Follow us on


07976 306 494

Tag Archive: GAIN

  1. Sports Science: Servant or Master?

    Leave a Comment

    Sport Science: Servant or Master?

    sports science

    Practical session at GAIN

    Last month I attended Vern Gambetta’s GAIN conference in Houston, Texas.  A great mix of practical sessions, seminars and informal idea sharing, it is my annual chance to take time out and immerse myself in learning.

    I shall be sharing some of the ideas and insights learnt this year. The act reviewing what happened and disseminating that into a hopefully useful blog post is part of my ongoing learning.

    Today I start with Peter Weyand’s second seminar which was a great overview of the scientific process and how things stand in this millennium.

    Sorting Sport Science in the Digital Era

    In the last millennium there was little or no information available to sports coaches. Peter said that much or most of what is available now is “shaky”.

    Here are his 5 “Drivers of Disinformation”:

    1. Proliferation of Information Outlets (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Podcasts and Twitter).
    2. Volume of data and literature being produced (wearables and new technology).
    3. Poor quality research training.
    4. Pressure to publish (anything).
    5. Self-Promotion (Not all bad, helps share ideas, but often results in self-citations).

    This results in “literature pollution” and disinformation.  Peter said that “laziness is the default intellectual condition”.

    It is hard to filter what is good or useful in this age. In fact, “Computers don’t reduce work, they create more of it” (Peter Taylor, 1994).

    So how can busy sports coaches develop a filter and understand what will work best for their teams and athletes?

    The Scientific Method

    Two years ago I was asked to present a CPD event to physiotherapists in Exeter. I gave my thoughts and observations on using motor skills learning in rehabilitation so that patients are working towards useful (and interesting) outcomes. At the end, one physio asked “Yes, but what about the science?”

    The science”? As if there is one thing that is all encompassing, this from a person with a science based degree showed a lack of understanding of the scientific process. Many coaches have no formal scientific background, but can still follow the scientific method.

    Peter laid it out very well, and these principles will help you as a coach develop a filter.

    1. Get an idea or question.
    2. Make observations.
    3. Analyse observations.
    4. Idea supported: Yes/No?

    Peter suggested that good researchers ask good questions and then look to first principles for answers.

    Step 1: The research question must be good.

    Step 2: The hypothesis must be testable. The design of the study must yield data that will “get out of the noise”.

    Step 3: Analyse the observations in the right way. Peter used several examples to illustrate what works/ doesn’t work.

    Step 4: Proving and disproving: how well does data support the idea?

    An interesting point was that an idea can never be proven true! Instead, the scientific method can only disprove. It only takes one outlier or piece of data to disprove a theory: the exception.

    For example, Peter was studying sprinters in action and a common hypothesis was that symmetry between limbs was needed. One sprinter had a big asymmetry and yet was very fast. This one individual therefore disproved the symmetry hypothesis. Other factors must be important in sprinting.

    Degrees of Uncertainty

    In the past I have often got confused about what is presented as “research” compared to “theories”. This is especially true in ideas like Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), where many papers are published stating that this latest version is the definitive answer.

    Peter helped me understand better the hierarchical language of degrees of certainty.

    1: Hypothesis (an idea).

    2: Model (LTAD is an example).

    3: Mechanism.

    4: Law (Gravity). Hard to argue with this.

    (Peter may yet to have dealt with “Mum Chat” or “Bloke down the pub” which trumps all of the above! No matter what I do to try and help educate parents, they prefer to listen to their friends).


    This presentation really helped me understand the scientific method (much more so than a whole module of “research methods” at Brunel University whilst studying for my MSc).

    If you cannot explain the conclusion in 1-2 sentences, you will never reach a general audience”.  I would add that if you cannot explain the conclusion succinctly, you may be unclear yourself as to what is happening.

    scientific method

    Isaac Newton

    Peter used Isaac Newton as an example of making a big subject very simple. Newton expressed his 3 laws in simple terms and then came up with a very simple equation F=Ma.

    When doing research (that includes looking at your own teams) it is important to “Get the big stuff and keep moving” (so much for “marginal gains”). Find out what matters most and look at that.

    When reading research “It’s critical to be critical”.

    Check the scientific method of the paper:

    1: Is the idea supported Yes/ No and does it have a value?

    2: Is it testable?

    This will then help you decide whether to try and implement some of the ideas into your own practice.

    Peter’s whole talk was illustrated with examples of his research and that of his colleagues. I was impressed with the detail he goes into, how much work and effort is required and also how he explained it.


    Further Reading:


  2. Using reflection and debriefs to enhance coaching: Wade Gilbert

    Leave a Comment

    Why wait for a disaster to have a really open and frank conversation?”

    coach debrief

    Wade Gilbert

    Wade Gilbert asked this at the GAIN conference in his presentation on reflection and debriefs for coaches. (This was two days after the Grenfell tower disaster where many people were asking the same thing).

    Wade said that systematic reflection could be the separator between good and great coaches. He then took us through a series of exercises to help us start the process of reflection.

    Exercise 1: What is quality coaching?

    We wrote down one word that best captures what we think is the essence of coaching. We then held it above our head and looked for anyone else in the room with that same word (mine was empathy).

    This exercise can be done with athletes too. It teaches the athletes to reflect in their training and realise that “you don’t just show up and have something done to you.”

    Wade often refers to John Wooden, and he quoted from the “Wooden revisited” study. Almost everything that came out of Wooden’s mouth was teaching.  He had an “economy of talk” with key instructions he used.

    Wooden also had incredible attention to detail when planning his sessions.

    Planning your sessions well and giving fewer instructions, but better ones, will improve the athlete experience.

    Defining coaching effectiveness

    Wade then quoted from a study he did with Jean Cote focussing on coaches’ knowledge.

    It looked at 3 components:

    1. Coaches’ knowledge
    2. Athletes’ outcomes
    3. Coaching contexts
    coaching debrief

    More to coach knowledge than technique

    If the coaches’ knowledge doesn’t transfer to successful athlete outcomes then it is redundant. This knowledge was broken down into 3 areas and the outcomes into 4 areas.

    (How many NGB coaching courses refer to the 2nd / 3rd areas of knowledge?)

    By using reflection and debriefs the coach can become more self-aware and understand better their relationship with others.

