Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas! What are you giving your athletes?

Got the last of my presents wrapped, and was wondering what is the best gift to give an athlete. As a coach you may not be able to GIVE it, but you can enhance and nurture it.

Self-esteem is one of the most precious things that a person can have.

What got me thinking about this was a 6-year-old boy I know. He is a very special little guy, the son of a girlfriend of ours. He celebrated his 6th birthday not too long ago in a public facility that offers the opportunity for kids to have parties. He and 7 friends were very wound up and the moms left the kids in the hands of an adult who supervised them during the party. She had to scold them a bit because they were pretty rambunctious. When it was all over, the little guy told the lady who supervised them that it was the worst birthday he had ever had and that she ruined it for him and his friends with her strict behavior and scolding. The adult supervisor was amazed at this little guy giving her crap. I laughed SO hard when my wife told me this story.

I immediately replied that I would not have had the stones at 12 years of age to do what he did at 6. I probably wouldn’t have had them at 18 either! I was brought in a world in which many kids were raised with the motto “children are meant to be seen, not heard.” I DID NOT have a terrible childhood, my dad was a huge part of my sporting career, and I am not going to grind an axe about my past. But I will say that my dad seldom asked for my opinion was as a kid, and I learned to keep my ideas and opinions to myself. There were times that he berated me for not standing up for myself with other people. But where should I have learned to value my own opinion and ideas?

Where does self-esteem come from? How does an athlete learn that he or she is a special person, with or without a great sporting performance? When does an athlete trust her/himself?

I try to get athletes as self-reliant as possible. Why? Because I can’t swim, sprint, slide, jump or fight for them. They must perform. Without me.

I encourage them to make decisions in the weight room, on the track, or wherever. Sometimes after a good lift one will ask me “how much should I load up now?” Sometimes I give an opinion, sometimes I tell them that they can answer that question better than me – after all, they just lifted the last load, and I cannot FEEL how heavy the bar was.

I am NOT the all-knowing, almighty, omnipotent coach. I am a guide to their inner self. They must unlock their potential. I want to empower them.

I see myself as a consultant. If they cannot talk to me as an equal, share their opinion, express their view, how can they dominate their opponents?

Do you discuss things with your athletes, or dictate to them? Who is the boss?

This depends on the level of the athlete, and the experience of the athlete. But I do want their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-reliance to grow during their time with me.

I am not a psychologist; I don’t know where or when this mysterious entity known as self-esteem is developed. But I think that when am athlete comes to me I can nurture it, and improve it. I do know that a coach can negatively impact self-esteem. And if I do this as a coach, shame on me.

Not all of my athletes will win Olympic gold. But I can empower every one of them as athletes, and they can use the tools they develop to excel in other areas of later life.

What it comes down to, as a coach, is that it is not about me.

It. Is. Not. About. Me.

This is the gift that I want to never stop giving.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Get stronger, get better!

I am in Abano Terme, Italy, enjoying the information being shared at the International Congress of Strength Training.

Dr. Robert Newton, an internationally known expert on strength and power training from Australia, gave a interesting presentation. He discussed strength and power in sport, and the importance of getting athletes strong.

He told us how he predicted that Australia would have a poor performance in the 2012 Olympics in London 5 months before the games, which did not make him popular in Australia. Unfortunately he was correct. He saw a trend in Australian elite sport of less emphasis on strength and power and felt that this would have dire consequences.

We test the Austrian ski team at the University of Innsbruck with a repeated loaded jump test. Women perform counter movement jumps with a barbell equivalent to 20% of body weight. So a 60 kg woman will jump with a 12 kg bar. A couple of years ago I noticed that the women were producing more power during this test. I talked to the conditioning coach and he told me that they were doing little or no strength endurance work in the gym and concentrating on maximal strength and power work. I had been preaching this for a while, and was glad to hear that the skiers were training more for strength and power. Their strength endurance training was almost exclusively done with ski training on snow.

In the past they had done much strength endurance work in the weight room. I have a philosophical problem with power athletes (skiing is in my mind a power sport) doing strength endurance work with weights when their maximal strength levels are not optimal.

Strength endurance is an important quality which ski racers need, this cannot be disputed. The shortest alpine ski event is slalom, with races sometimes just over a minute for women. The longest women's race is approximately 2 minutes, usually the downhill in Cortina. So anaerobic fitness and the ability to maintain power over 1 to 2 minutes is critical.

But if an athlete is weak, training for strength endurance is counterproductive. Get strong, then train to extend this strength, or improve your work capacity. If you are weak and train to extend your poor strength over a longer period of time, you are simply extending a poor performance. Get stronger first, then train to maintain this strength over the period you need for your sport. Seems pretty logical to me.

In the case of power athletes who have little or no need for strength endurance and want to express force in a short period of time, maximal strength should also be emphasized. Some sport movements are so fast or so powerful that they cannot be simulated in a weight room. Charlie Francis, the coach of Ben Johnson ( and many other very fast athletes) believed that the power produced in the hip joint by a world class sprinter on the track could not be duplicated in the weight room. The joint angular velocities were simply too high. With Ben he used heavy squats (600 lbs for 6 reps) to become more powerful on the track. Ben also benched over 400 lbs at a body weight of 175 lbs.

