players in their off-season. As someone whose life revolved around an individual sport (Track and Field Athletics) the transition of my knowledge to a team sport was less than effective compared to where we are 30 years later. My T&F athletes did their training relative to the event they specialised in. They were not ‘developmental’ athletes but senior, seasoned campaigners (so I thought – back then I thought that their high national ranking guaranteed that they had all the fundamental technical and physical qualities required for an assault on the world rankings – a grave mistake!) and so their training was chosen for an event specific purpose.

The Rugby league players I met fell into the same category – I thought that they were seasoned campaigners with all the development stuff well in place. It didn’t take me long to see that their long, slow distance runs and their heavy resistance training were not the smartest means of developing football speed, football endurance and football strength. We ran up and bounded down short hills, accelerated and decelerated, dragged sleds, bounded and threw medicine balls in an attempt to give them the physical qualities to move fast. We also ran the patterns they would run in the game, particularly the ‘up-and-back’ routine. Finally their strength training moved from being a 3 month off-season process to a year-round progressive journey that dealt with general, related and specific strength. Nothing ‘flash’ just plain, old-fashioned training common-sense. The positive difference in training outcomes arose because they had done little of this previously and so there was a real performance response.

I had more ‘light-bulb’ moments as I learned more about the game itself – and the players. The way the week was put together in terms of intensity and rest and the way the cycles of work were put together to accommodate cumulative training effects across the season were interpretations of all I had learned from my Olympic T&F athletes. I learned some lessons the hard way. For example my first attempts at progressing the player’s maximum velocity work again saw me assuming too much. After a 3 year period at the Raiders where I worked as an assistant, part-time coach I reached the Brisbane Broncos in late 1989. It seemed appropriate that, now I was in a full-time position and making more of the training decisions, I could add even more specificity into their football speed work. I started the thread of maximum speed work (progressing Mach drills on to flying 10, 20 and 30m efforts with and without a ball and with and without a ‘decision’) just as my 100m Track sprinters had done. Ridiculous! Too much, too soon and loads of players developed tightness in Hamstrings, Groins, Quads, etc. I had ignored the rules of (a) ‘earning the right’ to advance the intensity of things and (b) the development of mechanical efficiency, consistency and resilience prior to maximum speed development. It all looked OK on paper but lessons were learned very quickly.

Toolbox thought:

Don’t let their ranking or competition results fool you into thinking they have mastered the basics.

I am fortunate enough to have lived long enough to have witnessed so many of these ‘light-bulb’ moments and I can safely say that each one of them grew out of simple common-sense and was never a 180 degree turn from what I had previously experienced. You don’t have to look for information that is mind-blowingly different or presented as the one, new, guaranteed solution to all our problems (no such thing). Instead you should look for those things that are worthy of consideration in the light of the known principles of training.

These training /performance initiatives, often seen as ‘ground-breaking’, always seem to be part of a simple progression of things. For example as technology has advanced so has the ability to quantify what we are doing. By quantifying the things that we do in the sphere of performance enhancement we are more able to be accurate in the elements that we introduce into training. We are able to choose the appropriate exercises; choose the appropriate intensity of them; choose the frequency and density of their appearance in the program and know when to appropriately progress or regress them all with a degree of accuracy. Unfortunately there are far too many people nowadays who see the collection of the data (and its publication) as the centre of the universe as opposed to those who know how to get the technology to help with better coaching decisions.

One must not forget, however, that our predecessors did not have the technology to assist their decision-making and that they had to rely on observation and common-sense to make these important decisions. While their accuracy may have been less than what we see in today’s technologically supported decision-making they were still skilled and open-minded enough to actually look for information and make the decision. Not all of us in the 21st century have access to technology so we must all still develop the skills of observation to help our decision-making.

‘Let science make you a better artist.’ Bill Sweetenham

Those practitioners who are hired to develop the ‘physical’ qualities of the athlete while the ‘coach’ develops the technical and tactical aspects of the performance continuum seem to be adequately serviced in understanding and using these modern-day tools e.g. GPS, BMS, etc. I am concerned, however, that the ‘coaching’ side of things must not fall behind in this aspect of performance enhancement provision. It is not just the S&C coach who needs to bring an understanding of the specificity, intensity, frequency and density coordination into the program. At First Team level the objectives are clear: keep your best players available for selection; prepare them so they can tolerate fatigue at the highest levels of intensity; train them so they are fresh (or as fresh as possible) for each game. Rugby League is a game of intensive actions – it is these actions that have to be endured (not any commitment to pointless ‘plodding’ for hours at a time which usually gets them tired and injured) so the emphasis must be on (a) achieving the highest quality of movement in the action (skill) (b) achieving the chosen (very high!) intensity of effort then (b) learning to endure it.

Training smarter with a higher intensity is more effective. This is not an opinion to be debated, it is objective fact. Verheijen, 2015

Where to Start?

A Performance Strategy

What might be the cornerstone overview for the field and court team sport? In general terms the organisation will need to make the decision as to whether they intend to develop their players through a talent development process and add these home-grown players to those who are recruited using the financial ‘clout’ of the organisation – or – be an entity that just buys in the talent. If the former is the strategy then there is much to be done. As an overall strategy the organisation will need to understand, create and resource:

1. An appropriate journey of Technical, Tactical, Physical and Mental (Behavioural) elements from induction – through pre- and post-puberty ages ranges – and on to the cusp of the senior age groups (late teen-age years). This must include all ‘feeder’ Club operations. The strategy will include:

a. The journey from pre-puberty through to the threshold of adulthood must look different to that seen at the high performance layer. Mechanical efficiency, consistency and resilience – coupled with exposure to the array of metabolic journeys – coupled with locomotion, non-locomotion and manipulative skill journeys – coupled to learning elements along the entire continuum from implicit to explicit learning – forms the syllabus for the developing athlete whose journey moves from general to related to specific.

b. Coach education and recruitment pathways including CPD for all staff from Assistant Coaches through to Development Officers and Senior Coaches. This element will need to go way beyond current content of coach education packages. Make no mistake current Coach Education will not supply you with enough information on the four pillars for you to actually deliver with effect. It is time for the smart organisations to stop waiting for their NGB to provide this and get out there and create the education content yourself. Whoever gets this right gets ahead of the game and the opposition.

c. Succession planning for staff recruitment and development – consistency and continuity of well-educated and experienced coaches is vital.

d. We must all be cognisant that every player must be developed in a way where they bring the fewest limitations forward into their senior years. This means that ‘Development’ programs, while containing some of the language and vocabulary of the high performance setting, will have to be created with a completely different emphasis.

“If your development program and high performance program look the same then one of them is wrong.”

2. A well created and resourced transition strategy where those players determined to be future first team members (maybe a High Performance Unit) are carefully serviced along the pathway to this ultimate layer of performance in the organisation. The last thing anyone would want to do at this juncture is ‘fast-tracking’ or ‘quick-fixing’.

3. An appropriate first team performance strategy that maximises all elements (Tactical, Technical, Physical and Mental (Behavioural). There must be the flexibility and adaptability within this strategy to:

a. Reduce any inherited limitations to future training and competition adaptation.

b. Ensure that every component (Technical, Tactical, Physical, Mental) is delivered in context with measureable planning of load and progression.

Toolbox thoughts:

Deliver Technical, Tactical, Physical and Mental components in every session, meso- and macro-cycles (just change the emphasis).

• Deliver the foundations of mechanical efficiency, consistency and resilience.

• Deliver the foundations of the entire metabolic pathway.

It is beholding of the organisation to create this pathway in this detail, staffed by those with the knowledge and experience to deliver at all the different layers of the player continuum. It is a journey from development through to high performance and will need a range of human, physical and financial resources to see it through. More than anything it will need a common purpose and harmony from decision-makers through to the performance deliverers. Add to this a robust succession plan for staff and the organisation may just create something for the long-term.

Toolbox thoughts:

Assemble staff who are open-minded and patient

I have written much on the elements and requirements of the ‘developmental’ layer – see Mechanical Efficiency and the Developing Athlete; An Introduction to Athlete Development; Physical Competence Assessment Manual – and the new Athletic Development Certificate Courses so I now move forward to some thoughts on this First Team Performance Strategy. These points are relevant only if the players are guaranteed to have come through an appropriate development process. I believe that they have to ‘earn the right’ to focus solely on winning by eliminating any limitations.

First Team Overview


1. Winning obviously tops the list but I would probably offer up consistent, injury reduced, repeatable excellence as the main element basically because no-one can control what the opposition does in terms of recruitment and preparation. I can’t see the point of worrying about what you can’t control. What you can do is create a plan that aims to accommodate just about everything that the opposition might bring to the table and get your players to adapt to standards that go beyond what you hope the opposition won’t have the will to try.

2. To do this sees a focus on the creation of a game-plan that reflects the qualities of the squad at hand e.g. Who in the team does what the best (in terms of Technical, Tactical, Physical, Mental)? Who in the team has what limitations? What game plan can use this knowledge the best? Immediately we can set down a long-term principle about the team – it is dynamic and not static. It will not stay in its current form and so flexibility and adaptability are the key elements that the Head Coach must consider.

