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  1. IFAC Reflections Part 3

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    Finding the failure point in athletes

    My final thoughts on IFAC, reviewing Jerome Simian’s leg strengthening exercises and progressions.

    If the structure is weak, it won’t allow the nervous system to show what it can do.”

    Regular readers and our athletes will know about Structural Integrity, Simian uses a different phrase, but the meaning is similar.

    Leg Strengthening Progressions

    Leg strengthening exercises for athletes
    Simian explaining the high step up

    I was chosen as the subject for the next workshop, Simian having observed my hurdling efforts earlier in the day.

    He took me through a series of exercise progressions that were designed to find my failing point. That then would give him more of an idea about how to design a suitable training programme for me.

    I have some idea about strength training, but still managed to take a lot from this session.

    The progressions were as follows:

    • Step up with toes up. An oldie which I have used since 1995 (Tippett & Voight), but taken to a new height by Simian. The foot on the ground has its toes up, forcing the foot on the step to do all the work.
    • The key here is then to lock the hip at the top of the step which requires more control. You can see the two young athletes below working on it in our gym.
    • The progressions around this are to do a decline step- which emphasises quad work more, or to use a higher step– which emphasises hip flexors more.
    • Once the height can be achieved, load can be added with dumbbells, then barbell either in front or back.

    The knee on the step needs to be pushed forward so that the hip extends first, then the knee (hip-knee-ankle in that order). The exercise must reflect what happens in the sport.

    These high box step ups are a great use of the box that coincidentally our club had just received before Christmas.

    Split squat or lunge?

    The next exercise was the split squat, the difference between that and a lunge is that the shin remains vertical in a lunge but has a positive forward angle in the split squat.

    Here was another exercise that a visual demonstration would have helped me with- instead, after several misfirings from me, and less then useful input from the coaching bystanders, I got the hang of it.

    Pushing the knee forward is important to lower the body so that the rear knee touches the ground, then coming out the hips must move up first and then back. This ensures that the same pattern of hips-knees-ankle extension occurs. It is tempting to push back.

    I explained that due to my background- pushing in and out in a low stance without raising my hips was part of my karate sparring drills.

    split squat technique
    Still got it

    The progression from here was with the front foot elevated, a low stable step is enough.

    This creates a lot more hip flexion and extension and is good for those athletes who are yet unable to do a full squat.

    I then had the pleasure of receiving more weight (remember, the aim was to find my failure point).

    When the barbell is in front a lot more hip and buttock is used compared to when the barbell is on the back of your shoulders.

    Front squats and back squats

    We have covered the difference between back squats and front squats previously, but I still gained a few worthwhile cues and technical points. It is always worth getting coached by someone new to get a fresh perspective, especially if, like me, you are training on your own all the time.

    squatting coaching cues
    Too many cues lead to athlete frustration
    • Simian wanted me to feel like I was “strangling yourself” and to rack the bar higher in the Front Squat. He also told me to push my knees out wider and over my toes more.
    • On the way down I was to flex my ankles, then knees and then my hips (the same as landing mechanics) and on the way up to do the reverse (same as acceleration).
    • He thought my front squat was ok, but noticed that my back squat had a shift to the left when I lowered down. He wanted me to squat with very wide hands and wider than normal legs for me.

    Coaching the person in front of you

    So far so good, a coach has seen some good points, but then found a weakness or error and now attempts to correct it. The back squat with load was my “failure point“.

    Simian had two solutions to help me:

    1. Practise Cossack squats (a lateral lunge with one foot facing sideways) to help my tight left adductors and my tight right hip flexors. This, he surmised, was the reason for my poor squatting technique. No problem.
    2. He stood and held my right hand and rubbed the bones around a bit. Then he watched me move again.

    Some people may enjoy having a Frenchman hold their hand and look dreamily into their eyes, I am not one of those people. I noticed no change in my movement.

    squatting technique
    At my age a decent cup of tea is essential for squats

    Some helpful members of the audience then started throwing in their suggestions like “It’s because his femurs have funny shaped heads”.  I was way out of my depth here; surrounded by coaches with X-Ray vision.

    This was where I started to become sceptical and moderately frustrated (I had yet to have a cup of tea that afternoon).

    I have injured my right knee previously whilst sprinting. It has been aggravated by landing incorrectly from a somersault. I think I favour that side when back squatting.

    Repeatedly leaning to that side may well cause a learned effect and my left adductors and right hip flexors to be tight as a result of my bad technique, rather than the cause.

    If what Simian had said or done had made an improvement, I would be a convert. It might well work in his environment with more time: I have empathy for trying to present to a group of coaches with a subject I have just met.

    I much prefer creating movement problems for the athlete to solve, like the Cossack squats, than trying to find the magic pressure point to release.

    What I can say for certain is that in the context of this environment, despite having some competency in the gym, I was confused. This could be because Simian kept referring to me in the third person and was addressing the coaches, rather than coaching me.

    The good news was that it reminded me not to do this with the athletes I coach. If I do make a coaching point to the whole group using a subject, I then need to ensure that I actually coach the subject too!

