Thursday, 27 February 2014

random thoughts from Sochi...

The Games have been over for a few days now - my plan was always to give a pretty thorough debrief of my experience - alas, the sport got in the way, and I was unable to write as much as I could.  Instead, I will share some brief thoughts on the Games - from highlights to lowlights.

“The Jamaican Bobsled Team
...just may be the biggest scam in the Winter Olympics”

This is a quote of former bobsled and skeleton coach Greg Sand.  Pretty controversial.  But almost just as surely correct.  The reality is this ‘team’ is still living off of the hype of ‘Cool Runnings’ - the gateway for 99% of the public’s experience with bobsled.  Which is fine, by the way - 2010 Olympic Gold medallist in bobsled Steve Mesler has the following to say in regards to this:

"Do you know the Jamaicans?" is the inevitable question every bobsledder has been asked since the dawn of time. Or at least since 1994. ‘Cool Runnings’ and the popularity given to the Jamaican bobsledders is the bane of all bobsledders' existence. Everyone knows ‘Cool Runnings’; no one knows who any of the Olympic gold medalists are from that same period.

This is the rant that goes through most bobsledders heads. But it's ridiculous because here's the thing - without ‘Cool Runnings’ and the 95% of countries that are non-bobsled-fan nations (which is everywhere except possibly Germany, Switzerland, and Russia) no one would know what the sport even is! ‘Cool Runnings’ breathed life into an overpriced sport years ago and continues to be the best PR machine possible.

Sometimes I forget this. Then, when I least expect it, I'm reminded what Disney did for us all those years ago. In September of 2013 I was visiting a school in the middle of the San Jose slums in Costa Rica. Myself and the Executive Director from a foundation toured the school and then met with about 40 students. He translated everything I said and when it came time to describe bobsled to the 12 year olds, their faces went blank. They new Olympic gold, but not bobsled. Amidst the spanish being spoken, all of a sudden I recognized two words that brought smiles, understanding, and amazement to the kids' faces. 

Those two words were ‘Cool Runnings’.

The flip-side is that it is no longer 1994.  The 2014 fairytale involves a bobsled-as-a-hobby, Wisconsin-living, 46 year-old salesman, who’s main motivation appears financial.  After public donations of somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000, and a sponsorship from Samsung Mobile, the Jamaicans showed up in Sochi in a beat-up old sled and a volunteer coach, and were bartering for borrowed runners right up until the day before the race.  In which they finished dead last.  By a large margin.  What’s the point?  

Or maybe I’m just a hater.  A hater that sees hundreds - thousands - of serious athletes, seriously training, making serious sacrifices in pursuit of their dream.  Almost none making it.  Almost all going into debt.  

In the shadows of the hustler...

The Russian People

It seems that the entire population of Sochi was brought in to volunteer for these Games.  I’d say probably 5 times as many as they actually needed!  Shame that none of them were actually trained.  Although they have been incredibly pleasant, and tried to help in any situation - they simply were not given any information at all.  On anything.  On the whole though, these almost exclusively young people have gone out of their way to ensure that all the athletes, coaches, and staff have had a positive experience.  Very interesting when you compare this group to the paid staff - the housekeepers, maintenance workers, and cleaners.  Generally over 40, these folk are what you may conjure up in your mind when you think of the ‘typical Russian’ - sad, grey, hope-less.  

The pride of the young was especially evident during the Opening Ceremony - I watched on TV with many of the Coastal Village volunteers.  Each time a Russian athlete came into screen, there was screaming and stomping of feet. Obviously desperate to portray their country in a positive light to the world, there was hardly a dry eye in the place as they rushed from in front of the giant screen TV to the window to watch the fireworks and back again...

Who’s Olympic?

Just because you are the only one in your country to compete at a sport, doesn’t mean that you are an Olympian.  Just because you went into debt to pay your way to the Games does not make you Olympic.  Just because your presence adds interest to the sport in your region does not give you the right to compete at the Ultimate test of sporting excellence.

The Olympics are for the best athletes in the world.  If you are not one of them, then you should not be there.  I understand that IFs and the IOC are trying to spread the popularity of certain sports throughout the world - but in my mind, this is the responsibility of the National Federations - sort out your own houses first, begin competing on a World Level, and then - if you’re good enough - you can go to an Olympic Games.  Yes - this means that Jamaica should not have been here.  Nor should Vanessa Mae.  Nor should the Mexican skier (despite his pretty cool mariachi ski suit).  And nor should have the Brazilian bobsled team.  If the IOC do not change their views here, it is only a matter of time before we see another tragic event like the death of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili in Whistler in 2010.

NOT the way to drive a bobsled...

X Games events are fun, but they're not Olympic.  

I blogged about this last week.  The Olympic Village resembled more of a skate park than a high-performance athlete Village.  And like I said in my post, I have nothing against these kids - I enjoy watching their events - but this is the Olympic Games.  And for me, they should be a celebration of the world’s greatest athletes.  These kids simply are not.

Apparently, skiing on rails is a sport, but wrestling is not...really IOC?

What's next?  Bridge? this Olympic?
(these are two Olympic athletes training in the Mountain Village weight room - believe it or not, this was not unusual...)

Again.  Get. Out. Of. The. Way.