3. This game-plan needs to offer the greatest number of solutions to all the elements that the opposition can and will bring to the arena in terms of skill and intensity. One would do well to keep checking this status of the game frequently during the playing season relative to what is known of the opposition and also look ahead to where the game might be developing to in the future so that your Club has some degree of ‘future-proofing’ in place. In other words this game-plan must be flexible, adaptable and progressive.

4. Very often this game plan will be created relative to certain ‘physical’ components e.g. the tempo of play may have to be raised to see off an opposition; the frequency and density of this raised intensity may have to be increased to see off the opposition.

5. The game-plan will also have to be created relative to the technical and tactical components e.g. decision-making elements may have to be done (a) better (b) more frequently; the execution of the fundamental and complex skills associated with attack, transition and defence may have to be done (a) better (b) more frequently.

6. The underlying requirement in the creation of this game plan is knowing what the game demands in terms of each position from (a) a technical / skill requirement (b) the quality, intensity and density of work. It is this area that requires a deal of thought. Beware of working these things out in averages (the usual way that we interpret the mass of data garnered from GPS, etc.) “These findings suggest that reporting mean values alone may underestimate the most intense physical demands of competition. Consequently, conditioning programs that are based on these mean values will likely result in players being underprepared for the most demanding passages of competition.” Austin et al, 2010

7. As we drill deeper into the game-plan we will unearth the physical components of skill, speed, power, strength and endurance each of which has its own unique journey from general-to-related-to-specific with the added quality of being adaptable to any game-plan conceived.

8. If items 1 – 7 are well catered for then the next requirement is to create / choose movement patterns / drills that (a) are appropriate to the demands of the game (b) constructed so that they can be advanced or regressed in intensity, complexity and volume relative to the demands of the game and the individual player.

9. This array of components must also be created and serviced in the light of the individual player requirements. One size does not fit all in terms of programming so whoever can fit the program to the individual player will enhance the outcomes.

What Next?

Some ‘Toolbox’ thoughts and questions aimed at ‘First Team High Performance’ (not all are applicable to ‘Development’).

• Volume is subordinate to intensity and quantity subordinate to quality.

• If you are involved in a ‘running’ game then for goodness sake teach them how to run. Teach them ‘How’ before training ‘How Much’.

• If you want to play fast you better train fast.

• The longer you spend at game speed or above and have the ability to recover from it the more appropriate the adaptation. What percentage of training time is spent 10-20% above game speed?

• There must be periods of advancement and periods of consolidation.

• Train certain qualities one day and different ones the next.

• Know how long the athlete takes to recover from the training of certain qualities – don’t add stress to stress – training is cumulative. ‘The session finishes when the athlete has recovered from it’ is worth understanding in this sense.

• Keep the intensity high coupled with appropriate recovery.

• Slowly learn to adapt to the intensity you need. Any sudden increase in intensity, frequency and density more than 5-10% can be hazardous.

• Volume is not a bio-motor ability.

• Know the required intensity / efforts / speeds / accelerations / collisions for each training unit at each time allocation e.g. 10sec activity – 20sec – 30sec – 60sec – 2min – 3min – 5min – 8min – etc. All this must be relative to a % of the game-plan.

• Have you eradicated all the limitations that create injury or errors at this ‘above-game-speed’ commitment?

• Take the players bodyweight into consideration when establishing cumulative load.

• Create the optimum balance between ‘stand-alone’ strength and conditioning elements and ‘game-based’ strength and conditioning elements. Remember that ‘technique is the execution of a decision’.

• Don’t just do ‘stuff’. Every activity, action and posture must link to the game-plan. In the competitive season time is the biggest problem in the fatigue – freshness continuum. Only choose activities that give you the biggest ‘bang-for-buck’ relative to the game-plan.

• A comment or two about Strength training:

(a) Developmental strength training will start with total-structural-strength (TSS) achieved by the journey undertaken with the foundation movements (see overview on page 1). The early part of the journey (up until post-puberty in particular) will focus on neuro-muscular efficiency development as opposed to only hypertrophy development.

(b) High Performance strength training is there for a purpose – to make the sports-specific actions and postures more effective relative to the game-plan and the opposition. If the player has arrived at the High Performance setting with advanced TSS then the specifics can be concentrated on. TSS will not be ignored but built upon for the advancement of the sports specific elements that now must gain the upper-hand. Every strength training exercise must be chosen for its role in this strategy and not become an aim in itself. Create an appropriate strength journey to running improvement (Acceleration; Maximum Velocity; COD; Agility) after all it is a running game. Create the strength journey to other sports-specific actions and postures e.g. Contact; PTB; etc. If all you see is Olympic Weightlifting exercise selection then something is missing.

Training Session Thoughts

Every general, related and sports-specific drill, attack practice, defence practice, transition practice, ball-work element introduced in training carries a mechanical and metabolic cost and therefore should be placed under the same scrutiny in terms of specificity, intensity, frequency and density as those elements more closely associated with strength and conditioning. Creating a session that is in two un-related parts (the S&C part and the ‘technical/tactical’ part) is pointless (but often seen). Every movement that is prescribed in the session must be there for a purpose; be part of a journey towards excellence in adaptation; be appropriate for the individual and their position. This framework must then be seamlessly woven into the chosen game-plan which in turn is chosen for the unique team characteristics available and the current trends and rhythms of the opposition. In other words ‘fit the program to your team characteristics and abilities’ and ‘fit the game plan to the highest demands of the modern game’ (and not just the average demands – be careful when reading scientific papers on game load. The often mentioned ‘mean’ values can be 40-98% below the peak values your players will be confronted with in the game).

‘Go to’ Sessions

Although all good coaches have a range of tools (exercises, drills, Small-Sided-Games (SSG’s) to bring to the training session there are some units of work that appear more than others. These are session units that the coach (and often the players) know work in a particular setting or for a particular need at a given time. If these session units do appear frequently then it is vital that more than the technical/ tactical outcomes are known. Back in 2005 my work at the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) came across this issue and it was decided to have a close look at the physical ‘cost’ of some of these ball-work sessions. David Pyne and his colleagues at the Australian Institute of Sport classified three well used ball-sessions in terms of their conditioning effect. While coaches saw these three modules of work as generally all being the same the analysis showed that one of them had a far higher conditioning effect than the other two. If training intensity is to be managed in terms of the work / recovery aspect of training then such information is vital.

By knowing the physical cost of the game and all the sub-sets of the game in terms of intensity, frequency and density and creating a game-plan that respects and accommodates these elements all training decisions can have a point of reference. It will mean a cooperative approach from all those linked in the performance chain – Coaches, S&C coaches, Sports Medical, etc.

A fine example of this cooperative approach is illustrated by the Japanese team at the recent Rugby World Cup and epitomised by the sterling work of Head Coach Eddie Jones and practitioners John Pryor and Dean Benton. Dean Benton has also arrived at this same point at the Melbourne Storm where his staff delivers the program in cooperation with the coach Craig Bellamy. Suffice to say that they collectively aim their prescription at the known elements of the individual player; the known elements of the smaller team units; the known elements of the collective team – all in the context of the intensity, frequency and density of the modern NRL game. How to use GPS, BMS, etc is therefore a key element of this information pathway but more importantly how to interpret and use the information towards efficient exercise prescription. This cannot be successful without it being a coordinated effort.

Having each exercise prescribed for a known adaptation purpose is the key element here. Physical activities in training must never exist ‘because we have always done it this way’. They are in the program at exactly the right time; at exactly the right intensity; relative to the exact game-plan requirements of the individual player or player unit. They are able to be progressed and regressed accurately at exactly the right time in the training process. Get this prescription right and you don’t have to wait until after the session to work out if the session reached the levels that you planned for.

It is the cooperation between all practitioners that is the key issue here. No longer can we justify or tolerate a silo mentality between departments within a performance operation. Sooner or later the players will arrive in their senior years of performance with few limitations (as long as their physical, technical, tactical and behavioural competence has been maximised along the 10 year journey). Once at this final layer of performance the athlete should be involved in a seamless program where physical, mental, technical and tactical elements are carefully woven together based upon observed information.

There are various places to visit to hear about and see these delivery components being put in place. Ray Verheijen and his crew at World Soccer Academy have for many years illustrated their use of small sided games (SSG). Born of the key principle that nearly all team sport technique is the ‘execution of a decision’ Ray Verheijen has created a system of progressive and regressive SSG to accommodate technique and decision-making in the same brushstroke.

But one must add to this the fact that SSG cannot be the sole tool in the coaches toolbox (especially during the development years). As Gabbett et al, 2012 suggest the sole use of games-based activity has specificity weaknesses as does the sole use of traditional conditioning. There should be a balanced use of both based upon the physical quality levels of the individual players. My own view is that the Verheijen approach is dependent on the creation of a wide and deep mechanical (movement) and metabolic vocabulary that services locomotion, non-locomotion and manipulative skills. The sole use of small-sided games will not be able to provide this.