    Depth jumps

    The final part of the workshop was a bit less structured and became more of a loose discussion. It was based around depth jumps.

    Once again I was chosen to be a subject, and to perform an exercise I rarely practise.

    Depth jump training for athletes
    Serendipity: this arrived at our club before I attended IFAC

    I am used to landing following vaults and jumps in Parkour, but often with a roll afterwards. I am unused to landing from height with a stiff foot and ankle. Once again I think being a subject was less useful in the context of trying to learn.

    I simply couldn’t get the point of the exercise: Simian didn’t demonstrate, so there were a lot of verbal cues flying around, with heckling from the side lines.

    If I was supposed to land with pretension, I think the box was too high to start. I would always get the athletes to practise off a small step at first and then get higher. Simian was trying to find “failure points”, but the learning effect would be interfering in his assessments.

    I tried with shoes on and then off, and then had my ankles and feet rubbed and moved around a bit. No improvement in what I was doing occurred, but I kept saying “I don’t know what I am supposed to be trying!

    My failure point was being uncertain of the point and intent of the task we were trying to do.

    A few interesting points did come out:

    • Ankle mobility in throwers is important because it allows the torso to remain more upright during the rotation. Lack of mobility means that the knees or hips have to flex to get lower which means the torso is more likely to bend too.
    • Two of the “athlete basics” are a good hip extension without pelvic tilt, and being able to fully extend and flex the ankle.
    • The toe test exercise to see how your ankle and feet work when flexed compared to extended. Try this at home: keep the main part of your foot on the floor and raise your toes off, then curl them underneath. Then try the same with your ankles flexed.

    You will probably find that your feet need to work a bit harder. Remember that they are the first point of contact when running, so neglect them at your peril.


    Simian succeeded in showing his methodology. He found the “limiting factor” in myself and LC and then showed some ideas on how to develop our weak points.

    This was enlightening.

    He looks for the biggest limiting factor because that will give you the most gains if you can improve it.  This makes sense.

    Some demonstrations would have been useful, as well as remembering to coach the athlete, rather than just present to the audience. When attending a seminar I always look at how the coach coaches rather than just what they coach.

    Simian was very good at explaining WHY in his approach, but less so in some of the exercises.

    I took extensive notes, even though I attended only one of the four strands in the middle of day three. I have missed more than I have recorded, so other coaches may like to leave their feedback below.

    I have already applied some of the lessons learnt, trialled it myself, and I will be meeting with Rhys Llewellyn-Eaton in 2 weeks’ to share ideas as he was also there.

    I would recommend IFAC to other coaches who wish to learn about improving the athleticism of their players. The staff and presenters were friendly, approachable and were all there to help educate the attendees.

  2. IFAC Reflections Part 2

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    A review of Jerome Simian’s workshops on physical preparation for sport.

    I had to choose between different “strands” of coaching topics at the IFAC conference in Loughborough. A difficult choice, not wanting to miss out on some excellent speakers. I chose to attend Simian’s because of a quote I heard on the HMMR podcast:

    I have an obligation to results, not an obligation to methods.

    This resonates with me as I wanted to hear from someone who has to get results from the athletes he works with, or he won’t get paid. He has “skin in the game.” This is different from someone who is promoting a model on paper, in print or to a captive audience.

    I was all ears and ready to learn from someone I had never met before.

    I shall give an overview of Simian’s theoretical approach, plus details on his practical applications and my experiences as guinea pig in several of them.

    Fundamental Physical Preparation: A Systematic Approach

    The best ones have the strongest fundamentals.

    serena williams backhand
    Working on fundamentals

     Simian recounted watching Serena Williams warm up. She hit between 80-120 shots just leaning into her backhand. Her excellence may be related to her persistence that allows her to then dictate what the ball does.

    This fundamental approach guides Simian. Athletes usually come to train with him because they have a problem to solve. He receives no funding from a Governing Body, so he has to find a solution to help the athlete that hasn’t been found in their usual training.

    Will the environment you provide be stronger than the environment they came from?”

    I like this concept: if we aren’t increasing the stimulus, how will the athlete adapt and get better?

    Simian then quoted Michel Pradel:

    The aim of physical preparation is to go beyond the level of motor ability that can be achieved by the sole practice of the chosen activity.”

    General to Specific Exercises

    Linking back to what Martin Bingisser had talked about in the previous hour, Simian highlighted exercises from two different events from General to Specific (see below).

    Figure 1 100m General to Specific

    Figure 2 Women’s discus General to Specific

    If you look at how this is set out, take a moment to reflect on the importance of “traditional resistance training”. A lot of heat and noise comes out of journals, social media and conferences, but very little light.

    Simian then says he uses a system of thinking, rather than specific methods. This allows him a framework within which he can choose different methods (exercises, drills, outside sources) that help him to adapt to different athletes and their needs.

    He did give an overview of different periodisation models and why he uses Zatiorsky’s adaptation model. In a nutshell, it is about managing fatigue better, so the athlete is better prepared at the end of the workout or day to then train again.