The Canadian bobsled coaches haven’t been reading my posts, apparently.  48 hours before the beginning of the 4man Competition, they decided to change crews around.  Apparently believing Justin Kripps to have a better shot in the race than Chris Spring, the coaches flipped crews.  Even though Spring was the higher-ranking pilot (5th in the World Cup overall rankings for the season).  Even though Kripps was in his first Olympic Games as a pilot, and was a long-shot at best for a 4man medal (this is no affront on Kripps - the 4man field was incredibly deep, and Kripps has yet to win a World Cup 4man medal - in fact, he is yet to break into the top 7 - so to expect him to win one at the Games was always going to be a tough ask).  Kripps performed well in 2man - holding strong in 4th place until a poor final run pushed him back to 6th.  

Needless to say, this move did not work out well.  But it led to one of the memorable moments of the Games.  Kripps crashed in his second run.  The walk up to the sled take-out was greeted with thunderous applause.  Two of his crewmen were unable to continue the following day.  So the two Alternates now took their place alongside Kripps, and Jesse Lumsden.  Two alternates that now were legitimate Olympians.  Once again, they were the fastest starting Canadian crew. Once again they were given a standing ovation at the end of the run.  Even by all on the Starting Dock, watching on the monitor.  Heroic stuff. 

AP Sportswriter Tim Reynolds asked...

I answered that it was highly doubtful...but it is a fair question

What happened to #WeDemandChange

The Sochi Experience

There are three Villages - the Coastal, the Mountain, and the Endurance.  For the first week - before competition started for the sliding sports, and before any of the hockey players arrived - we stayed in the Coastal.  I had a 1200 sq ft penthouse apartment to myself, with a spiral staircase up to a rooftop terrace overlooking the Black Sea.  The remainder of the time, I shared a 150 sq ft room with one of our therapists. 

You can guess which Village I preferred!

The Mountain Village is stunning, though.  Nestled within the Caucasus Mountains with amazing 360 degree views, it is truly a breathtaking place - the big question on everyone’s minds is what will happen to the Village once we all leave.  We all hope it remains - it will be a wonderful vacation venue for Russian snow sport lovers.

The Coastal Village is really quite a nice little apartment-town home community, along the coast of the Black Sea.  It is first class, and will be an amazing place to live.  

The Mountain Village wasn’t quite finished.  It seems the concrete was probably poured the week before we got there - as most of it had completely fallen apart by the time we left.  No landscaping was complete - a fact made increasingly obvious as all of the snow melted away - revealing piles of dirt, mud, stones, and rock.  

I saw two stray dogs.

Best tweet of the Games:

The transportation started as a complete nightmare.  And ended up just being slightly annoying slash funny.  Whether it got better, or I just got tired, I don't really know...

There was a ton of pre-Games hype about supposed security risks.  It honestly never entered my mind once I arrived.  The Sochi Security was tight.  Never felt safer.

#SochiProblems was a pretty funny hashtag.  At first.  Like most trends, it got pretty old quickly...but here is one of my favorites:

...another trend was the #SochiSelfie...I took one, with John Daly:

Some other highlights / memorable moments:

my view each morning

Skeleton bronze-medallist Matt Antoine

Kaillie Humphries doing a sprint was warm!!

3/4 of Team Kripps post-crash

women's bobsled medallists

Noelle Pikus-Pace & coach Tuffy Latour

Elana Meyers & Lauryn Williams at the flower ceremony 

Night Train 2


In conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised by Sochi, Russia, the Games, and the relatively smooth manner in which everything bounced along.  The weather was unbelievable.  The people were cool.  And the region rivals Vancouver-Whistler.  Truly Sea-Sky...

Saturday, 22 February 2014

'fourth sucks'...a guest-post from Jeremiah Barnert

Google 'fourth place finish', and you will find a myriad of quotes from athletes.  Most make reference to it being the hardest place to finish - so close to a medal, you can taste it...but not quite close enough.  The psychology behind this is interesting, and can hopefully guide a future post.  

The Canadian luge team were especially unfortunate in this regard - finishing 4th in three of the four events.  I asked their Strength Coach Jeremiah Barnert for his thoughts on his Sochi experience, and in particular the close calls.


In a sport measured to the thousandths of a second the margin between success and failure is incredibly small.  While hurling your body down an icy track feet first, Luge athletes can travel in excess of 140km/hr.  To prepare an athlete for the sport of Luge, the start is incredibly important.  By having a top 3 start the probability of being on the podium drastically increases.  As the Strength/Start coach for the Canadian Luge team this is where my focus lies throughout the year.

According to Hopkins (2004) in order to be in contention for an Olympic medal, you need to have a worthwhile change of 1.5% during the World Cup season leading up to the Olympics and another 1.5% at the Olympic Games.  Now if you closely examine the start times of the Canadian Luge athletes we were able to achieve this, however it resulted in three 4th place finishes - narrowly missing the medal by hundredths of a second.  

So what separated us from three bronze medals? Was there as issue with being able to convert….

To critically evaluate our performance at the Olympic Games in Sochi, it is important to look at past performances of the Canadian Luge athletes in the previous Olympic Games.  In 2010, the highest placing by one of our current athletes was a 7th place by Sam Edney.  Prior to these home Olympic games, the best ever finish by a Canadian was a 5th place by a doubles team in 2002.  

In fact...

Canada has never medaled in Luge at the Olympic Games….EVER!