    (A few years ago I did an excellent course called Leadership through emotional intelligence which I recommend highly, “The Chimp Paradox” is also an excellent book to help you with this.)

    Exercise 2: Coaching strengths and gaps

    reflective practice for coaches

    Greg Gatz and me

    Here we worked in small groups and evaluated our strengths and gaps which were divided into the 4 parts of the season (see Wade Gilbert coaching process).

    We then tried to find someone whose strengths matched our gaps and vice versa. I chatted to Greg Gatz (University North Carolina) about how to make our gym sessions “Game like and demanding”. We are going to share some fun challenges between our 2 groups of athletes to help create this at some point in the week.

    This was a good opportunity to practice “purposeful and systematic reflection”. It was especially useful as we had been on “receive” mode for 4 days and time for reflection and discussion was most welcome.

    Do Simple Better

    sports coach debrief

    Reminder before coaching

    This phrase became a bit of a mantra after GAIN. Rather than looking to add the “shiny new thing”, it was a reminder from Wade that doing the simple things better often worked wonders.

    An example of how to improve practices is to write down “advanced noticing cues”: what everybody should be looking for at the beginning of the session.  Look for leverage points that make a difference and.

    This also makes athlete and coach evaluation easier and more pertinent because we have something to evaluate against: “did you manage to keep that bar close to your body?”Did your hands and head make an equilateral triangle in headstand?

    Exercise 3: Post practice reflection sheet

    We were given a checklist from Wade’s book which has 17 different questions to ask under 4 areas:

    1. Set challenging & specific practice goals.
    2. Keep athletes physically and mentally active throughout practice.
    3. Give athletes choice and ask them for input on practice design.
    4. Create competitive gamelike practice activities.

    It is a simple tickbox exercise and can be done very quickly. I had Tom Hardy, one of my assistant gymnastics coaches, do one “live” on my coaching in one of our sessions. He picked up on 2 points that I had missed and so I adapted for the next session.

    Critical Reflection

    These simple exercises were useful and easy to initiate. Wade then said the next step was to “think about how we think”: meta -reflection.

    The goal he set us was to “Understand and challenge mental models of coaching and athlete development.

    coaching competencies

    Reflective practice helps this journey

    He quoted from John Medina’sBrain Rules”: “we do not see others with our eyes, we see them with our brains”.

    Deliberate reflection would allow us as coaches to move along this continnuum.

    Part of the innovation process is “It’s okay not to finish things.” This may help retain information as proposed by the “Zeigarnik Effect”. Finishing a task then allows the brain to relax and switch to a new task. Having things unfinished may allow the brain to work subconsciously on solving the problems.

    This seminar was a perfect way to spend the final Saturday morning of GAIN. Our brains had been filled up with new and challenging ideas and information, what matters most is how we can transfer that knowledge to athlete actions.

    I have spent much more time focussing on scheduling tasks since this seminar 5 weeks ago. My idea is to do 1-2 things each month at different points of the season that will allow me to develop as a coach. This then will help the athletes at Excelsior ADC.

    Thanks to Wade and Vern for facilitating this.

    Further Reading:

  3. Creating the Perfect Workout: Vern Gambetta and Jim Radcliffe

    Leave a Comment

    “We should warm up with skills not drills”

    how to plan your perfect workout

    89 years of coaching experience

    Said Jim Radcliffe in his joint presentation with Vern Gambetta at GAIN. Combined they have been on an 89 year journey and “We can do better” said Vern in trying to create the perfect workout.

    This was an interesting dual presentation with a lot of back and forth.  (I have quoted directly where I can remember and make general points which could have come from either presenter.)

    Vern’s training mission is to make the workouts meaningful. This means paying attention to the sport and the athlete before designing sessions.

    Jim starts by asking himself if the strength, speed, agility and endurance are in the Athletic Performance or out of it? For example, speed and endurance are both present in the 800m race but strength and agility are out of it. That then focusses what needs to be done in extra sessions outside of the sport itself.

    landing mechanics

    Working on landing mechanics at GAIN

    He looks to increase the body wisdom of each athlete by asking them to solve movement problems. This includes developing postural control and the ability to negotiate the ground. (Someone else said at GAIN that in the battle between the athlete and the ground if the ground wins, the athlete gets injured).

    Jim has previously talked about this and the importance of change of direction mechanics. What is important is setting this up within a motor learning context so that the athlete learns through decision making.

    Training hard versus training smart

    How much time is spent doing “Mental Toughness” (Training Hard, or “Grit” training as England Hockey call beasting people) versus improving Biomechanical Performance (Training smart).

    Jim talked about eliminating negative practices from workouts: butt kicks for example in warm ups which encourage over striding.

    Ask yourself “Is everything you are doing in training aligned with the stated purpose of the training program?”  (I see a lot of coaches doing “stuff” in training that is a part of their sport’s folklore. When asked why it is there: “because we always do that” or “I saw team x doing it” or “we got given this kit so we use it.”

    how to plan a workout

    good luck predicting outcome

    Vern said there is always a trade -off: if you add something new, something needs to go. What would you take out of your programme if you added something?

    He used a brilliant analogy of a Rubik’s Cube. Children of the 1980s will remember that when trying to get one side green, you ended up messing up the red side! The human body is far more complicated than a Rubik’s Cube: so who knows what will happen if you change things repeatedly?

    No perfect workout without context

    For those coaches looking for “Monday’s workout” you will be disappointed. No training session or workout can or will stand alone (Goodbye WOD).  Context is everything: what went before, what comes after?

    perfect workout

    Radcliffe philosophy

    Start your workout plan with a clear intent and purpose.  What needs to happen to make your GOAL happen? (Having a clearly defined goal is a skill in itself).

    Jim’s underpinning philosophy when working with the Oregon Ducks football team was to create “bullets not bowling balls”. They wanted to have athletes with great burst. He achieved that by doing things consistently and by eliminating redundant practices.

    This is a useful reminder when planning workouts: keep coming back to “The why”.

    He finished with a demonstration of his signature warm up sequence which has a specific order and is looking to improve movement, technique and tempo.

    coach education devon

    Working on getting better at GAIN

    Whilst this may look like the blindingly obvious on paper, my experience coaching coaches on our courses is that this is like Rocket Science to some of them. NGB coaching qualifications that I have done (Gymnastics and my mentor Mike Euridge being the exception) simply fail to address this.

