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?
Have you just finished applying for University? Feel like your parents and teachers are pushing you along as part of a production line? Not sure what you want to do in life, but feel that University will kill a few years?
STOP Watch this video before it is too late.
Sir Ken Robinson highlights what is wrong with education and how young people are having their creativity stifled. (I have previously reviewed his book “out of our minds” here)
Passing tests is not education
The “teaching to the test” prevalent in our schools is failing our young people. The recent report in the Daily Telegraph about exam board tutors giving advanced information on exams to teachers is just a result of the pressure that school league tables cause. Shortcuts are made by Teachers and pupils alike at the expense of what really matters: thoughtful teaching and interaction with the ability to learn, discover and explore.
I see in Coaching environments that young athletes are afraid to try new things, because it might be “wrong”. I see aspiring Coaches going on accreditation workshops such as the UKSCA, and being told to learn teaching points parrot fashion. None of this helps when you have real human interactions to deal with.
The last thing our economy needs, or our young sports people is a bunch of automatons who can recite facts, but have no understanding of problem solving or innovation. And no, you can’t go on a course and learn “innovation”.
Seth Godin summarises what is wrong with the standardised testing approachhere
Is 2016 the year that Universities meltdown?
Coaching courses are essential
With the economy in a rut, and Universities charging for education, young people should really be looking at what the benefits of a University diploma are. If you are spending £30,000 on just getting a certficate that will open magical doors, you had best be certain that it will open those doors.
For some young people, in some professions that University certificate is essential. But not for all. Doctors and Engineers, you had best get some formal training. Scientists need to start their research under great supervision and help explore the boundaries of our knowledge.
For the wealthy and well connected, you can go and get a certificate in anything and then use your connections to land a job.
For the majority of people, especially in creative and business professions, there are many more ways to educate yourself for £30,000 that will be much more focussed and useful.
In the USA, there has been a real crisis in education, and again Seth Godin anlayses alternatives here
I work with a lot of young people, and I see a lot of them with massive potential who really are not encouraged to go out and start doing things for themselves.
I was asked this week “Can I become a strength and conditioning coach without going to university?” Yes you can, there are many ways of developing your coaching.
Shape your own future, rather than have it shaped for you.
Uncertain where to start? Then try these FREE courses on Anatomy and Physiology.
I had some e-mail correspondence yesterday with someone interested in Coaching athletes. They were looking for short cuts to working with top level athletes.
Keith Morgan, my strength coach, gave me some sound advice years ago when he said
“get a group of young athletes, work with them and you will develop as they develop.”
I was thinking this yesterday when talking to someone else about the Level 3 S&C course. It is difficult to develop as a coach if you are working with funded athletes who are at the mercy of arbitrary decisions as to where and when they train.
You may see someone for 3-6 months, then not again for a year, or not at all again. How does the athlete progress with these gaps? How do you as a coach progress if you can not see how your work is affecting the athletes over the long term?
Vern Gambetta talks about having 20 years experience- or doing 1 year 20 times over. If you are constantly having to work with a new influx of athletes, you may become very good at doing the same thing each time, but you are not progressing.
In New Zealand, some school rugby coaches start of with their team at 12-13 years old and then keep the same team as they progress through the age groups. When the kids graduate from school, the coaches go and coach the next lot of 12-3 year olds. This way you are working with players for 4-5 years and can actually help them develop.
In this country it is seen as a promotion if you work with under-16s instead of under14s, but it is a very short term in approach.
4 of our young gymnasts
Frank Dick always said that you want your best Coaches working with your beginner athletes so that they can gain good habits at an early stage. I am lucky enough to have worked with one group for 3 years and am really seeing the results.
It constantly amazes me that people with no experience at either playing or coaching want to work with elite athletes as if that was the pinnacle of success.
There are hundreds of teams and athletes in the UK that are crying out for good advice at lower levels, plenty of opportunity to help them and gain experience as a coach, but not many people want to work with them in an S&C role because it is beneath them.
I think that they will get a rude awakening if they do actually come into contact with some hairy-arsed veteran players.
I am constantly asked on the best ways to get started in Strength & Conditioning Coaching. This post will helpfully answer most queries and help you on your way, even if there are few paid S&C jobs at the end!