However, the results of this past World cup season gave the Team high expectations for these Games:

  • 14 World Cup Medals
  • Two Canadians (Alex Gough and Kim McRae) shared the podium at the same event for the first time in history (on a German track nonetheless)
  • The doubles team of Tristan Walker and Justin Smith won Canada’s first ever World cup Double’s medal
  • Alex Gough took home the globe finishing 2nd Overall
  • The team relay composed of Alex, Sam, Tristan and Justin also took home the globe finishing 2nd Overall

It was a season of Canadian best ever finishes but why was there not enough momentum to push the Canadian team over towards Olympic glory?

...and to top it off, the three bronze medals that eluded us were won by individuals who had not won a single World cup medal this past season. Is this highly unlucky or was there something else that prevented us from a dominant Olympic performance?

A common criticism of Canadian athletes is that they are ‘participation’ athletes, simply  ‘happy to be there’ - ‘happy for the experience’, and lack the fight of our neighbors to the south.  This is something that we are attempting to affect - not only in Luge, but sport-system wide at Winsport Canada - the Home to Canadian Winter sport, in Calgary.

Since the Olympic Games in Vancouver, we have tried to change the culture and level of expectations of our athletes.  They have shed the ‘participant’ attitude, and now compete in every competition with medals on their mind.  Each of our luge athletes has excelled and maximized their potential each season with better results than the season before.  With a season of Canadian best-ever finishes, the one item missing from this season was an Olympic medal - but this alluded them...not once but three times.

In Canadian sport, 4th place doesn’t put food on the plate.  

So how does all this all relate to the area of exercise science and strength and power?  What have I learned through this experience that I can pass on?

Human performance is not a redundancy mechanism

You push every limit to achieve absolute athletic achievement using scientific methods and philosophies in order to be in a position to achieve athletic greatness.  However, nothing is guaranteed - especially at the Olympic Games.  The human body is a complex organism consistently changing and adapting.  Without a proper system in place you cannot critically evaluate the effects you have on an individual.  

A particular result will not guarantee another!

A culture shift doesn’t happen over night

Changing a culture of an entire organization can be a challenging process that may take years, but without the right people in place you will always be spinning around in circles wondering why? 

Be patient and pick your battles.

The end result does not tell the entire story

Despite the results, we are only able to influence the athlete from an athletic standpoint. We have no control over a multitude of factors such as weather, how equipment runs, or the standards of the playing surfaces and how these may change during an event.  

Life is a learning process

If you take every experience and learn from it you will be better than the day before.  If you consistently evaluate your methods and philosophies, you will continue to improve as a coach or scientist.  Stagnant individuals are complacent…we must push the boundaries - even when it is not the norm.  

Just because a certain way of doing things has worked for years doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be critically evaluated.   


I have taken the 10 days since the end of the Luge events at the Sochi Olympic Games to reflect upon not only the Games, but the World Cup season, and the previous 4 years.  It is important we keep the entire picture in mind - and are not blinded by the latest results.

What this team has accomplished over the past 4 years is nothing sort of amazing.  I have had the privilege of working with great individuals and a coaching staff that demands excellence from everyone.  

The Canadian Luge Team had three 4th place finishes.  Truly gut-wrenching for the athletes involved.  But I am confident that this experience will make them better.  Prepare them better for Pyeong Yang.  It will also make me a better coach.  I can’t wait to get started.

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Jeremiah Barnert is currently a Head Strength and Conditioning coach with the Canadian Sport Institute- Calgary.  Jeremiah has worked with a number of athletes across winter and summer sports including Luge, Wrestling, Rugby, and Soccer.  In his short time at the CSI, Jeremiah has worked with numerous World and Olympic medalists across a wide range of disciplines. 

Jer owns a ranch, where he raises grass-fed cattle, he's a real decent guy, and you should give him a follow on Twitter if you're interested in his views.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

sport science...what's the point?

This is a guest-post by Canadian Strength Coach and Sport Scientist Matt Jordan.  He is currently in Sochi for the 2014 Olympic Games, where is is supporting the Canadian Alpine Ski Team.  We sat down, and also discussed over email a few topics.  I'm going to roll a few of them into a Q&A, but this one needed its own forum.

The questions was:

sport science...what's the point?


The first point of sport science for me is to quantify the impact of my training program.  I have a hard time with strength coaches who have a high level of perceived success based on them having a handful of supremely talented athletes on their client list who would be great despite the training program.  I also have a hard time with strength coaches who browse the scientific literature, use scientific terminology and claim a cause-effect relationship between their programs and performance, but never actually measure anything themselves.  Essentially they cherry-pick the scientific literature when it suits them, criticize science as being 10 years behind the times when it doesn’t, and never do anything to quantify impact in their own approach.  I’m not saying a strength coach has to go to the lengths to publish studies, but I do think it’s reasonable for us to be expected to know what matters, measure what matters and show that we changed what matters.  

I think the problem is that it takes time to do this and sometimes it takes more expertise than what is provided in an undergraduate degree.  This is why I’m a big advocate for pursuing a thesis-based Masters degree.  While this process is certainly not foolproof, it does hold the individual to a much higher level of accountability when it comes to making claims about the effects of interventions.  Through this process I think an individual learns how to perform the steps of investigation, evaluation and knowledge translation, which are key for a strength coach.