    He uses a Heart Rate Variability app with his athletes as he has found that was the simplest and most effective measure of fatigue. It was the best marker of the Parasympathetic nervous system that is linked to overall stress.

    But, I think this part of the seminar was of less relevance than his system of training.

    General Physical Preparation Planning Principles (GPPPP?)

     Simian says that he doesn’t create an athlete specific programme immediately. Instead “there are certain things every athlete ought to be able to do.

    Each athlete goes through the system to start, this then allows Simian to gain a better understanding of how they move, what limiting factors there might be, and also what makes the athlete tick.

    Jerome Simian workshop

    This graphic shows the progression of thought. Looking at what the limiting factors might be, training in core athletic activities, then some specialisation according to the sport (the context).

    Then comes strengthening of the fundamentals and sport specific factors. Finally another look at what any limiting factors might be.

    A systematic hunt of the limiting factor and its improvement

    This seemed to be the crux of Simian’s approach (as discovered in the practicals).

    Muscles have to handle each other around the joint. An injury in one may mean the loss of control, or too early a deceleration in a throw”.

    The art for Simian was to find out where the muscles were lacking, and then find a solution to improve it. He then gave examples of throwing actions and how injuries to different parts affected the overall throw.

    One thing I took from this on muscle activation:

    • Acceleration/ take offs- muscles activate from proximal to distal (centre to limbs).
    • Deceleration/ landings: the reverse, so distal to proximal (feet, ankles, knees to hips).

    Simian was very good at comparing the athletics throws and how they differ due to the different rotations. More rotations allow a longer path of acceleration, with hammer throwers rotating over 40 metres.

    In his work with Kevin Mayer (Decathlon World record holder) Simian has done a great job of analysing the movements, the events and joining the two together. The level of detail and understanding was impressive.

    Practical workshops: Observation, analysis, application

    Now to the practicals: looking at assessment of athletes and potential solutions.

    Jerome Simian athletics workshop
    Jerome Simian explaining the hurdles

    With a group of over 20 coaches, Simian had a young volunteer take part in the practicals to be assessed. I was lucky enough to be pushed forward by Martin Bingisser and so ended up taking part too. This was a mixed blessing.

    The review to follow is therefore from the perspective of a participant, rather than a passenger.

    Now to the practicals: looking at assessment of athletes and potential solutions.

    Practical workshops: observation, analysis, application

    Simian used the hurdles picture to assess our ability to do repeated rebounds over them. He gains information from this to then ascribe/prescribe further exercises in the gym.  LC and I did this several times each.

    (N.B. At no point in these workshops did Simian ever demonstrate; it took a lot of time and explanation to get things right. I got tired repeating the exercises, many of which were either new, or not something I practise regularly. Information taken from my stumbling efforts was tainted with lack of skill.

    As a coach are you assuming deficit of strength (imbalances) when really skill is deficient? It is easy to jump to conclusions.)

    Simian’s feedback to LC was that her back was collapsing during the rebounds, so more strength type supplemental work was needed.

    His feedback to me was that more springing practice was needed, so doing the hurdles exercise will help me get better. Strength didn’t appear to be the issue.

    Back strengthening exercises

    athletic back strengthening exercises
    Assessing back movement

    We then spent the next hour in the gym with LC as the subject, looking at back strengthening progressions. They were as follows:

    • Assessing LC in the Roman Chair– showed tightness around T12 which leads to poor rotation (problematic for a thrower). Simian then pressed down on her lumbar spine and got her to extend. This isolated the thoracic spine (T Spine) to enable more movement.
    • In order to get a contraction in the T Spine, he tried to get a relaxation in the rectus abdominus. He rubbed LC’s tummy as a cue and then said “relax that”. Her movement improved, so he changed her position on the chair so she had more flexion at the beginning.
    • Once the movement was correct and the range had increased, he added a light barbell to her shoulders. LC had to hold for 6 seconds, then slowly lower down again.
    • The key point was to only extend the spine after hip extension. All sports (except golf) require this sequence, rather than spine extension followed by hip extension.

    Sprinters who pop up too soon may have weaker spines. It is easy to hold the spine erect upright than in horizontal.

                    The next series of exercises were off the Roman Chair and progressed as follows:

    • Good Mornings- LC was still hinging at T12, so a lighter load was needed. The maximal load was being taken at T12, rather than across the spine.
    • Hip Hinge with barbell in front (Romanian Dead Lift, RDL). Trying to extend the spine throughout the whole movement.

    These exercises help athletes keep an upright chest when running without a pelvic tilt. If the pelvis anteriorly rotates when the chest is high, it creates too much “backside mechanics” leading to over striding.

    • Snatch grip deadlift– hips and shoulders rise together. If the hips rise first, it shows too early a knee extension. The extension should be: hips-knee-ankles in that order.
    • Feet elevated snatch deadlift- harder to control. Slow up for 5 seconds, then down for 5 seconds.

    At no point was “Lift Heavy” used as a cue. The progressions were greater range of motions with greater technical difficulty. “The lighter weight I can use to get an effect, the better.”

