Introducing 2012 presenter, Dr. Natalia Verkhoshanksy

DR: Natalia, it’s truly an honor to have you with us. Please give us a bit of your background: your involvement in sports, how you got into coaching/research, and where you currently are now?

Dr. Natalia Verkhoshanksy(left) with her father, the late Dr. Yuri Verkhoshanksy

NV: I might say that I have been involved in sports before I was born. My mother was a member of the USSR national Track-and-Field team (she was a silver medalist in the discus at the Helsinki Olympic Games) and when she was pregnant, she still participated in competitions. I grew up in a sport family and on the Track-and-Field stadium, which was just next to where we lived, and where my mother and father usually worked with their athletes. Track-and-Field was a part of my life, but when I was fifteen, my father brought me to a tennis coach and this sport became my favorite. Unfortunately, I never reached the top because I started very late, but it was not a problem for me: I liked the training and often felt that the “process” involved me more than the “result”.  My experience in Track-and-Field helped me to see how to apply the training methods used by runners and jumpers in the physical preparation of tennis players.

In 1972 I became a student of the Moscow Central Institute of Physical Culture and Sport, where I also began my first scientific research. I was involved in the metabolic aspects of tennis physical preparation. I started my early research at the cathedra of Biochemistry under the influence of the leading scientist in the field of bioenergetics, Nicolay Volkov. My baccalaurean thesis was dedicated to the methods of evaluation and development of maximal anaerobic power. The results of the research indicated that increasing maximal anaerobic power is related with improvement in strength abilities. So, I started to investigate how the training methods elaborated by my father could be applied for this purpose. As a result, my PhD thesis was dedicated to applying the Block Training System for increasing the speed of tennis displacements. Some years later, when I worked with the Soviet national tennis team as a member of the Scientific Assistance Group and as their physical preparation coach, I was the first who successfully introduced the barbell squat in the physical preparation of the soviet national tennis team.

In the early 1980’s, after finishing my post graduate studies, I continued to work in the Central Institute as a lecturer and researcher. In my opinion, that was the most productive period in the history of sport science. I was witness to the development of new ideas and some of the most advanced scientific debates regarding the preparation of high level athletes. However, at end of the 80’s, when my father lost the possibility of developing his research and the atmosphere in the Institute became too heavy, I decided to change my work.

I worked as a lecturer at the Physical Education cathedral in the Moscow Technical University where I lectured on Track and Field, ski, yoga, callisthenic gymnastics and, at the same time, I worked as tennis coach.

In the early 90’s, I was a professional in the fitness industry and worked in several Moscow Fitness gyms as an instructor of Bodybuilding, aerobics, postural gymnastics, and Yoga. I elaborated my original program “Body Shaping Rock Music Workout” which helped a woman to become nicer and happier. I thought that it would be my work of my life, but soon I returned in sport.

In 1996 I was invited to Italy to work, together with my father, in the scientific department of the Italian Olympic Comittee.

I have been a physical preparation coach of the female Italian national basketball team and the junior fencing teams. I was the physical preparation coach of the 1999 junior fencing world champion. From 2003, I lecture in the motor sciences faculty of the Italian University Tor Vergata (Rome).

DR: What are some research topics that you are currently pursuing?

NV: First of all, I am trying to organize, collect, and systematize all of the scientific ideas of my father.

He often said to me that there is much fragmented research in sport science, but nobody tries to synthesize them and give new input towards the development of the theoretical aspects of sport training. What is actually named as the theory of sport training is only a conglomeration of research data, but not the real systematic scientific knowledge. This is a great limit in the education of coaches and in the development of sport practice, because “there is nothing more practical than a good theory”.

Some years ago, I made the first attempt to put together the modern ideas about the base mechanisms assuring the versatility of human motor function and the increase in the power output of specific sport exercises during the training process. In this work, I further developed the general approach of my father, which was based on the Theory of Self-organized Motor System of N.Bernstein and the Theory of Functional System by P.Anochin.

Currently I am focused on the most lacked aspects of sport training theory, related to the formulation of the basic ideas about the nature and the mechanisms responsible for increasing the sport results under the influence of training loads. I was surprised that many sport scientists are still referring to the Hans Seyle theory of Stress syndrome as the basic mechanism of human adaptation during sport training. About thirty years ago, fundamental Russian researches pointed out that the human organism gives different answers to different levels of influence. Seyle’s stress reaction is only a particular answer to an excessive influence, which is not typical of sport training.  Until now, this research has not been taken in the right consideration by the scientific world.