    The coaches are given drills rather than taught how to think and ask questions. Asking the right questions is much more important as a coach than thinking you have the answers or “the perfect workout” in your pocket.

    As I said in the previous blog, Jim as shaped my coaching practice immensely and Vern has shaped my thoughts on coaching through GAIN and much personal interaction. Hopefully the athletes at Excelsior ADC are benefiting (even if they don’t realise it!).

    Further Reading

    How to take charge of your fitness training

  4. Developing the Robust Athlete: Jim Radcliffe

    Leave a Comment

    Some people can negotiate the speed bumps of life, some end up in a ditch.”

    robust athlete

    Jim Radcliffe University of Oregon

    Jim Radcliffe talking about the Robust Athlete in his excellent presentation at GAIN this year.

    Jim has coached at The University of Oregon  since 1989 and has been a major influence on my coaching since 2011 when I first saw him present.  His philosophy as developed over his time working with his athletes and his results reflect that.

    He started off by looking at the mindset of the athletes using the analogy of the Romans at the fall of their empire forgetting what made them strong in the first place.

    Post Marcus Aurelius, their emperors became weaker and “bread and circuses” and “orgies” undermined the character of the citizens.

    resilient athlete

    Equipped for the jungle

    Meanwhile the Visigoths were waiting to cross the Rhine and take advantage of the weakened states in the empire.

    He also likened developing athletes to the brutalities of the jungle in which Tarzan grew up and became strong, compared to Jane who was ill prepared to cope.

    Musculo –skeletal 101

    Jim has previously outlined the decline in the musculo-skeletal health of the athletes entering college now compared to when he started in 1989.

    These include:

    • Higher sedentary lifestyle
    • Poor nutrition
    • Improper running techniques
    • Less physical education (less play in the backyard too)
    • A high competitive age versus an infantile training age

    The coaching programme has to adjust accordingly and hope to rectify these problems.

    jim radcliffe strength

    Physical education

    (This information and my own experiences have massively influenced what we do at Excelsior ADC and why I set the club up).

    Jim quoted from a 1971 study on the need to be physically educated stating that movement is

    The Primary vehicle by which exploration and experimentation can expand knowledge of oneself.”

    Regaining the Rhythm

    Jim stated the need for some sociological orchestration to facilitate more free play. Young people need to practice “surfing through the chaos”. How else do they find their own rhythm?

    The art of coaching is now how to make something structured (like sports club) more like play?

    (It isn’t, as one academic recently tweeted, to “conduct drills in a playful manner”).

    barefoot training

    Jamaica or Willand sprinters?

    Jim is now working with many middle distance runners and in his sessions he tries to get them to find rhythm in running and also disrupted rhythm: the race is rarely even- paced.

    He referred to the Jamaican sprinters who still want to train on a grass track: does it help them with rhythm when sprinting?

    More is Better!

    If I keep adding strength coaches, what do we do more of? Strength coaching.”

    Jim said that we are currently in an age of adding more to things. Helicopter parenting is part of the problem (refer back to Overspecialisation blog and free play).

    We tend to overdo things in an effort to get ahead of the curve.

    We OVER:

    • Coach
    • Train
    • Analyse
    • Treat
    • Nutrienting
    • Medicating
    • Restorating

    Is any of this helping our athletes become more robust? Before using any of the restoration and medical interventions we have to know WHY we are doing it.

    From (recovery) versus For (preparing)

    Each intervention is situation and athlete specific.

    Jim says that overhydration is becoming a problem. We have an “innate thirst mechanism” which we should recognise. He said that most muscular cramps are associated with neuromuscular fatigue rather than dehydration.

    He follows a 4 ‘R’s approach to recovery:

    • Replace fluids and electrolytes (includes fruit and veg)
    • Replenish glycogen
    • Rebuild muscle protein
    • Reduce oxidative stress (again with the fruit and veg!)

    (This is similar to the 3 stage approach to nutrition we use adapted from Dave Ellis which starts with fresh produce).

    Massage: what is it good for?

    does sports massage work

    overpampered athletes?

    In a study of 30 Olympians, it was found that the medallists used massage less than non-medallists. Has it become a crutch for some?

    (I personally have found that it is overused, and that is linked to funding streams with equal amounts being allocated to training and “medical”. The athletes then use it or lose it, meaning they are spending as much time on the massage table as they are doing fitness training).

    Jim was also critical of cold water immersion: he has found his athletes adapt to it quickly and it restricts blood flow. Jim quoted from Bill Knowles that “movement is medicine” and said that active recovery methods have worked better for his athletes.

    jim radcliffe plyometrics

    definitely not Jamaican

    Jim finished with a thought that athletes have to be given the opportunity to “figure it out”. He creates some “agility through adversity” sessions.

    This seminar was an excellent example of a coach using the scientific method to establish what works best for his athletes. It is experience based practice and has been refined over 28 years in one environment (not many “scientific” studies last for 28 weeks!)

    My only gripe is that we had limited practical time with Jim at this GAIN, we did plyometric progressions one morning with him, but I always want to learn more!

    Further reading:

  5. Coaching Better Every Season: Wade Gilbert

    Leave a Comment

    If I want to get better, I need to know what better is.

    becoming a better coach

    Wade Gilbert at GAIN

    Wade Gilbert gave an excellent overview of the coaching process at his GAIN seminar. This also served as an overview of his excellent book of the same name.

    His talk was split into 4 parts:

    • Envision: Pre-season
    • Enact: In-Season
    • Examine: End of Season
    • Enhance: Off Season

    He gave practical examples of what has worked from great coaches, and quoted liberally from many books.  A good coach is “a teacher with a high energy level.” Said Tony Dungy in “Uncommon”.

    Envision: Preaseason

    planning preseason

    Vision, values & standards

    This is the time to set out where you intend to go in the upcoming season. Having a vision of where you want to be is essential to have a successful season.

    A good coach will have a vision and be able to outline core values and corresponding behaviour standards for themselves and the team.

                                                 Standards ≠ Rules

    Wade said it was better to look at the best principles that underpin successful teams and organisations rather than best practices.

