Lego and sports clubs have become sterile environments
Lego from 1970s
Lego sets used to stimulate children’s (and their parent’s) imaginations. In the 1970s the goal of Lego was to use imagination and explore as you can see in the letter on the right.
Now, Lego blocks are almost always sold as part of some marketing tie- in with very prescriptive step-by-step instructions.
Does that sound like any sports coaching you know? If your child is forced to stand in a queue and listen to an adult tell them exactly how to move around cones then how will they adapt to the changing environment of sport?
Coaches need to be able to set up environments that allow the children to connect the dots rather than just collect dots (coaches read more here).
My goal when coaching our young athletes is to set up tasks or environments that allow children to develop and learn themselves. This “guided discovery” means I ask them questions, or set them challenges, rather then prescribe specific actions (there are some exceptions).
An example is shown on the right where I asked the kids to try and move over their partners in different ways. I am constantly surprised and delighted with how kids respond to this at all different ages.
Are your kids allowed to be creative, or are they just being told what to do?
Athletic Development in action at Christ’s Hospital
Lunging and bracing
Last week I ran 2 workshops for some of the Sports Scholars at Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex. Whilst the title was Athletic Development, the content was all about teaching the pupils about movement.
Movement is the foundation of physical education (p.e.). So you could just say I taught two p.e. classes.
Here is the lesson plan for the first half of the Athletic Development Workshop. With the themes. Introduction: Why do you train? Sport is an expression of physical ability, it rarely develops it apart from the very beginners and those unfit. Get fit to play sport, rather than play sport to get fit. Task1: Skipping, forwards backwards. sideways. With partner count to 4s.
What sport skills are used? Break down of skills. Try again observing partner foot position (barefoot).
Task 2: Tuck sequence, hold shoulder stand for 3. Rock to stand: with partner.
How strong are your legs?
Exploratory rolls on floor. Squat, roll, stand. explore.
Task 3:Walking game with chaos. In 3s. Walk around, tag, no tag back. Then skipping, then running 3 steps into space.
Decision making? Spatial awareness. What happens at the end?
Bracing and supporting
Task 4:Absorbing and receiving force. Walk to brake. Jump up and land quietly. Crawling patterns. Kneel to fall, Partner lean and fall in 3s.
Partner sequence: cartwheel over, crawl under, hips up and down.
Thanks to Dave and all his staff and pupils for making me feel welcome and throwing themselves into the workshop with gusto.
If you would like me to run a similar workshop a your school, please email me to discuss.
Why hiring an expert coach will save you time and money
Young athletes (and their parents) are overwhelmed with information from varying sources that is often conflicting. It is my job to help them navigate the maelstrom.
Originally designed as a concept to deal with organising and displaying online information and layouts, information architecture could as easily be applied to coaching.
“I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear”
Richard Saul Wurman
Too much information, too little time
Athletes I work with come home from a Regional or National camp with a sheet of paper and a directive to “do these exercises or else”. They then ask me what a “SLDRDL” or a “One legged Monkey Puzzle” is.
They go to a p.e. class the next day where they are made to hold a plank position for endless minutes to “strengthen their core”, but not told why or how to improve and if there is any transference to sport.
Finally, they visit their club where the coach drills them through ladders, hurdles and doggies to finish off their last remaining reserves of energy and enthusiasm.
The poor parent in the meantime is standing on the sidelines forking out cash and time for kit, petrol and accommodation. Wondering if they are “doing enough” for their child.
The job of a good coach is to make sense of all this information, filter out what is noise, but still stay abreast of latest research and developments.
That is different from telling all athletes to eat pilchard eggs because one study of 3 Eskimos found that they were able to run faster after eating pilchard eggs for 2 weeks.
The coach then needs to present this information in an orderly and systemic fashion, rather than all at once.
This does include selective delivery of information, feeding it to the parents and athletes at regular intervals. This allows positive behaviours to develop.
3 steps to becoming a winner
Find out what is happening in all aspects of the athlete’s life and write it down. I get the athlete to fill out a 4 week planner that shows all sporting and p.e commitments.
