Friday, December 13, 2013

Are you afraid? Heck no! Not you!

Today I watched a great video of Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal recounting his feelings about ski racing in Beaver Creek after his injury the season before on the same course. It is a great video and you should watch it. Here’s the link.

In 2007 Svindal crashed badly during the first training run for the Birds of Prey downhill race in Beaver Creek. He suffered broken bones in his face and a six-inch laceration to his groin and abdominal area. He missed the rest of the 2008 World Cup season and came back in October 2008. His first two wins in his comeback were on the same course where he had his big crash and injuries, at Beaver Creek.

This is in itself makes a great story, but what really is cool for me is that in the video he discusses his fear of coming back to that course. Yes, a world-class athlete admits to having fear. Wow. Not just any world-class athlete, but a downhill skier, competing in a sport in which speeds of over 140 km/h are experienced almost every weekend. Sliding over ice at those speeds in in spandex with almost no protection if you fall.

These are the guys with no fear, the guys with the big balls. And here is one of the best, admitting to being scared.

Yes, fear is part of sport. It is normal.

There is no courage when there is no fear.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

Do not lie to yourself and say that you have no fear.

Just compete like you have no fear.

I believe that you can learn to overcome fear in the weight room. I have not coached weightlifters or power lifters; so our “big” squats are relative. But squatting heavy weight can be scary.

We have a breakthrough machine in our weight room, the Intelligent Motion Lifter© which allows you to safely lower a heavy weight eccentrically, and do reps with this weight without eccentric hooks or two helpers to lift the weight back up. It can be frightening to have a bar on your back with more weight than you can normally squat and then to lower the bar with control.

I love watching an athlete get used to this device, and the effect that overcoming this fear can have on their lifting and even their sport performance.

But this post is not about the Lifter; I will post about it at a later date.

I simply want to say that fear is real and normal. I am not going to try to tell you how to deal with it, that can be a long difficult road for some. I am not going to presume that you can conquer your fear by following some magic strategy that I will give you in my blog.

All I want to say is that fear is part of sport - as you move out of your comfort zone, it can be frightening.

There may be as many different fears as there are athletes and coaches. But most if not all have them.

What is yours?

Don’t tell me, tell yourself.

And then deal with it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Spilt milk - we are headed in the right direction!

An athlete I work with had a great result on the weekend (podium); unfortunately due to an equipment rule this athlete was disqualified. 

The infraction was a fraction of a millimeter (0.14 mm), but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Outside the rules is outside the rules.

So what to do? The performance was great, so be happy for that and see that this mistake never happens again. 

My last blog was about the support team, focusing on physio assistance. This blog is not about the technical support. 

This post is about accepting mistakes, being happy that the performance was great and moving on. 

This is an Olympic season; there are big goals in our sights. This was a small step in a long journey.

This past weekend showed us that things are coming together, that the podium is realistic. Perfect. 

Shake it off, focus on a great performance, be grateful for a fantastic service team that has got you on the podium in the past, and will get you there again! 

Now let’s do it again!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Help! I need a physio!

I am fortunate to be part of the OLYMPIAZENTRUM Campus Sport - Tirol – Innsbruck. We have a working relationship with Sporttherapie Huber. Philipp Gebhart, a great physiotherapist from Huber, looks after the day-to-day things in house, and we can send athletes to the clinic if necessary. We also have group sessions with our coaches and the physios so we understand how we all work, and how we can serve our athletes better.

An athlete I just started working with has a chronic problem that we hope to resolve soon. This athlete went to Philipp last week and I sat in on the session. I tried to learn as much as possible: what is the problem, how he assessed the problem and how he treated the problem.

We discussed how WE will deal with this. The athlete, the physio and the coach were all together in one room, discussing and working on the same problem.

He did some soft tissue work, and also manipulated joints. I asked him what I could do with the athlete, what I couldn’t do. I respected his competence and tried to learn. He respects me and talks to me about my athletes.

We have a relationship. We don’t see each other enough; he has 12 sessions per week at our center. I make a point of visiting him in his office (in our center) just to check in. He drops in on me. We train together once a week so that gives us some time as well. Neither of us wants to talk shop when we are trying to get a little training in for ourselves, but if it is necessary we can do it.

Too often coaches, doctors and physiotherapists (and other health professionals) work in isolation.

I wish I had a dollar for every time a doctor told me to stop training for 2 weeks during my athletic career, or heard this from another athlete. Sometimes rest is the answer, but often it isn’t. But some doctors are only looking at the symptoms, not the cause and definitely not how to get the athlete back competing in a healthy body as soon as possible. 

If you want to create an ideal situation for your athlete(s), you need to have a great support team. And unfortunately injuries occur more often than we would like, so you need great medical and physio support.

Find a physiotherapist or physiotherapy group who understands high performance sport, and is willing to take time and TALK to you about the athletes you work with. They are out there.

The athlete should not have to continually be a go-between with physio and the coach. Too often coaches bad mouth physios, and vice versa. This helps no one, and often confuses the athlete. Who should they confide in? An athlete should be able trust his or her coach, and the other people working with or on him or her. Athletes are reassured and confident when they see that the people they work with communicate and are pulling in the same direction.

Not all physios understand sport. But there are good ones out there who do. Philipp is not the only good one I work with, or have worked with.

Find good people and develop a relationship with them. This takes time. Time you think you don’t have. But believe me, when you need a great physio, and don’t have one, you will have to invest time to find one. 

And heaven help you in your search if you need to get an athlete back in action as soon as possible - because this may be a long process.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

No pressure, no diamonds

My last blog was about the love that a coach should have for his or her athletes. That may have been a bit esoteric or “religious” for some. Well, love is never a bad thing. Basically a coach should be coaching for the love of the sport and to give the athletes the best they can get in coaching and guidance. Coaching is about the athlete, not the coach.

