Saturday, 2 February 2013

what takes you to 'A' won't take you to 'B'...

Couple of weeks back, I wrote a little post in response to a quote I read from Vern Gambetta.  As usual, I wandered a little off topic, and touched upon how I see elite-level coaching (and/or strength & conditioning) - as essentially:

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...”

I’d like to expand on this a little - I’m sure there are many that do not understand what I meant (happens often), many that don’t agree...and possibly even one or two that do.

As strength & conditioning professionals, most of the information that passes our way - whether this comes from Conferences, research studies, blogs, conversations, the latest ‘guru article’, etc. - focuses on how we can get our athletes ‘bigger, faster, and stronger’.  

Makes sense, right?  
I mean - we are Strength & Conditioning’s right there in our job title what the expectations of the gig is.

And for most, this is exactly how it is...

We sit in our basement/laboratory, pouring over endless articles, videos, and research papers - like the proverbial crazy scientist - in the never-ending quest for the S&C Holy Grail.

Well - those of us who have been in the biz for a while know the truth - despite what the internet quacks...I mean hacks...I mean gurus say.  Experts?? ...

- I like this old Greek saying (at least I think it’s Greek - I forget): 

“everything new is well-forgotten old”

But anyways - that’s not the point...I’m getting off-topic again...

...most athletes begin an S&C program at the high school age/level, continuing it through their college careers (or its amateur/non-scholastic equivalent), and - if they’re good enough - onto the professional world (be it National Team or actual/real professional sport. 
This is the typical road to sporting excellence.  It takes time, effort, discipline, and dedication.  Elite sporting success requires talent (yes - it matter what Coyle, Syed, Colvin, Gladwell, Erikssen, etc. will tell you), luck, good support networks, and effective coaching.  Most never get there.  There are relatively very few truly ‘elite’ athletes out there...yet it seems that every S&C coach and his dog is coaching them.  
Check their websites...
(maybe every elite athlete has multiple S&C guys?)

Maybe they are.  Maybe every coach who professes to coaching elite athletes is actually doing so.  More likely though, they’re not...instead, they’re coaching athletes who are somewhere else on the continuum - either on their way to being an elite, or simply a sub-elite.  

Why do I have an issue with this, you ask?  Good’s not just semantics...

My issue is that everything that young coaches in the business read is supposedly being written by coaches of ‘elite’ athletes, when it is really written by coaches of ‘sub-elite’ athletes (or dudes with no athletes at'd be surprised how many of these there are).  There is a big difference in the two, and a massive difference in how an S&C coach will manage their programs.  And I feel that young coaches - who will eventually become experienced coaches - are missing a big piece of the puzzle by only being exposed to one (all be it the main - for most) part of our industry (i.e. getting BFS).  

Elite sport - Professional sport (and much of International-level amateur sport) is no longer about BFS.  Like I said earlier - it is a management project.  By the time they get to the professional level, they’re already BFS.  Trying to make them bigger, faster, and stronger at this point is chasing your tail.  You might eventually catch it, but at what cost? You’ve taken time and energy away from what could be far more important issues...

For example - you ever work with an NFL guy?
The NFL is elite.  The typical NFL player is  a (barely) walking disaster by the end of the season  (and forget about doing any in-season work).  Normally, their team physio set-ups are poor.  Their team S&C set-ups are sub-par.  They’re afraid to tell anyone of any potential issues, because they don’t want to risk being labelled ‘soft’, ‘weak’, ‘injury prone’, etc.  (remember - this is football - old-school mentality still runs the day).  So instead, they limp home - maybe do some stretching - have a bath.  The smart ones have outside specialists that they bring along to help them through the slog.  Sometimes, these guys are chiros.  Sometimes, massage therapists.  Sometimes even multi-skilled S&C dudes.  Point is...they’re not leaving the season the way they went in.  No chance.  Doesn’t matter who they have working with them.  
So what are we to do once February comes around, and these dudes start thinking about training for the next season again?  Hit ‘em with some cleans...some squats...some sprints - get ‘em bigger, faster, stronger?
- that’s our jobs!  Right?