If a power athlete is weak and is performing power work in the gym, they may be wasting time. Get strong first, then get powerful.

Mark Rippetoe wrote an interesting article in t-nation about the state of strength and conditioning coaching and how more emphasis needs to be put on maximal strength.

He explained the relationship between maximal strength and power.

P = F x v.  P is power, F is force and v is velocity.

He basically said that if I can improve my ability to produce force, I will be more powerful.

Maximal strength is THE basic strength quality for all other expressions of strength, including power and strength endurance. Get strong and get better.

I am obviously simplifying things here, but I write more about the philosophy of training, and leave the "how" to others who do a great job of presenting and describing programs on a number of platforms on the net.

I could discuss the use of plyometrics in the program, and when to integrate power and/or strength endurance into the strength program, but I believe that many athletes (yes, elite athletes) could improve performance simply by getting stronger.

I am NOT taking the stand of some STRENGTH and conditioning coaches who concentrate solely on strength. There are many ways to make an athlete better - improving speed, flexibility, agility, etc., without weights. And the coach has to ensure that the strength program is having no negative effects on more important aspects of the athlete's performance.

There are examples of very powerful athletes who did little or no weight training. Carl Lewis is perhaps the most prominent example, and Obadele Thompson (9.87 100m, 19.97 200m) was described by Dan Pfaff as having "an iron allergy".

There are always exceptions. But in general if you can get an athlete stronger without interfering with their technical and tactical training, you will improve performance. So lose your iron allergy and get better by getting stronger.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

What Will Be YOUR Olympic Story?

Bode Miller is the most interesting ski racer on the world cup circuit right now. No one has had as much personality in the white circus since Alberto Tomba. Bode speaks his mind, he is his own man and he has accomplished A LOT in alpine ski racing. I have never spoken with him, but have talked to people who have coached him or worked with him and I believe that he is a very cerebral athlete. I respect his achievements but I respect even more that he says and does what he feels is best for him. I also think that he is good for world cup skiing, because it has been very conservative and at times, well, has very little public personality (politically correct way to say boring).

So this is not a roast of Bode. But I am using him as an example that as an athlete you have to seize the moment, because it may never come again.

Bode is the most successful male American ski racer ever, and certainly the most well-known. But his “legacy” could have been truly amazing.  He already has 5 Olympic medals (1 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze) and could win more in Sochi. Kjetil Andre’ Aamodt has the most alpine skiing Olympic medals (8 total, 4 gold). I doubt that Bode can win 3 medals in Sochi now (after no medal in downhill), and almost certainly he will not win 3 gold. So Aamodt’s place in history is secure for now.

In Torino, one of the most publicized photos of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games was Bode dancing with a girl with a drink in his hand, that glassy look in his eyes and his middle finger aimed at the camera. I was personally upset with him at that time, not because he was screwing up his chance to make history, but because of his failure as a role model. I am sure that he didn’t want to be one, but by being a poster child for Nike, he automatically became one. As far as him blowing his chances to win medals (he had 8 world cup podiums in that 2006 season so he was a top contender), I figured that that was his business, not mine, not anyone else’s. Many Americans had a different opinion, and he was dragged over the coals by the media.

He did very poorly in Torino (by standards of others, judged on world cup results that season), with 2 DNFs and 1 DQ. His other results were 5th and 6th. But hey, he partied!

In an interview shortly after his last race, he said that it had "been an awesome two weeks," and that he "got to party and socialize at an Olympic level."  

I still think that it was his business, but after dominating the downhill training runs in Sochi, he was a favorite to win and disappointed when he finished 8th.

He is a fierce competitor, so of course he is not happy after being so fast in training. Also, this is most likely his last Olympics, and he probably wants to go out with a bang. Even for Bode the chances at glory are finite.

Time is running out. I surmise that the pain of knowing that his Olympic career is almost over would be less if he knew that he had always competed to his potential. But that’s my opinion. I am 100% convinced that Bode does not care what I think. But that is not the point of this post.

The moral of this story is that for many of us, the big chance in life does not come around more than once. And for all of us, the chances DO end eventually. This is Bode’s 5th Olympics, but he did blow his chance at becoming a rare Olympic legend.

He has had (is having!) an amazing career, but he did not achieve all that he could have.

If any of you Olympians read this, consider what you want to do in Sochi. Most of you will not win medals. But do you want to compete at your best, to walk away and 30 years from now be satisfied that you gave your best, and were your best?

Is your Olympic dream partying, blogging, posting on facebook, tweeting, or getting as many selfies with famous athletes as possible? Then go for it.

Don’t do it for me, or your coach, or whoever. Do what YOU want to do. But do it 100%.

NOW you have to know why are you doing it, and consider if you will be happy with your deeds 30 years from now. Because A LOT of you will only get ONE chance to write your Olympic story.