Now, I completely agree that high-level science is very hard - if not impossible to do on elite athletes - but I always emphasize the importance of quantifying impact.  Let me give you an example: I just read a tweet the other day from a very well-known strength coach saying that a compound found in a particular food burns fat.  This tweet got re-tweeted a dozen times by a bunch of athletes and the compound that this individual identified in his tweet sure made him sound smart.  The problem with this is that in the total absence of data, this tweet distracted a bunch of athletes into thinking there’s something out there they are missing when the reality is there is nothing to be gained.  To me, quantifying impact would be regularly monitoring body fat in your training group and demonstrating that when this particular compound was used that the group saw an uncharacteristically large drop in body fat that occurred independently of changes in the training or nutritional program.  It could be as simple as saying that 7/10 of athletes in my training group experienced a meaningful change in body fat when I began using compound ‘x’.  I realize this is not a publishable study, and is far from high quality science, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a strength coach for elite athletes to be demonstrating this basic level of testing to quantify the impact of their interventions before firing off random tweets.  The accountability is very low to provide evidence in our world or to quantify the impact of what we do.        

I focus the majority of my testing on how athletes apply force.  The reality is that I have seen tons of freaky athletes who were not the leanest or the strongest in the weight room, but undoubtedly were able to apply force in ways that others couldn’t.  I also think looking at how athlete’s apply force and generate mechanical power provides a foundation to think outside of the box with our approach to training.  For example, Nick Simpson - one of the strength coaches in our group - has done some excellent work with our sprint speedskaters using block periodization with his strength and power program.  Not only is he helping to place athletes on the podium in World Cups but he is also demonstrating that with concentrated blocks of lifting he is able to improve lower body mechanical muscle power in a meaningful way with more than half the lifting the athletes did previously.  In this context, when Nick says this approach works, he has a decent amount of data to quantify the impact of his approach.  I’m also using this approach for assessing athletes returning from ACL injury in the late phases of rehabilitation and to evaluate the potential benefits of eccentric loading to improve movement velocity in our speed and power athletes.

know what matters...

The second point of sport science is to know what matters for performance.  For example, I have seen strength coaches assess variables such as the 1RM power clean, 3RM front squat and a host of other strength measures that have next to ZERO correlation to performance in the sport.  From this, they generate tables and standards for what someone needs to be able to do to be good at the sport.  My response is: based on what??  Show me this is the case.  Generating a table saying this is what these athletes are capable of is meaningless.  In small cohorts over shorter time periods, I will use simple correlation analysis.  As my group gets bigger and I amass more data, I will begin to use multiple linear regressions to identify important strength and power variables.  And then once I have got a ton of data, I will use techniques such as principle component analysis to identify important differentiators for performance.  To me this is absolutely critical for success in any program.

UFC fighter Nick 'the promise' Ring - an athlete Jordan has worked with for 8 years

monitor readiness...

The third point of sport science is to monitor an athlete’s readiness to train.  In all aspects of life, science is used to monitor systems.  There are monitoring systems in your car, in hospitals, in Formula 1 car racing and in environmental science.  Yet, when it comes to elite sports, too many coaches simply rely on the tried, tested and true art of asking: how are you doing today?  Now, I’m fine with this, and trust me, I learned a long time ago how important it is to ask questions and pay attention to body language and energy levels.  However, this isn’t sufficient.  I use monitoring to back up what I see and feel, and often my monitoring identifies potential issues before even the athlete is aware of them.  

I also use this to guide my return to sport process after injury and illness.  I also go back retrospectively across years of data and correlate changes in readiness to training loads.  In my elite alpine ski racers, I have four years of data as they progressed from a young group of ski racers to the top of the World Cup podium.  I can identify things that worked, things that didn’t, and to identify phases of the year where things went well and where they didn’t.  I then use the numbers to gain insight.  I find this incredibly useful.     

I also think this process becomes extremely valuable at major Games when everyone’s senses are heightened and it’s easy to ignore the obvious or dwell on the minutia.  In this setting, monitoring the athletes’ readiness is hugely valuable.  It’s very reassuring when we are sitting in meetings to be able to provide this information to the coach to support the decision-making process.  In my opinion, if you’re not doing this you are simply shooting from the hip.  

I think a good analogy with this is the weather.  I once watched a documentary that focused on the well-known pattern of global warming that is now referred much more appropriately to climate change.  This documentary revealed that on 9/11 the planet experienced a sharp increase in temperature.  The cause for this was unknown.  However, by reviewing data collected around the world from agricultural settings where the water evaporation from a pan in a 24 hour cycle (pan evaporation) was measured, they were able to identify that due to a reduction in air pollution that more sunlight had actually been making it to the earth, and therefore had the potential to accelerate climate change.  Two things were fundamental to this: 1) systematically record basic measurements like temperature and pan evaporation; and 2) maintaining a curious and inquisitive mindset to dig deeper into the anomalies.  In fact, the anomalies identified from routine monitoring often reveal the most groundbreaking insights.  

Now, 1000 years ago, humans were simply looking to the sky and getting a sense of what was to happen in the weather from what they saw in the clouds, how they felt and how the animals behaved.  They also thought based on a very limited understanding of how it all worked that if they burned some herbs and did a dance they could change the weather.  I bet if I asked a present day nomad who lives off the earth to give me a weather forecast that there would be decent agreement with what environmental science predicts.  However, the scientist has much greater insight that has evolved out of subjective assessments.  Through advancements in our understanding, the scientist is able to provide more accurate forecasts and understands that no amount of dancing or burning of herbs is going to affect the weather because the weather is influenced by other factors.  I took the liberty of using this documentary as a parallel for sport science – no doubt our starting point is to observe and look qualitatively at what we see.  But, through science and monitoring, our qualitative observations lead to good methods to measure what we see and to understand what factors influence the behavior.  From here we can use this systematic process of quietly and ubiquitous monitoring to identify anomalies, which help us make decisions and hopefully weed out the useless practices that have no effect.  