I recall my clumsy attempts at managing training at the Brisbane Broncos back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I tried (using a pencil, paper and a stopwatch) to manipulate the below-game-speed; at-game-speed; and above-game-speed elements of training to our advantage. Using a very small number of ‘related’ drills (based upon the ‘up-and-back’ elements of the game) we slowly exposed the players to ever increasing time at ‘above-game-speed’. After 2 pre-seasons of work and one and half seasons of competition the players had adapted to this cyclic work and success followed. The key to the success of the team in the early 1990’s was not this element but the patience the organisation had. None of this adaptation happens overnight so patience is the key.

Apart from balancing this work with Head Coach Wayne Bennett’s training section of technical and tactical work and weaving the conditioning components with the twice-weekly strength training program the ‘periodisation’ elements of this training process were very basic indeed. Jump forward to 2016 and we see this ‘prescription and integration’ (as exemplified by such people as Dean Benton, John Pryor, Lachlan Penfold, Fergus Connolly, Mick McDermott and Jim Radcliffe) becoming more and more coordinated.

It is not all about the technology (although it does help to be able to monitor real-time) but more about the coming together on equal terms of technical, tactical, physical and mental components. They are presented to each other in a coordinated endeavour where the training load and outcome of each component is (a) known (b) monitored (c) delivered accurately (d) recovered from appropriately and en-masse delivered relative to the game-plan. The game plan is, in turn, developed relative to (a) the highest stressors of the modern game (b) the qualities of each individual player in the squad.

Having such a philosophy on team sport preparation will obviously place great demands on the personnel involved. There will need to be open-mindedness from all concerned and an understanding of each component of training as the ‘jigsaw’ is put together. ‘Technical’ and ‘tactical’ will have to fully understand and accommodate ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ and vice versa. No longer can there be one component subservient to another or one practitioner’s knowledge base more important than another. Certainly display a hierarchy of management, leadership and direction but when it comes to training methodology there is not one overriding component. As previously stated: ‘Every movement (drill, posture and action) must be there for a distinct purpose’. They will influence and be influenced by all the other components.

You can measure all you like and be in receipt of masses of data but the key is to interpret the data and then create the training activity that suits the objectives arising from the data. The key, as always, is exercise prescription and coaching.

So one should see the following being considered: (example from Rugby League)

R L 2
Game Speed 1

Manipulating the Game Speed. A progressive introduction leading to the highest toleration weeks 14-16 (just prior to season start). Roughly taken from Brisbane Broncos training 1989-92.

By manipulating the above or at or below game intensity / speed / frequency, density into cycles of work that allow for adaptation and recovery and super-compensation you may find that the period of time to adapt to ‘game’ fitness during the season will no longer be an issue for those with enough pre-season time to work with. Those who have only a very short pre-season will also be in a better position to manage the approaching season.

Worth a read to get to grips with the details listed above:

Gabbett, T.J, Jenkins, D.G and Abernathy, B. Physical demands of professional rugby league training and competition using microtechnology. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 15 (2012) 80-86.

Benton, D and Duthie, G. Tactical Periodisation – Concept to Implementation. GAIN Presentation, 2016, Houston, Texas.

Austin DJ, Gabbett TJ, Jenkins DG. Repeated high-intensity exercise in professional rugby league. J Strength Cond Res 2010;25:1898–904.

King T, Jenkins D, Gabbett T. A time-motion analysis of professional rugby league match-play. J Sports Sci 2009;27:213–9.

Just as the ‘human element’ is vital in coaching the individual athlete so it is the cornerstone of the team environment. Assembling the human traits that make up the quality of ‘harmony’ in a group of players and support staff is a tough job but the most important one.

Part 3 is an overview of some of the major lessons learned and a glimpse of the ‘A’ team who have made my professional existence possible.

Home – Away – Home – Away – etc. (Part 1)

Well my latest 8 year adventure is coming to a close as I wind down my time back home in the UK and it is fair to say that it has been brilliant. Working with individuals, Clubs and NGBs across their development programs, annual competitions, World Championship and Olympic cycles has been exciting and rewarding. I have met so many wonderful people, continued many long-term friendships and, hopefully, been able to help a few people. Thanks for the opportunity to play a part in the Olympic, World Championship and Commonwealth Games journeys that many were on. Also a big thanks for all those coaches who came to the hundreds of courses, lectures and presentations – your patience, acceptance and hospitality was greatly appreciated! Brisbane, kids and grandkids beckon from ‘down-under’ as does retirement I guess so I thought that I would try to write down some thoughts as I reflect on the last 8 year adventure in ‘dear old Blighty’. Let me emphasise that I am no author and I write these thoughts for two reasons (a) some mates have asked me to so they can see the lists of things for some ‘toolboxes’ I have been speaking about (b) so that I can enjoy recalling some really good things that have happened.

The start – Home

I started as a PE Teacher in Birmingham in 1968 after a really comprehensive education at Madeley College where I came across the great Ian Ward and Wilf Paish. Meeting these two brilliant practitioners set me on my pathway to coaching. As a PE teacher I ran after-school coaching in Athletics and the school athletes followed me to my local Club Birchfield Harriers. During my first faltering steps as a coach I was lucky enough to produce some English Schools Champions. One of the relay runners that won the National Schools Championships in 1969 was Tony Hadley who has become one of the UK’s leading coaches in Sprints and a great mentor in the coach development program.

Next Stop – Away

Off to the USA for 2 years in 1970 to continue my education (MA in Education) and coaching career where I was heavily influenced by the great Alan Launder at Western Kentucky University. Little did I know that 10 years later our paths would cross again in Australia. Taught PE in an Elementary School and got told off by the local police for teaching the kids movement using the ‘devils music’ – interesting idea considering this nation had just landed a man on the moon!

Next Stop – Home

I continue my PE teaching at Queensbridge Secondary School in Birmingham where I continued my coaching in an ‘after-school’ capacity. Here I did more and more coaching and was lucky enough to coach some International Javelin throwers and more English Schools Champions.

After working hard to become a National Coach for British Athletics back in the late 1970’s, and being rewarded far too early with such a position, I found myself working with more international athletes in Javelin, Hurdles, High Jump and Pole Vault and was honoured to be a team Coach at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

Next Stop – Away

For some reason (probably the support of Wilf Paish) I was invited to move 12,000 miles away to Australia in the early 1980’s. I had mistakenly said yes to Athletics Australia (then the AAU) when they asked me to become the inaugural Head T&F Coach at their new Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). It was a mistake on both sides as I was inexperienced in diplomacy and politics and they didn’t have a clue how to work with the AIS. I arrived with a bucket-load of enthusiasm and little else. I started to deliver philosophies, processes and protocols (athletes and performance first everything else a distant second) that I had learned from my time in the major theatre of world athletics (Europe and the USA) which were unfortunately unacceptable to the NGB. After 5 years of ‘fights’ I was ‘on my bike’ and doing other work while returning to be a volunteer coach.

Had a wonderful 3 years doing a range of activities at the Canberra Raiders and then got asked to join the Brisbane Broncos as the inaugural Performance Director. What a place that was – hell bent on winning; nothing in the way of high performance accept hard and smart work; full support and understanding from owners and administrators. A complete opposite to my initial experience of the country. I worked there for 6 years before needing to get back to my own coaching. This 16 year period in Australia had seen me experience a range of sports in a range of positions. I had been lucky enough to have finalists at the 1982 Commonwealth Games; the 1983 World Championships; the 1984 Olympic Games; the 1985 World Cup; 1992 Olympic Games; 1997 World Championships as well as been an adviser to a range of organisations and coach/athlete units.

Next Step – Home

After the full-time 6-year Broncos journey alongside my volunteer T&F coaching I returned to the UK to work with the London Broncos Rugby League team. My time in Australia had seen me coach some wonderful athletes and all in all they set 7 Australian records and represented their country over several Commonwealth Games; 3 World Championships; 3 World Cups and 5 Olympic Games. It didn’t matter whether I was doing it as a full-time professional or as a volunteer coach I was always excited by the coaching journey and humbled by the strengths of the athletes and the support of others. During the four-years in London I enjoyed meeting with practitioners across a range of sports and did a few reviews and lectures for them which always meant I kept on learning.

More detail and anecdotes can be read in ‘This isn’t a Textbook’ available at from Lulu Publishing at www.movementdynamics.com / Products

Next Step – Away

I returned to Australia in late 2001 and was invited to be Head of Physical Conditioning at the Queensland Academy of Sport which saw us produce nearly 65% of all Australia’s medals at the Athens Olympics. I was able to learn from some of the best sports scientists in the country and be well serviced by some of the world’s best sports-medical practitioners and so the programs were well coordinated. I gained greater insight into individual and team sports at a different level by having the input of so many great practitioners locally and inter-State across the entire Academy / Institute system. By this time I could make some decent decisions (or less mistakes I guess) on how and when to use the support services. Just enough sports-science and just enough sports-medicine seemed to be the key for this athlete centred and coach-driven operation. Some sports needed saving especially those whose coach could not drive all four pillars and some were supported from a distance as they charged towards their Olympic and World Championship medals. Great times and results through to the Athens Olympic Games.