Understand what it is to be a Coach first
The discipline in which you Coach is of secondary importance to your ability to Coach.
Do you naturally share information with others?
Do you communicate well with people outside of your own peer group?
Do you have an innate desire to help other people fulfil their potential?
If so, then Coaching could be for you.
Learn your trade before looking for S&C jobs:
Advice from my old weightlifting coach Keith Morgan.
Earn their trust
I am often asked “what qualifications have you got that let you do your job?” It is not about the qualifications (although a sound scientific and practical knowledge base is invaluable), it is about learning and understanding the coaching process.
What works, what doesn’t; when and how to apply different aspects of training; developing your own coaching philosophy and style; learning to work in adverse conditions and environments; working with different coaches and athletes and abilities; trying out things on yourself.
Coming straight from University, it is unlikely that you will have this depth and breadth of knowledge. Similarly, reading a book, or a list of journal articles, and never having applied them, will not prepare you for coaching hairy arsed warriors on a cold Thursday night in December.
Gerald Ratner (he of the jewellers) said the same thing. He said that he draws on his experience gained on the Market Stalls when he was 15. He said that some chief executives of retail companies have never worked on the shop floor- and it shows.
Here are my 5 tips:
Research the Coaching opportunities available to you. 90% of Coaching in the UK is part time and unpaid. 80,000 level 1 football Coaches are “qualified” every year, but there are very few people making a living from Coaching football. S&C Coaching is very much smaller than that, so have realistic expectations and paid S&C jobs rarer still.
Start small and start local. The sooner you start the practice of Coaching the better. Self reflection, the learning from mistakes, the networking with other Coaches are all essential parts of becoming a successful Coach. Local teams, clubs and schools will trip over themselves to accept if you offer free help. 30 weeks of working on a Tuesday and Thursday night in the cold and dark will soon make you realise if you are cut out for it or not. Better to learn that way and for free sooner rather than later.
Be careful what courses you pay for. Paying £000’s to sit in a University for 3-4 years, without any practical experience, being taught by lecturers who have very limited Coaching experience is not the way to become a good Coach. It may be part of it, but remember that Universities are businesses and they are competing for customers. Similarly, going on a 2 day kettlebell instructors training course is not much help either.
Learn, learn, learn. Libraries and the Internet are great resources for learning. You tube is great if you aren’t sure of an exercise. You need to be reading all the time. Books are better than the internet because it takes time to acquire and direct the knowledge.The problem is filtering all that information which is why it is useful to…
Find a mentor. Learn from someone who has been there, done that and made thousands of mistakes. I pick the brains of 3-4 people whom I trust and have helped me along the way. All are vastly more experienced than I am. They can point you in the right direction of which books and journals to read, whichcourses to attend and help you with problems that are bound to crop up.
Strength and conditioning at University
Practical work on level 1 course
I recently delivered a 30 min talk to sports science undergraduates on S&C jobs and careers. I tried to emphasise the fact that you are a coach, and therefore need to work on your coaching skills. Some of this can be done in a theoretical manner, but I honestly believe that you have to get your feet wet and start to coach. You can then reflect on your performance, adapt what you do, try again and hopefully improve.
There seemed to be a “what course can I go on to get a certificate?“mentality. Well, the course should help you understand underlying coaching principles, it should help you with the technical aspects, and it should allow you to coach and reflect and get feedback on your performance. That way you learn and develop.
There are some certifications out there that cost a lot of money, but fail to help you develop. There really are no shortcuts, best start straight away and become a better coach incrementally. There are few paying S&C jobs out there, so you had best love the coaching.
However, this meant more than just sweating in the heat. I started off with two short maths questions, followed by them drawing a mind map, then giving me the answers from quiz questions they had prepared (well, most of them) in advance.
The idea was to get their cognitive and creative abilities warmed up. You have to be able to think and be adaptable as a coach: it ain’t just about learning a load of fancy new exercises. It is how you apply the knowledge.
Using the knowledge in the room
There was a great mix of people on the course, from different sports and with different levels of playing/ coaching experience. It was good to be able to draw on that experience when talking about scenarios or real world examples.