    Principles endure and can transfer to your team, practices are more likely to be environment, people and context specific.

    how to be a better coach

    No need for Iron Fist

    Accountability doesn’t require an Iron Fist, just a mutual understanding of what’s being asked and what’s at stake.”

    Having behaviour standards for how you start training and competition help you become successful This can often include rituals at practices and competitions and serve as value reminders.

    A great coach will be a visionary: “you have to be able to see round corners, see what athletes could become and see things that aren’t there yet.” It is important to outline this vision and bring people with you.

    Enact: In- Season

    Never mistake activity for achievement

    athlete engagement

    meeting athlete needs

    Said John Wooden. It is common to be busy in season but becoming a better coach and team is hard.

    Wade emphasised the importance of athlete learning and motivation in getting the team to perform better. Prior knowledge can help or hinder the learning process, whilst motivation directly influences learning.

    Coaches who use guided discovery and give immediate feedback can help their athletes learn more effectively.

    Athletes will be motivated to learn more when they are within a “sweet spot” between challenge and accomplishment. Too easy and they get bored, too hard and they get frustrated. “Stretch learning” is where the athlete can almost touch the end “with support”.

    This is something I have tried to incorporate within all our club sessions, balancing the need for a sense of accomplishment and “getting tired” with a sense of challenge and slight frustration at not being there yet.

    skill development

    stretch learning at Excelsior ADC

    For example, we might be working on handspring preparations which require shoulder mobility and the ability to “pop”. The drills are easy and can be done by everyone whereas the whole skill is technically difficult and be done by a few.

    I then follow this with a simpler skill such as through vault, so the gymnasts can then unleash themselves and get rid of any residual frustration.

    The challenge of the activity may have a “High perceived risk, but low actual risk.”

    How you give feedback also affects learning. Wade used a push versus pull analogy.

    Push (solving problems for someone else)Pull (helping someone solve their own problem).

    Both methods have merit, but that could be situational dependent and as athletes develop, pulling is more beneficial.

    Quality practice design

    As this is where most of the interaction between coach and athlete usually occurs, it merits more detailed attention.

    Wade talked about “Practice efficiency” which he defined as “Do less better”. He outlined the following features of quality practices:

    • Purpose
    • Variety
    • Competition
    • Game Speed

    Have you evaluated your practice design recently?

    Wade then moved onto competition coaching. He quoted research that looked at successful competition coaches who spent time “listening to the match” and had “complex problem solving competences.

    They could react to the live situation effectively and adapt.

    Encouragement is often undervalued. Genuine praise for quality performance leads to athletes performing better and having greater enjoyment. Athletes in these environments raised their effort levels and rated their coaches as more effective.

    becoming a better sports coach

    3 roles for coaches

    The coach then needs to wear three different hats and have 3 different skill sets to be effective.

    Whilst most coaches will be good at one of these, it is rarer to find people comfortable with all three.

    Examine: End of Season

    It’s like having a bazooka to kill a mosquito

    Having evaluation tools available to use doesn’t mean we have to use them.

    (I would question how many coaches do a formal end of season evaluation: many justifiably run for the hills or slump into a heap exhausted. Some may have a chat in the bar at the end, and then gear up for more of the same next year).

    best sports coaching book

    James with Wade and his book

    Wade gave some good advice on how to evaluate your own coaching using a “strengths based approach.” (His book has got some great checklists in there). Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

    • What are my coaching strengths?
    • What was your best day of coaching this past year?
    • Why was this the best day?

    This can form the first of three parts of your end of season evaluation.

    1. Coaches: magnify their strengths.
    2. Programme: analyse the practice design and preparation
    3. Athletes: reinforce values.

    I like this because it is achievable for coaches who actually coach, rather than academics pontificating from their Ivory Towers!

    Enhance: Offseason

    Charge your battery before you charge someone else’s

    Coaching is hard work. Dan John described feeling at the end of the week as if he had “been pecked to death by a thousand crows”. I describe it as “starting the session like a grape and finishing like a raisin”: there’s not much left in the tank!

    At the end of an emotionally, intellectually and somewhat physically demanding season, coaches need to spend time enhancing themselves.

    coach burnout

    recharging the batteries

    Wade talked about “starting the day on offence”: get up and look after yourself before the demands of others are placed upon you (I adjusted my morning routine 2 years ago).

    The offseason should be partly spent on wellness (refreshing) and then setting up new routines that are sustainable in the long term to allow you to reload.

    Part of this time is to spend time with people who will help you achieve your goals.Wade quoted from Pep Guardiola’s book about changing the culture of your team.

    Focus on the believers” and do more with them. They will help spread the infection of your culture like a virus.

    This was a great thought to finish on. Wade’s talk had lots of practical advice in it that can be implemented immediately, as well as some longer term philosophical ideas that can be reflected upon.

    I have previously written about “effective preseason planning” for the nuts and bolts of training. This seminar was more about the coaching effectiveness and I have written a plan to implement over the next few months.

    Further Reading:

  6. Applying the Bondarchuk Method of Training: Martin Bingisser

    Leave a Comment

    Systematic Planning for Your Athletes

    System of training

    Martin presenting

    Developing a plan for your athletes can be problematic, time consuming and potentially useless. Martin Bingisser gave some very useful tips in his GAIN presentation which will help coaches looking to develop a system.

    Martin is an advocate of the Bondarchuk system of training which uses a limited sequence of exercises over a period of a few weeks before switching to another sequence and repeating. His thoughts on planning around this system were enlightening, even though I don’t use the Bondarchuk system.

    bondarchuk method

    System underpins the plan

    Martin said that the much touted Soviet Training methods focussed on the plan, the processes and then the system. He said this was back to front.

    The system you use should be the foundation of what you do, then the processes that help you implement the system, and then the plan of what you do.

    This is similar to Simon Sinek’s “Start with why” and used by Jim Radcliffe of University of Oregon.

    4 steps of the Planning Process

    Martin takes a 4-step approach to planning.

    1. Define
    2. Plan
    3. Experiment
    4. Change

    1 Define: Know your sport, your position and your athlete before you start.

    You need some general guidelines before you start planning. For example the more specific the exercises, the greater their transfer to the sport will be. The more experienced the athlete is, the fewer useful tools you will be able to use.