I then got asked to be Head of Physical Conditioning for the Elite Player Development strategy for Australian Rugby Union as part of their long-term plans towards the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Again this was the delivery of a long-term strategy (in this case a 10 year plan to a World Cup which they only just missed in 2015) and much work was needed to get cooperation and communication between ‘skills’ and ‘athletic development’ coaches in 4 regions and 4 Super Rugby organisations. I was so lucky to be supported by a great group of coaches and administrators.

Throughout this time I met more and more practitioners who became part of the fabric of my professional and personal life. I learned from them all daily and hopefully supported them to some of the incredible levels they have subsequently reached in the coaching profession.

Next Step – Home

Throughout the early to mid-2000’s I had been back in the UK for short spells delivering some small one-day courses on ‘Physical Competence’. I found myself delivering this concept due to the fact that every time I came across a talented athlete on the cusp of their senior years and who was about to feel the ‘heat’ of advanced training modules I invariably came across limitations. They may have been highly ranked in their sport and had a good competition record but many of the fundamentals were simply not in place. As we assessed them physically and the Physio’s assessed them mechanically so we kept on getting the same poor results especially in their movement efficiency, consistency and resilience. While they had been winning things in their teen-age years they had been omitting the fundamentals that would be the cornerstone of their future development at international level. We often had to spend a couple of years building them from the ground up again.

When London won the Olympic Games bid in 2007 there was an acceleration of requests for me to meet with individuals and groups to exchange ideas on Olympic preparation. Although I did my best to help all these people I still felt that they would be far better served by choosing someone else and I was always, and continue to be, surprised and honoured that they should seek out my counsel. I think they were thinking that if Australia had been ‘punching above its weight’ over at least 4 Olympic cycles then my experiences might throw some light on matters. The UK had copied the ‘Institute’ system by 2000 and I found that I could be supportive to what they intended to do. By late 2007 I felt that I could be gainfully employed back home in the UK by trying to be a support mechanism to whoever wanted help so I packed my bags and came home.

At this point I could reflect on ‘what had gone before’ e.g. (a) the performance strategy that Australia had arrived at over a 23 year period and ‘what was yet to come’ e.g. (b) the first faltering steps that the UK was taking towards high performance. The Australian system had centralised the coach / athlete unit in their sights and supported it with services such as S&C, Sports-Science, Sports-Medicine and Career support. It had culminated in the huge success of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Since then, however, things had started to change as more and more research and science services took centre-stage. Following the Sydney Games there appeared a shift from directly supporting Coaching development and services to more scientists, researchers and bureaucrats. The days of a coach / athlete-centred approach were a thing of the past as the ever-reducing resources were spread out over the new career structures of science and bureaucracy. They also started to ignore the next generation of athletes and ‘Development’ took a backward step. While the Australians continued to be at the cutting edge of performance production at the super-elite level (note the great results at 2000 Olympic Games) their development systems were suffering as less and less support reached these layers. By 2004 and 2008 things were getting more difficult for the Australians to keep advancing their ability to ‘punch above their weight’.

In 2008 the UK was in a similar position to Australia in the mid-to-late 1990’s – learning to assemble services and deliver them for elite performance. I spent the next 4 years meeting with a large number of coach/ athlete units, national squads and national governing bodies in an environment of sharing. Two things happened through all this (a) I learned a lot (b) I met some brilliant people. Most of my time was spent listening and I found myself being asked to conduct ‘operational reviews’ for individuals and organisations across a variety of sports. It was wonderful to sit with some of the greatest coaching and administrative talent in the UK and listen to their thoughts and at the same time be in a position to offer some suggestions. It was a simple exercise – all my mistakes of the previous 27 years in high performance acted as the cornerstone of the guidance I could offer. I guess it is true that it is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. I can’t recall ever being overly innovative in my coaching. I just did what I knew to be right (learned from my mentors) and lit a fire underneath it with total, unadulterated commitment. My advice always seemed to gravitate to a small number of principles:

(a) Get the fundamentals permanently in place
(b) Progress by ‘earning the right’
(c) Be patient; never compromise
(d) Commit and then commit harder in other words: ‘Have the will to do what the opposition won’t.’

From a performance strategy viewpoint my advice again was simple when it came to the assembly of the service team for the athletes – hire the best character and personality that would enhance harmony in the team; hire slowly and carefully, fire quickly. How much someone knew (their qualifications for example) was not the issue. The key always was going to be the human element of delivery to the athletes. The Australians came across this when they needed a new lead for Australian Athletics. They had tried all sorts of people yet ignored one diamond of a leader right under their noses in Craig Hilliard. Here is a man with impeccable experience and the right ‘human element’. It is easier to point the right person in the right direction to get the knowledge rather than trying to create harmony between people who think they know it all. How much I helped I simply don’t know but I made a lot of friends along the way.

By continually being in the presence of really smart people who wanted to become better for their athletes sake and having to have a clear blueprint in my head around which all the discussion would take place, I began to assemble a series of checklists for the occasion. When speaking with coaches I created a ‘Coaches Toolbox’ of guidance around which the coach could question their assumptions whether in a team sport or individual sport setting. This ‘toolbox’ is explained extensively in the new Athletic Development course structure.

The Coaches Toolbox – General

• Ensure all 4 pillars are coached consistently -Technical, Tactical, Physical, Mental
• Guarantee the foundations movements are ingrained at the highest level of quality – Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Hinge, Landing.
• Progress these and other elements Slow-to-Fast, Static-to-Dynamic, Simple-to-Complex, Unloaded-to-Loaded, Small-to-Big.
• Ensure that these are adapted to in terms of speed, amplitude, direction, plane and the entire force continuum.
• Teach them along the continuum from implicit to explicit learning – not forgetting outcome-based learning and constraints-based learning.
• Make decisions based on biological age not chronological age.
• Ensure that the journey is ‘general to related to specific’.
• Coach so there are no ‘lines, laps or lectures’.
• Teach them How before How Much.
• Every session should have Precision, Progression and Variety

When dealing with National Governing Bodies about their performance pathways I was able to create some models of the order of things in terms of their pathway to the podium. The latter environment always proved to be the most difficult. While many coaches (not all but most of them) were willing and able to question their assumptions and have an open-mind about the training process the NGB’s were often more difficult to introduce change to. I had several senior administrators tell me: ‘we don’t do that here’ or ‘we already do all that’ when it was patently obvious that they had no idea what they were doing or certainly were not listening to the coaches in the field. I came across the inevitable ‘protection of position’ with some NGB’s where some people in high places were more concerned with the lifestyle and status that their position gave them. Again I created a checklist of thoughts for each NGB to consider.

The Journey to the Podium

1. Recreation / Participation with progression across all age-groups (it’s the progression part that we are missing. Plenty of kids doing lots of ‘stuff’ but seldom do we see generational improvement).
2. Development of the committed (numbers getting smaller every year)
3. Transition of the talented (too much ‘fast-tracking’ and ‘quick-fixing’.)
4. Fine tuning of the senior elite (seem to have this in some sports but not all).

Layers 1 and 2 are critical to 3 and 4 and I can’t see anything sensible in having a strategy that tries to isolate these stages from each other. The elite layers are dependent on ‘what has gone before’ and the development layers must prepare for ‘what is yet to come’. The recreational / participatory levels must display progression. This part of the strategy is not just warm and fuzzy stuff where lots of people doing mediocre stuff is the outcome. The outcome must be improved performance even at the participation level. Teaching and coaching must be at the highest level at this stage. Why do we expect the ‘Mum & Dad’ coaches to bear this burden alone? Why do all the more experienced and qualified coaches run away from early development layers when the very best coaches need to be involved? It is not all about winners at all ages or early specialisation, far from it. It is about creating an environment of on-going participation with ever progressive improvement. There will come a time when this improvement is placed under the scrutiny of formal competition but not before the individual has learned to compete against themselves (play) in the progression of their technical, tactical, physical and behavioural standards. Whoever creates a coach education / recruitment process that sees all four pillars being delivered and progressed across all training ages will see (a) an improvement in the health and well-being of the community (b) a layer of athletes well versed in the foundations of all-round general athleticism from which sports-specific actions and postures can be developed.

It is time to create a vertical component to the layers of Coach Education where ‘Master Coaches’ are created and encouraged at each level rather than see all the committed coaches running to the far right to get involved in high performance.

Caoch Ed Structure

The Blue arrow is the usual pathway for coaches. Once they have gained their confidence at Assistant Coach level they race to high performance as quickly as possible leaving a void at the fundamental layers. They key is to offer an exciting journey through the layer they are most wanted and needed in (Red arrow) – the Fundamentals layer. We need to invest in these people.

