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”.