Friday, October 11, 2013

It’s 10 pm – do you know where your athlete is?

For those of you not of my generation (long before everyone had a smartphone, and dinosaurs still roamed the earth),

“It’s 10 pm – do you know where your children are?”

was a popular question on evening TV newscasts and apparently originated in 1967 during social unrest in New York City. 

They wanted to remind parents to keep their children off the streets in supposedly dangerous times.

This can also be seen as a reminder to parents to raise their children well, to teach them the difference between right and wrong, to teach them to make responsible correct decisions on their own. Because at some point in time, parents are not with their kids 24/7! Wow – what a concept!

Believe it or not, your athletes MAY NOT take your word for gospel, and do everything you say! Do I need to repeat that? I doubt it, but yes, athletes, even high performance athletes, do not always follow coaches’ instructions when left on their own.

I recently read a short and excellent article from Stan “Rhino” Efferding, an IFBB Professional Bodybuilder and World Record Powerlifter who is known as the “World’s Strongest Bodybuilder”. You can read it here:

This is a quote from the article:

It’s never the training routine that’s limiting growth, it’s always the recovery phase, eating and sleeping. The vast majority of people who want to get bigger and stronger already train hard enough to grow, they just don’t eat and sleep enough to grow.

I don’t have the exact source of this gem from Eric Cressey, but he once wrote something to the effect that the effects on your body of that awesome training program which you adhere to for one hour a day are minimal compared to what you do during the other 23 hours of that day.

Some athletes have not figured out these tenets of training and do not understand that recovery and regeneration are at least as important if not more important than the training they commit to. They have to understand and believe this, and then learn to optimize their recovery and nutrition. We as coaches have to help athletes understand this, so that they will actually apply the principles of optimal recovery and nutrition. It is not enough to tell them what to do. Information is critical, you have to teach them, you must give them instructions. But you must convince them that these things are important, that these things will help them reach their potential. If they believe in the instructions, and are motivated, and truly committed, they will follow through if the instructions are clear.

It was honestly a shock for me as a young coach when I first realized that athletes did not always do the programs I wrote for them. As a young athlete, with very little guidance from my coaches on how to train on my own, when a coach gave me a program or told me what to do at home, I did it. Maybe I was gullible or naïve, but I figured that the coach knew what he was talking about, so I followed instructions. And most of the time it worked.

I have to admit, I was a pretty naïve kid, and most of the time I did what my parents, teachers, and coaches told me. I was a smart ass at times, but I was raised in a strict Christian home and believed that my actions were being monitored – if not by my parents, then by higher powers. I am not going to get into a big religious or philosophical discussion here, but I basically did what I was taught to be “right” as a young kid and athlete (I rebelled later).

The problem for me later as a young coach was that I assumed that if I told an athlete something, they would naturally do it. Good parents KNOW that children will not automatically do everything they are told. They know the awful and wonderful responsibility they have been given – to raise a child to become a man or woman who can think on their own and make the right moves.

It takes time to develop a relationship with an athlete, and at some point the athlete has to trust you and respect you enough to do what you tell them to, not only when you are at the training session, but also when they are on their own.

You may need checks and balances to see of they are following through. Do they keep a logbook? Do they track their meals? Are they getting the sleep they need? It is a long process to bring an athlete along and teach them to be responsible for themselves. 

Sure, an adult athlete who has been around for a while should know these things and do them. But if you start to work with a new athlete, do not assume that they do everything they should when you are not around. If you do, you are a fool. Some athletes are lazy, but many just really don’t know what is important.

But don’t play Orwell’s Big Brother. Teach them to take responsibility!

We test elite athletes in our lab, and I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard two athletes discussing the drive back home (anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours) and that they need to stop off at McDonalds because they are starving.

It is an education process, and developing trust between you and your athletes is key.

One of my favorite athletes to coach was Glenroy Gilbert. I only spent one bobsleigh season with Glenroy, but he left a lasting impression on me. He also introduced me to his sprint coach at that time, Dan Pfaff. I never actually met Dan. Glenroy was a NCAA champion and all-American at that time so I knew he was an excellent sprinter (after that bobsleigh season in 1994 he went on to win 2 world championships and an Olympic gold in the 4 x 100m relay, and an individual 100m gold at the Pan Am Games). 

I came to have enormous respect for Dan, not only from the stories Glenroy told about his coach, but more by observing Glenroy’s discipline and attitude about training. My favorite story of Glen’s was about his very first three training sessions with Dan as his new coach. Dan sent him home TWICE because as Glen came to the track his body language and attitude said that he did not really want to train. Dan finally let him train on the third day. Dan disciplined him, educated him and Glenroy learned. Glenroy is now himself a successful coach with Canada’s national sprint team.

Here is another anecdote about coaches, athletes and programs. A well-known coach was unhappy with a national team athlete because this particular athlete was not following the prescribed training program. The coach told the national team authorities, making it clear that if this athlete was not successful, it was not the coach’s fault. As it turned out, the athlete won an Olympic gold that season, and the coach took credit for preparing this athlete for the gold medal. Interesting. Technically, the coach was correct, but the athlete did not follow the program.

If you have experience as a coach, it hopefully will not surprise you that athletes are like kids and it is sometimes a difficult process to teach an athlete to be responsible, to take control of his/her career and do EVERYTHING he or she needs to do to be their best.

Not too long ago an athlete I work with took an energy drink (high in sugar with no protein) after a strength-training workout and I asked where their post workout drink was. They did not have the drink with them, and explained that too much protein at that moment in time was not good because they were trying to make weight, and would eat pasta when they got home. Clearly I have work to do here. Yes, we have discussed nutrition in the past but more work is needed.

I can help this athlete learn about post workout nutrition and its role in recovery. More importantly I will find a way to show them that proper nutrition will improve their chances of winning.

Sometimes coaches will stop working with an athlete if the athlete does not follow instructions. This is often the best policy, but there are situations where a coach is under contract to a team or federation and must work with that athlete.

Strategies need to be found to help the athlete mature and be responsible, to follow advice. Gain the respect and trust of your athlete. And be sure that your information is good!

At some point in time when you are asked where your athlete is, you can just smile and give the same answer Homer Simpson gave when the newscaster asked him if he knew where his kids were:

"I told you last night, NO!"