Tuesday, 15 January 2013

...on Gambetta, Pfaff, Weingroff, Socrates, and Humpty Dumpty

“Should we try to teach every movement and then coach it? Or should we allow the athlete the joy of discovery through exploration. There seems to be a worry about them getting it wrong! My answer to that is: What is wrong? There must be a spontaneity and anticipation in movement, not a robotic-programmed approach. It has been my experience working with athletes at all levels in a wide variety of sports that athletes will find their own best way of doing something if they are put in a position where they have to adapt. They are very adaptable. Every athlete has a movement signature which is unique to their body type, mindset etc. We need to encourage an extemporaneous approach much like a great jazz musician improvises. At the younger ages we need to emphasize a free play approach that results in fluidity and improvisation in movement skills as a basis for specific sport skills”.

- Vern Gambetta

It’s difficult to disagree with Vern’s words per se, so forgive me for speaking out of turn against the ‘Great Gambetta’, but personally I’m just getting a little bored with the whole ‘Siff-speak self-organizing-spontaneous-extemporaneous’ thing that - while possibly rooted in theory - rarely exists in reality...
(*yes - I realize that I used similar terms in my last blog, but I’m allowing myself to argue against myself)

I haven’t met the old dude, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful -  I have enjoyed reading much of his work, and from what I understand, he does a fantastic job of mentoring coaches - but I have to question whether he lives in the actual, real, and elite sporting world...

...his analysis of sport at youth levels?  For sure - most coaches are probably guilty of ‘coaching out the freedom’ of the young athlete....we see it all the time: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing - it’s one of the reasons the Jamaicans are so good - they don’t have a bunch of volunteer wannabe coaches telling their kids to get ‘front side’, or ‘up on their toes’, etc...

(no disrespect to volunteer coaches - they are the driving force behind our sport.  They just need to be better ‘educated’ - and by ‘better’, I mean ‘worse’)

bwoy - dem jus’ run!

But the elite world is different...
(at least in the countries I have worked in) this world, mid-career athletes are so jacked up from years of poor mechanics,  poor coaching, poor sports medicine, poor lifestyles, etc. that just letting the body ‘self-organize’ its way to efficiency-health is no longer an option....

...and let’s be honest - as upsetting as this is - it is the reality...this is the (new?) normal.  More and more - as our profession is increasingly diluted, and coaching quality disintegrates - this is what our roles have become -

  • we are ‘all the King’s horses, and all the King’s men’...
Humpty is the new world order...and we are charged in the re-build...

Increasingly, it’s not about ‘bigger, stronger, faster’...instead, it’s “can we get this guy to Sunday? how can we prolong this dude’s career?  get him a few more pay-cheques? run a 6 month-long ‘maintenance’ program?”  And anyone telling this story differently lives only on the keyboard, and not on the track or the field...

Instead, we inherit ‘reclamation projects’ (to use a Pfaffism), where our management skills, our ability to Plan B, and our lateral knowledge are fast becoming our best (and most-used) tools...

...and increasingly, as our coaching roles evolve, sports medicine practice is evolving also - both of us the proverbial trains traveling toward one another.  The new way of sport medicine requires deep understanding of the sport, the skill, the athletes, and movement...the old generation sports Docs, PTs, and ATs are being the new generation explodes: the functional- and corrective- exercise specialists, the kinesiologists, the DCs, the ARTs etc...all melting into one giant soup of sport and exercise enhancement...

“Everybody trains.  
There is no rehab.  
Only regressions and lateralization from your best program”. 
  • Charlie Weingroff

...and Vern! 
“what is wrong?” (see quote at beginning of this post)  

Well - if we (as professional coaches) cannot figure out “what is wrong”, (or at least come up with a pretty good theory), then we probably shouldn’t be coaching.  Not at this level, anyway...

Because - sorry Vern - that’s pretty much...our jobs - to figure out “what is wrong”, and to formulate effective strategies to fix it...passivity is not a viable strategy.  Standing idly by, and expecting the ‘wisdom of the body’ to somehow self-organize all the jacked-uppedness into an efficient and effective movement machine is pure folly.