    Simian said that once LC had got competent in these exercises then he would progress her through greater speed and exercises such as pulls and snatch that encourage that speed.

    If to do an exercise properly, you have to solve the same problem that you do on the track, then it’s probably a good exercise.”

    Here was where Simian was excellent– he knew what the problem in the event was, and then used exercises to help isolate certain parts of that event and improve them. Problem solving and skilful movement by the athlete were essential parts of the process.

    Part 3 will look at Leg strengthening progressions in the gym.

  3. IFAC reflections Part 1

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    A review of the middle day of the IFAC conference in Loughborough.

    IFAC athletics conference

    I spent the first Saturday of 2019 at the EAAC event held at Loughborough University. Finding good conferences in the UK is hard, so I wanted to make the most of this opportunity.

    I shall give an overview of what I learnt, plus some detail on the specific exercise progressions in the gym.

    Whilst the term athletics may turn readers off, the principles and movement inherent in these workshops apply to many different sports.
    Frank Dick is the organiser. The ex head coach of UK Athletics in the early 1990s is the author of three excellent books and is the main reason I wanted to attend.

    Frank and me

    I have met Frank 4 times previously. The first at “Bodylife” a Health Club conference in the late 1990s where he was the key note speaker. His talk influenced me to later set out on my own path rather than continue down the management track.

    I then attended a 1 day leadership and coaching workshop with him in 2000, where he took us through a great day of practical coaching and thinking exercises. I was there with a small team of my staff who were great people too.

    I next saw Frank accompanying his daughter trying to rack up tennis points at the David Lloyd Club I was managing in Heston. We talked then about the tennis system and how much travelling was required in order to gain these points.

    Forward onto 2012 and the buzz about the London Olympics. I attended the Global Coaching House in Piccadilly which he organised and I saw a variety of great coaches speak.

    Frank Dick books
    3 good books by Frank

    The three books he has written are:

    Sports Training Principles: currently in its 5th edition, a sport science text that has expanded and become more detailed over the years. I first read this in 1993 and recommend it highly.

    Winning: A great short book about motivation in which Frank talks about “Mountain people and valley people

    Winning Matters: A guide to leadership and running a successful club or organisation. Again, very useful.
    So, whilst I haven’t ever been coached by Frank, I have been influenced by him and he has definitely given me inspiration through speech and the written word.

    Fit for purpose: functional physicality

    Martin Bingisser gave the first presentation on what constitutes physical preparation for sports. Martin has represented Switzerland at the hammer throw and now coaches throwers. He runs HMMR media and I was invited onto his podcast last October. I met Martin at GAIN 3 years ago and have enjoyed getting to know him.

    “Understanding why is the new functional training”.

    New coaches are keen on the “What” with some “How”. Which new exercise can they copy from a famous athlete on Instagram? Martin was keen to stress the “Why” we do exercises and that as coaches evolve, they ask this more and more.
    (These phrases come from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with why?” and are common to GAIN coaches).

    Martin split the concepts of physical preparation into 3 stages:
    • General
    • Related
    • Specific

    (attendees of our coaching courses will recognise this is also how we structure how warm up design).

    General: To prepare athletes to train.

    Jesse Owens long jump

    Jesse Owens jumped 8:17 metres in 1936. He never did a back squat (or a mid-thigh pull). How was he able to compete in 4 different events and win Olympic Gold Medals without going in a weights room?

    Growing up in the segregated south, his active youth may have been the “General” preparation that was necessary.

    Martin then showed videos of the La Sierra High School physical education programme espoused by John F Kennedy in the 1960s.

    The video shows what can be down outside if young people are given the opportunity (It was one of the influencers in choosing the equipment with our Parish Council for our village’s main park).

    Why Squat?

    Why is the back squat so prevalent and now seen as a “need to do” exercise? How about:
    Goblet squat
    • Partner squat
    • Single leg squat
    • Half squats
    • Step ups

    as examples of developing leg strength?

    Martin then gave several examples of different athletes doing different leg exercises, each of whom had a rationale for their situation and purpose.

    This is different from saying “You MUST do back squats”, especially with beginner athletes and beginners in the weights room.
    (Martin was preaching to a choir boy with me, and our club members will recognise the patterns and themes that we follow. This is covered regularly at GAIN and in different variants).

    Related: Prepare athletes for the sport

    Martin showed a video of John Pryor doing some “Robust Running” drills with the Japanese National Rugby.

    The difference between “cool looking exercises on Instagram” and a purposeful approach to coaching, with structures and progressions was the main point here.

    Key points were:
    Develop skill execution in parallel with physical prep.
    Constraints- led approach so the athletes have to solve problems to create the correct sprinting pattern.
    • A simple approach to a complex environment means that one piece of the puzzle can be solved at a time.

    Specific Training for the sport

    Time needs to be spent doing this. Do coaches look for ways to structure their training accordingly? Do they know the needs and demands of their sport?
    Martin showed a video of a shot putter training with some “cool looking exercises”, but then explained why they were “sport specific”.