This is where the reality doesn’t fit the narrative...

These guys are already in the league.  They’re good enough.  They’re big enough.  They’re fast enough. They’re strong enough.  Our job isn’t to make them more’s to keep them’s to ensure they can get through camp... the 16+ games...the next season after that.  The good S&C coach is an investment for these guys.  An investment that pays off by extending their careers...getting them that next contract....putting their kids and their kids’ kids through school....

100m sprinting is elite.  Chances are if you’re competing at the International level, you’ve been sprinting since you were a kid.  You have a life-time of jacked-up movements and training that is wrapped up in your body.  You probably train intensely for 20+ hours per week.  Pushing your body to its absolute maximum on far more occasions than it was designed to handle.  Training for these dudes involves designing a program that will not only get them as fast as possible, but will best enable them to get through the season healthy. To ensure that they are on the start line at the Majors at the end of the year.  To maintain this health throughout coming seasons.  So they can continue to line-up.  And make teams.  And win medals.  And collect cheques...

If all we thought about was getting BFS, these guys would be toast in two weeks... 

How about International alpine skiing?  Alpine skiing is elite.  Most athletes have had major knee surgeries.  At least one.  All have been skiing intensely for at least a couple of decades.  The season is long, and involves traveling all over the globe - multiple times.  Most folk at the top of this sport are not too worried about getting bigger, faster, and stronger anymore.  They’re just trying to survive.  The best S&C guys in skiing are like my buddy Matt Price (S&C coach for the Canadian Alpine Team) - they understand the sport - and (most importantly) the specific demands of the sport - intimately (often lost on coaches who work remotely).  They understand the intensity of the general systemic load of a World Cup season. The travel.  The training.  The stresses.  The bad food.  The early mornings.  And late nights.  Being away from their families. And friends.   etc, etc...

S&C Coaches of elite athletes understand that their jobs are ‘management’ roles - this is much more demanding than simply getting them BFS.  Anyone can get an athlete bigger, faster, and stronger.  There’s a million ways to do it.  And a million guys do a good job of it.  

Not everyone can manage an elite athlete through a season.  Or a career.  To do so, we must step outside of our narrow field.  Stop digging so deep...and think laterally.  Gain a better appreciation of physiology, endocrinology, biomechanics, therapy, neuro-physiology, nutrition, regeneration... A better understanding of the sport.  Of athletes.  Of psychology.  Work effectively within a support team.  Learn how to communicate with them efficiently.  With a realistic understanding of the limitations of your position.

Write a sensible S&C program. With the understanding that there is no ‘magic pill’.  
Do the simple things.  And Do Them Well. 

Remember that what made an athlete elite, will not keep them elite.  

“what took you to A will not take you to B” 


  1. Interesting thoughts Stuart. What do you think most guys (NFL) do in their off-seasons, or what do you think they should do?

    1. I can’t really comment on ‘what most guys do’. I know a lot work with private strength & conditioning guy, and/or speed coaches. Some work by themselves. Some work with their old college guys. Some even work with their old high school guys.

      ‘What they should do’ depends on a ton of different factors, mostly related to how they exited the season. In my mind, I see it as a 4-step process:

      active regeneration: most will leave the season in some state of ‘disrepair’. I think it’s important to get this taken care of as soon as possible - importantly, before taking a period of passive recovery. It is important that the athlete find a good therapist(s), and work on restoring some semblance of ‘typical’ function as soon as possible. Depending on the athlete’s state, this period can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

      passive recovery: The length of this period will depend on a ton of different factors, including: experience of the player, skills/quality of the player, status on the team, status of contract, family and social responsibilities, length of season (i.e. did he participate in the play-offs), what position he played, etc...