To reiterate, I’m not saying this process has to mirror the scientific process - I am the first to recognize there are major limitations with this.  
Some of the limitations include: 
  • bias and corruption in the peer review process; 
  • the difficulty in changing scientific paradigms; 
  • the time-course to get something published; 
  • the lack of applicability from science done on non-elite populations; and 
  • the huge challenges in doing science on small groups of elite athletes.  

But good or bad, the scientific process is the best one I know for generating new insight in a rigorous manner.  No doubt others will disagree, but I think the process of engaging in rigorous observation, evaluation and knowledge translation still needs to be applied in our day-to-day practice.  You can call this evidence-based practice but I prefer to call it quantifying impact that involves knowing matters, measuring what matters and showing we changed what matters.  In the absence of this, we are simply like the nomad who looks to the clouds and with great experience and wisdom makes observations about the weather but due to limitations in understanding believes that a rain dance will bring showers.  

measure - don’t feel...

Right now I’m involved in this PhD and for the most part I love it.  I’m not going to make more money because of this process and it’s a lot of work, but I am doing this for other reasons.  The plan is to identify the neuromuscular deficits that persist following ACL reconstruction in elite athletes to develop effective re-injury prevention strategies.  This process started with the simple observation that some of my elite ski racers with ACL-R presented with significant deficits up to two years after injury, and that some of these athletes returned to pre-injury performance levels, while others either suffered re-injury or were not able to make it back.  With routine assessments that I was doing to assess lower limb kinetics during jumping and squatting, I began to observe a threshold that seemed to differentiate the copers and non-copers.  I started using this as a guide throughout the late phase of rehabilitation to identify at-risk athletes and to guide my training prescription.  Now, this is where many strength coaches stop the quantification of impact.  However, I wanted to take this further and to have my ideas vetted and tested in the scientific community.  From these observational studies, I’m delving into the neuromuscular mechanisms underlying the observed functional deficits and going through a prospective study to identify the factors related to knee re-injury.  

As I move through this process, no doubt it’s been challenging.  I’m really forced to think about this on a much deeper level than I would have.  BUT, I can tell you that my initial hunches were wrong!  The factors that I thought were important based on the opinions of other strength coaches, and then my observational studies have proved to be small factors in terms of how these athletes cope.  I’m finding new insights and I think this is a great example of why you need to measure not feel.  In fact, Dr. Benno Nigg (noted biomechanist) reminded me how important this is at a recent conference on science in skiing.  I opened my conversation with: “I feel this is important…”.  His response was very curt and pointed: MEASURE, DON’T FEEL.  

Touché Dr. Nigg.  

Long-term, I’m hoping my research also leads to new insights on how we train elite athletes who have suffered ACL injury, so that they not only remain injury free but also return to pre-injury performance levels.   

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Matt Jordan is a PhD student in the Faculty of Medical Science at the University of Calgary.  He is also the Head of Strength and Power Science at the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary, Canada, and is about the smartest strength coach I know.  Matt is a lecturer in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and has published many articles on strength and conditioning for athletes. He has also presented at National and International conferences on strength training methods for high performance athletes. He's worked in the trenches for almost twenty years, working closely with some of Canada's top winter sport athletes.  

He has previously written a short piece on McMillanSpeed on the nutrition industry. Give him a follow on Twitter...

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

a conversation with Jeremy Wotherspoon...

I was lucky enough to work with Jeremy Wotherspoon for a year - during his so-called ‘off-year’ after the Torino Olympics.  I found him to be not only one of the most intelligent athletes I have ever met, but also one of the most intuitive.  During this year, we tried to push some of the boundaries of what were the traditional paradigms in speedskater-training.  Having rarely put on skates, and with very little experience with the sport other than watching the athletes glide by every day at the Calgary Olympic Oval, where the sprinters, bobsledders, and skeleton athletes I worked with were training, I was able to look at the sport, and the training methodologies, with ‘new eyes’.  Together, I think we had a pretty successful year.  Coming off the disappointment of the Torino Olympic year, Jeremy was able to reboot, work on some technical issues, try a few new things, and come back stronger than ever - setting the world record in his first year back.

For those of you who’s first experience with speedskating is the Olympic games, it may seem like an awkward flailing of limbs in each and every direction.  However, if you get the opportunity to see it up close and in person, and really pay attention to those who have mastered this sport, there is a combination of power and grace that is very rare.   A powerful and technical skater in full flight is beautiful to behold.  And Jeremy was the undoubted master of them all.  Respected as perhaps the greatest technical skater of all-time, watching him skate could at the same time be awesome, breathtaking, and inspiring.  

Jeremy is now the Head Sprint Coach of the KIA Speed Skating Academy, and is currently in Sochi coaching Chinese sprinter Bei Xing Wang,  Polish 500m specialist Artur Was, Taiwanese 500m specialist Ching-yang Sung, and Norwegian sprinter Espen Hvammen.

We sat down in the back of the Athlete Recreation Center in the Sochi Coastal Village, and had a nice little chat...

Training Methodology

SM: OK...let’s get right into it.  In track and field, we have a couple fo different camps for sprint coaching methodology - one camp promotes over-distance, and a lot of volume, while the other promotes primarily under-distance work, and an emphasis on intensity.  From the outside looking in, it always seemed in speedskating, there is only one:  it is all over-distance/under-intensity training...