    They consisted of four elements which transfer to the sporting environment:

    1. Technical/ co-ordination– develop balance and rhythm through an altered environment.
    2. Mental– create a challenge to help focus.
    3. Strength– specific strength overload.
    4. Emotional- competitive challenge.

    When designing programmes to improve physical preparation for the sport, coaches need to know the basics required in that sport. Is there a relevant measurement for exercises that can be found- or, like Jesse Owens, do we just need to be fitter?

    The final point from Martin was that the best coaches need:


    Part 2: A review of the practical workshops with Jerome Simian on developing leg and back strength for athletes.

  4. How to Create Excellence In Coaching

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    Improving your coaching

    coaching excellence

    Reviewing and improving

    For a start, I am not sure I have achieved this, but there are a few things that you can do to help make yourself and your coaching better.

    • Learn- observe, participate, read, practice. Not just from the usual key texts, if all you do is read the same 3 books as everyone else, you will do the same as everyone else. Look outside your usual sphere of influence, try different things, listen to what your athletes are telling you.
    • Analyse– look at what your athletes do when they move, don’t come with a prepared programme to hand out, see what they can actually do. Look at what the sport requires in the game, using both top performers and beginners as benchmarks. Don’t take an exercise as gospel because Tiger Woods does it. Try to understand why he might do something, and then see if you need to do that.
    • Share– share your ideas and opinions and thoughts with others. Physiotherapists, biomechanists, physiologists, coaches will all see the same thing as you, but from their perspective. This will add colour, depth and clarity to your own vision. This should help prevent group think, but also be aware of summating that information into a workable package for your athletes.
    • Review- constantly, all the time, after every session, every day, every week, every month, every year. The mini reviews will help you adjust things before your next session. But the bigger reviews require time and no distractions.

    Take the time out away from the immediate pressing issues of the day and sit down with a blank piece of paper and a clear mind. Revisit where you want to go, think what you need to get there. Think what you have done and then match the two. Where there are gaps, look to improve.

    Why not book onto our new “Foundation in Athletic Development” 1 day course to help improve your coaching?

  5. Creativity in Coaching

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    How do we become creative in our coaching?

    creative coaching

    Try looking at things from a different perspective

    For those of you studying at University, you may be under the impression that there is only one way of doing things. Try to look outside of the parameters of the people who are marking your assignments.

    Here are some useful tips to get the ball rolling:

    • Get some space between you and the daily grind- 15 minutes of non-electronic communication\ noise time. It is difficult to be creative with your mind being full of bills\ work\ relationships.
    • Look at something different that you have never read or seen before, something completely unrelated to the norm. E.g. read Good Housekeeping magazine,watch how a beetle moves, or study a postcard in detail. Then write down 3 things that you have observed, or learnt.

    Creative coaching to help solve problems

    Once your mind is a bit clear, and you have been exposed to some new ideas or concepts, then it is time to try and apply this to your coaching or training.

    You have written down 3 things that you have observed, now write down your 3 best coaching points and your 3 biggest coaching problems.

    See how you can connect the good coaching with your problem via one of your observations on a non related subject.

    It sounds bizarre, but in order to change, you have to try looking at things from a different perspective.

    It is a lot more interesting than just copying someone else’s drills.

    Why not learn more by booking onto one of our upcoming coaching courses?

  6. Getting to grips with infographics and data visualisation.


    “Sometimes Excel just has to be beaten into submission”

    After many hours of staring at screens and wrestling with Excel, I have finished my final work on the “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization” course.

    What started as interest in infographics turned into an understanding of how data should be presented in order to clarify and educate, rather than to obfuscate.

    Not knowing what you don’t know

    Do you know much about defence spending as part of GDPs, tax rates around the world for incomes over $300K, or the Eigen factor? Neither did I before this course started!

    The sketch to the right shows my idea for an infographics showing how defence spending as a proportion of GDP is correlated with geographical location around the Middle East.

    This is an example of the work we were assigned: look at existing data and how it was presented, then come up with an alternative way of presenting that data.

    Marks were not given according to drawing ability (thankfully). Instead, we were encouraged to start with a blank sheet of paper and start with the end in mind.

    This then lead to storyboarding and telling a story for the reader using images. My first effort on Academic tenure and what it means for University education in the USA can be seen here.

    Thematic mapping and data:ink ratios

    The course started off with reading chapters from Alberto Cairo’s The Functional Art” plus watching video lectures. Extra reading included Stephen Few’s “Data Visualization for Human Perception” which goes through in some detail how the human eye can perceive height and depth, but less able to perceive area.

    Data visualisation simplifiedThis is important when choosing which type of graphic to use to present the data.

    Pie charts are popular but are ineffectual in showing comparisons amongst data sets.

    (The exception being this Yoda pie chart!)

    It is easy to get caught up in what looks cool, rather than what is easy to interpret.

    Pretty is different from functional.

    Once you have chosen the right type of graphic, it then has to be made easy to read. The default option of programmes like Excel is to make things overcomplicated, but pretty.

