Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Wow, I haven’t posted anything for a long time. What has been swirling between my ears for a while now is the concept of “being a coach” and what that means. This is a big topic, so I have been thinking a lot, and writing little. Not always a bad thing. I will be posting more on this topic.

Now that one of the NHL’s most popular coaches and all around nice guy has been fired, I have finally been shaken out of my writer’s block. No, I am not going to pass judgement on the firing of Bruce Boudreau. I am so far out of that loop that I will make no specific comments about the firing.

This past weekend I was talking to a good friend of mine, Malcolm “Gomer” Lloyd, a bobsleigh coach with the Russian bobsleigh federation. Gomer has coached national bobsleigh teams in Canada, Great Britain, Italy, Monaco, and Russia. He told me of a conversation he had with Bob Storey, former president of Bobsleigh Canada, and also of the FIBT, (international bobsleigh federation). Bob has also served on the IOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee, among other international sport committees. So these 2 guys have been around in international sport.

Bob told Gomer that the one thing we have to accept is that we are all transitory.

“We” refers to functionaries and coaches in sport.

I just read an interview with Sean Waxman, the owner and head coach at Waxman’s Gym ( He was interviewed by Cedric Unholz, and here is the URL for the interview:

Here a direct quote from that interview – Sean Waxman says it much better than I can:

Build your coaching credibility by actually coaching and not just speaking about coaching. You must temper down your ego. Coaching is about the athlete, not the coach. If you want to be a rock star, get out of coaching and get your own reality show.

I think that there is little left to say.

Know why you are a coach or why you want to become a coach!

And check your ego at the door.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Focus on Results not Fitness

As a conditioning coach, I am very keen on making my athletes stronger, faster, more agile, etc. But is this always going to lead to better results in their sport?

I am currently doing an online course offered by Ian King and one unit covered philosophies of training. He made the point that “athletic success is not measured in the gym”. This is a concept that every conditioning coach needs to understand and use in the planning of training.

Some conditioning coaches justify their work by demonstrating that the athlete is stronger, has a higher VO2max, or runs the 40 faster. Now a stronger fitter athlete may be a better athlete, but there is not a 1:1 correlation of performance to fitness tests. And hopefully a conditioning coach’s goal is to make the athlete more successful in their sport. Don’t get hung up on improving test results to look good as a coach. Your goal is to empower the athlete to perform better. Unfortunately this is not always easy to prove, especially if you do not have a good working relationship and line of communication with your head coach or the people in power (board of the club, team, or federation).

There does exist scientific work that links fitness to alpine skiing success (Neumayr G, Hoertnagl H, Pfister R, Koller A, Eibl G, Raas E., Physical and physiological factors associated with success in professional alpine skiing. Int J Sports Med. 2003 Nov;24(8):571-5) but this work has been criticized by other scientists (Maffiuletti, N. A.; Impellizzeri, F.; Rampinini, E.; Bizzini, M.; Mognoni, P. Letter to the Editors - Is Aerobic Power Really Critical for Success in Alpine Skiing? Int J Sports Med 2006; 27: 166-167).

There is much debate in the coaching and also in the scientific community as to what really influences performance. I simply want to say that as a conditioning coach do not focus too much on physical qualities unless you KNOW that they improve performance.

I was coaching with a team and official training one day was cancelled. A number of teams then headed to the only gym in town and chaos ensued. Because of the limited space, athletes were trying to find a spot to either work out or just have fun. An athlete from my group was walking around dribbling a basketball and he was not a gifted basketball player. He was heckled by an athlete from another country but was unaware of this. I saw this, and was upset. Athletes I coach are important to me, and I don’t like to see one get abused in any form. I managed to control myself and tried to ignore the primitive and rude remarks of the heckler because my guy was not affected by this. No harm, no foul.

Well, when the race took place we took the top 4 spots and the country of the heckler had 8th place as their top result. I wanted to ask the heckler after the race who had the best basketball team on the circuit, and when he replied that they did, my response would have been “who cares”? I do not like bad winners, so I resisted the temptation. Also, my athlete managed to secure more than 4 times as many podium finishes than his heckler over his career.

At the same town and gym, but with a different team, I was in the gym and my guys were training on a trampoline. We had two or three guys who were very good and could perform some pretty cool tricks for athletes who were not gymnasts or tumblers. The team I used to coach walked into the gym as we were on the trampoline and watched us but with little interest or concern. I knew that my former team was not as good as my present team on the trampoline and thought that we had showed them something. Well, my former team took the top 3 places and our best finisher was 22nd on race day.

What is the moral of my story? Focus on improving results in your sport and don’t get too excited or despondent if your athletes are (or are not) the biggest, fastest or strongest. With mature adults, don’t even worry about making the “best athlete”. The scoreboard is the only thing that counts on game day.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Present and accounted for?

I am coaching an athlete right now and we just finished a strength phase that included supramaximal squats. This athlete was eccentrically lowering heavier weights than what would be possible with a normal squat. This is possible with a new innovation we have in our lab known as the lifter from Intelligent Motion ( I will blog about it at some later point.