The Transition Period

Probably the weakest aspect of most observed pathways. Funding is often understood and provided by decision-makers for Development and Elite. Development often sits on the coat-tails of ‘community health and well-being’ or a ‘sport-for-all’ strategy and as such can receive some funding (but never enough). Elite layers of sport can receive funding due to the international commitments of the national team or as part of a ‘medal-hunt’ as often seen in the Olympic Games and they are attractive to all sorts of sponsorship deals. Both elements of the performance pathway are linked via the critical junior to senior divide where evidence suggests that the most mistakes are made.

During the mid-teenage years the committed athlete who displays some talent is usually training 3 x per week on Club nights; competing once a week; and involved in some talent I/D process in external squads. They have arrived at this place in the continuum because they have displayed good performance and ranking scores against their age-group. Many are highly ranked due to the relative age effect (biological advantage due to maturation) and have shown a degree of commitment to the sport.

The problem arises when they have to navigate the transition to a senior / elite rhythm of preparation and competition. Too often they jump from 3 x per week training (around 6 hours per week) to the rhythm of the international performer (18-20 hours per week). Plenty fall by the wayside due to this frantic acceleration in training. Injury frequency is raised and the athlete often folds under the increasing pressure for results. The problem arises very often due to the fact that throughout their early teen-age years they were always looked at based on their ranking and competition results. In fact there are several NGB’s that offer progressive scholarships during the 12-18 year period based solely on the ranking lists. At the same time that the NGB (and the coaches) focus on results so the preparation for the future is being compromised. These committed athletes must arrive at the cusp of their senior years with the fewest number of limitations technically, tactically, physically and mentally. It is immediately recognised that for this to happen the nation must provide a large and increasingly growing number of coaches who are educated and experienced in (a) delivering all 4 pillars (b) can do it in the light of the ever-changing maturation rhythm of the athletes. Sadly current coach education processes and content does not lend itself to this level of requirement.

They key is to have sufficient time to slowly (months and years as opposed to days and weeks) raise the frequency, density and intensity of training. Any progression will be governed by the athlete’s ability to adapt rather than be governed by a written timetable.

The 18 years + period is the time to advance to the edge of the envelope in all 4 pillars over several annual cycles and any limitation brought forward from the late teen-age years will ultimately be catastrophic. Year after year I have had to guide staff towards re-building these talented athletes from the ground up just at the time they should have been advancing their talents towards international standards.

In recent months I have been mightily impressed by a young Australian sprinter named Ella Nelson. She did what few athletes ever do – set a lifetime best in the Olympic stadium. What might the strategy be now for her? In the last 8 years I have been honoured to be asked by several UK and European T&F coaches to support their endeavours towards improved performance. The following questions could form the start of the de-brief for Ella Nelson just as they seemed to work for the other Sprinters and Jumpers I have worked with in recent times. It is a form of ‘sharing’ where each of the questions can act as an education unit for the coach and athlete as part of their ongoing education. The open-minded coach (yes, there are plenty out there) will not be threatened by this project and such an examination often leads to an exchange of knowledge between like-minded people.

General

• What is working well and must be consolidated?
• What limitations does she have across the 4 pillars (technical, tactical, physical, mental)

Technical

• Are there any new changes to be made?
• What are they and how will they be taught and then progressed?
• Are they solely to do with actions, postures and movement patterns or are they governed by strength, stability or metabolic factors?
• Suggested exercise regimes.

Physical

• There can be no doubt that her physical journey will continue – sprinting is a matter of the greatest appropriate force in the right direction at the right time.
• How will the strength program be constructed to move from general to related to specific?
• What strength characteristics will need to be developed first?
• How will all the required forces be monitored and progressed?
• High Performance strength training is there for a purpose – to make the sports-specific actions and postures more effective. Every strength training exercise must be chosen for its role in this strategy and not become an aim in itself.
• Suggested exercise regimes.

Planning

• What will be the optimum cycles (micro – meso – macro) of work for her at the different stages of the year – all based on adaptation and recoverability levels of the individual.
• How will the work / rest equation be satisfied?
• How will the mechanical / metabolic equation be satisfied?
• What arena skills need improving or experiencing more?
• Suggested planning modules.
• What of sport / life balance?

These are many of the questions that I have used with a range of coaches as an appropriate operational review for the individual athlete and can from the basis of the support process from the NGB. If the NGB is asking these questions they must also be able to support the answers.

If the coach is experienced at this level and has consistently developed athletes into this world top 16 environment then all their needs have to be met in terms of sports science and sports medical support and they can be trusted to deliver them appropriately. If the coach is demonstrably competent at all 4 pillars of her development (technical, tactical (arena skills), physical and mental then the coach / athlete unit can be left to move things forward. However there must also be an understanding on all sides when a coach is lacking in the experience to appropriately utilise all these services. There must be an empathy with them when it is clear that they are not equipped to carry on the progression of the athlete. There are two solutions here (a) create a natural and well understood ‘Transfer’ system where coaches understand that there are layers of performance matters that they must hand their athletes on to (b) the NGB must ensure that there is an appropriate coach mentoring system that helps the coach stay ahead of the game. With public monies being used for national squad support we live in a world of accountability and the coach / athlete unit may have to show plans and strategies to the satisfaction of the holders of the public purse. It is at this stage that the plans and strategies of the coach / athlete unit will need to be put under scrutiny by an appropriate person representing the NGB. Herein lies the problem if the NGB has not recognised the individuality of the coach / athlete unit or indeed has created an inflexible strategy that is convenient for the administration but catastrophic for the athlete. There is never one way of doing anything so any national selection and high performance plan must be flexible and adaptable enough to support the coach / athlete and not just the often misguided needs of the administration.

Elite Performance

A more suitable approach than a medal-count would be to demand / expect that the athlete produces a life-time best at the right time within the Olympic stadium. No-one can determine what the opposition will do. All we can try to guarantee in a lifetime best at the right time. With the right athlete; right program; right support services then medals are a possibility but not without the basics of a personal best at the right time. Too many athletes and their coaches put everything into getting selected for the games and don’t know how to go to the next level. Lots of NGB’s also do not know how to organise the pathway to the peak performance environment for their elite athletes. When to hold the trials; how to organise training camps; how to manage final competition cycles; are a few of the decisions that administrators should be kept well clear of. I can recall being told by Athletics Australia when and where my athletes would be competing in the build-up to the 1982 Commonwealth Games and the 1984 Olympic Games. They had no idea of the training / competition rhythm that each individual athlete required; at what time of the cycle did they need to compete; at what level should they compete at; what recovery time was needed, yet told me when all this should take place. My refusal to be part of this (and lots of other ridiculous decisions on performance by unsuitable team-leaders) finally led to losing my job. The key was not to capitulate to this form of mediocrity but to put the athletes first. I was fortunate that as my career unfolded I left that type of mediocre thinking behind and found like-minded people and organisations to work for. Here I must mention the Canberra Raiders, Brisbane Broncos (a major organisation that understood what is cost to get performance levels high enough), QAS, ARU, Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints, Bath Rugby, parts of British Athletics, Scottish Athletics, Scottish Institute of Sport, Dutch Olympic Committee, British Cycling, British Hockey, Her Majesty’s UK Special Forces, Australian Special Forces and the GAIN network who, in their own unique way, at a time in their existence, accepted what high performance means and costs. Let me add to this list the many practitioners I have been honoured to share with over the years. Thankfully more and more people ‘get it’.

Continuing the thread of assembling appropriate questions or tools for the journey here are some more that I have found seem to work as a catalyst for understanding and change. Delivered with a background of support and neutrality they never appeared to do anything but stimulate discussion and positive adjustment to existing plans.

The Pathway Toolbox

• Create a Coach Education pathway that creates excellence in all four pillars (Technical, Tactical, Physical, Mental [Behavioural])
• Ensure that all four pillars are coached (Technical, tactical, physical and mental [behavioural])
• Develop a basic and progressive conditioning level (Total structural strength, stability and range) that stays one step ahead of technical model development.
• The first goal is to become a better all-round mover. The all-round mover can then become an athlete. Only then does the athlete specialise.
• Delay specialisation where appropriate.
• Delay selection decisions as long as possible (understand RAE).
• Fit the program to the athlete NOT the athlete to the program.
• Get them to compete against themselves before competing against other.
• Teach them HOW before how far, how high and how fast.
• Employ optimal strategies during transition from Junior to Senior
• Development must be different to High Performance

The Elite Toolbox

• Work to win today but prepare for the seasons ahead.
• Only tolerate the highest standards of behaviour – maintain an understanding of ‘consequences’.
• Assemble the best people in terms of character and personality relative to harmony around the athlete(s).
• The session is only over when the athlete has recovered from it.
• To ensure annual growth never let standards drop in the off-season. You are not starting again each year you are building on each year.
• Hold what you have gained this cycle.
• Only do what is necessary. Our athletes- like all other sports – only have a finite reserve of energy to put into training. We have to think like economists to get the biggest bang for our buck.
• Win the workout.
• Individualise!

General Toolbox

• All 4 pillars must be coordinated.
• There must be excellence in understanding the mechanical and metabolic elements of the program.
• One component will never be more important that another and they will all have different weighting as the year progresses.