Why haven’t speedskating coaches, for instance, looked at track and field programs, and learned from successful track and field coaches, where there is a far longer history, far greater populations, and many more coaches and athletes?  Are there no similarities there?  At least in energy-system development...

JW: This idea seems to have come from the history of Speed Skating being a sport where most of the athletes tried to do every distance, from 500m up to 10000m, I'm happy I was born when I was.  Even when skaters started to specialize (starting in the 80s); a sprinter for example would still try to be good at the 500m (~37" for men and 40" for women), 1000m (~1'13" for men and 1'20" for women), and even the 1500m (~1'55" for men and 2'05" for women).  Gaétan Boucher did this quite well.  When skaters really specialized, sprinters would still train for the 500m and the 1000m.  I think this can best be explained by the competition formats:

World All-round Championships (started in the 1890s)
500m, 1500m, 5000m, 10000m

World Sprint Championships (since 1970)
2x500m, 2x1000m

If you were only good at the 500m - no world Championships for you!  Not until 1996 -when the World Single distance championships were introduced - which should just be called World Championships.

So there are 80 years of all-distance tradition, then 20 years of sprint-middle tradition, and now 18 years of individual-distance focus.  Coaches just adapted what they knew from tradition - it is easy to see the reason over-distance training still has a hold of sprint training in speed skating.

When coaches continue to implement the training that they believe worked for them in the past, over-distance will continue to come up, it has been a bit part of most skaters' training histories.  When it doesn't work, or if a skater does not want to train over-distance, he or she usually gets labelled lazy, unfit, mentally weak, un-coachable, etc.  Coaches like the version they believe in to be the correct version and will knowingly and/or unknowingly find the proof to back it.  Often we are guilty of dismissing something, not because we have proved it wrong, but to increase confidence in what we believe.

SM: what about cycling?  Why the insistence on cycling for speedskaters?

JW: Again - part of it is tradition.  Ice was only available for a few months of the year, so training became sitting on a bike.  But that’s not the case any more - ice is available pretty-much year-round, so I’m not sure why everyone still cycles so much.  Tradition...

Marcin Goszcynski, who has just walked into the room:  I think there is a really cool opportunity right now.  Previously, the strongest person won - as everyone was pretty much doing the same thing - all doing the same training. Everyone was cycling.  So if you’re a coach now, you have the opportunity to look at things a little differently - it’s no longer necessary to cycle all the time, as ice is available almost all year.  For example, you look at some skaters who get injured in the summer - don’t do anything, come back in December for Trials, for example - I can think of a couple of skaters like that - and are really successful.  Then you look back, and they didn’t ride the bike at all - they did some weights, did some technical tuff, skated a couple of months, and are skating faster than ever.   Healthy, they then go back to the cycling, and go right back to where they were before.  The best people have the ability to adapt, and become good, but is it the best that they could be?

JW: Their reaction would be though - imagine if they didn’t get hurt, and could have done all the cycling!  Then we would have had a really fast year, you know?  I was never a skater that if I got hurt - I didn’t really get too stressed about missing some training - some people they get anxiety about it, and then feel that they have to make up for it or something...I never got stressed about it.  I thought ‘well, I have to deal with this, and then just carry on’.  In 1997, I had to leave a training camp because I had an appendix attack - July - the middle of the Summer - and then pretty much missed 6 weeks of intense training, and then I had my best season ever to that point - by far.  

Like my off year after the Torino Games - that year we did no cycling at all, and I remember other groups were talking - like what are these sprinters thinking?  They’re not doing any cycling.  But the sport is speedskating - it’s not cycling!  I didn’t miss it.  I came back and raced better than was a combination of factors - it wasn’t just no cycling - but to me that was the biggest change - the biggest eye-opener.  We changed quite a few things around, and changed the focus of training - which went from all energy system and physiology-based - and almost always endurance as being a primary or secondary objective of the training - like focussing on my weakness...keeping speed after 40 seconds of skating at top speed.  

Then I took the year off - did some different type of training -  and then when I came back, we had a new National Coach for the sprints, and his focus was much more on acceleration and top-speed, and my acceleration and top-speed got a lot higher - and even in the 1000m, where the last lap has always been hard for me, that improved by 7/10ths of a second...that was all because of acceleration and top-speed work, not because I was working on any type of endurance work.  

SM: We’ve spoken a lot about coache’s insistence on spending a lot of time working on developing athletes’ weaknesses.  I personally feel that at the elite level, very little time should be spent on weakness.  Can you give some insight to why this doesn’t seem the case in skating?

JW: I think a lot of coaches see the athlete - and we see that they’re good at all of these areas, but we have these one or two weaknesses, and if we can just improve in these one or two areas...but, if you’re a sprint-based/power-based type of athlete - like I was a guy - good top-speed, pretty good acceleration, not good endurance after about 45 or 50 seconds. So because of that, I could be really good at both the 500 and the 1000, as long as I was really fast in the first 600-800m of the 1000.  But then the coaches thought - well if we can just improve the last half-lap of his 1000, and with his speed, he’s going to be really good - like dominant in the 1000...which sometimes I was anyway.  The problem with that, was when we really focussed on that - everything was geared towards the last lap in the 1000 - which compromised my acceleration training, and compromised my top-speed.  So I was consistently finishing stronger than before, but was consistently slower in the first 600m, and in the 500m race - so the trade-off was a negative net.

