Wednesday, 18 November 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART VII - data collection in practice; a guest-post from Martin Bingisser

Last time out, Matt and I discussed the importance of targeted data collection and an acute awareness of the training process (it's been a while - I suggest you check it out before reading on). I can think of no better example of the application of these two constructs as the work of legendary throws coach Dr Anatolia Bondarchuk.  I first became aware of 'Dr B' back in the late 90s. 

There were some poorly translated texts kicking around, that made his work sound like the typical myth-based Russian methodology that was popular at the time through the writings of Charniga, Siff, and Yessis.  But it wasn't until I attended an awesome conference in Edmonton at the Canadian Athletics Coaching Center in 2004 that I started to become aware of the power of his methods.  Many subsequent conversations with Coach Derek Evely gave me a pretty unique insight into his philosophy - I just wish I had the balls to some day try to apply it to sprinters (although I have ran quite a few 'mini-experiments' over the years)!  

Having said that, I encourage all coaches to think about how they can apply Bondarchuk's methods to their practice.  I'd love to hear from those who may be already applying it in events other than the throws - or from strength & power coaches who are using it in their weight room practice.  There is much wisdom and power in these methods if correctly applied - believe me!

Few folk in the world know the Bondarchuk system better than Martin Bingisser.  Martin has been coached by Dr B for over a decade, and knows it inside-out.  He is also a great writer, and an awesome credit to the coaching fraternity - sharing bucketloads of great info on his site, where he has a brand new webinar on Bondarchuk's methods.  

Make sure you check it out after reading this great overview of Bondarchuk's methods:


A Practical Application of Data-collection Coaching: the Bondachuk method: a guest-post from Martin Bingisser

In the last part of this series Stu and Matt began discussing data collection. Both provided a great outline of what coaches need to know in this area and why they need to know it. The next step is putting these ideas into practice. How does a coach decide what data to collect and how does the data actually impact training? Stu invited me to share my experience with the data-driven methods of Dr. Anatolia Bondarchuk to give an example of how it looks to implement the principles they described. 

For those of you not familiar with Bondarchuk, he is the rare coach that has both decades of coaching and research experience. Having been an Olympic champion in the hammer throw himself, he went on to coach more than a dozen medalists and several world record holders in the throwing events. And as Soviet national coach for nearly twenty years he had access to troves of data from performance tests on thousand of athletes. His methods arose from this data and have produced some important principles that can be applied to any sport. That is a common theme on my site HMMR Media: finding these principles and how other world-class coaches have arrived at them independently. But that is a topic for another day. What is relevant here is that having had the chance to work with him for nearly a decade, I got to see his methods first-hand and they provide a great example of the effectiveness of data collection in driving our practice.

A Detective Needs Data

When we talk about data, we immediately start thinking about numbers, and trends, and progress. But the goal of data is rarely to see how much progress we have made; we have competitions for that. Instead we collect data to help understand why we are or are not making progress. Recently Australian sprint coach Mike Hurst shared the following quote with me from former Australian Institute of Sport athletics head coach Kelvin Giles:

"Coaching is a detective story: we are always looking for clues.”

The core philosophy behind Bondarchuk's training methods is transfer of training. Transfer of training has become a buzzword recently, yet Bondarchuk began talking about it decades ago. The philosophy requires choosing training elements and methods that will make you better on the field for your sport. This is something all coaches agree with, yet in practice it is impossible to know if your methods transfer without data. Will throwing heavy implements help a hammer thrower? Most likely. Power cleans? Probably. Bench press? Likely not. You can only come to these conclusions if you gather data to find the links between training and performance.

Put the Individual First

The links are often harder to find, and less intuitive, than we think. One study I love to cite as an example of this is a look at swimming warm-ups. A few years ago at the University of Alabama, a masters student tried to find the best warmup for the school's swimmers. He experimented with no warmup, a short warm up and regular warm up. The conclusion of the study was that the "regular warm-up was better than short warm-ups to achieve the fastest mean 50-yard freestyle time". However, if you look closer the answer was less clear cut. The regular warm up worked for the most athletes (44%), but a majority of athletes actually performed better with one of the other two approaches. 

This underscores the importance of individuality. It is rarely the case that one approach is the best for everyone. This is why different individuals in your training group show different responses to the same training plan. Studies on groups can help provide a starting point, and it is then up to the coach to individualize the solution. Exercise selection should be individualized to include what the athlete reacts best to. The length of each training phase should be individualized to fit their adaptation response. Technical models should be individualized to optimize the athletes unique characteristics. And only with proper data, can you see how the individualization should be implemented and if it is working.

Bondarchuk in a Nutshell

Here is the cliff notes version of Bondarchuk's approach to training throwers. For a deeper discussion on this topic check out our articles on HMMR Media or our recently released webinar on this very topic. It is important to note that this is not the training method Bondarchuk would use for all athletes, and he would be the first to admit it. Athletes have had and will continue to have great results with a number of systems.

Bondarchuk calls his method ‘complex periodization’, but that name is a misnomer as the method is actually quite simple in many respects. During each training phase, we select 8 to 10 exercises and simply repeat them with the same volume and intensity at every session until the athlete reaches ‘peak form’. His training for throwers is based around and builds upon this core approach.