In some of the more successful sports (those that started their climb up the world rankings prior Beijing) I found a well-balanced program where the human element of coaching was serviced appropriately by science and medicine. They didn’t try to be all things to all men and employed an approach of quality over quantity well serviced by discipline and objectivity. The scientists helped quantify the individualised objectivity and the coaches listened and adapted the program to suit. Where harmony was threatened so a Performance Director was put in place who inevitably rid the program of those who failed to adapt to the ‘team’ approach. Where harmony ensued the Head Coach could move the program forward with little wasting of time on maverick personnel. I found it odd that they should seek my counsel but the penny dropped in many cases when I realised that my neutrality was the key along with my experience. I guess that by arriving from outside the sport with no preconceived notions meant that I could offer honest advice based on the world’s best practice I had been privileged to observe over many years.

The reviews always started with a chat with the athletes. They are the pointy end of the spear; the reason strategies exist; the reason for the existence of every coach, sport-scientist, sports medical practitioner; performance director; administrator and all the other bureaucrats (whose existence often guzzles all the resources needed at the ‘pointy-end!). After a couple of hours with them they very often arrive at the honest truth about themselves and about the strategy they are involved in. Not all of them can relate to other strategies around the world but they sure as hell can describe what is happening to them now as it relates to the firestorm of the competition arena they have been working in. They know because nothing a coach can ever learn will take the place of what the athlete learns in the arena. Deep inside them they know if they are outgunned in certain areas of their preparation but seldom have the answers. The more we listen and understand the athlete the better decisions we will make on their behalf. The more we give them the ‘roots to grow and the wings to fly’ the better they will be in making a contribution to the required outcomes.

It was always important to conduct the review in the light of two things (a) the current elite performance production process (b) in the context of 3-5 years ahead which would bring into the review the elite athlete development process that the organisation had in place. You can’t isolate elite performance from development especially the transition period from ‘great junior’ to ‘effective senior’. It is at this juncture that things go wrong and the limitations that are allowed to develop in the early part of the journey raise their ugly head with a vengeance. What has gone before will definitely affect what is yet to come.

One major item that seemed to appear across all the reviews was the creation of a ‘silo’ mentality across departments (Administration; Coaching, Sports Science; Sports Medicine). I found that this problem was affected more due to ego that the specifics of the knowledge base of each department.

By starting with the athletes (especially after their confidence has been raised in the review environment) the questions for the coaches and other service providers become clearer. It was important that I paid equal time to those athletes who complained a lot and those who said far less. In a short time I had to try to understand the person in front of me so that I could put their thoughts into context. It usually worked out that at the very end of the review, when I was putting the report together, that links were made and context became clearer. Having seen so many operations worldwide up close also assisted in forming the detail and nature of the questions. Add to this all my own journeys with all the mistakes (and sometimes the times when things worked) I made and again the questions become clearer.

It didn’t take long to work out which people were operating in a manner solely designed to keep their job at all costs and those behaving in a manner to improve the performance of the team. I found it interesting to watch the reaction to Australia’s performance at the London Olympic Games. They appeared to be continuing the ‘slide’ from their wonderful achievements in Sydney in 2000 and obviously came up with a reaction. Many questioned whether this reaction was the actual answer and the results in Rio prove, yet again, that the decision-makers may not be up-to-scratch. They do have the ability to keep their jobs though.

Stop thinking that better performances at an Olympic Games will increase participation and community fitness. In a time of political correctness many people fall into the trap of trying to not appear too ‘elite’ in their thinking so they argue that elite sport is good for ‘morale, participation, etc’. They probably recognised that in the whole scheme of things the pursuit of medals for the few does not stack up to the needs of the community in terms of law and order, security, health and education and employment. I get it. Sport has a range of positives that are very good for individual human-beings but only for those who are participating. The pursuit of medals should never be prioritised ahead of community well-being. However, if you decide to try to ‘win’ at the Olympics then create a powerful, elite, ruthless strategy – don’t do things half-hearted and expect the results. Don’t try to link it to something ‘warm and fuzzy’. On the other hand if you want better participation and improved community health then create a powerful, ruthless strategy on this – just don’t try to mix the two together for the sake of political correctness. In either strategy you will need to (a) get the smartest people involved (not just those in it for themselves) (b) spend the money (c) make very hard decisions that might lose you ‘friends’. You must still have honesty, integrity, commitment and discipline in the strategy but you simply must stop trying to please everyone – that never works.

For community health, fitness and well-being why not start by having daily PE lessons where the physical part is there for all to see. To improve the terrible fitness standards of our youth today means being tough and getting them moving on a daily basis. Forget the ‘competitive games curriculum’ and get back to movement and physical work capacity curriculum. Hold parents accountable for obesity and behaviour. Teach the current youth that there are consequences to their choices.

During the operational reviews some NGB’s and other organisations thought that they should employ a Performance Director as the answer to their performance problems. Not a bad idea for some situations but certainly not for all. The more bureaucracy you put between the administrative decision-makers and the athletes the worse it can get. Unfortunately one of the major traps I have seen over the last 45 years of coaching is the proliferation of bureaucracy. Take the Australian Institute of Sport for example. Where it once was the centre of coach / athlete productivity and progression it now employs over 500 people yet is seen as a ghost town in terms of the live-in athletes. The place to invest is at the coaching level not more and more administrators or researchers or scientists. Research and Sports Science along with Sports Medicine are important service areas for all sports and must be supported. The problem comes when coaching is relegated to a position in the pecking order below these services. If you want a strategy that achieves the usual aims of (a) increased physical and emotional well-being of all the community (b) increased width and depth of sporting fundamentals in children (c) an appropriate process of transition from junior to senior sport (d) the ability to achieve ‘medal’ performances (d) the ability to attract adults into physical activity then you need COACHES. Not only do you need coaches in great numbers you need coaches who are well educated in more than the technical and tactical elements of the sport. Why waste your resources on bureaucrats and scientists when you don’t have enough quality or quantity in coaching?

While all this performance stuff was unfolding I continued to organise my thoughts on the journey the athlete would have to undertake from initial induction in the pre-puberty years through to the cusp of elite performance. As I mentioned earlier from about 1996 through to 2016 the Australians (maybe up until Beijing) and then the British (from Beijing through to Rio) had been able to find the solutions to repeatable excellence at the ‘medal’ level of things but I was becoming more and more concerned about the generations yet to come. It all started at the Brisbane Broncos back in the early 1990’s when the talented players we saw at 15 finally arrived in Brisbane three years later at 18 years of age. The intermittent 3 years saw some players progress but many regress. The same was seen 15 years later at the Queensland Academy of Sport. The highest ranked kids in a sport were given scholarships in the mid-to-late teenage years with the hope that within 6-8 years they would be in the international senior squad. When we tested their fundamentals movements (just one of the foundation elements to future high performance) they were found wanting. While they had been getting famous for their parents and coaches in their early teen-age years (usually because they were biologically more developed than their peers and / or they had been on a watered down adult, ‘fast-tracked’, ‘quick-fix’ training program) they had failed to develop mechanical and metabolic efficiency, consistency and resilience. This meant that rather than using the next 4-6 years for performance enhancement towards the international arena we had to re-build the athlete from the ground up.

This stimulated a few of my colleagues and I to spend more time looking at the journey these potential Olympians were on well in advance of them entering the Institute / Academy setting. What was going on in the Clubs and schools that would cause this poor physical competence? This lack of Physical Competence (movement efficiency, consistency and resilience) was negatively impacting on the required skill acquisition, tactical and arena skills development and, more importantly, it was playing a major role in the injury frequency upsurge we were witnessing.

When I asked many NGB’s for a review of the Coach Education pathways they all replied that all was well. In fact many of them hit me with the statistics that they had ‘created more coaches than ever before’. So everything was fine then? Far from it. The effectiveness of a Coach education / recruitment strategy cannot be measured by ‘how many’. It can only be measured by how much improvement there has been in the sport. Simply increasing participation is going to get you nowhere unless the ‘quality’ of coaching increases and creates progression in performance. Just as the poor coach sees quantity as the key progression so the poor NGB will recite the quantity of coaches they are producing. Remember that in just about every case quality will surpass quantity every time.

As part of this investigation (often seen during the operational reviews undertaken) the content of coach education courses was put under scrutiny and measured against a few basic coaching principles:

1. The coach must deliver demonstrated progression in the Physical, Mental, Tactical and Technical elements of the sport all the time in an integrated process.
2. Exercise prescription must be individualised and linked to the biological / training age of the athlete.
3. The athlete must earn the right to progress and the overall pattern must be ‘General to Related to Specific’.
4. The key is the creation of a wide and deep movement vocabulary created through both implicit and explicit learning opportunities upon which grow the sports-specific actions and postures at a later and appropriate time.