Also, there are still many other aspects of Russian research and their applications that are not of public domain in the West. My priority is to investigate them.

Second, I am developing some aspects of my father’s research, which needs to be investigated more or which have not been enough understood for many reason: the Depth Jump and the application of the Block Training System in endurance sports.

DR: What are some of the biggest errors coaches have made in attempting to implement the techniques and methods of the former Soviet coaches?

NV: It’s difficult for me to answer this question, because I don’t have a complete view of the use of the Soviet methods in Western countries. However, I think I could give some suggestions.

1) It’s better to know exactly how the former Soviet coaches trained (to see the detail of their training programs) than to read what they write (or listen what they say) about why.

There are two reasons that bring me to this assertion:

●      The former Soviet coaches had and have an incredible intuition. All the soviet coaches were former athletes, who were trained since their childhood in the sport clubs where they saw how other athletes, also of a high level, were trained. Their intuition was based not only on their coaching experience (trial and error), but also by their own training experience and the shared experience of other athletes who trained in the same club. They absorbed subconsciously all of the information they had heard from their own coaches and from the coaches of other athletes. Such intuition brought them to implement successful training programs, but very often they were/are not able to explain why these programs were successful.

●      When the former Soviet coaches try to explain their ideas about the training process, they use specific terminology, which is difficult to translate (Western readers often name it “Russian gibberish”). It is not because they are stupid and cannot use a normal language, but because they were educated with this terminology. All Soviet coaches studied in the institutes of physical culture where they had the exams in the Theory and methodology of sport training. This discipline was based on the book of L. Matveev, who proposed this terminology.

2) Pay attention for what sport discipline and for what level athletes the training program was proposed. The training program could be useful only for the sport discipline for which it has been elaborated, and only for the athletes of the same level.

3) Pay attention to the training exercises proposed in the programs. Sometimes, the exercises are not elaborately described because they are obvious to the Soviet coaches of the same sport discipline. However, in other sport disciplines or in other countries, the same exercises may be usually executed differently. For example, Russians execute Depth Jumps with the purpose of reaching the highest height upon rebound. Italians focus more on trying to minimize the landing phase time.

4)  Pay attention to the training load’s volume proposed in the programs. The volume of training loads used by the soviet athletes could seem too high. Increasing the load’s volume was the fix idea of the soviet sport system. However, this system was elaborated in such a way that the athletes were gradually adapted to the great volume of loads during many years. They also used a very good warm up before every training session for avoiding injuries.

DR: So much has been accomplished and studied in regards to the training of athletes. Records are being broken constantly, and the limits of human potential keep being pushed further. What do you envision is the next great barrier left to overcome when it comes to preparing athletes physically, psychologically, technically, and tactically? By this I mean, in terms of research and academic advancement, what are we still trying to figure out?

NV: It is not a simple answer that can be synthesized in a few words. For this reason I will try to give my opinion indicating only the main road in which the research should be addressed.

According to my father, “the process of achieving sports mastery consisted of improving an athlete’s ability to realize his constantly increasing motor potential in the motor structure of a given competition exercise.” An increase in the motor potential of the athlete, which is related to the increase in his physical preparedness, is the main limiting factor of increasing the sport results. So, it will be always the first and most important barrier left to overcome when you should train athletes.

My father told me that his dream was to give the athletes the possibility of increasing their sport results without the tremendous volume of training loads which they actually used.  He worked on the problem of the training process optimization. He was angry with some colleagues- brilliant physiologists- who focused their research on the artificial means of improving the athlete’s work capacity which allowed continuing in increasing the training loads. He was sure that the physiological researchers could give us much more, if they could be focused on elaborating the qualitative and quantitative criterions of the organism’s adaptation answers (specific and non specific) to different training loads and to different forms of their temporal organization.

DR: When looking at a yearly cycle, how do you break down your volume when training your athletes in the block model?

NV: The general rule of defining the training load’s volume is analyzing the data of the preceding yearly cycle (from the athlete’s diary). But usually I worked with athletes who didn’t have a diary or who never used the training methods which I proposed. So, I tried to use my intuition and good sense following the suggestion of my father: it’s better to underload the athlete than to overload him.

DR: How do you incorporate and cycle the use of specialized exercises into the training of your athletes?

NV: It’s impossible to give an answer that can have a general meaning or general application. There are many variables that influence the solution:

●        The athlete’s age and level;

●        Level of physical preparedness;

●        His past experience in physical preparation (what means and methods he used);

●        The duration of the preparation period;

●        Logistic and availability of training equipments;

●        Opinion of his coach about the use of weight exercises (if the personal coaches not allow the use of weights, I try to find alternative exercises).

