“Victory awaits him, who has everything in order – luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due for him, who has neglected to take the necessary precautions – bad luck we call it.”
Roald Amundsen, the last Viking.
ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE YOU
This is the first in a series of four essays which I will write here. Writing strikes a contract between the author and the reader and as the author, I want to be clear about the agreement we are entering into here. Firstly, I have been honest and thorough in my presentation of the facts at my disposal here, and my purpose is to inform and discuss – not to sell or promote. Secondly, I will be writing this and the rest of my articles for this series in long form – this allows for a true examination of the complexities of training professional athletes. Short form has its place in sharing information, but the task which these essays will undertake may only be accomplished in a comprehensive examination which requires some length of word and written devices for understanding. Lastly, you should understand as we begin where I come from and my background in approaching the solution to the problem that is Transfer of Training in Elite Sport.
I am a perfectionist, a linguist, and a family man. I have lived in three countries and am fluent in four languages; among them Russian and German. I was raised in S&C by former soviet scientists and coaches, football strength coaches, private gym owners, and multi-ply powerlifters, among them three world record holders. I have been raised in pro sports by lifetime hockey players and career research scientists. My paradigm on the world of professional sports is built on both the scientific training literature and the realities of sport as a business. I have undertaken in this series of essays to explain why the realities of the former are false in the world of the latter, and that truth is not always right. Now that we have established the contract for how this discussion will take place, let us begin.
SECTION I: RIGHT THINKING
What we need to understand right out of the gate is which factors in strength and conditioning exist under our control and which factors are outside of our control. Here we meet the first of many dichotomies – as strength coaches, very little about training athletes is under our control. Understanding this allows us to maximize our impact when we make decisions and “pick our battles”, so to speak. What follows here is my application of the lesson being taught by Roald Amundsen in the opening quote. If we would succeed, we must prepare. In my view, he is saying we are constrained by factors that in many cases shouldn’t factor, and by realities that are unbelievable. Whether we agree or disagree, it makes no difference. We must open our minds and seek to understand our space and move as experts in that landscape, as it exists in sport and not in scientific journals. This understanding is paramount to the efficient execution of our duties as strength coaches. I am by no means saying you should not regard the scientific literature with due respect and deference. I am saying that using that as your only paradigm for decision making would be a mistake. What I mean here is that this type of thinking is built on some backward and untrue heuristics in professional sport. Consider this, how well does your intensification phase of training work if the athlete only gives 50% effort? No research scientist in physiology would apply the rigour of science to a project where half the cohort doesn’t try. This defeats the point of the study – by undermining the effort and removing that assumption, we already know that nothing will work well because it is only being done half way. My point is this, just because it’s professional sport, doesn’t mean that everything inside of it is professional. When you (and your program) assume that everyone wants to do what you say at 100% effort, even 90% of the time, you are not living in the world of pro sports, you are living in a fantasy land that only exists in scientific journals. In the real world there are many competing interests which pull on peoples’ attention and contribute to their motivation, stress, and buy in. If you have seen the ESPN docuseries on the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls, you saw these factors in focus. Jordan was given broad license with literally every aspect of the game – he wore his own clothing brand, he smoked in the dressing room, he was up late gambling. Is that peak performance according to science? No, but it was undoubtedly one the best sport performance careers in the history of sport. In brief here, I am making the point that our job is to influence and enhance performance and this requires artful application of scientific principles. It all begins with the landscape of stress, and the application of specific stimuli in order to create adaptation. If you don’t understand the landscape, you will not survive. Dr. Robert Sapolsky has written a (dare I say) canonical text on the dynamics of stress titled “Why Zeberas Don’t Get Ulcers”. This book is an absolute must read for strength coaches. Simply put, there is more contributing to elite sport performance than your workout. Let us examine this from a macro view first, and then zoom in a bit as we go along (fig. 1).