      ‘corrective’ exercise: I don’t really like the term, but I think in any training scenario, the first few weeks should be spent addressing any ‘deficiencies’, ‘dysfunction’, ‘imbalances’, etc. The manner in which folks do this depends on their area, expertise, skill-set, etc. This period really could - and often is - take the majority (or all) of the off-season, depending on the circumstance. As I discuss in the post, there will be many athletes where the focus is no longer on getting them ‘BFS’, but helping them become ‘more robust’ (another term I really hate, but is appropriate here), however this may be done. Therapy, nutrition, rest/sleep, lifestyle habits, etc. all are major players here - and become more important as the athlete’s career progresses.

      ‘training’: the traditional way in which we look at it - i.e. getting guys a little faster, a little stronger, a little more agile, a little bigger, more time spent on position-specific skill development, etc. This is obviously relatively more important earlier on in an athlete’s career, and drops off as time goes on. Most guys do (and should) spend significant time working on their position-specific drills. Many work with off-season ‘specialist-coaches’...many work as units with other members of their team (i.e. quarterbacks working with their receivers, etc.)...tons of time is spent on system understanding and development - watching videos, etc. But from an S&C perspective, this period is pretty normal. Depending on athlete status, they may or may not have to report to OTAs’ with their teams, so this period can (and often is) quite short...

      Generally, I feel that rest, finding a good therapy team - properly integrated with an S&C/speed coach that understands the unique nature of the NFL, position-specific work (hopefully with teammates) and an increased focus on the ‘lifestyle’ factors is the key to a successful off-season...

  2. Thanks for your insights Stuart.

    Now this is a serious question: could an 'elite' athlete ever make it without therapy?

    If a coach does not have any of the so-called therapy skill sets, can a program have success with movement only? Couldn't the right movements in training, both be theraputic and have a training effect?


    Where are the lines drawn as to how much attention is given to every dysfunction, imbalance, twinge of pain? Pain management, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy, has evolved to deal with some of the psychological aspects; how much do we feed this psychology of 'thinking they are a broken mess' with additional therapy techniques and laundry lists of correctives. We are embedded in a culture of often over-diagnosis and excessive treatment. How does this play into the dealings with athletes?

    Are NFL guys that sensitive to any little perturbation with their bodies, that while playing a little pick-up basketball, they would need their performance coach to "fix" them between baskets? (Honestly, I don't know, I have only worked with DI football players).

    So, as the extended passive/active recovery periods, with the 'correctional' training, takes away from the traditional training... to me, the further they stay away from high performance, the more difficult it is to get it back... many elite athletes are beyond the age of 25, which is roughly the point of declining youthful physiology... how is this combated, when the young rookie comes into the league with similar abilities but greater 'youth'?

    I am not suggesting trashing (far from it) elite athletes in training, but is there not another perspective, such as the greats of yesterday in guys like Jerry Rice or Walter Payton? I would guess these guys had long successful careers because of the intensiveness with which they trained in the off-season. How long does it take for any athlete post-competition to start training at a high level again - given that they walked off the field without a disabling injury, finishing the last play at a high intensity... ??? I guess my thinking is that some of the more intense forms of training (resistance training/sprints/agility/plyos) stimulate an anabolic effect, so without much time for this training, is a shortened traditional 'training' period actually feeding potential injury possibilities?

    Sorry for all the questions, I am just trying to get a better understanding of the performance therapy perspective, specifically as it relates to team sports of chaotic nature.

    1. Thanks Aaron for your questions/comments...

      'Could an elite athlete make it without therapy? - good question - I believe the answer is yes - athletes and programs can be successful without the employment of pre- and during- session active therapy; but that’s not my point. My point is that effective practice of performance therapy optimizes the session, and will allow sessions to stay on Plan A on more occasions than programs that do not employ it.

      Many coaches design warm-ups that incorporate a variety of means of ‘pre-hab’ exercises, which are designed to serve a similar purpose. For example, Lorne Seagrave - a sprint coach with a similar background to Dan Pfaff - designs quite extensive warm-up protocols (many take over an hour to complete), that involve all manner of general strength, mobility, flexibility, and specific ‘muscle-firing’ exercises - many that can be deemed as ‘self-therapeutic’ in nature. I have personally yet to find any tool, or self-technique that is better than a skilled practitioner, but I do recognize the limitations to having someone on-site - in many situations, it is simply not realistic.