    A few simple edits and background effects that add little meaning can be removed, such as:

    • gridlines
    • extra words on axes
    • too many different colours
    • text that is replicated in charts

    This increases the data: ink ratio

    Making my eyes bleed

    excel for coachesThroughout the course, Cairo emphasised that design came first, the ability to use the software came second.

    We were given access to adobe illustrator and tableau publishing software to help produce the graphics. However, I thought I would use Excel as I have got continued access to that.

    I designed my Coach’s dashboard, then tried to programme accordingly. I then got sucked into a vortex of functions, formulae errors, circular references and other pop up boxes that constantly reminded me why I avoid spreadsheets.

    I was inspired by this series of videos on Excel Tricks for Sports but was unable to get past the second minute!

    My coach’s dashboard was designed to show an overall picture of work being done in the gym with that on the field and in matches. My experience has shown that often no one sees the overall work being done. (With young athletes factor in different sports and p.e lessons and the result is a shambles).

    Here it is:

    coach's dashboard

    This is the front page of the Excel document, with test data and individual programming on the other sheets. The spin button is designed to scroll through players so that the coach can see how much work is being done by each player.

    I split it into current work and future work. That way the coach can see how things are looking over the next 4 weeks, compared to the last 4 weeks. Pitch and gym time can be planned accordingly.

    Without the overall picture, it is difficult to see what is going to happen.

    excel for coachesThat was the theory: having the programming skill of an amoeba stopped it from working as I had wished!


    The course was well set up with interaction amongst students, practical work, lectures and reading. I learnt quite a bit and in conjunction with reading Dan Roam’s back of the napkin, I think that my ability to use diagrams and portray data has improved.

    This is an essential part of communication which almost every Coach says is important when coaching.

    I absolutely detested getting stuck with Excel, exactly what I had tried to avoid. However, I have come through the other side and whilst no Excel Jedi, I might be an acolyte. (Too much time on Excel will lead to the Dark Side I am sure).

    Thanks to Alberto Cairo for running the course. The opening quote came from Tara Richerson who runs a good blog on excel for educators and gave some great feedback to me. Thanks to Ollie Whitehead for providing some of the data.

    I use a lot of this information now when delivering strength and conditioning qualifications as it helps the coaches present information more clearly to their athletes.

    Previous MOOC: Crash Course on Creativity Next up: How things work 

  7. Anatomy and Physiology Learning in the 21st century


    Here are some free resources that may help you get to grips with learning your anatomy and physiology.

    Introduction Level

    BBC GSCE Bitesize – GCSE revision guide

    BBC Learning – links to various revision guides and other information

    Exercise PhysiologyBasic physiology

    Heart & Circulation – Basic animations

    Teaching Resources

    Ken Hub anatomy : good series of videos breaking anatomy down into sections.

    TES Teaching resources under all topics for all ages (you need to register for free)

    Intermediate Level

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology – College level courses from Biology to weightlifting

     Video Lectures

    UC Berkeley – Biology video series 39 videos

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Introduction to Biology series 34 videos

    Coursera Great variety of online courses running for 4-6 weeks and more. I recently did the Exercise Physiology course (review here) which was very in depth.

    There are more ways to learn than going to University.

    There are many ways to learn, and paying £30,000 to sit in a lecture hall with 200 other students 6 hours a week, for 90 weeks total may be a bit too much to swallow.

  8. How to acquire skill in strength and conditioning


    “Skill learning isn’t just skill learning, it’s preparation”

    skill acquisition john brierleyJohn Brierley in his skill acquisition lecture on our level 3 coaching strength and conditioning for sport course.

    Ever see the 5 sets of 5 programme for squats, power cleans and bench press? Dull as dishwater!

    If we want our athletes to develop, we need to challenge their skill. If we fail to do that they get bored.

    John’s theme was how can we make ourselves redundant as coaches: “It’s not our responsibility to keep control of their learning.”  Instead, we need to “Get people to be in love with the activity” and then that stands them in good stead later on.

    That’s coaching. How do you coach in the gym? Is it just handing out sets and reps and increasing the weight?

    Do you crank up the music to create “atmosphere” and remove the human contact between coach and athlete?

    These were the questions John was asking us as coaches. If we are to be successful (and by that I mean getting our athletes performing in the arena) then we need to improve our coaching, including motor skill acquisition.

    Motivation and motor skill acquisition go together

    motor skill acquisition in strength training

    Juggling is fun

    If we get the athlete motivated, then they are more likely to acquire the skill.

    This comes down to structuring the practice well, using the right level of task difficulty and then using the correct cues and feedback.

    We spent some time doing this as a group as John broke out his Mary Poppins bag of coaching aids.

    We had to perform a juggling task, test it, then do 2 minutes of practice with some video feedback, rest, then practice more. We then retested at the end.

    There was minimal chat, some cues such as “think drainpipe rather than teapot” and short focussed practice. The idea was that by looking at the video, and trying 1 or 2 cues, we could improve.

    (Duncan proved to be a juggling whiz, so whilst we were dropping tennis balls, he was progressing from 2 to 3 balls, to mishaped objects, to juggling clubs: John was well prepared with stuff!).