The flip side of that knowledge\ experience meant that I was constantly challenged and asked “why?”, especially as “You’re an old coach who is out of touch“!
If I am unable to come up with a sound rationale for doing things, then I should stop doing them. My message of asking “what is the aim of the session?” then writing the plan from that is something I emphasise on every course.
But, on every course, candidates insist on including their favourite exercise (this time the Plank) and reverse engineering the whole session around that exercise so they can fit it in. How does the plank help in a “power” session? (How does the plank help……?)
Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals
This course is all about teaching the fundamental movement patterns, movement efficiency, posture, balance, mobility, stability and what exercises can help develop these.
The candidates then apply this in warm ups and circuit training sessions that they plan and deliver.
I made the point that no amount of fancy agility\ speed kit can compensate for incorrect movement patterns. The kit can be brought in at a later stage once correct movement is developed.
I was pleased to see lots of good coaching practice on the last afternoon, when candidates gave each other feedback and reflected on their own delivery.
They come back for a final day in September, after they have had a chance to practice, revise and reflect on what they have learnt this weekend.
Thanks to all concerned, Nick Ward for arranging and to Derby University for hosting.
was the motto of the recent Level 2 strength and conditioning course I ran at Oxford Brookes University (The coaches were kept busy going from venue to venue and task to task, we lost a few on the way sometimes!).
Day 1 was spent looking at fundamental movements, with a special look at posture. As most people who want to be “S&C coaches” think of the outcome for “elite athletes” or “where are the Olympic lifts” this was a bit of an eye opener.
However, as the next two days developed, the coaches realised how important the ability to move correctly is.
Indeed, with 1or 2 exceptions, they realised how their own inability to move seriously hampered their speed and weightlifting training.
For example, poor slumped posture leads to a tight thoracic spine and shoulders. If you are unable to press a bar behind the head in a parallel squat position, there is little point trying to do a snatch.
It is very easy to get good at lifting on a platform, but I am only interested in how we can apply that where it counts: in the sporting arena.
The next eye opener was the importance of co-ordination in training. Whether this was doing skipping, running or performing complex dumbbell movements in the gym.
Whilst I have been told that maximal strength is the primary consideration for speed training, I have yet to see this in practice.
The speed drills we did were designed to enhance co-ordination and technique.
Application, application & more application
At every opportunity over the 3 days I reinforced how we we were going to apply these new found attributes into the sporting context.
How are our athletes going to start training?
How are they going to practice?
How are they going to be able to apply it in their own sports training and then when competing?
Unless we can see that application, why are we training?
The coaches on this course were really keen to learn and I think they saw the importance of taking a long term approach to developing athletes.
Whilst I do teach the “split style Olympic lifts” and train my athletes in them, the reality is that initially 90% of people have severely inhibited movement patterns.
Unfortunately just as athletes want short cuts, so do many coaches. This is a serious problem. Luckily the tyrekicking “fast tracking” people tend to go elsewhere to get quick fixes.
I am lucky to work with athletes and coaches who are in it for the long haul.
Rather than chase 1001 new drills and exercises, we concentrated on refining what we already did, and look at ways of coaching it better.
The candidates are all Level 2 S&C coaches already, with most of them being coaches in their own sport too. This meant they were familiar with a lot of exercises, basic planning and how it impacts their athletes.
The level 3 looks a lot more at yearly planning and the sequencing of sessions around sports practice. I have seen other coaches desperately trying to fill out there folder the day before their level 3 sports course and I wanted none of that short cutting here.
Rather than wallowing around in a cesspit of mediocrity, I want this group of candidates to dig deep, challenge themselves and each other. This means having standards.
Whilst Bill Sweetenham may have taken it too far by saying “compromise is a cancer“, I see far too many coaches settling for second best, or letting poor sloppy, techniques and habits slide.
Standards mean precision in execution, being a role model, and knowing your scope of practice.
(In case you think I am being elitist, I am talking about standards at every level: I turn up on time, professionally dressed and try my hardest every week when dealing with 5 yr olds in the Willand school playground for “wake n’ shake“).