THE MACRO VIEW – In pro sports, we the strength coaches operate as a tiny grease spot on the smallest cog in the wheels of a corporate monolith. The entertainment market pumps money into professional sports companies and those companies seek to drive revenue from this market. In fact, the behemoth is so big that the person who decides my fate will never
know my name or recognize my face. This is not right, but it is true. These people in ownership look outward to the markets, managing the cost and revenues of their respective business portfolio. They entrust the in-ward looking to managers on the business level (fig. 2). In my case, these in-ward lookers are General Managers. On many professional sports teams, the strength coach is a faceless title with an associated expense next to it. I understand this is changing as time goes on but consider this; the G.M. is
in charge of making money, first and foremost. As part of this effort the G.M. will determine the corporate culture and to what extent innovation will contribute to making money, this is out of our control. Some managers like Elon Musk will actively pursue a culture of innovation, weaving it into the fabric of how his business cashflows. We as strength coaches must seek to understand our organization`s culture, because innovation in training structure, practice periodization, stress management, etc. can
be seen as simply distracting. Here again, this is not right but it is true. Now, we know that in order to train athletes well we need to embrace nuance and innovate. Continuing to train athletes in the same old way, cookie cutter style, shotgun programming is not going to make the players better. So as the experts in the field of physical development in team sports we have to find a way to grease the wheels, help our organization see the way that innovation can help them make money, this is in our control (fig. 3). This is how we can begin to think rightly about truth in professional sport. We see that before we can act as experts in elite sport, we have to understand as experts in elite sport. Now that we understand acutely where we fall on a macro scale, lets examine where we fall on a micro scale.
THE MICRO VIEW – Strength coach is a relatively new job in professional sports and it is not well integrated. We exist between the gears, as we have said. We are not sport coaches, we are also not doctors. However, we work with the athletes more than any coach and we go to school almost as much as doctors. This means that we can play one of two roles between the gears; the wrench or the grease. It is very much up to us to make that choice. An amateur will cry to complain, pointing the finger at a coach, a circumstance, or bad luck. Amundsen has said, “our luck is related directly to our ability understand our circumstances.” The stone cold professional will see the situation for what it is – a culmination of factors, some of which are ripe for influence, others not so much; and the best thing you can do in any situation is position yourself as an expert through action. Let us briefly examine how a strength coach can do that, by focusing on things which are under your control.
Integrity is the foundation of everything you do as a strength coach. Interacting with stakeholders up and down the spectrum of the organization makes you a lighting rod for criticism. If you engage in quid pro quo, selective description, or structure inconsistent systems for how you do your job, you have sealed your fate. It will be the noose that the club swings you from. Make no mistake, professional sport is a very small world, especially for those involved at a high level. Integrity is critical for striking influence within the club. Consider it from the standpoint of various stakeholders;
- Players are depending on you as a resource to help them be fit to play. If they don’t trust that you care, are capable, or possess the commitment necessary to help them then you are done. If they suspect foul play on your part, then you have a whole new problem on your hands.
- Coaches are depending on you to keep their players on the ice/field. They rely on your expertise to validate questions of fitness, health, and in some cases will call on you to make tactical decisions based on your understanding of physical fitness and stress dynamics. These stakeholders may call your integrity into question in two areas; a) errors of a deliberate nature such as you being on your own team, attacking their decision making, promoting yourself, taking credit for others successes, or passing blame on failures. b) errors of omission by lacking the vision, will, or commitment to fulfil your role on the team.
- Management needs the staff to operate smoothly, they need the machine to function without wrenches grinding the gears and stopping work going forward. Your value is directly proportionate to the success of the team, and as a coach you are very replaceable. This is something to keep top of mind, at all times. If you play yourself, or make moves that reflect a lack of integrity, management will eliminate you as a distraction to the goal of making money.
Consistency is an intangible which will qualify everything you do. Anyone can have integrity when things are good, for a day, or for a few weeks. In teams, consistency means doing those things for years. Doing the little things every day (being on time, for example) will raise your stock with stakeholders. If a GM knows that, at any time, the gym is clean, workouts are organized, and testing is being reported regularly, then your stock within the club has gone up. Consistency should also be a theme for strength coaches in their key performance indicators (KPIs) for quantifying fitness. Setting very simple, specific, and trainable KPIs will allow you to consistently communicate how and what the team’s status in fitness is. By constantly changing what you see as KPIs, you will lose the staff, and the athletes. Consistency and continuity in testing is also great for integrating programming pillars and your big rocks relative to the physical demands of the sport. By structuring your KPIs in a consistent manner, you are able to unlock the full potential of concurrent periodization, and this is the secret to transfer of training. We will circle back to the black magic of concurrent development in article two, and go down the rabbit hole of how this is done on the ground.