    This structure was similar to the micropractice work we did in December.

    People are never as physically tired as they are mentally“. We can give the athlete breaks in practice when the skill is hard to achieve. Rest them physically, but work on something else.

    I apply this with athletes as just when they are looking comfortable or familiar it is time to move on (temporarily) to something else. Boredom sets in otherwise, and the learning stagnates.

    Decision making counts

    Skill rarely happens in isolation in sport. Instead, it is the decision making that counts. “Don’t take the decision making out of it“. Practice needs to be variable:

    • Short, long or medium length.
    • Shooting/ rehearsing dominant/ non-dominant.
    • Slower vs faster.
    • Change the environment and context.

    As we set down our learning pattern, we won’t remember the rep, but we will remember the context in which we practiced.

    • How do you structure your practice?
    • Is it the same every time?
    • Are your athletes getting better at some pre-programmed activities?
    • How do you know if that can then be applied to the sport?

    I left the course with a lot of questions I have to ask myself, and I was the lead tutor!


    John’s wealth of experience working in football and athletics enabled him to share practical examples of challenges within teams and high pressure situations.

    His approach of “how to get everyone working together” was insightful and useful for all the coaches.

    Less is more” seemed to be one of the themes of the course: simpler, more effective cues. Have fewer exercises, but coach them really well, and change the context and environment in which we practise them.

    Marius and Andy had emphasised this on the first weekend of the course too.

    The rest of the weekend was spent looking at how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together: planning the year, the month the week and the individual session.

    I wanted the coaches to be asking the right questions of themselves and of their athletes; perhaps most importantly

    How can I help my athletes improve their performance where it counts?  The competitive arena.

    If you would like to host a course at your school or club, please see what we offer here

    Further reading

  9. The Uncertainty Principle: From the Big Bang to Dark Energy Review

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    “Physics is uncertain. There is an overall predictability of patterns, but individual prediction is hard”

    hitoshi murayamaHitoshi Murayama, Tokyo University.

    I took this 5 week course due to having an interest in Astronomy and the big ideas of the Universe.

    I have seen Martin Rees, Michio Kaku and Simon Singh present on various themes and read their books on “Space science“.

    I thought this course would help me understand more. I was unprepared for the mathematics that would be involved (which caused more than one cup of coffee being spilt by me banging the table in frustration).

    Answering the big questions

    The course was based around answering these questions:

    • How did the Universe begin?
    • What is its fate?
    • What is it made of?
    • What are its fundamental laws?
    • Where do we come from?

    The universeThe video lectures by Murayama were entertaining, and very interesting. I got lost with some of the maths (well, most of it), but the concepts were well explained.

    Atoms make up less than 5% of the Universe (pictured), the rest is made up of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

    The Universe was crumpled at the beginning, then has gradually smoothed out. This has left some wrinkles in the patterns and density of matter (pictured). This explains why there are clusters of galaxies together.

    How scientists are discovering and measuring these concepts was explained really well in the course. Massive collaborative projects that are underground such as the hadron collider, group arrays of telescopes, the Hubble Telescope and underwater stations.

    Patience and luck seem to be two of the main factors responsible for discoveries.

    The big numbers

    big bang theoryIt is hard to grasp the sheer size of what is out there. The Universe started out less than the size of a virus and expanded into galaxy size in less than 1 second.

    The initial state was one of disorder because of the heat and energy being released.

    When it cooled (?) to 4 quadrillion degrees the Higgs Boson was able to freeze. The Higgs Boson is a crucial component because it slows (!) every elementary particle down to the speed of light.

    It keeps our atoms together; without it we would evaporate in a second. Electrons are therefore able to fly around the atom without falling apart.

    Some galaxies are colliding at a speed of 4500km/ sec!This can be seen by light being distorted due to the mass distorting gravity and light bending. If you can get out at night and look up at a clear sky, think of what is happening up there.


    I really enjoyed learning about the history of the Universe, and what it contains.

    There were no reading materials associated with the course which I thought was poor. Each of the MOOCS I have done has had different materials associated with it. The best have a balance of video and links to reading materials, along with the homework assignments, exams and discussion forums.

    The maths involved in the course was horrendous, and there was no warning beforehand. If it had stated “You should be familar with advanced mathematics” then I would have taken a different course.

    The graduate assistant setting the homework realised this and added some remedial videos. But, my time is limited and if I had wanted to do a maths course, I would have! I still managed to get 83.6% for the overall course.

    I am no scientist, but I like studying and reading proper science. This course gave me a greater understanding, for which I am grateful and inspired.

    Next up for me “The Fundamentals of Neuroscience” run by Harvard: switching to the science of the very small.

  10. Hope, mindfulness and compassion


    “Do you coach with compassion or for compliance?”

    Richard BoyatzkisEffective leaders bring out the best in people, they do this through inspiring hope,being mindful and coaching with compassion (1).

    That was one snippet from my recently completed 6 week course led by Richard Boyatzis called “Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence”.