“Get the athlete to leave the building with something”
was one of Marius Hardiman’s coaching tips on the weightlifting workshop. It is easy for athletes to get demoralised (especially when doing lifting where often the last lift is a failed attempt) so Marius gets them to finish with a “win” like doing back squats.
This 3 hour part of the course was an excellent example of an expert in their field providing not only technical knowledge but simple coaching cues (Marius is an ex lifter and Head Coach at Oxford Power Sportspictured with candidates).
We looked at preparation before lifting, snatch progressions and finally the “stuff for neanderthals” the clean and jerk.
What I especially liked was how Marius had a Plan B and a Plan C for when each lifter, in case they found a derivation or progression tricky. Sometimes this was a completely different exercsie; but more often it was a subtle tweak of position or emphasis.
I was conscious about this all relating back to training for sport, so we had lots of talk about how we apply this in rugby, rowing, cricket and tennis. Although Marius doesn’t work with footballers “because they ain’t hard enough“!
“What is the most important attribute in an athlete?”
asked our 2nd Guest Tutor Andy Ellis. I had asked Andy to review exercise anatomy and physiology, and get the coaches to see how and when they can use it to underpin their decision making.
Although Andy did cover some of the detail such as “Hydrogen ions are the evil thing“, he mostly challenged the coaches to ask more questions. They needed to be questioning all the time: especially when reading research papers!
“Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of trimuph is what brings the void” William James.
Andy talked about working with athletes in the 16-18 year age group (his main area of experience). A good tip was to find the most important things that are going to stop them from developing. In this age group it is normally peer pressure.
He then gave some good advice on “trusted sources”of advice, which is important when filtering out the enormous amount of “noise” that is published each year. “This is what I know now” was Andy’s preface to statements, admitting that this is a changing ladnscape, so we have to be careful at being dogmatic.
Interestingly, in what was supposed to be an 2 hour presentation on physiology, Andy kept referring back to “attitude” of the athlete and the coaches.
Due in some part to me having a sore throat, this weekend was highly interactive, with a lot of questions and practical demonstrations from the coaches (Mark showing Duncan some pushing hands).
If, indeed, learning is a “social phenomenon” and an “active process” we may be on track.
I am looking forward to the next weekend when the coaches present their findings on performance benchmarks for their sports.
John Brierley will be presenting on skill development and also his experiences running the Athletics Teams at the Delhi Commonwealth games.
I always say that any idiot can get people tired (and plenty do), but if you want your athletes to progress effectively, then there has to be a plan.
The group of coaches on this course came from many different sports and were used to doing things a certain way. Whilst everyone wants to know “is this a good exercise?“, few ask “what is the aim of this session and how can I plan accordingly?”
Specific circuits for Netball
People like using the word power in training programmes. So I see under aim “A power endurance circuit for netball players” and then the session designed as 1 minute of work, 10 seconds of rest for a sequence of 8 exercises!
The exercises then include squat jumps and the plank (I saw this in action recently with a so called strength and conditioning coach taking the “High performance ” netball squad!).
I have no idea what power endurance means.
No one does squat jumps well for a minute.
Plank: really? Hardly helps develop power, and anything over 15 seconds is a waste of time.
So, the emphasis on the course is to help the coaches understand that the aim of the session needs to be very clear. The session plan then needs to reflect that. The exercise selection also needs to be clear. Lunges in a strength circuit are fine. Split jumps in a power circuit are fine. Split jumps in a muscular endurance circuit are less so.
The Prison Warm Up
Movement warm up
If we have 15 minutes to do our warm up, then we need to make sure it is effective.
Often we may arrive late to a venue, or if we are doing multi events, we are only given 15 minutes notice that we are up next.
Dan John in his book “Never let go” talks about prison workouts. If you are only given 15 minutes a day to exercise, you had better strip it down to the essentials.
I find that some athletes (and coaches) love warm ups that keep going. I got the coaches on this course to think about where their athletes needed to be at the end of 15 minutes.
We also know that they have either driven to the venue, or been sat down at a desk all day. This influences how we start the warm up.
A combination of general work, specific exercises, games and then drills leading into the following session is where we got to.