After many months of examining the content of courses for coaches it became apparent that technical and tactical stuff seemed to be well accounted for but the rest was missing. It was no point in just complaining about this obvious omission – complaining gets you nowhere – so I started to try to create a progressive syllabus of Athletic Development (the Physical stuff with a smattering of Mental stuff) that could be integrated with the current Technical and Tactical stuff already in place. This meant that I had to examine a large number of sports and their education content and strategies which took a number of years. I was aided by a small number of practitioners who actually understood the equation. While I was presenting my one-day and 2-Day courses on ‘The Quest for Physical Literacy’ which formed the nucleus of the Athletic Development syllabus being created, I met some brilliant practitioners who wanted to move all this forward. Some were individual coaches operating in their own personal environments and others were already working inside their NGB in some capacity. One individual was Andy Thomson who was looking after the Scottish National Netball squad. After we had tried hard to support Scottish Netball to a better position with regard to the pathway they had implemented Andy jumped at the chance to support me in a re-write of a curriculum for Tertiary Education. He had understood some of my ramblings especially my frustration at seeing so many of the next generation of coaches who come out of University completely ill-prepared to teach or coach. They had graduated as pseudo-scientists and could spout all the theories of the ‘force-time continuum’ or all about ‘gas analysis’ but simply floundered when confronted by real live athletes. As Andy was lecturing at a College in Glasgow we created a 12 week course on Athletic Development for their students. We spent hours writing it based upon all my courses and Andy spent many hours preparing it for scrutiny by the National Qualification Board of Scotland. The students loved it and felt that it prepared them to teach and coach and progress a movement across the training ages. 50% of the course was theory and 50% practical. They conducted the Physical Competence Assessment and then built a journey of exercise prescription based on these real results. Unfortunately continuity didn’t occur as Andy had to move on with his career and the ‘academics’ at the top of the decision-making tree in the University just did not ‘get it’ and the whole initiative died. We did, however, learn that the next generation of potential teachers and coaches was anxious to be taught these basics of movement and how to teach them.

Where NGB’s were concerned we found some practitioners who had attended my early courses were keen to present some ideas to their NGB and so we decided to arm them with a set of arguments (either delivered by them or me by invitation) to present to their sport across a variety of levels. First thing was to have me deliver a one-day course entitled ‘The Role of Physical Competence in performance development’ to invited coaches. The response was immediate from the coaches who attended. They grasped and accepted the arguments about the development of a wide and deep general movement vocabulary that would then be developed to the specific actions and postures of the chosen sport. They were introduced to the foundation movements of Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Hinge and Landing; how to teach them; how to progress them and how and where each of them appeared in their sport. Their next demand was for help in getting to grips with all this ‘athletic development’ stuff within their current technical and tactical world, especially in how they could integrate it into their sessions.

The ‘Mental’ stuff was more difficult as it did not lend itself to reps, sets and progression as easily as the exercises for Athletic Development and Technical Development. As each course level was presented the ‘Mental’ elements were delivered as they arose. The curriculum for this behavioural stuff can be viewed as being in two layers. Layer one is to deal with things like attitude, commitment, discipline, perseverance, respect and humility. At any given time in any session and in the periods before and after the session or any other contact with the athletes the coach will have the same opportunity as a parent to remind and illustrate the consequences of certain behaviours. The way an athlete listens to instructions; behaves when things go right or wrong; reacts to their fellow athletes; shares, supports and has an empathy to others will present themselves frequently in the coaching environment and they are an opportunity that must not be missed. The key to coaching is to be as cognisant of these elements as you are of the technical, tactical or coaching cue elements of training.

Layer two is more to do with the behavioural elements of learning. If we only ever teach explicitly by drills and lists of small details to be delivered robotically we will not be doing the athlete any favours. Our overall aim is to create independence in the athlete where they ‘own’ their journey. Remember they don’t only learn by following a set of instructions. They also learn by personal experimentation and discovery and by lots of observation of their surroundings. By the coach setting up the learning environment with suitable constraints (time, speed, space, amplitude, equipment, technique, opposition, outcome, etc) the athlete will have to work things out by solving the puzzle they face. It will mean that they might not succeed initially or indeed for a long time but the effort of adjusting and re-adjusting their bio-motor and pyscho-motor systems towards the solution will build up a reservoir of learning experiences that will lead to a vocabulary of solutions. If all we do is tell them what to do and when to do it we are limiting their behavioural development. Implicit learning is part of giving them the ‘roots to grow and the wings to fly’.

In lots of cases I presented to the NGB concerned an outline of the response of the coaches and asked for support in creating a new thread to the existing coach education content. I suggested that if we could develop an Athletic Development component that could be integrated with the technical journey then the coaches would be in a better position to deliver all four pillars. I met with a variety of reactions ranging from a refusal to admit that their coaches were ill-prepared through to a positive reaction and further discussions. One NGB went as far as committing to the system, finding the money and starting the process of the creation of the new strategy only for the private owners of the Clubs involved to refuse to have ‘their’ money used in any other way than what they had been used to e.g. to buy new players. Another reason for such rejection was that many of the existing Directors of Performance would be found out as being ‘inadequate’ as they would be questioned as to why they had not seen the arguments facing them. You could tell immediately that their position and status would come under scrutiny and they ran away as fast as possible.

The one shining light was Scottish Athletics and in particular Darren Ritchie and Mark Munro and I am proud to be part of their outstanding progression in how they care for their coaches in the field by at last presenting balanced Coach Education content in their journey. The then Performance Director, Steve Maguire, saw the real value in supporting all coaches towards a better understanding of the real journey to the Podium. He recruited these two young ‘guns’ into the conversation and they simply charged at it. The NGB re-routed some financial resources and some of Darren’s time and we started the journey. After 4 years of late nights and copious reviews of notes and all my previous power-point presentations we created the back-bone of the Athletic Development journey to unfold alongside the Technical journey already in-place.

As we grappled with all this information and all the strategies to educate all the coaches in the way they needed to re-organise their sessions to accommodate the 4 pillars it became plainly obvious that the existing Technical journey was bereft of some of the principles we were building the Athletic Development journey around e.g. Precision, progression and variety weaved in with implicit and explicit learning features. It meant that we decided to question the assumption that the Technical journey was appropriate for the coaches even though this journey had been around since the 1980’s in one form or another. The coaches deserved the best we could give them and so the Athletic Development strategy and subsequent courses was matched by a new layer of Technical information, teaching progressions and multi-media resources. All in all it was a brave step to take in the face of the usual rejection from bureaucrats and ‘bean-counters’. The key I will never forget was the incredible commitment from Darren Ritchie and he joins the Pantheon of the great practitioners I have known.

New multi-media resources were created so that the coaches could have all the exercises and progressions on their smartphones and tablets and the course timetable was started – see the details of the Movement Library video resource on the website www.movementdynamics.com. There are currently 3 levels of the course and as time goes by it is clear that this very practical-based package is vital to every sport. Plans are afoot to create this package for all sports after the success with Scottish Athletics. One only has to see the construction, content and delivery of the sessions nowadays to see the value of this ‘new’ information. There is a bounce in the step of many coaches as they gain more and more confidence in weaving the components together for their athletes.

Hands-on stuff

Enjoyable and rewarding as all this education / mentoring was the best part of this 8 year adventure was the practical stuff. Although I no longer coached my own group of athletes I was invited to regularly lead a number of lessons, sessions and training cycles with individual athletes, small squads and teams. Many of these opportunities were assembled so that I could illustrate aspects of what the coach had encountered during the reviews or educational components of my work. It is far better to show someone rather than just talk about it. I spent a lot of time with sprinters and jumpers in Track and Field athletics being part of the technical and physical development components of the program. I can recall coaching a range of technical components with the athletes and seeing and feeling the ghosts of athletes past and using many of the phrases and cues I had used years before. The team sport environment was a little different with session construction and progression being the key components of my contribution. It was exciting to show the distinct difference between a session for a Premier League Soccer Club or Premier League Rugby League / Union Club and what a ‘development’ session should look like. The heartening things was that after several years when I re-visited the Clubs the difference was still there between the high performance outfit and the coaching of the next generation. In many of the Clubs I worked for I can still see some very healthy models in place as opposed to the restricted ones I first saw.

The ‘Strength’ element of training was put under scrutiny on many occasions across a variety of sports as we all took up the challenge of understanding fully the role of strength training in performance production along the maturation journey. As with many examples worldwide I saw a reliance on Olympic Weightlifting as the sole source of strength attainment. To be able to clearly illustrate the journey from general-to-related-to-specific whether at developmental or high performance levels was probably one of the most satisfying elements of all that I did. By challenging the narrow thinking that I came across I was fortunate to then be part of a tsunami of translation from all the coaches I was dealing with. We took it upon ourselves to share everything we were trying to do and the interpretation of the exercise selection, load and progression across several sports amassed a reservoir of brilliant ideas that could be utilised whether running, jumping, throwing, kicking, catching or striking (and not forgetting flotation!).

Part 2 will deal with the ‘Team Game’ stuff that I have learned.

Who we used to be

Looking back – Ian Pomfret

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL BORN IN 1930′s, 1940′s, 50′s, 60′s, 70′s and early 80′s. First, you survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they carried us. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a tin, and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, your baby cots were covered with bright coloured lead-based paints. You had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when you rode your bikes, you had no helmets .