Write down what current exercises are being done and when. Clarify the exact nature of these exercises and make sure the meaning is understood. Any exercise that is written down but has never been coached is binned. Look for duplication of work: hockey might be doing doggies, rugby might be doing 3km runs. Avoid doing both.
Look for gaps between current ability and what is required. Put in exercises accordingly. You might be doing lots of running, but zero postural work. You might be able to hold the plank for 5 minutes (why?) but are unable to stand on one leg with free hip held high: essential for running well.
The complete picture is often forgotten due to the confusion of information and dealing with the logistics of getting the young athlete to the venues, school and training!
Hiring an Expert Coach
Life is too short to do everything yourself. Trying to do it all on your own can cause unnecessary stress. If you want to be the best that you can be, then you will need some help along the way.
The Excelsior Athletic Development Club was started to help parents, coaches and athletes work together. By informing parents and sports coaches of best practice, we are working together, rather than against each other.
It requires coaches of different sports to stop trying to force early specialisation (a difficult task) and to think of next year, rather than next Saturday.
It requires parents to take an active role in planning and ask questions of the p.e. teachers and coaches.
It requires athletes to think about why they are doing things, and to learn how to organise their time.
It requires us at Excelsior to continually strive to make sense of this information and develop ways of improving our ability to coach.
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My role has included working directly with the young archers as well as workshops to help educate coaches and parents to apply the key principles for physical development.
The emphasis of any of these sessions has been the Long term development of the athletes, and developing fundamental movement skills as a foundation on which to build.
Although Archers rarely have to run fast or lift heavy weights off the floor (despite what a job application for a recent position with high performing archers stated!), there are many physical abilities which are important for successful performance.
Mandigo et al., 2007 listed a number of fundamental movement skills, many of which can be directly linked to archery including:
Balancing- maintaining centre of gravity above base of support
Stretching-being able to efficiently hold different postures
Twisting- rotating parts of upper body/ resisting rotation of torso
Pushing- strengthening front shoulder
Pulling (drawing)- strengthening rear shoulder during rotation
Walking/Running-important for developing efficient aerobic system
Jumping- developing lower body strength and stability
Hopping- lower body stability and coordination
Skipping- coordination and timing
Climbing- increasing upper and lower body strength
Throwing (over and under arm), Catching, Striking
All good for improving hand-eye coordination and accuracy
It is important to note that fundamental movement skills are the building blocks of sport skills, which is why these movements form the basis of the sessions for all of the archers I have worked with.
Despite varying broadly in terms of age and training experience, most of the athletes have developed deficiencies in mobility and posturedue to the environment they find themselves in either at school hunched over a desk, or by regularly shooting (consistently using uneven posture).
A lot of emphasis during coach education sessions is on regularly practising exercises which will reinforce good posture, balance, stability and mobility to develop the Structural Integrity of the archers. This could include using exercises during warm ups or encouraging athletes to practice exercises away from training.
Cooperation in Coaching
I have been very fortunate to work with some fantastic coaches (Roger Crang, Steph and Dan Gill and Graham Williams to name a few) who have all bought into the need to develop physical skills as well as technical skills.
TheExcelsior athletic developmentcentre was set up to help young athletes by either working with them directly, or by running courses and workshops with the coaches, parents and teachers who are working with them week to week.
By working together with sports coaches, positive behaviours and habits can be constantly reinforced rather than competing with contradicting messages.
I was working with a group of young players this week- pretty new to physical training.
I outlined the plan over the next 10-12 weeks. We are going to work on efficiency of movement, becoming more robust and develop your athleticism.
I then asked what did they think that involved… getting bigger was the immediate response.
Getting bigger without having a solid foundation of movement (or the 4 pillars) will result in an immediate short term (about 12 weeks) improvement.
In other words the hypertrophy will take about 12 weeks to take effect and then another 12 weeks can be improved upon as well. So, at the end of nearly 6 months training you will be bigger.