    The premise of the course was to make us more aware of our own emotional states and how it impacts our decision making and interactions with others.

    It showed ways of creating true empathy which genuinely opens up to the other person which is very powerful (The less effective empathy is seeing the other person through a reflection of yourself.)

    It showed how inspiring hope and dreams are important coaching tools. Athletes respond to that and sometimes get caught up in what other people think they “ought to do” rather than what they “love to do” (2,3).

    It showed how being mindful is important for my relationship with athletes (I can respond better to their needs and desires) and also for my own benefit (clarity of thought, renewal).

    It was tough, with a bigger workload than expected, but well worth it.

    “When we use the term compassion, we go beyond the typical Western interpretation to one coming from Confucian philosophy. Compassion is the experience of benevolence, of being open to others. It is caring for others who might be in pain (more hedonic) or those in joy (more eudemonic) or those in search of growth (eudemonic) (4). 

    Who has inspired you?

    Coaching Emotional IntelligenceTry this simple exercise: take 5 minutes out and write down a list of people who have inspired you throughout your life: Family, teachers, coaches, colleagues, friends.

    Think about what was it they did that inspired you? Remember as much detail as possible, again write it down.

    If you have done the exercise, well done. How did you feel when you were doing it? You will probably be feeling pretty good now.

    You have activated the parasympathetic nervous system by thinking of positive emotional attractors. You are now in an open state of mind and have experienced some “Renewal“.

    Our daily lives are filled with encounters and events that are quite stressful: being held on the phone, dealing with the National Governing Body that wants meaningless reports, stuck in traffic etc..

    This activates the Sympathetic nervous system which is good when you need to focus on an essential task or deal with an immediate event. The downside is that it limits access to all of your neural networks and the excess cortisol produced hinders your immune system.

    You become narrow minded and risk illness.

    A daily dose of Renewal helps counter this: play, moderate exercise and learning new things are examples of how to activate your Parasympathetic system.

    One of the discussion points on the course was what ratio do we need to have between the Positive Emotional Attractors (PEA) and the Negative Emotional Attractors (NEA)? We need to consciously build in PEA time due to the amount of NEA we experience (5). For me, it was about 5:5 normally and 8:2 if I am thriving.

    Hearts, Minds & Bodies

    hearts and mindsAs a coach do you activate the PEA in your athletes or the NEA?

    I have found myself in the past looking to “fix weaknesses” in athletes.

    By focussing on their “problems” it means that I am less tuned into them as people.

    I have tried now to win their hearts first by inspiring hope, then explain why we do what we do, then get their bodies to follow.

    Some coaches are very good at this (e.g.Clay Erro) and create an environment where “eyes are shiny with the art of possibility“. 

    If you think of how NGBs often try to get their athletes to get fit, you will see how flawed it is.

    • They put athletes through a series of fitness tests and then tell the athletes what they are bad at (NEA)
    • They give out a bit of paper with some exercises with funny names on it. Give a quick demonstration (often by sports coaches who are poor at them) and say “do these at home “(compliance).
    • See the athletes again in 6 weeks and tell them off for failing to do their homework! “They are not engaged“.

    strength and conditioning exeterThey test the body, confuse the mind, and then break the heart! (This is why I refuse to work in that type of environment and have resigned from some contracts).

    The key to sustaining good effective coaching is building relationships. One way to do that is to focus on what people love to do rather than need to do. Find out what the athlete is good at and buiild from there.

    Once trust is established, a shared vision can be created that is very strong and will lead to success (6).


    I learnt huge amounts on this course. It enabled me to deepen my relationship with a lot of the athletes and coaches I work with. That has had immediate results in their performance which was unexpected.

    I have also ditched some work that was just too negative. Life is too short to be dragged down by trolls!

    The course had a balance of:

    • video lectures
    • extensive reading
    • essay writing
    • group discussion
    • quite tough self reflection exercises

    All of these were very useful, except the group discussions which were unwieldy due to the sheer amount of people involved. That could have been better structured.

    I would recommend the course to all coaches: in fact it should be an essential part of every coaching course/ pathway. Far too many “coaches” are in fact “instructors“.

    This course was hosted by Coursera and was my fourth MOOC follo

    wingCrash Course in Creativity”, “Data Visualisation and Infographics“, “How Things Work”.

    I start “Exercise Physiology: Understanding the Athlete Within” next week.


    1. Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2001). “Primal leadership: The hidden driver of leadership. Harvard Business Review, December.
    2. Smith, M., Boyatzis, R.E. & Van Oosten, E. (2012). Coach with Compassion. Leadership Excellence, 29:3, 10.
    3. Boyatzis, R.E. & Yeganeh, B. (2012). Mindfulness. Leadership Excellence, 29:3, 4.
    4. Boyatzis, R.E., Smith, M. & Beveridge, A. (in press). Coaching with Compassion: Inspiring Health, Well-Being and Development in Organizations. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.
    5. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
    6. Van Oosten, E. (2006). Intentional Change Theory at the Organizational Level: A Case Study. Journal of Management Development. 25(7), 707-717.