As children, you would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a van – loose – was always great fun. You drank water from the garden hosepipe and NOT from a bottle. You shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and NO ONE actually died from this. You ate cakes, white bread and real butter and drank pop with sugar in it, but you weren’t overweight because…… YOU WERE ALWAYS OUTSIDE PLAYING!! You would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach you all day. And you were OK. You would spend hours building your go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out you forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, you learned to solve the problem.

You did not have PlayStation’s, Nintendo’s, X-boxes, no video games at all, no 99 channels on satellite TV, DVDs, no surround sound, no mobile phones, no text messaging, no personal computers, no Internet or Internet chat rooms……….YOU HAD FRIENDS and you went outside and found them! You fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents you played with worms(well most boys did) and mud pies made from dirt, and the worms did not live in us forever. You made up games with sticks and tennis balls and although you were told it would happen, you did not poke out any eyes. You rode bikes or walked to a friend’s house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just yelled for them!

You played sport in a local team and not everyone got picked to play every week. Those who didn’t had to learn to deal with disappointment. Imagine that!! The idea of a parent bailing you out if you broke the law was unheard of. They actually sided with the law! This generation has produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever! The past 50 years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas. You had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and you learned HOW TO DEAL WITH IT ALL! And YOU are one of them!

CONGRATULATIONS! You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated our lives for our own good. And while you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave their parents were.

Physical Competence Assessment (PCA) – Formal and Informal

My colleague Jeremy Frisch continues his great work in building athletes from the ground up by ensuring movement efficiency precedes sports-specific work or at least is developed at the same rate as sports-specific activities. In a recent communication he made some very pertinent observations:

Working with a group Ten 11 and 12 year old baseball players. As I don’t have enough time to knock out a formal assessment, I simply choose exercises that give me good idea of their current abilities. I rate them as a group between a 1 and 5. 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. Results were eye opening and a little scary.

Group Scores:

Single leg balance (20 sec): 3
Single leg balance to reach: 1
3 Point push-up hold (1 foot off): 2
5 sec lunge hold: 2

Despite training and competing in baseball most of the year many of these young athletes are lacking basic physical abilities that make up the very foundation of any good athlete. Poor balance, poor static strength, and poor mobility. Every swing, catch and throw is being attempted from a platform of incomplete physical development. At the very least overall performance can suffer both short and long term and at worst injury.

This is not an isolated group. I have done these informal assessments with ice hockey, basketball, and soccer to name a few. The results keep coming back the same. We have a generation of young athletes with developmental holes. Most young athletes these days are over exposed to yearly practice and competition and underexposed to developing an athletic foundation of things like strength, balance, coordination, mobility and speed. The ever growing statistics of youth sports injuries proves this.

Nothing says this more perfectly than Don McCauley in his classic book Power Trip:

“If you are a pre-teen or teenage athlete who competes in four or five sports per year or unending competitive seasons, you are in a an abusive relationship, not athletics. If you haven’t taken or been given time to run through the woods or street and alleys with your friends, jump on rocks, jump rope, wrestle anyone who came by, skate backwards, play hopscotch, bale hay or chop wood, climb over a fence, play sand lot football and do backflips and cartwheels for fun, you haven’t been properly prepared for high competition levels in true power sports.”

Even though he has little time to create a formal assessment process he ensures one major thing – he looks at the athletes movement efficiency. This is the very least we should all be capable of. At a recent conference with some of UK Athletics Jumps and Speed coaches I encouraged them to use their highly tuned observation skills (currently being used to coach the finer points of event-specific technique) towards assessing the foundation movements of Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Land and Hinge. For those new to the PCA the scores are out of 5 where a 5 in ‘normal’ (desired) and a 1 is poor (stop! – do not continue – do not load or speed up or repeat). One can understand why Jeremy sees some results as being scary.

The main point is that poor movements can be very quickly eradicated if some time is given to them in the training session. They can be loads of fun; act as very interesting puzzles to solve; and be great activities for warm-ups and ‘movement breaks’ within the session.

Physical Competence Assessment (PCA) in 2016

It is always satisfying and exciting to see how some practitioners are using the PCA. As I often state the PCA is there for a number of reasons:

1. To answer the question – ‘where are they now?’ in terms of foundation movement efficiency.
2. To assist in creating an appropriate exercise prescription for the individual.
3. To see if the prescription is working.

The Physical Competence Assessment Manual (www.movementdynamics.com) lays out the scoring process for each of the 60 assessments and guidance is offered on doing things formally or informally. They key encouragement is for the coach / teacher to look at the quality of movement across Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Landing and Hinge along with some other specific movements and range of motion patterns. The PCA is there to help the coach make better exercise prescription decisions for the individual and to also focus things on the ‘general’ before the ‘specific’. Get these movements right in the context of a wide and deep movement vocabulary and you will be setting an appropriate foundation for sports-specific stuff to be built upon.

Some coaches who are in charge of national squads can also use the information to track progress when the athletes are in their ‘home’ environment outside the squad training process. Table 1 illustrates such a squad who were all tested across a battery of movements and ranges using the PCA. The scores out of 5 (5 being normal) were assembled and the national coach put in a position to ‘track’ each squad from a distance using these numbers.

PCA article 3

It was noticed with the group from the South East of the country (SE) started to fall behind in January. This knowledge stimulated the national coach to find out why. The reason had been that the area had recruited a new coach into the program who was not overly confident in delivering the required ‘athletic development’ components (the foundation movements) and had reverted to just delivering the technical and tactical stuff. By intervening and supporting the coach to better practice the group nearly made up the lost ground by the end of the year.

My colleague Randy Ballard at the University of Illinois has been using the PCA as a tool to check the ‘trainability’ of the student athlete intake each year. Many of these athletes are selected based upon their competition results and rankings yet the staff at Illinois are charged with getting an appropriate improvement out of them. Randy starts at the beginning and gets the answer to ‘where are they now’. With many of the results showing limitations in many movement patterns associated with the foundation movements Randy is then able to inform the Head Coaches and suggest training processes that will (a) eradicate the limitations (b) allow an appropriate journey to improved performance. This is a more sensible start that simply increasing intensity, frequency and density of training and only focusing on the ‘end-stage’ performance modalities. Certainly a slightly more measured start for the athletes Collegiate journey but never-the-less a more sensible one.

Another colleague, Joe Przytula, has introduced the PCA to his student body and has encouraged them to ‘own’ the project. He has used easily found software that allows each student to check their own scores. He has written a set of guidelines that assist the student in understanding how to assess their own movement. Joe was smart enough to recognise how the 21st century young person could be turned on to using technology in the pursuit of physical well-being. By encouraging them, through the use of their portable devices (smartphones, tablets, etc), to get closer to understanding a part of their physical status more students became engaged.

PCA Article 5

Another colleague, Nick Hill, has created a package of reporting for both athlete and the Coach involved with a Rugby Squad. The information is used by coach and athlete in the pursuit of better movement practice. Once the coach is aware of the movement limitation there is a better chance that they will allow time for the limitations to be eradicated – and, more importantly, understand how important movement efficiency is to the Rugby specific training they are responsible for.

PCA Article 1

PCA Article 2

PCA Article 4

Each of these practitioners has embarked on a journey where they recognise the importance of the foundation movements whether the journey be to overall physical well-being or to high performance sport. They have decided to find the time to consider the movement vocabulary of the individual in front of them and to prioritise it along with the other features of the journey. Once they have a picture of the movement competence seen in front of them they embark upon an exercise prescription unique to the results – truly individualising the program and certainly fitting the program to the athlete.

PCA Article 10

These three practitioners have joined scores more who have similar thoughts about competence assessment. I am indebted to them all for being kind enough to keep me abreast of the results and for sharing their interpretation of the process I started nearly 22 years ago. From my clumsy beginning they, and many others across a wide range of sports and environments, have moved the process forward. Some National Governing Bodies (NGB) have created a Physical Competence journey that all coaches and athletes now recognise as being a vital part of their journey. They have created a template of progressive movement standards from the first steps in the sport right through to the cusp of senior competition. By doing this the NGB has created a support mechanism to all those coaches who have finally realised that they are in charge of 4 pillars of development (Technical, Tactical, Physical and Behavioural) as opposed to just the Technical and tactical components.

PCA Article 7a

This Physical Competence journey grows from the development of a wide and deep movement vocabulary that receives a ‘quality control’ element via the Physical Competence Assessment process. In a recent conference with Jumps and Speed coaches from England Athletics I recommended that the over-arching philosophy was to develop athletes who could:

1. Solve complex movement puzzles in every plane, direction, amplitude and speed along the entire force continuum.
2. Carry out sports-specific actions and postures accurately and consistently
3. Move with no ‘energy leaks’ along the entire kinetic chain from ‘toe-nails to finger-nails’.

This philosophy is fully supported by the creation of a wide and deep movement vocabulary in the formative years of the journey. The Physical Competence Assessment process supports this by (a) highlighting the major coaching / teaching points of the movement and (b) providing the means to measure efficiency and consistency in each movement.