Data is collected every day in his programs. The best throwing result from each session is measured and tracked. It is this information that is used to individualize training both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitively, by measuring the daily result the coach can track the athlete's adaptation to this set of exercises. The coach can then determine how long an individual athlete needs to fully adapt and reach peak form before things need to be changed in order to stimulate a new adaptation. On the qualitative side, the coach can use the data to see how much the body responds, or how much growth there is in the phase. Some peaks are higher than others and deciphering what leads to higher peaks will help a coach replicate those results in the future. Looking at the data in this light helps determine what exercises, or combination of exercises, produce the best results.

Martin with Dr B


Measure What Matters

With new technology, it is possible for coaches to measure thousands of variables in training. But what point is it to measure a variable that has little connection to your sport? Bondarchuk chooses to measure the most specific element: our throwing results. Our goal is to throw far, so we measure how far we are throwing. This is the best way to see if our training is transferring to results on the field. Note that while this seems straightforward, there are some complexities as external variables such as environment, facilities, weather, technique, etc. all may contribute to the results not matching an athlete's true form. Nevertheless it is the best measure we have and we are lucky since in some sports it may not be able to objectively measure your on-field performance. In those sports there are still good options - such as velocity measures in the weight room, jump tests, or any number of other options. 

The key is that you want to find the best measure of what matters for your sport.

Measure What You Can Capture 

If you choose to measure something, it should be something you are prepared to repeat. Therefore it needs to be easy to capture. Force plate measurements may be cool, but if you have access to force plates twice a year, what good will so little data do for you? By measuring throwing Bondarchuk chooses a simple measure that can be easily replicated. All we need is a cheap tape measure and no matter where we are you are able to measure. 

The more complicated the test, the less likely you will replicate it very often. 

Measure What You Will Use 

Before you start capturing data, have a plan for how you will use it. If you cannot answer that question, then you are wasting time and effort. Every coach I know is pressed for time. Capturing data you will not use is a waste of time and will bury the useful data in a haystack full of irrelevant info. If you look at recent US national security issues the problem is rarely that they have too little data. The problem is that they have too much data - and spend so much time collecting it that they cannot find the useful data within. Is the purpose to simply collect data, or to find something you can use? 

Bondarchuk has a clear plan of what he is looking for: he wants to find the individual's adaptation curve so that he knows when to changes exercises and begin the next training period. This makes his data collection efficient and useful.

Minimize The Variables 

A major reason that data collection works for Bondarchuk is that he has minimized the variables in training. If you look at most people’s training programs you might have 30-40 training exercises in a week. If throwing results improve, how will you determine what helped the results? No matter how much data you capture, the link will be hard to determine. And then if progress is not there, the tendency is to add even more new exercises, making the analysis even harder. However, if you reduce the elements in play - as Bondarchuk has - you can more easily identify what worked. This is similar to the concept of via negativa that has become popular in the wake of Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile (check out the 'anti-fragile athlete' here). You can make training better by making it more simple.

Many people focus on details of Bondarchuk's method in terms of volume and intensity, but when you step back you see that his system really works because of the process. It is the detective's system. It gives you more useful clues both in the short- and the long-term. I just described how the method gives coaches more useful clues in the short-term because it has fewer elements. From a long-term perspective the fact that his system also produces up to six peaks per year as opposed to the normal one or two also helps. That gives coaches more chances each year to crack the code of what works - as explained in a recent interview I did with him.

Don't Overreact 

When working with data, a tendency is to look at the details. While details are important, you cannot lose sight of the big picture. Suppose the data shows that the trend is going down. Should you change what you are doing? Not necessarily. Ups and downs are part of the body’s normal adaptation process. Bad days can be expected - and indeed are needed - if you want to press the body enough to stimulate adaptation. I mentioned that with Bondarchuk we will typically take the same program and repeat it until an athlete reaches a new peak. The road to the new peak is not always up: with most athletes their result will be flat for a few weeks, before falling off and then rebounding to the new peak. If you react too quickly and change things when the results are down, then you will lose out on the new peak. Data can also include outliers which could be due as much to randomness as to training. Therefore it is important to look at the big picture before making any important decisions based on training. 

In other words, listen to the signal and not just the noise.

It All Comes Back to Transfer and Individualization

Confucius once described three ways that we learn in three ways: by imitation, by reflection and by experience. We can all agree that imitation is the easiest way, and also the least effective when it comes to training. Experience is of course helpful - however I would argue that experience alone is not a way to learn. It is only after you reflect on the experience that you actually learn. That is why data analysis is so important; it helps coaches learn by reflecting.

Data collection helps you learn about transfer. It helps you learn about your athletes. These are the two points we started with above. It should help you make sure that the training you prescribe will bring about the best adaptations for each of your individual athletes. If your data is not helping you do that, you need to reassess your approach to data collection. All you are doing then is wasting your time, your money, and your resources. 

Bondarchuk’s approach shows just one way that data collection can be simple and assist the coach in a meaningful manner.

Thanks for reading.  If you are enjoying this series, please share on Twitter or Facebook.  

Martin is a former two-time All-American hammer thrower at the University of Washington, and has gone on to represent Switzerland in 13 competitions.  He has been coaching with LC Zurich since 2010, and has lectured around the world for organizations such as USATF, UK Athletics, Swiss Athletics, and the European Athletics Coaches’ Association.  As a writer he has been published in Modern Athlete and Coach, New Studies in Athletics, Track Coach and various well-known training websites - including of course his own hmmrmedia.