Eat well. There is no point eating junk food, you will become obese. Instead eat a well balanced diet that contains lots of natural foods. There are many sources of protein and testosteronethat can be found in your normal diet. It is a lot cheaper than buying fat shakes too.
Sleep. It is when you sleep that your body recovers and repairs itself. Most teenage rugby players are not getting enough sleep.
If your focus is purely on getting bigger, then there are 2 potential downsides:
Injuries: if you are a rugby player you can look forward to shoulder and hamstring injuries because they are the 2 most common ones, and a season of rehab. Is it any wonder that the RFU injury audit shows an increase in rugby injuries?
Educating junior athletes – getting them to think like pros
One of the biggest challenges in turning junior and developmental athletes into professional athletes is education them of what’s required to be a successful pro.
To be a successful professional athlete today, you need more than just talent and hard training. You actually need to treat your performance capability as your primary business asset and you need to manage it as if your livelihood depends upon it, because it does!
Successful professional athletes of the future will understand the importance of managing themselves for performance.
They will listen to their bodies and recognise when they are:
training too hard
and will be able to identify
early signs of injury
unhealthy lifestyle choices
Getting good habits
So how can you ensure that your juniors get the best possible chance to learn these habits? Kids today live in a very noisy environment full of distractions and temptations. One way of cutting through the noise is to engage with them as coach or performance manager, and ask them regularly about their welfare: sleep, motivation soreness etc. This is a very basic start to an athlete monitoring program.
It’s a good start for two reasons. It gives you good information on the state of your athletes, and, every time you ask the athlete, it starts to sink in that these factors are actually important.
To really hammer the message home you, as performance manager, then need to act when athletes report undesirable training conditions or well being by adjusting their training load or recommending other corrective action.
Your monitoring program can start very small. It could be a pen and paper system where you ask each of your athletes a few questions at each training session, on
Or the next step up might be a spreadsheet system with some automatic flagging of adverse conditions.
With a little discipline on your part, in sticking to the program, you will quickly see desirable habits developing in your athletes, less injuries and better performance. Early success in your new monitoring program will no doubt create a desire to grow it.
Depending on the size of your team and the number of variables you wish to monitor you may soon reach the ExcelPlateauwhere the time required to collect and process the information becomes too high.
But if you can get to the point where you are so successfully monitoring your athletes that you are pressed for time, you will be well on your way to producing the next generation of professional athletes. That’s what we call a “problem party” when success makes life harder.
The 2 major exercises are the snatch (pictured right) and the clean and jerk.
The snatch requires the lifter to pick the bar up from the floor and above their head in one quick action. They then have to stand up from this low position until the judges say that the lift is finished.
It is a very quick action that needs great hip, ankle and shoulder mobility and strength. For beginners, just getting into the starting position is tricky. The back has to act as a lever, so it must be flat and rigid, rather than curved and soft.
You can see in this video how to get the start of the snatch correct
and here is Sonny Webster doing it for real
The second lift comes in 2 parts. The first part is picking the weight up from the floor and onto your shoulders (the clean). The second part is moving the weight from your shoulders to above your head with arms fully locked out (the jerk).
Because the weight is lifted in 2 distinct movements, with a slight pause in between, heavier weights can be moved than in the snatch.
In earlier Olympic games, the jerk was performed with both feet staying parallel, but coming out slightly. Then lifters found that splitting the legs to the front and back allowed them to get under the bar more easily and lift more weight (pictured right).
The clean and jerk is a very demanding exercise that uses nearly every muscle in the body. Because it is done at speed and with heavy loads it is a great way to get fit.
Care has to be taken though to balance this with your sporting activity. It is very taxing on the mind and nervous system. Too much leads to fatigue and possible overtraining.
Here is an example of how to prepare for the clean and jerk from Tracy Fober
and here is the real thing done by Sonny Webster this year
Whilst these are very impressive lifts from Sonny, rest assured novice lifters, I was training alongside Sonny when he was only 13 and just starting out: he lifted light and safe. he has worked very hard to get where he is today.
