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?