...for the essence of self-organisation is that structure (at least in part) appears without external pressure or constraints...therefore, to truly allow for self-organization, what can we do?  what are our roles?  sit on a fold-out chair with a whistle and a stopwatch and yell?  (don’t laugh - it clearly works for some!)
The application of chaos to our coaching does not absolve us of fact, I would argue the opposite.  Because we are working with the dynamical system...because the body is a ‘self-organizing system of inter-connections and inter-dependencies’...because, we have (apparently) moved away from the Newtonian, mechanistic, materialistic, reductionistic, linear-causal, and deterministic viewpoint of the past...we take on more responsibility.  The daily dealings of the non-linear system requires deeper understanding - which brings us back around to:

not whether we intervene - but when.

...and for that, we need to do some digging.  We need to ‘examine’...

...for ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ - Socrates

But this is a slippery slope...we often find that the price of examination is too high - indeed, the price for Socrates was his life.  So we have a choice - we can stand idly by, relying on ‘the spontaneous, super-intelligent, self-organizing self’, or we can act.  We can examine.  

Clear in the understanding that by choosing so, we are ‘learning how to die’...

to be continued...

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  1. good stuff stu: I think we need to intervene much earlier than most think. Its interesting trying to pinpoint so many of the issues you encounter with the be honest I think these days we can go all the way back to youth and find know first graders here get 1/2 hour for recess a day and P.E. 1 per week???? I know its probably not your thing but we need more good coaches at the youth/middle/high school level. Its not glamorous and the kids dont win medals but the hopes of providing them a foundation of good movement skill is important. I left my Div1 strength coach job because I grew sick and tired trying to fix issues that should have been taken are of in middle school. Anyways good stuff, love the blog!

  2. Great post Stu. Essentially this is how I have made a living the last few years....creating strategies for young athletes to understand movement strategies, which at the elite level are not only common almost essential. As these young athletes gain understanding of how their systems work, they are able to take accountability for a large portion of their performance. In my mind, our ideal training scenario is preparing athletes at a modest age (14-20) with a Plan B type scenario so that they can move into a more traditional, linear method of training down the line.

  3. I don't hate the soviet model in regards to development. I recall reading in the East German books about children obtaining their sports badge. I see no reason in the USA (especially with this little weight issue with children)to ask children to show competency in basic movement skills right along with competency in Math, science and english.

    1. I see a swing of the pendulum in this type of direction hapenning pretty soon, TBH....cannot continue as it is for too much longer...

    2. There used to be such a thing in Canada as well, in the 80s. Excellent, Gold, Silver, Bronze badges for a series of tests.

      I do think it is possible to "overcoach" but it's all in how you send the message. I coach distance runners, but what I do for their "form" is sprint technique on a regular basis. This is something new for them, so they are more receptive to being told "this is how to do it" and their bodies are also in a kind of "unknown" zone, so I think more apt to learn. I firmly believe teaching them good sprint technique will make them more efficient distance runners (not to mention have a good kick). Alberto Salazar agrees, so can't be all wrong:

  4. great thoughts guys...
    we definitely need more coaches like you guys out there (though I'm not sure a 'traditional, more linear model' ever exists, Morgan ;-) i think even if youth athletes were developed more effectively, we'd spend far too much time in 'pan B' situations,'s the nature of the high-performance tight rope - if you're not walking it, chances are you're selling yourself short...

    I really do think, though - especially in the UK, where coaching - though volunteer for the masses - is more respected, and thus, more of the youth coaches actually try to 'coach', as opposed to 'watch' - that 'over-coaching' the young leads to all sorts of issues - the biggest being, in my mind, their lack of ability to 'feel', to 'flow', and to 'connect' with their bodies (kinda like you were saying, Morgan)'s where the Jamaicans are killing will be interesting to see - as they continue to enjoy more success - that more coaches at the devo level begin 'coaching', and thus, killing their 'flow'....time will tell

    keep up the great work guys....thanks for your words

  5. Just a note of thanks for the post. Well done.

  6. "the old generation sports Docs, PTs, and ATs are being the new generation explodes: the functional- and corrective- exercise specialists, the kinesiologists, the DCs, the ARTs etc...all melting into one giant soup of sport and exercise enhancement..."