    You need to define which tools will be suitable for which athlete and position. You need to define exercise selection. He favours a lot more General Physical Education exercises rather than Specific Development Exercises.

    (I took the time to do this a few years ago when I created my coaching toolbox on Excel. I was finding I was only using exercises that were most recent in my memory, rather than using what had worked 10 years previously. Taking time out to do this saves a lot of time in the future).

    2 Plan: Putting the pieces together.

    bondarchuk training sytstem

    Cyclist Tom Baylis hanging in gym

    All training causes physiological adaptations.” So everything works at the beginning or to some extent. Knowing what works for your athletes at what stage of their career is important.

    Plan for transfer, but also plan for balance.

    (I use this with the cyclists I coach: they spend so much time in a flexed and compressed position, that I put extension and inversion into every training session. This has no impact on their cycling performance, but it does allow their body to become balanced which then allows them to spend more time on their bike.)

    3 Experiment: Go out and train.

    All training is an experiment, so try it and learn from the feedback. (It has to be said that Martin is currently an active competitor in the Hammer, but I agree that every coach can try things out to some extent).

    Experiment also applies to adapting and improving your coaching cues. “Make your feedback useful and frictionless”.

    elite athlete training devon

    Consistent trainimg gets consistent results

    Martin has also learnt by experimentation what matters in training and what measures are useful. By limiting the variables in training (fewer exercises, more consistent stimulus and don’t overreach) it is easier to get consistency in training.

    The nature of the Bondarchuk method is that the athlete is peaking 6 times a year and with more peaks you get more feedback. This means that you can learn lessons every 2 months and change, rather than wait for 6 months and realise you are on the right track.

    (I haven’t used the Bondarchuk method, but there is a lot to be said about focussing on one thing at a time and improving that, measuring it and adapting. Compared to “Workout of the Day” madness where you are constantly changing focus).

    4 Change: It’s the driver of adaptation.

    Change when you’re on top, rather than at the bottom” said Martin. This means continuous reflection and adaptation.

    You can make short term changes with a long term change in mind. For example, if the long term goal is to improve throwing ability, then changing the leg strength exercises from back squat to front squat after 2 months may force a further adaptation.

    If it is the same programme every year, how can you cause an adaptation?”

    Martin listed details of the exercises within his programme, as well as showing video clips of how they transferred to his sport of Hammer throwing.

    Whether you use the Bondarchuk method or not, the thinking behind his seminar was sound and can be applied elsewhere.

    Further Reading

  7. Helping your child become happy and active within sport


    Youth sports is a business plan that fluffs egos and packs pocket books

    early specialization

    Randy Ballard

    Said Randy Ballard of Illinois University at the GAIN conference in Houston last month.  He was talking about how parents try to get their children to specialise in sport too early, without realising the dangers of this.

    75% of kids quit sports by the age of 13, some of which never become physically active again” according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM). Sport has become an ends, rather than a means.

    Burnout (where children quit) occurs from 2 main pathways:

    1. Physical overtraining and lack of sleep.
    2. Social psychological reasons: the quest for perfectionism and excessive parent/ coach pressure.

    As coaches “we can’t separate early/over specialisation from the various societal issues at play that drive over specialisation.”

    (As a parent, has anyone told you about how their child competed at a weekend, won a medal, beat so and so, went on a camp with famous person Y, been selected for the TomNoddy under 9s squad? Apart from being an extremely boring monologue, you may feel the pressure to get your child to join the rat race.)

    What follows are some tips for parents to help this from happening to your child, alongside some blunt facts for youth coaches (and parent coaches) about promoting early adult led competition.

    The 3 big rocks of wellness for your child

    athlete wellness

    sleep nutrition stress management

    Randy used this analogy when looking at the wellness of your child. When filling up a jar of wellness, it may easy to think about the pebbles and grains of sand such as compression tights, protein supplements and sports drinks.

    However, the jar should be filled with these 3 big rocks first:

    • Sleep
    • Nutrition
    • Stress Management

    Sleep is probably the most important factor. Late practice schedules, cross country/ city commutes and excessive screen times are factors in producing low quality and lessened sleep hours.

    Some of the early signs your child may suffering are low back pain and knee injuries. Low back pain is often a psycho-social sign that the child is looking for a way out of the sport.

    athlete burnout

    Are kids chasing for parents?

    Randy then used a greyhound analogy about kids being forced to compete for their parents. “What happens if the only reason you chase a rabbit is because your Mum drives you to the track?

    (As a study in what motivates kids, take a step back and watch the crowd at an adult led football match with kids playing. Then watch kids playing football on their own terms and see what the adults are doing.)

    A lot of kids like competing, but very few really enjoy competing on adult terms and with adult rules in place.

    Randy referred to the “empty dugout syndrome” where parents who have invested time, energy and $$ into their child’s sporting career feel the need to keep that going, even when the child has stopped playing or moved on.

    This then leads to stress for the child and sometimes coercion by the parent. Parents can be there for their own needs, rather than the children.

    If your child develops an identity of being an athlete, then the transition out of sport becomes more difficult. “Sport is something we do, not something we are”. So every comment, every part of body language and approval related to competing/ participating in sport can be harmful, despite being well meaning.

    Gardener or fisherman?

    talent development

    Wild flowers in our garden

    Gardeners amongst you will understand the need for creating the right environment for growth. Good soil, weeding, watering, feeding the plants, as well as planting at different times of the year and in different parts of the garden create a beautiful environment.

    The joy of gardening is in the process and then enjoying the results.

    Fishing on the other hand is taking fish out of the sea or river and eating them. There is no give, it is all take.

    talent development

    Eat today, hungry tomorrow

    At Excelsior Athletic Development Club we are trying to create a garden of opportunity for young athletes rather than fishing for “talent” from elsewhere in hope of a quick meal.

    We never know who is going to make it as a Senior International in sport, nor is that our goal, but by creating the right environment every child and athlete gets an opportunity to grow and develop.

    Strangely enough, this environment also creates athletes who succeed at International level (14 year old James Reed, one of our weightlifters, was selected to represent England Golf schools last week).

    Compare that to the “fisherman” approach of trying to get a big catch today so that you can win this week without a thought for the future of that child or even the club.

    (Thanks to Greg Thompson, a physical education expert from Michigan USA,  who also presented at GAIN for the gardening analogy).