SM:  How did this re-focus of training effect your psyche?

JW: yeh - for sure.  If you always feel like you can rely on something.  You rely on it.  You rely on it.  And then it’s not there - you start searching.  And the more you start searching, the more you start over-thinking things.  Obviously, it is important to think about stuff if you want to improve it - but if you over-think it, then you start making things too mechanical and too unnatural, and then you lose a lot - you lose more than you gain.  And then after I had started coaching, and began skating again - coming back from being a coach - I was definitely over-thinking some things a bit too much.  As I was so used to watching and analyzing...I began self-analyzing a bit too much.  So when I let things go more, then I started skating better.  

SM: How do you try to promote that as a coach?

JW: It’s difficult.  Every athlete is different.  It depends upon the time of year.  There are certain times of the year when I am trying to educate them about what I think are the keys for them to get better.  But I always want to know - when I see them do something well - I ask them ‘what were they thinking?’  What was going on in their heads? How did it feel? Not even so much so that I know - but if they say it, then they will begin to remember things that might keep them rolling.

MG: I think a lot of that also depends upon the person - some people you can ask that of, and they will answer ‘I don’t know’, but now you have implanted that question, it forces them to think about it.  And on the flip-side - those that just do it naturally without thinking start over-thinking....and then it can create a cycle where they lose the ability to control it unconsciously.  Getting back to your original question - sometimes people look for singular answers to complex problems.  But so much of it depends on the person, or the situation, or the environment.  

Most people think that simple things are done by everyone.  For example - even when we are here - in Sochi - at the Olympic Games - and I here people say ‘Oh - we are working on this or that weakness’ me, that is mind-blowing!  You’re at the Olympic Games - you’re two days out before the race, and you’re going to be working on a weakness?!  In my experience, really good coaches - when they get to a really big competition - even if it a placebo - are making you think you are ON.  Of course, that becomes dangerous if you’re always doing that - then the athletes see right through it, and you get to the competition, and the athletes ask ‘well, is he really meaning that?’ ‘Does he really see that?’

Athlete Responsibility

SM: I want to talk about athlete responsibility.  As an example - we know one athlete who probably took too little personal responsibility for her career.  This  initially probably helped her.  All she needed to worry about was doing exactly as she was told.  Her complete trust in her coach, her team, and her system, was more than likely a huge part in her success.  Ultimately though, it may have hurt her - as later in her career, and admittedly after some health problems - when she no longer felt that complete faith in her ‘team’, she struggled.    Conversely, you were one of those athletes that probably knew more about your sport than the people that coached you.  In my opinion, there is a risk in this, as that athlete can tend to be overly-analytical.  Overly self-monitoring.  Overly-sensitive, etc…it can also lead to much more questioning of programming, etc…and that lack of faith/trust is often a big, big thing.  

The cliche of belief in the wrong program is more important than no belief in the right program is a cliche for a reason...

JW: This is a tricky topic because each athlete is so different and the idea has so many different facets to it,

  • nutrition
  • recovery
  • honesty (to oneself)
  • goal-setting
  • therapy
  • decision-making
  • motivation
  • physical preparation
  • mental preparation
  • education
  • is the coach a leader, mentor, peer, guide, dictator, authoritative
  • and like I said, the unique personality of the athlete

The key is to strike a balance of everything, and that is much easier when you can have discussions about these points with someone.  In my opinion, if the athlete tries to take responsibility for everything, they will burn out.  It is too much to plan with too many decisions to make.  The coach should be able to talk knowledgeably about everything the athlete asks about, and if not, the coach should have resources they can rely on.  A coach can only talk the talk for a limited amount of time before trust is lost, and lost trust is usually the beginning of the end of a relationship.  My advice to coaches, be honest, ask questions to others and don't pretend to know everything.

The coach-therapist relationship is also important in this.  Not all athletes know best, what ails them, what to do about it, how much to work on it and when.  When the athlete/coach/therapist/psychologist connection is strong, variances in tissue, technique, performance and force/power output can be better monitored; training can be better individualized, mental cues can be more appropriate for the athlete and so on.  

This leaves the difficult decisions out of the athletes hands and keeps the most knowledgeable people responsible for what they know best.

With the athlete specifically, - I agree - too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Because trust can be lost when the athlete knows more or thinks they know more than the coach, therapist, director, etc.

Personally, I had points in my career as an athlete where I didn't trust the programming.  I wasn't willing to go out of the program, so it lead to a lack of trust and lack of faith in the coach, and lack of faith in the efficacy of the programming.  All negative inputs to training and performance. I went from a pure racer who didn't care too much about training times, to a perfectionist athlete who couldn't find any confidence due to the lack of perfection in my training sessions.  The training sessions were not disaster situations - I was skating well but noticed every little thing, started thinking too much, noticed more things, stopped having unconscious flow in training, lost confidence, and then lost the ability to step up and out of my comfort zone in a race.

This happened more than once, and once you know a lot about a subject it is very difficult to let things go while you are engaged in that subject.

Experience is a double edged sword.

It is true that belief in the training is more important than perfection of the training (execution and programming).

The most critical area of athlete responsibility to me is when it comes down to dedication.  That means sleep, nutrition, supplements, recovery, showing up for therapy, lifestyle, giving the support team ALL of the information they need.  It is the athlete's responsibility to take care of the general picture, leaving a lot of the details and guidance on how to do that to the specialists, as well as learning from those around them (teammates, peers, parents, role models, etc.).

