Thursday, February 12, 2015

What I learned from Sergei Makarov

Last week I watched Red Army, a documentary about Soviet hockey in the 80s directed by Gabe Polsky. Great film, and even if you are not a hockey fan it is well worth watching.

This film brought back a memory for me from my days of testing athletes in the Human Performance Lab in the 90s. We tested the Calgary Flames every year at the start of their training camp, with a VO2max and also a Wingate test (both on cycle ergometers).

I was very excited when Sergei Makarov got onto the bike and I was about to test him. This was a big deal for me, because Soviet hockey held a mystique for me as a hockey-mad kid growing up in Canada in the 70s.

Back then the Russians were portrayed as robots with unbelievable levels of fitness, and now I was going to test one of the very best (three-time Soviet Player of the Year, the M in the legendary KLM line and member of the IIHF All Centennial Team).

Now I was going to see how fit a Russian hockey robot was! Sergei spoke no English (at least not on that day in the lab) and we started the test. The test starts out easy, and gets gradually tougher. As we got to the point when the test just starts to get interesting, at about the anaerobic threshold, I cheered him on and said that now the “real” test was beginning. He pedaled for about another 30 seconds, and then just stopped pedaling.

He just stopped.

He just stopped. 

He may have broken a sweat, I can’t remember, but he was obviously not in discomfort or having any problems. WTF?

Yes, I repeated that he stopped, because I was completely in shock at that moment. I was speechless.

Now that many years have passed, I don’t feel bad airing this story, as it is old news. The informed consent form that the athletes signed ensured them that the results were confidential. I won’t say what his VO2 was, because I can’t remember and if I could, well, it’s confidential information!

So why am I telling this story? In my mind I finally saw this from another point of view. I DO NOT KNOW why he gave up, I can only speculate.

Here is my new take: he had grown up and played in the Soviet system, and undoubtedly was put through a very rigorous fitness program. He was over 30 years old, had a solid reputation, and knew that he was in Calgary to contribute offense to the team. He had no need to demonstrate his fitness, had a contract and was NHL rookie of the year the previous season. He had probably done so many ridiculous sport science tests in the USSR that he just said “Ебать его”.

So…. my point is that with his experience and self-confidence, he decided that this test was not a priority for him.

I AM NOT encouraging athletes or coaches to think that fitness is not important.

But I am saying that sometimes some athletes do not look at the big picture and figure out what to prioritize. They don’t know, or don’t want to know what are the things that they truly need to focus on, or improve.

These athletes with the wrong priorities may be very fit, or very unfit. But what is stopping them from reaching the next level? Two types of athletes who don’t work smart are: the ego strokers, and the guilty hard workers.

A classic example of ego stroking is if you give athletes an optional workout to train whatever they want, the guy with the big bench will train bench. The guy who can hit 10 3-pointers in a row will go shoot. I think that you get the idea.

Then there are the “guilty hard workers”. I really believe that some athletes have it engrained into them that they MUST work harder than everyone else. You know this line: “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”.

The problem with this is that hard work alone will not make an athlete successful. But some feel that hard work is the cure-all for them. It is that old “Protestant work ethic”.

I have seen some athletes work very hard, but are, well, to be blunt, just being stupid. Yes, stupid. I had an athlete who was very fit, was a true symbol and example of hard work and determination, but needed to work on other aspects of performance. This was a very successful athlete, but had room to improve. And fitness was not one of the areas that needed improvement. This is not blatant self-promotion as the conditioning coach - this athlete was very fit before working with me. This athlete did get stronger and improved aerobic fitness with me. But other aspects needed work.

Working harder is not working smarter. You have to figure out how much energy is needed to maintain excellent fitness, and then prioritize: invest your energy in other parts of your game if those other parts are holding you back.

I use the analogy of investing money. Do you pick the investment specialist who promises that he will work “hard” on your investments and get you 3% profit, or the guy who says he can get you 6% but does not discuss the “hard work”? Obviously this is a complicated example, but it is about the BOTTOM LINE. If you can work 40 hours a week and earn x dollars, why work 60 hours for the same salary?
Many of us actually feel guilty if we aren't working much too hard. And we tend to think very highly of people who hate what they do; that is irrationally seen as somehow more virtuous than having a job one loves!  
From: Barbara G. Goodrich, Ph.D., January, 2010: The “Protestant/Calvinist Work Ethic"

A workaholic is a person who is addicted to work. While the term generally implies that the person enjoys their work, it can also imply that they simply feel compelled to do it.

Athletes need to be sure that the hard work is necessary, and moving them in the right direction. They and their coaches need to analyse their performance, figure out what is needed for success, and decide if they have what it takes to succeed. This process is not easy.

It must be objective. It is no fun to list weaknesses. It is no fun to confront weaknesses.

I get a kick out of conditioning coaches who brag about how fit or strong their athletes are. How much can Usain Bolt squat? What does Tom Brady bench?

I remember talking to a Norwegian ski coach who told me that Kjetil Andre Aamodt had an amazing work ethic in training. He had spectacular success, is in fact the most successful alpine ski racer in history when using Olympic and world championship medals as the measuring stick.

Aamodt squatted 220 kg at a bodyweight of 85 kg. We were in the Olympiatoppen (Oympic Training Center) in Oslo in 2012 and Aamodt still had the record for the best overall fitness score in the tests that the Norwegians put their athletes through (he retired in 2007).

The same ski coach told me that Aamodt’s teammate, Lasse Kjus, on the other hand, was lazy. I have a hard time believing this, but he could very well have looked lazy when training with an animal like Aamodt. But Kjus was no slouch! He is second only to Aamodt in Olympic and world championship medals!

There is special device (the gliding tester) in Austria which ski racers use with their own skis and boots to test their gliding position and see if they are flat on their skis in their tuck position. Once when Kjus was using this device he and his ski boot technician fiddled and faddled for HOURS until he was satisfied with his boots and his position on his skis.

This is NOT a stereotypical lazy athlete. But this is an example of investing his time in other things which would enable him to be successful.

As a conditioning coach I want to make my athletes stronger, faster, fitter. But I recognize that conditioning is only a slice of the success pie. By working with the athlete, and the event coach (or coaches) and other support staff I can see the big picture, prioritize and contribute to my athlete’s success.

And not just go to games, meets, races or tournaments to brag about how much Johnny can bench, or how high Sergei's VO2max is.

Thanks Sergei!


  1. What I learned from Sergei Makarov is really a wonderful blog to read. And I just loved my time that has to spend on this.