    Developing Talent

    Assuming your child makes it through the wasteland of youth sport and is still participating at 15 years old, what next?

    Vern Gambetta gave his thoughts on developing talent for coaches which I will now summarise. This is aimed at coaches and NGBs, many of whom still hold antiquated ideas of Talent Identification and pick early maturers over people with potential.

    Talent = Potential

    Youth prodigies do exist and talent definitely matters, however there are no guarantees in sport so talent is only potential. Realising that potential means a process has to be in place and is sustainable.

    • Talent Spotting
    • Talent Identification
    • Talent Acquisition
    • Talent Development
    • talent pathway

      3 components of talent

      Talent Confirmation

    • Talent Realisation and Refinement
    • Talent Retention

    Talent is comprised of Heart, Body and Mind.

    These three areas can be developed and encouraged.

    Randy Ballard made a counterpoint to this in his seminar. That referring to athletes as “Talent” is dehumanising.

    As an NGB is your “Talent Development” programme a road map for developing a human or for poaching ivory?


    sporting talent

    Taking the ivory at the expense of the elephant

    The seminars by Randy Ballard, Vern Gambetta and Greg Thompson were different but similar. All three focussed on the importance of development and growth.

    The very valuable lessons I learnt working with the Sport England funded “South West Talent programme” with Paula Jardine helped shape my thoughts on working with youth athletes: “The Why”.

    The mistakes I have seen within NGBs (and are still being made in a Talent Id Bun Fight) and at Millfield School whilst working there for 5 years  have helped me from making those same mistakes with our club athletes.

    No child should be cast out and thrown on the scrap heap, nor be left to crawl there on their own because of mistakes made by adults in whom they place their trust.

    These seminars and discussions at GAIN over the last 6 years have been invaluable in changing what I do with all the people who come to our club. Thanks to everyone at GAIN for helping me and our athletes.

    Further Reading:

  8. Reconditioning athletes: Bill Knowles seminar


    “An exercise is something you do a movement is something you feel.”

    Bill Knowles reconditioning

    Bill Knowles

    Was the title of Bill Knowles’ seminar on rehabilitating (reconditioning in his terms) athletes from sports injuries.

    The question he asks himself is “what’s in the best interest of the athlete?” This often means pulling the athlete out of the injured body and getting them to recognise their athletic spirit again.  All too often in rehab settings, the focus of the treatment is on the injured part, rather than on the person (see previous seminar)

    Once you recognise that the entire body is supporting the injured knee then your perspective on getting the athlete back to competition changes.

    A few key considerations on rehabilitation

    Bill outlined some of his principles that underpin his approach to reconditioning.

    • Rate of force acceptance (deceleration) vs rate of force development (acceleration). The latter is much talked about and measured, the former is where injuries often occur.
    • Rehabilitation (medical model) vs reconditioning (performance model)

    We are looking to get back to performance so we need to think about this from the onset (I will use the term reconditioning from herein).

    • We have to stay professionally stimulated” as improving the journey helps athletes. (It’s hard to stay professionally stimulated if you are handing out photocopied sheets of paper with “3 sets of 10” for each exercise for every person who walks into your clinic).

    This then encourages us to think of more athletic ways to train. A good way to start improving the journey is through a movement that is familiar to the athlete. Bill showed a video clip of an athlete very soon post injury, who was walking in water with a knee brace and even did some low level bouncing).

     The restoration of athletic normal

    reconditioning athletes


    We are looking to prepare the athlete for return to play whilst also addressing their injury.

    Physical literacy, athletic development and athletic normal are all linked and form part of a “training based prevention”.

    Compare that to a medical intervention led prevention strategy with exercises which mean they are “just doing stuff”.

    Training is through movement, not simplistic exercises.

    Our aim is “The ability to move efficiently in an athletic environment with precision style and grace.” We can “start encouraging biological healing through movement.”This exercise has the added benefit of encouraging sleeping which of course is a great healer.

    If you just look at things from as sports medicine perspective, you might be satisfied with an injury that is healed. However, “just because you are biologically healed, does not mean you are athletically prepared.”

    Bill then quoted Carol Welch: “movement is medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional and mental states”.

    Followed by Plato: “Lack of activity destroys the good condition”.

    The athlete must not forget what is natural and simple (to them) so this must be incorporated into their reconditioning programme.

    A “protection mindset” contributes to complexity. This is unnatural and may add no enhanced healing quality if it compromises movement quality.

    Rebuilding the formula one car

    recondiitoning athletes

    Formula one ferrari

    Bill used a great analogy when looking at reconditioning. If your Ferrari formula one car is broken into pieces, you can attempt to rebuild it and end up with a red porsche. You have ended up with a fast red car, but it isn’t a formula one car.

    You have to know what the athlete looks like at the end. “I’m not interested in restoration of jogging, I’m interested in the restoration of acceleration, deceleration and change of direction.”

    injury rehabilitation devon


    Movement is so simple and yet so complex. Many clinicians prescribe exercises and restrict on other movements because they are uncomfortable with movement.

    (I know one physio whose end stage acl rehab was chatting to a footballer who was jogging on a treadmill! That was his “return to play” assessment).

    I have seen Bill present many times now since 2011 with several practical workshops too. He has given me the confidence to both discuss sports injury with clinicians and also work with athletes on reconditioning their serious injuries.

    (It helps that I can share ideas with my wife Sarah who is a Chartered Physiotherapist who has developed her knowledge of movement by becoming a level 1 strength and conditioning coach).

    acl rehab devon

    Bill, Vern and Nick Folker at breakfast

    Bill is a fine example of the GAIN faculty and attendees who learn from the different people and return to their settings to apply, innovate and develop their knowledge in order to help their athletes.

    I also spent an hour discussing ACL reconditioning and using the 4Dpro with athletes over dinner with Bill. This was very enlightening and will help the athletes I work with here in Devon: thanks Bill!

    Further Reading:

    Dr Mike Joyner on Sports Science: Servant or Master?

    Next up: Vern Gambetta the Talent Pathway.

  9. Dr Mike Joyner “Sport Science: Servant or Master?”

    Leave a Comment

    “Don’t get distracted by the latest and greatest”

    understanding sports science

    Dr Joyner presenting

    Said Dr Mike Joyner at the head of his 2nd seminar at GAIN. His talk covered four key questions we need to ask before implementing a new scientific find in our training, as well as interesting insights that he has found useful.