Staff Dynamics is not something you will learn in your NSCA course work, or during an undergraduate program. Working in pro sports means working with people, and groups of people strike social structures out of sheer genetic disposition. We as humans literally cannot help it. These social structures can be subtle on a sports team and are sometimes referred to as “office politics”. As a staff member, you can choose to ignore them – but do so at your own peril. Now, am I saying you should go around kissing everyones ass? No. I’m saying you should follow Jocko Willink’s advice and “play the game”. Build relationships with the people on your team; the equipment manager being number one on that team. Get to know the video guys, learn about the physios, interact with the assistant coaches, learn their children’s names, their favorite hobby, basic information required to have a meaningful interaction. This connects you to them in a way deeper than just “hey I have seen you around here”. You will need these relationships as time goes on. When the players need water in the gym, when the towels are running low, when you want a deeper insight into a player’s in-game performance, you will lean on these members of your team. Relationships matter, and they take work. When you have an hour until the next group starts, don’t spend that time reading research in your office, or polishing your excel dashboard. Get your ass down the hall and build some relationships, connect with your team. Nobody gives a flying fuck about dashboards anyways. It is tempting as a strength coach to close ranks and connect with other strength staff; either within or without our organizations. It’s comfortable for us but to others on your team it simply looks like willful isolation. In my experience, trying to slice yourself out of the office dynamics and set up a fortress in the gym where outside opinions, criticisms, and obervations which cannot be cited with scientific research are not welcomed does not make a long career. It makes you look like a lone wolf – it is a sin of ommission. If you decline to involve yourself in small talk, lunch trips, coffee breaks (even if you are working on the best injury modeling dashboard ever) you will find yourself out of a job. Think of it this way; you can’t coach on a team if you aren’t willing to be part of the team. This is the sum total of staff dynamics and it is totally under your control.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
SECTION II: RIGHT ACTING
I have to level with you here, when writing I struggle with being too esoteric in my device. If I don’t watch it, things can get a little bit woo-woo, mountain top mystical and it gets hard to connect the dots. So with the Lincoln quote, I will try to keep it practical. Any of you that have tried to chop a tree down with an axe know its really fucking hard. Trying to do it with a dull blade just turns punishment into torture. I like this quote because coaching is also brutally hard, and we can make the job more do-able by following the right steps in preparation for the task at hand.
First percieve factors which will dictate your success within the club. We established in section I that our role on the team can be critical if we will get out of our own way. If we won’t, then our role is little more than a distraction. Now, there is more to this perception of influence than what was discussed previously. A question for you; how much impact can you have as the strength coach if nobody cares about working out? It is easy to get wrapped up in the nuance of program design, periodization philosphy, and technique. However, we are a long way from these things being our rate limiters in regard to training if the club doesn’t understand the value in having structured training in place. There are several specific areas which I focus on in the process of Right Acting, in order to ensure I am delivering the most impact in the gym, so here are a few things I observe specifically to improve my perception;
- Training Culture In – Season
Do the players and coaches value in-season workouts? Some don’t. It is easy to tell and this one drives mostly on logistics. I take note of the way each day is scheduled, and if that time table allows for a fair workout. If the daily plan has 15 minutes for a “stretch” scheduled, this indicates apathy towards in-season training. If a player can expect to be interrupted in their off-ice training (literally every day) by a coach wanting to watch video, they will skip the workout and wait in the lounge. This is an indicator of apathy as well. Is the gym outfitted with good and useable equipment, and does this environment say cleanliness, organization, and useability? All of these things are indicators about the culture of in-season training. Putting work in this area is going to be foundational if there are red flags.
- Training Culture: Off – Season
This one is a little more difficult to investigate. I hone in on the coaches first; does off-ice training represent a focus area for exit interviews? This is important, because the months away will literally dictate the next season success for the team and for me as the strength coach. As a mentor of mine used to say, “you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit” and coming to camp out of shape means shit salad. You can tell if fitness is a focus area in exit interviews right off the bat; does the coach ask you about fitness for his interviews? If not, this is an indication of apathy towards off-season training. We know that this period should be specific, structured, and monitored. If the coach doesn’t feel that way this is something to take note of immediately.
- Training Culture: Testing
Ask yourself first if testing is done to create a landscape of fear for players. Are the tests set up to indicate fitness or to hurt really bad and require maximal effort? An easy way I filter these criteria is to ask if the test can be done monthly, or weekly even. Is it too intense to warrant that frequency? For most team sports, a yes here indicates a lack of understanding about testing for fitness. Let’s face it, team sports are contested (read tested) weekly. In the German Ice Hockey League they are tested at least twice per week. In the NHL they are tested up to 5 times per week. This should be a factor you consider when evaluating the testing culture for off-ice work. I will spill the beans here, and show my hand a bit; maximal intensity testing is not very useful. Maximal strength tests require either elite level technical ability (back squat) or cumbersome scientific equipment (IsoMED2000. Look it up, seriously). So, while the data may be scientifically interesting, it is practically useless. Better to focus in on testing modalities and protocols which are both reliable and practical. Maximal endurance testing is as much a waste of time in speed-power sports as maximal hot dog eating testing. In fact, even less so. The latter would at least be entertaining. So, our takeaway here is to note the nature of the tests and the frequency with which they are evaluated. If your organization has built a testing battery comprised mostly of maximal intensity exercises, done once per year, take immediate note of this.
