Monday, 29 April 2013

“don't wear shorts if the sun ain't shining”: a guest-post from Dave Hembrough

I’ve picked up a few mcmillanspeed newbies this year - by that, I mean those unfortunate folk who are new to my programming, and get the pleasure of spending a fairly significant amount of time with me over the next few months.  

Normal practice for me when I pick up new athletes is to have a series of both formal and informal sit-downs with them, where we discuss - among other things - the four levels of my training: 
  1. my philosophy
  2. the plan
  3. the periodization
  4. program

Firstly, I need to point out that the specific structure of this concept is borrowed liberally from Mladen Jovanovic - his words nicely organised my thoughts, and the simplicity of the four ‘zoom levels’ of training (Mladen actually uses three) provides a picture that is easily understood.  

I’m not going to go into specifics on this today, but suffice it to say that the closer we get to the actuality of what the athlete performs on any given day, the more democratic and/or autonomous the decision-making process is.  That is to say, my philosophy on training is pretty set - it’s not influenced greatly on a day to day basis by what I see/hear from an athlete; but the program - the specific session details - are (within the periodization of the plan) greatly influenced by the athlete, and how they feel on that particular day.  

While fluidity in daily programming allows for occasions of serendipity, it also provides the flexibility to negotiate through zemblanity (there - your new word for the day!).

My buddy Dave Hembrough and I were discussing this a couple of weeks ago, and he relayed to me a story about a conversation he had with one of his athletes.  I asked him if he would be kind enough to share it on mcmillanspeed, because I really think it is an important message - a message that reveals the reality of a coach working in the trenches -  the necessity of flexibility...

Dave is a pretty smart dude, and a heck of a coach.  He is head of S&C at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. He is also a performance consultant for the Centre of Sport and Exercise Science and an occasional lecturer. He runs an S&C facility at the University via an internship scheme and is the Head Coach of Hallam Barbell Weightlifting Club. He was the lead S&C Coach for the GB women’s volleyball programme for the 2012 Olympics and currently spends much of his consultancy time in professional boxing, where he includes world number five welterweight (as ranked by Ring Magazine) Kell Brook amongst his list of clients.

“don't wear shorts if the sun ain't shining”: 
a guest-post from Dave Hembrough

Working with a disability dressage rider recently led me to discuss daily capacity undulation with her. She was 16, so we didn't use those exact words. We were talking about her frustrations with the frequent changes in her levels of function, strength, concentration, awareness and movement control due to her neuromuscular condition. We agreed that she must learn to recognise what she was capable of on any given day and work to achieve a good result in her workout based on how she felt. The phrase we came up with was simple: 

‘don't wear shorts if the sun ain't shining - and if it’s raining carry an umbrella'

Some days her warm-up might be enough to give her a workout, and other days she should be able to really go for broke and attack some decent work with high expectations. She also said that she found this was the same at school but teachers didn't recognise that her condition dictated what she was capable of on a day-to-day basis. Equally, she was unable to match the standards of other students on her course in some activities. Their bad was her best, but as she was marked on the same criteria, she was made to feel bad despite the effort and hard work she put into achieving something that was very good, for her.

As a coach, I'm careful not to fall into this trap. I realise that my athletes are individuals and have other things going on in their lives - and that this will occasionally effect what they are capable of. Equally, there are things that they fail to control and need encouragement to stay on top of. 

A conversation I had with one of my volleyball players recently went something like this: 'coach, I'm not strong today. I was lifting much heavier last week. Am I getting worse?' 

I asked him how he'd been sleeping - what he'd eaten that day and the day previously, as well as what other things he had going on in study and course work. It turned out he'd been mismanaging his diet, studying hard late into the night and been putting extra court practise in. 'Oh, no wonder I can't lift big today' he said. 'I need to look after myself better' he concluded. After a brief discussion with him around what he thought he could do better, I gave him a few suggestions to concentrate on for the next few weeks. Interestingly enough, I watched him to go on to break some PBs 3 weeks later in lifts that had gone nowhere for a couple of months.

Every athlete I work with is expected to push themselves hard regularly. Occasionally though, we as coaches need to learn to back off and alter the workout, or adapt the plan. Even when we were due to 'smash it up' now and again, it's wise to cut the sets back, drop some load, or use an alternative easier workout. Simple clues give this away such as how chatty they are compared to normal, or how enthusiastically they warm up. Sometimes the first few sets of an exercise or basic movement patterns tell me enough to make a decision. Sure - we can use science such as RSIs, HRV or TRIMP, but we must also use intuition and rely on observation and the strength of our relationships as coaches. How often do we get that gut feeling then regret not going with it or eventually coming back to it after going around the houses?

I call this intuitive periodisation and I think it’s important to consider within a plan. It’s one of the things I regularly come back to with the coach mentoring I do; young and developing coaches often don't have the skills to draw out or recognise important information that's often based on interpersonal processes. 

Experience teaches you these things:

  1. how to interact and pick up on the subtle tells
  2. when to push on and motivate
  3. how to shake their cage and fire an athlete up when it’s needed 
  4. when an individual training unit is worth sacrificing to give an on-going positive training experience that continues the training momentum

Watch out most for the ones who play the poker face and want to crack on regardless when it might not be in their best interest. 

Here's the good part of this approach - it demonstrates that you care about your athletes -shows that you are interested in them and helps you build your relationship with the athletes you're helping. It also encourages them to work hard when the time is right, to feel free to be open and honest, and will help them enjoy the training process. 

We don't want to crawl out of the gym every time as training like that's not sustainable.

Don’t wear shorts if the sun ain't shining, and make sure you carry an umbrella in the rain.

Life periodises.


Dave has an undergraduate Sport Science degree and an MSc in Sport Injury and Rehabilitation. He is a UKSCA accredited coach and a coach education tutor for British Weightlifting. Dave is also an advanced Motivational Interview (MI) practitioner and a soft-tissue therapist, both of which are core skills within his coaching practise. 

Dave enjoys the art of coaching and the challenge of leading people to physical improvement through intention, application and direction in the training environment. He works mainly with foundational level athletes of university age or younger and enjoys both the quick wins and the on-going battle of developing positive training habits in young athletes. 

His approach focuses on the bigger picture - how life effects training and how training effects life. He can be reached via email at or give him a follow on Twitter - @dwhembro


  1. Great post! I feel that you, Stu, also had the ability to identify when an athlete wasn't "on par" just by watching them walk. You could identify stress in their eyes, shoulders and gait and modify the workout on the fly. It was truly beneficial for me as an athlete and has helped me to identify that in the people I work with as well. Certainly I have much to learn still but it was definitely a skill that can help set me apart from the other trainers around me. Thanks!

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