    In a discussion the evening before, Dr Joyner had revealed that “40% of medical evidence turns over every 15 years, but certain fundamentals don’t turn over”.  That means that every 15 years 40% of what was “evidence” changes!

    The fundamentals that are constant are: Don’t smoke; access to clean water; don’t get fat and be physically active amongst others.

    As coaches it is easy to get distracted by new things, and ignore the fundamentals. Similarly we may feel obliged to chuck out what is working because something new is found and published, even if that is later to be found false. (Naseem Taleb talks about this in Antifragile, he calls it neoism).

    4 questions we should ask of sports science

    Dr Joyner is an expert on athletic performance and is based at the Mayo clinic. His talk was extremely useful and was an example of critical thinking. (This is supposedly taught at Universities, but yet many recent graduates blindly regurgitate “facts” based on “research” without appearing to question it). Dr Joyner went through the following questions we should ask and gave examples of each.

    1. Is it measureable?

    Max Oxygen uptake is measurable. However in a laboratory setting research needs to show a 1-5% improvement for the study to be valid. If you win a 10km race by 1% you win by 100m! Coaches are often looking for the 0.1 -1% Science can explain the big picture, but it sometimes misses the detail and often the context.

    mcnamara fallacy

    McNamara’s fallacy

    In the Vietnam war the USA decided to try and measure winning by counting body bags of US troops versus the Viet Cong. This became known as “McNamara’s fallacy” where this became the focus of politicians rather than a meaningful political-military strategy (Assuming that anyone can actually “win” a war).

    1. Is it meaningful?

    There is a good correlation between a runner’s Lactate Threshold (LT) and their Marathon speed. Therefore LT is both measurable and meaningful for Marathon runners. (I have seen this extrapolated to Judoka who have been told to “improve their LT” by running on a treadmill more. Here the sports scientists were getting the tail to wag the dog).

    1. Is it actionable?
    sports science questions

    Bud Winter quote

    Referring to Bud Winter’s book “Relax and Win”, Dr Joyner said that relaxation is a trainable effect.  Therefore we can use it in our sessions.

    If you just turn your training sessions into exercises and suffering, you’re missing the point.”

    In swimming every turn counts, so it is important to work on each move in a meaningful way. If this (and the dive) are ignored or paid lip service to, then the performance will suffer.

    1. Is it durable?

    Dr Joyner showed a list of diets and the research that shows if they affect weight loss. Guess what? The Atkins diet, the Zone diet, weight watchers and the Ornish diet ALL work. They work IF they are followed. The problem is that the really restrictive diets that stop people living normally like eating as a family or choosing from a restaurant menu are simply unsustainable.

    Any training programme or new piece of research must be durable and last beyond 6 weeks (the length of many studies) in order for it to be effective in the long term. Think accumulation of training rather than blitzing.

    What sports science can do for us

    lactate threshold testing

    lactate threshold testing

    So after quite a critical look at some urban legends and poor examples, Dr Joyner then gave some examples of what we can learn mainly for endurance type activities (where his interests lie). Lactate Threshold in untrained subjects is about 60% of their maximum effort. In trained subjects it ranges from 75-90% of their max.

    LT is highly trainable. The increase in mitochondria means more pyruvate is oxidised and less is shunted to lactate. “Almost anything you do that has frequency, intensity and duration” will make a difference to your Vo2 max and LT. For example:

    • 3-5 minute repeats will help VO2 Max (see yesterday’s blog on The Volume Trap)
    • 200m repeats will help improve LT.

    Running economy in the other hand is highly variable (up to 30%) and it is unclear how trainable it is. (I always question the research on this: it is often done on treadmills and the “interventions” bear no resemblance to exercises that I do with runners to improve their technique. Conclusions are then drawn that it doesn’t work, rather than “we don’t know how to coach in a lab”.)

    Dr Joyner then looked at the recent attempt to run a sub 2 hours Marathon by Nike. What did they do to try and get this time? They looked at all the small factors added together. The course, the temperature, fuelling the runners, as well as manipulating the running economy with drafting, pacing and of course the shoes.

    What was interesting here was the effect of drafting (something cyclists in a peloton know) with 8% of the total energy cost of a 5km race coming from having to overcome wind resistance. In the 100m sprint this rises to 16%!

    Training in fasted state

    training fasted

    Trained fasted state every morning at GAIN

    Sports science can help us identify potential limits to human performance too. Much research has been conducted on training in a fasted stated. However, Dr Joyner made the point that so many gels are used nowadays that people rarely train in a truly fasted state.

    People can fatigue from having low glycogen in the muscles or from Neuroglycopenia  (Neuro= Brain, Glyco= Sugar, Penia =deficiency. So, low brain sugar). People who fast and go low on Carbohydrate (CHO) down regulate their enzymes. When they return to a normal diet, their enzymes are less able to process this food.

    The impression I got from this was that that maybe we should just try to eat normally. Especially when sprinting and doing high intensity exercise: you need CHO.

    The Scientific Process

    I haven’t really given Dr Joyner justice due to my poor notetaking and poor grasp of physiology. However, please take away the thoughts on questioning research and what you are measuring.

    I asked him at the end about “Science” which now seems to be only valid if published, versus the “scientific process” which we should all be doing as coaches wanting to improve our athletes’ performance.

    He mentioned the “Citizen science” project which is about sharing ideas that work and testing them.  I suggested we have an aide memoire or checklist to help us validate what we do or discard practices that are defunct.

    His final words were “A lot of sports scientists are just data acquisition people and analysers”. We were in agreement that it is what we do with this information with real people that counts.

    Further reading:

  10. Steve Magness on the Volume Trap

    Leave a Comment
    weekly mileage

    Steve his new book and me

    “How many miles should I run”?

    Is the question that endurance coach Steve Magness gets asked the most when presenting at workshops.  His seminar at this year’s GAIN covered volume and other training parameters which apply to many different sports.

    There is no difference between 99 miles and 100 miles, but people want to get to triple digits” (and therefore earn the right to wear the hair shirt and flail themselves). The same applies to team sports with soccer players trying to run 11km in one session because someone told them that’s what they do in a match.