We were going very heavy, but with good technique. That means keeping the pelvis stable throughout the lift so that the curvature of the spine does not change. It is not only a leg exercise; it is a total body exercise. I think it was Dave Tate or Jim Wendler ( who remarked that heavy squats are the best core exercise. There is much truth in that comment.

Anyhow, this athlete made the comment that one really has to be “present” during this type of workout. This means totally focussed and concentrating on the work at hand. This particular athlete is good at this, always takes time to “set up” mentally between sets, so it was not really a great challenge in this case.

But I believe that this is a problem for many athletes. I read some excellent advice from Ian King (, an Australian physical preparation coach in his book “Get Buffed”. I will quote him directly as he phrased it well:

Never sit/stand near the device you are using; sit/stand a few meters away; develop the subconscious awareness that once you enter the area, you will need a higher level of focus or aggression (the less complex the lift, the more aggression will work)

And another tip:

a conscious decision to not give up or more importantly to succeed in the lift is critical. The outcome is usually determined the head before you even take the weight;

Ian King, Get Buffed, 2nd Edition, 2000
King Sports Publishing, p 104.

Ian has more great advice on the mental aspects of training, but these are 2 tips that I want to highlight. A conditioning coach should teach athletes to learn to be “present”. This is a skill that elite athletes must have. They often learn this by watching other athletes, from their event coaches, and some from sport psychologists. But it must be learned. Work on this in conditioning work as well.

Another athlete I work with trains together with the athlete I mentioned above, and has learned about concentration and intensity in the weight room. This makes my job easier. But we as coaches can help in this process, teaching athletes when to relax and hang loose, and when to visualize and focus.

I will relate a story of what can go wrong if you are not “present”. I was at a very big event, in a sport that has training runs on days prior to the actual race. The athletes get used to the course or track, test their equipment and make necessary adjustments in preparation for the race.

This athlete had had great training runs, and looked poised to get on the podium, if not outright win the event. During a relaxing moment some time (at least an hour) before the race, this athlete told me something that scared me.

The day before, during the fastest training run of the day, in a particular section of the track the athlete was wondering what type of pasta we would be served that day. We were staying in a hotel with an excellent kitchen, and there was always awesome pasta as part of our late lunch. I was shocked to hear this and decided that a sport psychology lecture would do more harm than good at this late stage. I maintained a cool demeanour, gave some minor advice to focus, and hoped for the best.

I was up at the start, inwardly nervous, excited about the race knowing that I had great odds to be part of a winning team. I say team because there are many people involved in the success or failure of an athlete.

There was a clock at the start, and most of us (coaches and support staff from all over the world) at the start had eyes glued to it. As this particular athlete started and was on course, I had a difficult time to conceal my excitement as the first 2 or 3 splits showed “we” were in front, and by a good margin. Awesome!

During the “pasta” section I anxiously watched the clock, expecting the next split to be even further in front. I waited and waited. Finally the clock stopped for that section, and we were now behind. Dang!

The final position was fourth or as they refer to it in German, the “sheet metal” medal.

Who knows what the reason was for the messed up section? But the lack of concentration on the previous day definitely did not help.

Thankfully this was not the highlight of this athlete's career. Great success was in store, but not on that day.

As a conditioning coach I want to assist athletes in this process of being “present”.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is my cup empty?

I am currently testing students. Some are concluding their formal education, but will they continue to learn?

I first read “A Cup of Tea” as I was working on my master’s degree back in the 80s. Unfortunately it took me years to really understand it. I would like to share it with you:

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

When I finished my master’s I figured that I pretty much knew all about training. Often I would see athletes or coaches doing things that I did not understand, and would assume that what they were doing was wrong.

Yes, there are people out there doing things wrong. But I can look back and see times when I missed an opportunity to learn. I hadn’t emptied my cup.

I am critical when I hear, read or see new information.

I filter it.

I test it.

But I give it a chance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Big loss - what now?

The gauntlet has been laid down! The Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. They were the best team during the regular season and now they can seize the moment, and rise to the challenge.

What? Didn’t they just lose? Aren’t cars burning in downtown Vancouver? Yes to both questions. But a true champion rises from a disappointing loss and gets better.

I suppose that I have used enough clich├ęs but it is hard not to. What is there to be said? I have sat in locker rooms after crushing defeats both as a coach and as an athlete. And a couple of times I told those who were stilling smarting from a good butt kicking to smell the air, analyze those feelings in your gut, and then bottle them. Seal them; put them away for safe keeping.

And when you are lying in bed, thinking about rolling over or getting up for that early morning workout,

when you are considering dropping that last set because you are tired,

when you are debating hanging with your buddies for a couple more rounds or heading home to get a good night’s sleep,

Pull out that bottle, open it up and take a good whiff. It is the smelling salts of a winner.

Everyone body wants to be a champion. But do you have that desire on the practice field or weight room as well? Remember those bad times, and do your best to STOP them from happening again.

I met a venture capitalist once, and he told me that most of the big guys in the business suffer many losses. And the rule of thumb is that the next success is governed by the magnitude of the last failure.

So get up, dust yourself off, and get ready to prove all the doubters wrong.