Improvement in Sport vs. Improvement on Paper

By: Yosef Johnson

Yosef johnson is the owner of Ultimate Athlete Concepts, a publishing company dedicated to providing the best resources for coaches of physical preparation

I am not an expert in the area of developing athletic performance and have never claimed to be. I do not have a degree in any relevant field or any other formal training. Also, my ego is not wrapped into my work in this field as I publish books of the truly brilliant minds and have no delusion of ever being one of them. With this in mind, you can share my amusement when I get calls and emails from strength and conditioning coaches who have master’s degrees and 19 certifications asking me how to perform their job better. What is most insane is that I find that they actually know very little when it comes to getting results i.e. better athletes. Notice I did not say athletes who are more flexible, stronger, bigger or can pass a functional movement screen. Those items have some relevance, but improving them is pretty easy even for the lay person. What is harder and more elusive is helping an athlete play his sport better. This is why I believe most coaches would rather talk about the aforementioned qualities as results of the latter would be embarrassing. This point was driven home at last year’s NFL combine. A young football player from my city was ranked as the number 2 cornerback in the country 5 years ago. At that time, he was clocked at 4.47 in the 40 yd dash. He went on to play 4 years at one of the top programs in the country without any major injury. He was invited to the 2011 NFL combine and ran a 4.47 40 yd dash. How could this be? He is with one of the elite strength conditioning programs, right? If anyone could get him faster, they would be one of the most qualified.  Sadly, this example is not unusual but status quo. Sure there are exceptions, although I would argue that most improvement in college is due to natural causes. Most will improve as their maturation completes during this time of life.

Why is this the case? It is apparent that there is a very strong belief that athletic ability is innate and cannot be dramatically improved. My entry into the field was spurred by lack of athletic ability and the hope that I could figure it out.  As a below average athlete I wondered if there was a way to make up for this deficiency so that I could play basketball at a level higher than high school. I am an eternal optimist and have always believed that more things are possible than we can imagine. As I began to search out ways to improve my athletic ability, I read a number of books and bought a few of the “programs” found in many popular magazines to get “lightning quickness” and “sick hops”. Needless to say,  I was not getting very far with some these programs.  I did not understand any of the science or lack thereof in what I read and tried. As a competitor, all I cared about were results. Finally, I bought a book called “Secrets of Soviet Sports Fitness and Training” by Dr. Michael Yessis. I had heard plyometrics were a very effective way of developing jumping ability and quickness and this book seemed to provide the best information on it. Further, after reading the book, I realized I had seen the author on TV with Todd Marinovich, who had recently broken most high school QB records and was the number one recruit his senior year. I found that Dr. Yessis had worked with Todd from age 13-18. Todd was an average athlete despite all of the crazy doings of his father, Marv. Nonetheless, in 5 short years, Dr. Yessis had created an absolute beast. His personal life notwithstanding, Todd had raised his physical abilities to a very high level. Had he continued with Dr. Yessis and not been swallowed up by his addictions, I believe he could have easily been the best QB in history.

At this point, I realized that Dr. Yessis was the only person I had read who had actually created a great athlete from very little. I had no idea what he did or did not know. My only concern was how he could help me.  In short order, I flew to California and began to work under his tutelage. Despite having a herniated disc in my low back and being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I saw significant improvement in my quickness and jumping ability in less than 6 months. While my long term progress was thwarted by my physical ailments, I was certain I was on to something. In fact, I had no idea the improvement that could be achieved with a healthy and willing athlete.

As time passed and our relationship took shape as a master/apprentice, I began to test this out on athletes. When I reported my results to Dr. Yessis, he was not impressed but expected at least as much. Not knowing anything else, I also expected the results I got. It was not until quite a few years later when I became acquainted with many professionals in the field that I realized that what we were doing was an absolute anomaly. Rather than talk “theory”, I began to ask coaches as to what concrete results they expected and was completely amazed that they never produced results like I was getting. More stunning was that they had read several of Dr. Yessis’ books, as well as those from the former USSR. I did not know it at the time, but the reality is that those I spoke with did not understand what they were reading and had no background to apply it correctly. They could talk ad nauseum on a plethora of ideas and concepts, but were at a loss when it came to simply producing great results. Further, I realize they never posted the results for all to see. They would simply say, “We have seen great improvement using this or that method.” Improvement in what? Bench press? Power Clean?  How about the functional movement screen?  All of these are red herrings to the real question: can they perform much better?! Sadly many coaches are driven by the warning from higher ups to “not mess them up” in the hope that their injury rate is lower than their peers.

While I have learned a decent amount in the last 18 years, I am still learning all the time. Not about a bunch of useless scientific information, but relevant data that will help create a better result than I am currently getting. I have no shame in asking anyone what they are doing and what kind of improvement are they creating. In the end, this is the whole point of working in the field. I want to get a better result than everyone else. If I think someone else is producing a better one, I want to know what they are actually doing and why.

As time passes, it gets harder to produce the same results. Ironically, as I have adopted an approach that is based on precision and efficiency, I have seen larger marginal results in year three than in year two. The reason for this is twofold. One is that I better understand how to apply the correct volume and intensity to the right situation. More importantly, as I confer with Dr. Yessis on my plans, I use exercises that have higher correlation to the skills needed. This allows for me to apply lower intensity and volume and get a superior result.

Having said all of the above, I want to encourage everyone to compile the useful data from their work and share it with peers. I believe many adopt a CYA attitude to protect their job. Because of this, the athlete suffers. We should spend our time critiquing what we do instead of defending it.  Lay out what you do with your athletes and let other competent professionals scrutinize it. Find those who get a better result than you and discover why. Look outside convention and find methods and exercises that have a high degree of transfer to the skill. Incidental results won’t do i.e. a stronger athlete is a better one.  Lastly, always remember that only three things matter when working with an athlete: what will get them a scholarship, a paycheck, and/or an Olympic medal. Everything else is irrelevant.

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