    Just to add, I would suggest that in elite sport, I think it's important for such therapists to learn the language. Maybe not the MDs, but the PTs/ATs/DCs, definitely need to spend time track- and coach-side. Many times proper drill selection and technique execution is "rehab" least so I think...

  7. agree with that 100% (and I would add the Docs to that as well)...definitely important that we all not only are able to speak the same language, but understand what and why we do things....understanding is key

    Great quote by Nicholas Christakis on holism - which I think sort of fits what we are talking about - i.e. all of us understanding our own individual roles, as well as the roles of other support staff, etc, and how we all fit together...

    “...holism takes a while to acquire and appreciate. It is a grown-up disposition. Indeed, for the last few centuries the Cartesian project in science has been to break matter down into ever smaller bits in the pursuit of understanding. And this works to some extent. We can understand matter by breaking it down to atoms, then protons and electrons and neutrons, then quarks, then gluons, and so on. We can understand organisms by breaking them down into organs, then tissues, then cells, then organelles, then proteins, then DNA, and so on. Putting things back together in order to understand them is harder and typically comes later in the development of a scientist or of science.”

    I just think that we're entering a new 'way', where integration and holism is the order of the day...

  8. Interesting as always.

    The idea of "holism" and how it relates to what you do has ties back to what you as coaches are getting when you get an athlete. You made the comment about inheriting reclamation projects. Let's think about where these projects come from? You mention the volunteer coach and how there is more respect (or seems to be) given in the UK vs your other stops. Think deeper when was the last time anyone stepped into a children's drop in Gymnastics class? How much education / time is being spent on how these kids move, or think about how they feel when they move at an early age?

    It then builds through the formative years of education and beyond where these young people probably get more floor hockey than they do a rich and robust experience of different activities complimented by instruction on how to move / how they should feel when they move. This then translates to adulthood and an obsession with a hockey lockout VS sports actually happening live!

    As elite coaches it seems you guys are trying to build the dream home while fixing the foundation, re-doing the wiring, and changing the floor plan all while the house is being sold.
    Imagine what could be done with human performance (in a holistic approach like is starting to emerge) if the house had more the parts "right" when you got it?

  9. "no disrespect to volunteer coaches - they are the driving force behind our sport.  They just need to be better ‘educated’ - and by ‘better’, I mean ‘worse’"

    Confused! Could you explain what you meant please? Thanks

    1. it's explained (apparently poorly!) in the previous sentence. Essentially, what I mean is that the beginner coach - not really understanding pedagogy, mechanics, motor learning, etc. - is often guilty of 'coaching positions', and chasing some perfect model, not 'allowing' the athlete to pursue his/her own solution to the movement - which is always the most efficient.

      The coach that says nothing - instead allowing the young athletes to simply move in the manner in which is most effective to them - will usually have better success.

      In an ideal world, we have qualified and experienced coaches working at all levels...too often athletes don't receive quality coaching until it's too late...

    2. You mean good coaching like this?:
      I'm pretty sure the kid would do better on his own.

  10. Thanks Mr. McMillan for the reply

  11. Thnaks for the comments. Frankly I think you have taken these quotes out of context and misinterpreted my ideas. Suggest you read the work of Wulf on external cues and implicit versus explicit learning also read Keith Davids.

    1. Vern - thanks for weighing in.

      I am well-aware of Wulf, Davids etc. and their fact, the next part of this series was going to be on exactly that: I really think there is a gap between what the research is showing, and what coaches are actually doing.

      Bosch, Schollhorn etc are doing a great job taking the aforementioned research, and developing creative ways to apply it to our practice. I will definitely be writing about this as soon as I get the chance - thanks for giving me extra impetus.

      BTW - if you read my comment early in the post - I'm in effect arguing against myself, as I agree with much of what you say, and say as much in the previous post...just wanted to present another side, and open up avenues for discussion:

      Your quote that I opened this post with I thought could be taken the wrong way - the whole 'coaching by not coaching' is a slippery slope that must be well-understood before effective definitely does not absolve coaches of responsibility - as I feel could easily be construed from your words - but the opposite, which is what I was trying to get across....

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