      So - to answer your question...yes. I just don’t think it is optimal.

      This is an entirely more difficult question to answer, and one that deserves far more time and attention than I can spend here. Your point is well-made though, and is similar is scope to what Scott commented on as per athletes becoming ‘dependent’ on such therapy. It’s a fine line, and I would suggest erring on the side of caution until the relationship between athlete and coach-practitioner is to the point where each can better understand the specifics of the input, and how it effects not only the biological but the neurological - and all that this entails.

      I agree that the profession over-medicalizes, over-diagnoses, and often over-treats. Performance Therapy is about OPTIMIZATION. How can we get the most out of today’s session? How do we set the athlete up in the best manner for competition? How can we create more effective and efficient movement, so we REDUCE their chances at being over-medicalized (i.e. keep them healthy enough that they never have to see the Doc)? Like I’ve said before, the goal is not to add to the amount of is to reduce it.


    2. I don’t find football guys to be very sensitive at all. If we can compare a sprinter to an F1 car, the typical football player is a Chevy. Most elite sprinters can feel pretty much EVERYTHING. Football players’ feel is generally pretty poor, and their ability to continue moving through pain/dysfunction is generally pretty high. Pro-active therapy in an attempt to get these dudes moving a bit better, thereby reducing chance of injury is nothing new. Believe me, I am the last guy to prescribe ‘correctional training’, or ‘correctional exercise’. I want my guys to train hard, lift heavy weights, and run fast. The reality - at least in many professional sports, as well as other ‘violent’ sports, such as alpine skiing - time can be better spent focussing on ‘treatment’ (whatever that means to you), and perhaps taking a bit of a MED approach to strength-power-speed development. The reality is many of these guys ARE a MESS. The reality is far too many professional teams skimp when it comes paying therapy and S&C teams what they are worth, so they get lower-standard professionals. The reality is many teams actually don’t care if the guys get hurt - their strategy being: lets dradft this stud, work him to the ground for 3 years, then draft another stud in his place - this way they don’t have to pay the second contract. One of the reasons why careers are so short (average NFL career being between 3 and 6 years, depending on who you believe - either way, it’s too short, and we can do better).

      I discuss the different stages an athlete goes through in his career (at least for sprinters) in another blog - The main point being - we need to coach-train-treat the 20 year old differently than the 25 year old, differently than the 30 year old.

      This is not controversial.

      Just like designing a sprint program based on what Ben Johnson did (and in some cases continues to be) is folly, so is basing our programming around what Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Herschel Walker, etc. did in their careers. While we can certainly learn from their experiences, they are outliers. Exceptions - not the rules. I am not familiar with the specifics of how Payton or Rice led their lives, but I would be surprised if they were not pretty diligent in how they led their ‘lifestyles’ - i.e their nutrition, their regeneration, their home lives, etc...Guys that learned as they progressed the importance of the other 20 hours of their day.

      Application of performance therapy for ‘team sports of chaotic nature’ is quite challenging. My friend and colleague Nick Ward works predominantly with team sports (as a fitness coach for professional soccer and rugby teams in the UK), and he has tried to incorporate some performance therapy principles into his warm-ups; sometimes this has simply been the generic advocation of self-therapy (i.e. foam-rolling), while sometimes it is more hands-on. As I’m sure you’re aware, culture change in sports such as soccer, football, and rugby is a challenging proposition - old school mentalities still dominate these scenes (although from my perspective, it is getting better - especially in American football) - this makes throwing a guy down on his stomach in the middle of the field during warm-up to do some ART on his hamstring particularly difficult! But it must be done! How many times do we watch athletes being static stretched during a warm-up by the S&C coach or a member of the therapy team? It’s just a matter of time before these same athletes begin requesting more suitable/effective means...

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