    Steve gave two main reasons for this behaviour:

    1. It’s human nature to be obsessed with volume. It’s the simplest thing we can measure, so let’s measure it. (If people see me out for a run, the first thing they always ask is “How far did you go?” never “How fast did you run?”).
    2. We have a deep NEED for classification. It’s the downside to “what gets measured gets managed”. When we are categorised and accept a label we can then defend our label. “I’m a low mileage/ high intensity coach” etc.

    Training load calculation

    Training load is a commonly used form of measurement.

    Training load = training volume x intensity  But this is too simplistic. What type of load is it?

    • Metabolic
    • Biomechanical
    • Neural
    • Psychological

    How about when the load is applied?

    • Intensity
    • Density
    • Frequency
    • Rest Periods

    How does this relate to daily and weekly sessions?

    • Front Loaded
    • Back Loaded

    How can one number express all this accurately or in a meaningful fashion?

    Weekly Training Load

    Steve broke down the weekly training load of one of his runners.

    • 90 miles per week
    • 10.5 hours of training (I made the point that this is for good runners; recreational runners who tried to copy the miles would actually be on their feet for a lot longer).
    • 76550 calories burned
    • 25,920ml of Oxygen consumed.

    Volume has become a marker for “load” and has become a surrogate for physical stress. It is assumed the training “stimulus” leads to a kind of adaptation.

    Instead we should look at how much we NEED to do to get the positive adaptation.  For example in the weekly schedule above the loading on the achilles tendon may be the weakest link and therefore limit what another athlete can do.

    Common assumptions

    volume vs intensity graph

    Volume vs intensity expressed simplistically

    Steve gave us 3 common assumptions that may be less than certain in reality.

    Assumption 1: Volume and Intensity training interact in a simplistic fashion.

    Instead there is a constant interplay that changes within each session, each week and over the longer course of a year.

    Assumption 2: Volume = ONLY way of getting aerobic adaptation.

    This is simply incorrect there are many other ways of stimulating the aerobic system.

    training adaptation curve

    Training adaptation curve

    Assumption 3: Adaptation looks like this

    Instead, variability is the name of the game. There is a 10% rule of thumb for volume increases, but Steve gave examples from his younger self where increases were much more than this and he could adapt.

    The amount of training depends on:

    • The athlete perception of normal (a 120 mile a week runner given 90 miles would consider this light, a 50 mile a week runner may well panic!)
    • Physiological adaptations.
    • Tendon and muscle rate of adaptation: different from each other and also between athletes.
    • Bone Turnover (diet surely has an impact on this too?)

    Steve’s Old Man Strength

    weekly mileage

    Older man strength

    Steve then gave us examples of how he could train with his athletes using his “Old man strength” (Steve is only 32 and a middle distance runner, I really need to pull him aside next time I see him!)

    He can do the sessions thanks to an accumulated, consistent training load over time.  Younger athletes can indeed increase their volume with age, after that they can reduce it and preserve it by working on specific volumes.

    Steve talked about the psychology of volume which I have found to be true depending on the athlete. Sometimes you have to adapt the programme to what the athlete feels they “need” or at least swing the pendulum in that direction.

    He then asked us to “flip the switch” and that it’s not about

    Volume  to get adaptation

    It’s thinking about

    Adaptation and then how much volume is needed?

    Volume is not a master control switch

    Alternative ways of developing aerobic system to volume

    Steve then gave some examples and case studies of how the aerobic system can be developed in middle distance runners without just adding more weekly mileage.

    Recreational runners please take note: you do not have the time to do the mileage if you are running slower than 5-6 minute miles. If you try and copy the mileage plans of faster runners you will be spending a lot more time training than they do!

    Some session examples include:

    • Pre fatigue: do a shorter “long run” the day after an intense workout.
    • Doubles: do 2 shorter runs in a day, helps with lifestyle too.
    • Strength session followed by endurance work. You are forced to train in this fatigued state.
    • Ending the session or cool downs with “stuff”. For example an 800m “cruise” to work at the high end of aerobic system and get used to preserving strength at the end of a race.

    Steve then gave some examples of sessions which he has done with his athletes including the sets/ reps and different ideas. All of these worked with his athletes and in their context.

    (I often see endurance coaches trotting out a session like “Oregon circuits” or such like and inflicting it upon their athletes year after year without understanding why. So I won’t post the details here to avoid feeding the monster, but I will use some of the ideas with Excelsior ADC athletes).

    Measuring for measuring sake

    measuring weekly mileage

    Forget the tech sometimes

    Steve finished his seminar with some questions about measuring sessions and how these questions can then shape what we do as coaches.

    If athletes are constantly looking at technology, how can they “feel” what they are doing?  (Luke destroyed the Death Star by using the Force remember,  not by looking at his Garmin).

    This is even assuming you are measuring the right thing. I have written elsewhere about the addiction to measuring technology and how that can then alter the design of sessions. The tail wags the dog. Bryan Fisher summed it up a few years ago at GAIN

    Heart rate should be an indicator not a dictator”.

    Ask yourself these questions when developing a middle distance running plan (or any other plan for that matter) for an athlete:

    • In what direction are we trying to adapt?
    • Where have they been in the past?
    • Are they still adapting?
    • What is their injury history and adaptability?
    • What is the risk: benefit ratio of your programme will it cause adaptation or maladaptation/ injury?
    • Are we measuring the right thing?
    • Is that measurement what you think it is?

    Is the answer to any of these questions “You should run X miles per week” ?

    The answer isn’t to be anti-volume or pro-volume, it is to sit down and think about the athlete in front of you and work out what is right for them.  How many coaches take the time to do that?


    how many miles should i run

    Sharing ideas with Steve at GAIN

    I have known Steve for 5 years now and used many of his principles with our athletes. Until I met him, much of the endurance coaching I had seen or read was very patchy and full of mystical secrets or folklore.

    Much like when I first saw Frans Bosch present on sprinting in 2009, I had an “Aha” moment and thought this makes sense (although Frans didn’t make any sense the first 3 times I saw him, but I could see it worked). Steve is very good at expressing complex ideas simply.

    Further reading:

    Next up: Dr Mike Joyner “Sport Science: Servant or Master?”

    Previous:  Steve Myrland “Coaching better every day”