This opinion could be misconstrued to mean that a coach should always be a nice guy and create a pleasant environment for the athletes. That is not what I am saying. Tough love and pressure are needed in order for an athlete to reach his or her potential.

The conscious competence theory of learning advances four stages of learning. They are: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and finally unconscious competence. Stage 1 is being unaware of a skill and not understanding that the particular skill is necessary for success. When the athlete wants to learn the skill, they are consciously incompetent. They know that they have something to learn, and to work on the skill. As they learn the skill they become consciously competent, or they have to concentrate and think about the skill as they do it. Once they can perform the skill automatically, or without “thinking” about it, they are unconsciously competent.

When the athlete is motivated to learn, they should have a “safe” environment free of distractions and pressure in order to learn the skill. Competition at this stage is usually not good. Some like to compete even when learning a new skill, but not all. It takes time to learn a skill; an athlete who is slower to learn is not necessarily a poor athlete. It may be the coach!

You can’t coach all athletes the same. This is a major step in learning to coach. How do your athletes learn? What works best for each athlete? Do you listen to your athletes?

Once you have figured this out, and the athlete has learned the skill, they have to perfect the skill. Once the skill is automatic, they have to be able to perform it at speed. Can they then perform it at speed when they are tired? Tired and under pressure? Tired, under pressure in competition? Yes, things get complicated. Just don’t let them get complicated too quickly.

But once they master a skill, they must experience pressure if they are to succeed. Performing under pressure is not just good for success, performing under pressure is vital to success.

An athlete who wants to be better needs to understand their limits and then work on stretching these limits. This is not fun, and it is not easy. It can hurt. But it is part of getting better. And some athletes will not go outside of their comfort zone if they are not pushed. It’s a little like mama bird teaching baby bird to fly. Force them out of the nest. Apply pressure.


The trick is figuring out when to apply pressure and how much. This is not easy.

If you are very lucky as a coach, you have a very competent group of athletes and it happens on its own. When I worked as a conditioning coach with the Austrian men’s downhill training group (alpine ski racing) 5 of the athletes in the group were in the top 12 in the world in downhill. I worked with this group for 3 seasons, and of the 10 athletes I worked with, 2 were Olympic champions (not during my tenure), 3 were world champions and 8 were on a World Cup podium at least once. I am not trying to make myself look good, I just want to illustrate the caliber of this group of athletes. This made my job easy. I did not have to create pressure for these athletes; they had lived with it since they were young, trying to make provincial and national teams.

I have worked with other teams in other sports, sometimes other countries and for many athletes making the national team was enough. They felt like stars. Some did not have a brilliant international career, but they were on the national team. They didn’t make the next step to international success. I have tried to come up with ways to create pressure on these athletes at times. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Pierre Lueders, a Canadian bobsleigh pilot, won an Olympic gold in Nagano in 1998 with Dave MacEachern. Before Pierre came on the scene, Chris Lori was the dominant Canadian pilot. Chris was a big part of putting Canada on the map in bobsleigh, winning the four-man World Cup overall title once and achieving 9 top 3 World Cup overall podiums in his career. Chris just missed his Olympic medal in 1992 (4th place) but was a big part of Canada’s success as an active athlete and paved the way for other athletes. When Pierre started to drive well, he became Chris’ competition. Chris did not make Pierre’s life as a pilot easy, and Pierre had to earn everything he got. This was the best thing that could happen to Pierre in my mind, because he learned that life was hard in bobsleigh, and he learned it at home in Canada.

Ken Shields, Canadian basketball coach, (5 years national team coach) won 7 consecutive Canadian university titles at the University of Victoria. People who worked with Ken told me that he made practices so tough that players saw games as holidays. He drove his players hard.

Michael Jordan was said to be very hard on his teammates. He was very competitive. He won 6 NBA titles.

This is an area where the art of coaching comes in, where a coach has to feel how much pressure is needed, and how much is too much. Not an easy task.

But one thing is true: as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle said, “No pressure, no diamonds”.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Why Don't They Listen? I Have Such Great Things to Say!

We coaches are trying to impart information to athletes. I have read 100s of books that I believe have given me valuable information that can make me a better coach. I have a master’s degree in exercise physiology and am working on a PhD. I search the internet for new ideas. I love learning.

I love helping athletes by sharing this information.

So why don’t they always understand and absorb my information?

This is a quote from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1Corinthinians Chapter 13, the Bible):

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
-       New American Standard Version (1995)

My translation: I have all these beautiful and wonderful things to say, but if I cannot say them with love in my heart, I will not be heard, I will sound like the teacher in the Charlie Brown (Peanuts) cartoons. Waaa waaa waaa      

If you haven’t seen the Peanuts cartoons, check this out.

What does love have to do with coaching and education?

Depending on the translation of Paul’s letter, charity is sometimes substituted for love.

Chapter 13 … covers the subject of love… In the original Greek, The word AGAPE is used throughout… This is translated into English as charity in the King James version, but the word love is preferred by most other translations…
So, according to the author, AGAPE:
                is long suffering (i.e. tolerant, patient)
                is kind
                is free of jealousy, envy and pride
                does not display unseemly behavior
                is unselfish
                is not touchy, fretful or resentful
                takes no account of the evil done to it [outwardly ignores a suffered wrong]
                hates evil
                is associated with honesty
                is greater than either faith or hope

I believe that these are great coaching characteristics. And the words superior, arrogant, and vain are not on the list.

It is a daily challenge to remember these things and LOVE my athletes.

I have much work to do in this area, but recognizing a weakness is the first step in overcoming it!