So, that is a brief overview of the two major exercises in “Olympic Weightlifting”. (Weightlifters refer to the sport as weightlifting, outsiders often refer to the lifts as “Olympic lifts” despite only a minority of lifters ever making it to the games!)
The exercises are technically and physically challenging, which makes them both frustrating and satisfying. The sport is safe when coached well, and dangerous when done without supervision or in the wrong environment.
We shall be doing lots of supplemental exercises to help prepare the Excelsior lifters physically and mentally. Most of them will be playing other sports, so it is my job to help plan their weekly and monthly training schedules.
If you found this Beginner’s guide to weightlifting interesting and want to try our the sport and live in Devon or Somerset, please email me here
Excelsior Athletic Development Centre comes to Oxfordshire.
Easter saw the first Athlete Support Day of 2014 for Oxfordshire athletes, with 5 different sports represented.
We got moving with some gymnastics. This challenged most of the athletes to try something unusual to them. All rose to the challenge, throwing themselves into the movements and having fun.
Having warmed up they then paired up to assess one another, they looked at how well an athlete can perform basic movements that are required for all sport, this enabled them to know what to look for and feel how they move themselves.
The day consisted of 4 main topics:
Agility: specifically the need to be able to brake before working on acceleration. We need to be able to do this in all directions. Whilst accelerating forwards with no cues is easy, doing it under pressure or having to brake is where most sports people struggle.
After introducing a reaction cue before the acceleration we quickly found everyone moving backwards to go forwards (the false step) so then addressed this.
Having worked hard on agility they spilt into groups and looked at what injuries they know of and how we can manage them if they occur, going through PRICE principles.
Power was the next topic, after discussing how we can improve power we went through building a solid foundation, where we challenged the athletes again to get out of their comfort zone.
We finished the day talking about recovery methods and then going through some exercises they could use after training or playing.
It was a fantastic group to work with and Matt and I agreed they had all worked well and improved in different areas.
This time round, I got the players to invest time into creating their own warm ups based on the 3 stages of :
Some got it, others still put in “stuff”. I was trying to make the point that if your warm up is correct, you will be able to put your opponent on the back foot straight away.
Having an individual warm up routine helps you focus on your performance and preparation, rather than getting distracted by what the other person is doing.
If you are getting into the ring with Tyson, you had better be ready straight away!
I had the difficult job of coaching all these athletes in the gym at once. Some of whom were first timers. I did 2 generic strnegth warm ups with the group, highlighting correct form.
Then I split them into 7 groups of 3, each performing a sequence of movements based around hinge, squat, push, pull, rotate, and lunge (brace had taken place in the warm up).
They then either did a body weight exercise, dumbbell exercise or barbell exercise according to age/ stage of training.
This could have gone horribly wrong, but thanks to the experienced athletes and the help of the coaches watching, it was very effective.
Moving outside to the glorious sunshine, I went over the latest flexibility routines that I have been developing.
Based on work by Eyal Lederman, I showed the athletes the benfits of moving in sequences, rather than doing static stretches. Chronic poor posture created by slumped sitting positions and desk-bound life is rarely rectified by 5 minutes of stretches a day.
A lot of flexibility work gets you better at…. flexibility work! This has its place as part of training, and especially in relaxation at the end of the day.
However, like strength training, I am only interested in how this work applies to the real world. Constant work throughout the day in our daily tasks, plus some free flowing sequences may be better.This was a chance for the athletes to move like dancers and express themselves.
Guest appearance by double Paralympian
The last section of the day was agility training, leading into decision making and then a small sided invasion game.
It was great to have Dan James assist on this part. Dan is the goalkeeper for the GB blind football team and has competed at Beijing and London Paralympics.
Dan answered the youngsters questions about his training (and where he got his kit from!).
I have coached Dan since 2007 and he talked about how he has evolved as a player and how we have changed and adapted his training. This has come about partly as a result of his development and experience, partly as a result of my development as a coach.
Everyone who is part of the Excelsior Athletic Development Club benefits from this process. Similarly, what I learn working with junior athletes filters back up to the Senior Internationals.