- Training Culture: Accountability
Lastly here, take note of the way that players and coaches are held to account on matters of fitness. I do this by comparing what I see about training and testing culture with the way that interventions are made. Does a player who is clearly out of shape see a discussion with a coach or lose ice time? Is there any dialogue among the coaching staff regarding the results of the fitness tests at all? In some cases, you will find that the fitness testing is given less time in attention by the coaching staff than the catalogue of swag being handed out at the start of training camp. No accountability is a large issue that should be immediately taken notice of. Understand this; if the coaches and management don’t care enough to put some teeth behind testing, you will rarely be able to change the behavior of the athlete, let alone gain buy in for the time required to test. As an additional note, punishment and punitive actions taken are also worthy of notice. If the goal is to achieve behavior change, using a stick where a carrot would do is not an ideal approach.
When you have taken the time and put in the considerable effort to percieve correctly, seek now to remove your own bias within those perceptions. Use the relationships which you have been building and invest some “leadership capital” as Jocko Willink puts it, into buying some clarification. I do this by specifically asking the Head Coach, GM, or equipment manager questions relative to the above categories. This can be done very well, or very poorly. Tact will allow you to strike up a dialogue and demonstrate your commitment to the team and to winning. Shotgun questions asked at awkward times will undermine your relationship with the stakeholder and sow the seeds of mistrust.
Here is a tactic which I like to use in seeking to communicate and clarify: say the tests for fitness are not to your liking. A poor tactic would be to approach the GM and say “hey man, these tests are shit and it looks like you want to scare the players. I’m an expert and I say we change them.” Might as well pack up your office before you lead off with that one. A better way would be to approach the GM and ask “Hey I have been looking over our testing data from the last 10 years and wanted to ask how we are using this? I want to understand better how they came to be our standard for elite performance and how we make changes based on the results.” This allows you to find areas of the testing landscape which you may not understand, such as stakeholders which were not immediately apparent. It also positions you well, in the event that the data is indeed useless, to offer an alternative that would both be a good test and provide practical results, actionable results, or as Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk has said, “transfer”.
Once you have painted a detailed, four dimensional view of the landscape and culture surrounding training within your organization, built actionable relationships with key stakeholders, invested some of that capital into forging working projects, and prepared yourself with solutions that fit the circumstances in your team, you are ready to propose a change. Innovation has to be percieved as such before it can be effective, otherwise it is seen as a distraction. Once the change has been structured in this way, it’s actual implementation will go over as a whisper, because in the eyes of all involved you will have demonstrated that you are the expert and your proposal makes perfect sense. It takes all the struggle out of the process of innovation to have a plan and sharpen your tools. Thus, a hard job becomes manageable by applying a little wisdom from old Abe.
Coming Up Next
We see now that there is a considerable amount of work to do before we can begin to have any say in regard to training athletes. Much of, if not all of, what we have discussed here is not in strength training text books. However, I think we can both see that without these foundations in place, a great training program has little chance of success. Taking this into account, we will now make a transition into the good stuff, the things that get us going as strength coaches. Training theory. In the next article we will investigate the black magic that is concurrent periodization and the hallmark of the Bondarchuk System of athlete development, as I have implemented it in Ice Hockey.
Jake is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Eisbaeren Berlin Hockey Club, in Berlin Germany.
He is primarily responsible for day-to-day training of the professional team and in addition directs S&C for the
academy athletes of the U20 team, as well as consulting with the farm team club, the Lausitzer Fuchse. A native of Salt Lake City Utah, he completed his Undergraduate Degree at the University of Utah and his Master’s Degree at Southern New Hampshire University. Fluent in four languages, Jake is a freelance Russian translator and interpreter having completed 5 books and several live events. He is also active in the academic community, publishing research with fellows
at Humboldt University, Berlin. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany with his wife Brooke and their three sons.
IG acct. / https://www.instagram.com/jake_jensen1/
Website / https://www.eisbaeren.de/team/trainer
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