When it comes specifically to the sport technical area, the coach has to try to understand the way each athlete processes the given information - especially when it's technical information.  This, in order to keep balance between knowing enough to improve and knowing more than is helpful, allowing the athlete to become too self critical.  The same goes for older athletes - those with a lot of experience, possibly more than the coach.  The coach needs sound arguments for their methodology, good communication, and in some cases, it may be prudent to form more of a ‘partnership’ with older athletes.

Ideally, in all cases, the athlete should feel like they bring something to the table, their trust, dedication, work ethic count here - not just ideas and knowledge.

Canadian Olympic Team

SM: Let’s talk briefly about the Sochi experience.  One thing that is a little curious to me is the Canadian speedskating team here has how many athletes?  

MG: 17

SM: ...and how many staff?

MG: 20

SM: more staff than athletes.  Maybe I am totally out to lunch here, but I think that is potentially problematic - for a number of reasons.  Jer - I would argue that this effected your career, for sure right?

JW: I don’t know that this is even the most either...I think at other times, it was even more.  Vancouver was more, for instance...

I think the thing that is tough about that is that for a skater, you go from a normal competition situation - which is just having your core group that you are used to having around - and they are the same people that are at World Cups, National Competitions, and World Championships - and then you go to the Olympics - which is already a much bigger event - and suddenly there are a lot more people around you, and there is a lot more things going on around the event.  I know a lot of it is necessary - because it is the Olympics, and that is the nature of the event - but much of it is distractions created by the team, or the Olympic Committee - or whoever it is - to try to protect you, and cover all of your needs as an athlete while you are at the Olympics - but if there is too much of that, I think that it de-normalizes the situation too much.

This year, I am here with the Chinese team, and it is the opposite!  I got here thinking ‘OK, I’m going to have all these people trying to talk to me in Chinese’ - and I don’t know any Chinese - and I get into the Chinese apartments - and it’s dead.  There’s nobody!  It’s the other extreme - I don’t know where anyone is!  If I need something, I’m knocking on doors - can’t find anything.  There’s no general office - nothing.  The nice thing is - for me and for the skaters - it seems like everything is normal.  Peaceful and quiet.  There is no weird outfitting going on.  No distractions.  

I even got a bag of stuff and it all fit!  It never fits!  But everything fits!!  I never had that with the Canadian team - in how many World Cup Teams, World Championships and Olympic Games with the Canadian Team - nothing ever fit.  I didn’t even give the Chinese my sizes!  In Vancouver - home Olympics - half my stuff didn’t fit, and so they set up this thing to swap with people - i go there, but just ended up with a bunch of stuff that didn’t fit.  I’m still bitter !!

MG: Everything that the Canadian team has done this year is actually in response to what happened in Vancouver.  They changed it for London, and then for here.  Outfitting was actually really good - you went in - tried everything on, and got exactly what you needed.  Another example is the medical staff that they brought here is obviously pretty big - but all the therapists are only responsible for those they worked on back home.  So the team is big, but no one is working with anyone they are not familiar with.  They have tried to keep it as consistent as it was in Canada.  And it quickly gets shut down if someone wants to outsource to someone else.  There were lessons learned form Vancouver for’s a lot better now.  the athletes don’t just use the service because it is there.  You don’t want to be introducing new variables.  That is a fundamental thing at this level.  If you are at this level and you don’t know that, then there is a problem...

SM:  OK Jer - 3 Questions:

What does success look like to you?

That’s a hard question.  it’s a lot of different things.  We’ve seen athletes skate well, and perform poorly.  Others who have skated poorly, and performed really well.  I think it’s got to be a combination.  Ultimately, if you can be a part of creating a situation where athletes are becoming more responsible and more knowledgeable about all parts - not just training, but recovery, nutrition, lifestyle habits - all the things that they need to do really well - the things that they need to do well to give them the best chance - I think that is a sign of successful coaching.  

It’s being able to know the difference between - if you make this training program, sometimes you can become emotionally involve in the plan - it is dangerous if you get stuck into thinking that the goal is to be able to carry out the plan.  Instead, the goal is to use the plan as a framework, and then be flexible within that framework - because it is never going to go exactly as you expect.  There will always be changes.  

I think if athletes want to come back and work with you again, I think that is a sign of success.  

Ultimately, I think that if you - together with the athlete - have figured out what gets them better.  I guess that is the ultimate sign - if you are able to figure out what gets them better, and they get better.  

What are the three  most important factors that determine your success?

1. The ability to properly assess an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses

2. You must know what the athlete’s objective is

3. The ability to be flexible.  

What motivates you?

It is changing all the’s different with each athlete.  Success for each athlete is different than another.  Ultimately, I’m motivated personally to be able to deliver something better and better, as often as I can improve - I want to improve it.  To create a core of things that I know works, and to be able to be flexible within that core of my own experiential knowledge, and have the ability to add things when I think it is appropriate.

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Jeremy Wotherspoon is widely regarded as the best-ever speedskater in the sprint events.  The current world record holder for the 500m, Jeremy is also a four-time World Sprint Champion, a 13-time World Cup Overall Champion, and four-time Olympian - wining a silver medal in his first Olympics in Nagano in 1998.  He has won the most World Cup races in the history of the sport - capturing 67 over the course of a 14 year career. In total, he won a staggering 125 World Cup medals.