Dan then gave some valuable coaching tips during the invasion game: it was great to see everyone expressing their athleticism and competitiveness at the end.
Thanks again to Exeter University for hosting. Thanks also to Denise Austin (Beach volleyball), James Elkin (badminton) and Christine Farr (netball) for bringing their athletes along. Thanks to all the parents who were taking their children. “Turn up, try hard, stand tall.”
The next Support Day is on Wednesday May 28th.
Any teenager who is playing more than one sport is welcome to come. Please contact James for details.
Brian Ashton has written an interesting piece on his blog about conditioning coaches working with athletes. In it he quotes Simon Shaw who worried that young rugby players were becoming “gym monkeys” and losing their playing instincts.
Is that the players’ fault or the conditioning coaches? It is a common trait amongst sports teams, and sometimes the work is hampering athletic development, rather than helping it. Here are 4 reasons why:
There is a disconnect between the Head Coach and the Conditioning Coach.
The head coach doesn’t ever see what goes on in the gym, he just sees some test scores and some injury reports. He may or may not visit when it is testing time.
The strength and conditioning coach doesn’t see what is happening on the field or on the court, he never watches the players actually training.
How can they influence and inform each other if they don’t actually see what is happening elsewhere?
(Kevin Skinner, of Exeter Harriers, is 1 of the coaches I enjoy working with)
The Conditioning Coach is a JAFA
Coming straight out of University (taught by JAFAs not coaches), or performing the role part- time as part of a “research project” the players are actually treated as test subjects. Lots of measurement, evaluation, scores and pseudo scientific graphs.
Little or no observation of movement, accounting for outside influences such as matches, travel and that horrible thing called “life” which has a major impact on training.
The use of confirmation bias will bluff the head coach into thinking that it is all scientific. Little or no critical evaluation of the research will take place, it will usually be a single discipline quoted. Whereas sport covers multi disciplines, all having an effect at different times, to different extents on different players.
A good coach can filter the research and knowledge and apply it as required. Similarly, they can just alter the session planned to what has immediately preceded the athlete appearing. Sometimes this is raising the intensity, sometimes it is lowering it. Sometimes it is just doing something for fun or for challenge.
They keep the athlete in the frontal plane
If you just train the athlete in the frontal plane, they become better at moving…. in the frontal plane. Whole gyms are designed around platforms and cages that encourage this.
Stick a few benches in there so the athletes can lie down and you are actively encouraging non -athleticism.
For those coaches who obsessively quote research on weightlifters- the old style lifters did lots of work outside of the gym. Hill sprints, throws, dbell complexes, and strongmanwork.
They were athletes who did a lot of work on the platform, but worked on their athleticism as well. Just looking at them as great vertical jumpers and 10m sprinters and transposing that onto every other athlete is naive.
Bend, twist, run, jump, throw, crawl. Load all of these things. Then unload them and move fast. Then add decision making. Now you will help create athletes (see 8 ways to move like an athlete)
They take shortcuts and miss the fundamentals
“Have you seen this latest potion on the internet“, “have you heard of exercise X” “have you seen this workout“? It is easy to become an internet tart and jump from one website of training ideas and expensive equipment to another.
It is easy to follow “gurus” and not develop your own ideas. The problem is that you may not have a plan that systematically develops your athletes, rather than breaking them or confusing them.
I got asked on a coaching course last year by a Personal Trainer to “skip all the boring bits” and get onto the exciting exercises (the same “expert” also asked me to train him and use his body as test for my methods- just a bit too up close and personal for my liking!).
If by boring bits you mean the ability to squat, hold your body in different positions and run properly, then yes I am probably boring. But guess what? The “boring bits” are what help you develop as an athlete.
Taking shortcuts only results in deficiencies and injury potential later on. If you can’t make the fundamentals FUN, or if you get bored of coaching them, then you are probably in the wrong job.
In short- widen your horizon of knowledge and understanding, develop a plan and method of training, work with the coaches, and challenge your athletes.