Taking in mind all these variables, I try to elaborate the training means system for a given athlete. After, I prepare the training strategy for a given training period, usually based on the Conjugate-Sequence System, in which the intensity and specificity of training means is gradually increasing through gradual substitution of one kind of exercises by another.

When I use the track & field running and jumping exercises in the physical preparation of team sport athletes, I usually adjust the execution technique in a way to obtain a higher relaxation of the upper body muscles than for the track and field athletes.

I don’t use means and methods finalized at increasing the speed, maximal strength, and explosive strength, in the same day when the athlete carries out intensive endurance work on the field. The physical preparation training sessions must not be in opposition with the technical–tactical work on the field. In the book “Special Strength Training: Manual for Coaches” there are many indications about this issue; most of them come from my personal experience.

DR: There is a schism in the west between sport coaches and strength/physical preparation coaches. Why do you think this issue exists, and what could be done to prevent/fix the problem?

NV: In the West this problem not only exists, but it also limits the development of sport.

In Russia the figure of strength & conditioning coach didn’t exist: the training of an athlete is attended only by one coach.  In Russia the coaches were formed in the technical preparation and in the physical preparation (“strength and conditioning preparation”) of their own discipline. Even if in some sports, for instance in the sport games, could exist the figure of the physical preparation coach, he was always an ex athlete of the same sport discipline and he knew all of its particularities. It could not happen that a weightlifting coach attended the physical preparation of a sprinter.

This system has its merits and its defects.

The merit is that if the coach knows the resistance training it’s easier for him to use it successfully in an athlete’s sport discipline, because of the coach’s direct experience.

The defect is that if the coach doesn’t know the methodology of the resistance training, it’s very difficult to convince him to study it in order to implement it.

So, in the West, there are the strength and conditioning coaches who don’t know how to apply their knowledge in the specific sport discipline. In the East, there are the sport coaches who don’t know how use the special strength training.

I think that there is only one way to prevent/fix the problem – it’s necessary to improve the coach’s education system. My current work is mostly dedicated to that.

For instance, in the SST manual, the content of the first chapter is useful for the strength and conditioning coach, chapters 2-3-4 are useful for sport coaches, and the last three chapters are useful for developing the knowledge of both.

DR: Your father was truly a pioneer in the field. What was it like learning directly from one of the best sports scientists of all time?

NV: He was a multi-lateral person, able to see the same things from different points of view. He had an incredible capacity to synthesize ideas and see the roots of problems, trying to find a nontraditional solution. These are the main lessons I learned from him.

I have to confess that in some respects I have been very lucky to be next to my father because I had the opportunity to learn directly how he developed his ideas and how they were put in practice. That also gave me the opportunity to know many of the leading scientists and coaches who brought the Soviet Olympic sports to the highest level. I am still in touch with many of them, despite the current situation of sport science in Russia; it is not at the same level as it was in the past, not for a lack of people, but rather for a lack of laboratories and structure.

The other side of the coin is that because I was his daughter, often in my career, I have had to overcome more obstacles than usual. For example, I had the exam personally with Matveyev in the middle of their scientific battle.

DR: Thank you for your time, Natalia. Any final thoughts or comments on your own methods and theories when training athletes?

NV: The methods and theories developed by myself, without the influence of my father, are not directly related to sports training, but to fitness. Nevertheless, I used them in my sport training practice.

One example of these  is the use of yoga exercises (not only static asana, but also dynamic) to improve  bodily posture, the body forms and, in general, wellness. When I worked as a physical preparation coach of the Soviet national tennis team, I used the yoga exercises as recovery means and during the warm up.  I also used some aspects of the yoga gymnastic for improving the relaxation capacity of the athletes.

Later, I elaborated a Fitness program using the Chill-out music. It was similar to Pilates, but I elaborated it in Moscow, at the beginning of the 90’s, before Pilates was introduced in Russia. I have used this program in the Fitness centers of Moscow and also in Rome.

Another method relates to tennis. Many years ago, I elaborated a method for teaching the technique of tennis, which allows accelerating the process of the initial motor learning. I took the idea from the track & field and tennis coach, Youry Chmirev, with whom I worked in the Moscow Technical University.  I used this method with great success in my private tennis lessons with adult persons and adolescents.  Later, I investigated the theoretical aspects of this method and I discovered that it is based on teaching the so named “motor determinants”, as outlined by N.Bernstein. This has been the basis of the program of my lectures for future coaches at the University of Rome.

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