The coaches delivered their initial sessions on the second afternoon, with lots of good practice being shown. They now have time to go away, practice, reflect and improve before their assessment day.
Reading a text book or journal is one thing, setting up a good plan is another. Delivering and executing that plan, then being able to adapt it is where coaching is difficult.
There was a blend of youth and experience on the course, with 5 students and 5 people who work. As always, I started off with trying to establishcoaching language used in order to dismiss folklore and create better understanding.
Once again, language is important so we avoid doing “rotator cuff” dumbbell exercises (which have nothing to do with our rotator cuff works in real life) rather than thinking about the movements that our sport requires and training our shoulders accordingly (shoulder exercise video)
Walking the walk
As usual, over half the course was based on practical learning and delivery. I try to work from the premise of creatingstructural integrity with our athletes, then progressing to developing movement efficiency.
It is quite concerning to see young people who are in pain and who lack the ability to perform fundamental movements such as squatting, skipping and balancing on one leg.
Without these basic skills, it is hard to move fast, or sustain movement without getting injured. I took the candidates through a series of exercises and progressions that will help remedy this. We then applied this in speed and agility work.
Again, I kept this simple, but concentrated on coaching it thoroughly. The principles can then be applied to whatever other drill the candidates choose to use in their environments.
I have to be patient and realise that young people are a product of their environment and are just starting out on their coaching pathway.
I noticed the generation gap on the level 2 coaching strength and conditioning for sport course this weekend in Taunton.
One of the candidates had no idea who these track and field icons were (I knew I was in for a hard time when another candidate turned up in a Crossfit t-shirt and another was wearing vibram 5 finger shoes!)
What is strength and conditioning?
Is the question I always start courses with. Language is an essential tool, but it is easy to sit around and nod heads and say we all know what “S&C” is.
The first thing that became apparent was the complication of terminology. It is very common practice to bamboozle people with terms like “In order to maximise power and utilise dynamic correspondence we must achieve triple extension”.
Vern Gambetta calls these people “complexifiers”
The next 3 days were spent trying to simplify the candidates coaching cues. The human body is an amazing machine and everything works together to perform simple and complicated tasks.
Trying to explain all those actions in a coaching cue results in confusion. I kept reinforcing the message of understanding what is happening, but using a simple task orientated cue when coaching.
Instead of “stick backside out, flex hips first, then knees“ I say “sit down“. We need to be able to observe what is right, but we say things that the athlete can comprehend (It is the oldOckham’s razor approach).
What is the aim of the session?
If you have an athlete come to train with you, it is essential that you understand what they are trying to achieve.
Before you start “random number gathering” (Kelvin Giles) you must both be clear about what you are trying to do and why.
I often see a reverse engineering of “I got this really cool exercise to use, how can I make it fit your programme?”
This occurs in fitness testing as much as programming. Sporting institutes are especially bad at collecting data just because they can! Athletes are human beings, so why treat them like line 21 on your excel spreadsheet?
I took the candidates through a series of tests that Thomas Cureton used in his excellent “Physical Fitness and Dynamic Health” which is now out of print. Here is a clip of a dynamic balance test.
This opened up their eyes as to what can be measured and how (Cureton collected massive amounts of relevant data from thousands of subjects. It is a tragedy that it is ignored here).
Adaptation and Application
The other main theme of the 3 days was the difference between adaptation and application.
It is easy to measure and train adaptation: stronger, faster, further.
It is easy to get carried away with the adaptation phase and measurements.
However, it is application on the field, court, mat, pitch, track or lake that counts. We talked about planning the day, the week and the month of training using the 4 cornerstones approach.
Application can be included in very training session, but the degree depends on the stage of the week or season. Closer to competition time requires more application. Further away (Monday or pre-seaons) can be more adaptation.
We put this into practice by progressing from movement screening to dumbbell exercises and barbell exercises (especially squats and deadlifts). We moved outside to do agility training (hip projection being key) and finally speed and acceleration.
A busy few days, with some great input and thoughts from the candidates. As I kept saying, there are lots of great drills, out there, I just showed a few I use.
However, the drill must be relevant, executed correctly, and coached thoroughly.
I am looking forward to January when the candidates show me what they have learnt by delivering sessions themselves.