10 Things Learned in 2020: Coaching Edition

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Part 1: Training/Coaching Edition

Disclaimer- Some vulgar language included.

Well, safe to assume these “what I learned in 2020” posts will be in overabundance this year, so in spite of being cliché, I figured I should at least get mine out early before we all become nauseated with them.

It’s an obvious understatement to suggest that 2020 has been one fucked up year. For some, perhaps to remember, or for others, forget and good riddance. While the turbulence, the tragedies and chaos speak for themselves at this point, the remedies do not. I promise, there is zero agenda with this. This has been a routine thing for me to post, and frankly, I’m sure like many of you, I feel I’ve learned more in 2020 than the ten years prior combined. For all of those who have struggled and fought such tremendous battles this year, my heart sincerely goes out to you.

1. The foot and lower leg should be a training priority for just about every athlete.

It’s critical that coaches recognize the importance of foot, calf, ankle and Achilles function and how they influence joint motion throughout the entire body. The foot and lower leg complex are a major junction for kinetic force transfer and must be independently proficient in order to fully harness function/performance. There are a wide spectrum of responsibilities and roles the foot and lower leg play. For instance, throughout a sprint cycle the foot/ankle/calf must be effective as a force manager (compressive, absorption, distribution) during landing phase, a pillar of stability during mid-stance, while also being a generator of force during propulsive toe-off phases.

The good side to this is training the foot and lower leg doesn’t require much, and certainly doesn’t require any specialized/goofy equipment. Most of the work simply comes from having your athletes perform selective portions of their training barefoot. Of course, take this as it applies to your environment, but the three main areas I recommend to include are warm-up, intraset (between sets on primary lifts), and accessories. Just by taking your athletes out of their shoes and performing the same training you would anyhow, we’re getting a great amount of foot proprioception, intrinsic foot strength, Achilles integrity, and lateral lower leg strength.

Shameless plug: My 4th eBook- Restorative Foot Series, will be releasing in about two weeks. If you have more interest on this topic, I promise there will be no shortage of details and exercises found in there.

2. Get out of the grey.

A dangerous place to find your training is having too little intensity on heavy days (i.e. strength, power) and too much intensity on light days (i.e. recovery/volume/work capacity). What this effectively does is understimulate where we need it, and overstimulate where we don’t. This typically leads to one of two outcomes- athletes slowly but chronically become overworked due to absence of full recovery. Or, athletes are compromised in full function/performance due to chronic underloading. Irrespective, these are outcomes we clearly don’t want.

I think it’s important to remember that, quite literally, any moderately reasonable “program” or training methods will get someone in shape. Getting from A to B is easy, getting from X to Y, however, more precision is needed. This also sets the foundation for why I think a lot of coaches get duped into archaic charts/tables we were force fed for so much of our formative years. We used these fixed, rigid models and found success early on in our careers or with a novice/general population; some, unfortunately, never recognize the diminishing returns on this with more advanced athletes or more long-term programming.

An easy way to account for this is by having firm divisions in training intensities. For me, I break my broad training intensities up by classifying as either <60%, 60-80%, or >80%. As such, these ranges are paired to certain training modes:

Takeaway being, we don’t want to spend too much time in the middle range while neglecting the two polarities. As with anything, this 60-80% range certainly has its time and place. But it should not represent the bulk for most training situations. When it’s time to train heavy- go move heavy shit. But when it’s time to move fast, move FAST. And when it’s time to rest, be sure to rest fully.

3. Movement signatures, strategies, and solutions.

I’m doing a full article on this soon, so I’m going to keep this brief. But this has been a marquee term and focus for the better part of this year. I preface by saying this entire concept has been strongly influenced by the likes of Dan Pfaff, Stu McMillian and the entire crew at ALTIS. Their work has been so powerful in shaping my perspective on movement and strength training. Nevertheless, here’s how I define this:

What this has done, for me at least, is allowed me to completely get away from the concepts of “good vs bad” or standardizing movement. It keeps me in compliance with the fact that human movement is remarkably unique and individualistic. In addition to this, training applications should directly address the specific weaknesses and deficiencies of the athlete. This takes the guess work out of exercise selection and helps us to be more precise in selected methods.

4. Make testing matter: “Test to train, don’t train to test”.

Baseline testing and data collection are important. But the testing is only as important as its ability to reflect relevance to performance, and data is only as important as your ability to utilize it for pragmatic training. It’s important that we are utilizing testing for the right reasons, those reasons being- objectively evaluating the athlete for where they are in relation to where they need to be. When we utilize this correctly, we develop an athlete-driven model by “testing to train”. Conversely, when we’re more concentrated on inflating irrelevant numbers for our own ego, or “train to test”, we create a coach-driven model that is more applicable for our file cabinet than an athlete’s ability. Keep the athlete the priority and use testing as nothing more than a way to improve your precision as a coach.

5. Foot instability + hip immobility = knee injury in waiting

I know it’s a bit reductionist to suggest that knee health is simply the sum of hip and foot mechanics but having spent a good amount of time digging back into this concept this year, I can’t say it’s completely ignorant either. When the foot loses stability, the athlete will lose ability to accept and produce force. When this occurs, the surrounding soft tissues must work harder to achieve less, which is a classic scenario for injury to occur. At the hip, a ball & socket joint, when rotational mechanics are compromised, the joints in proximity- including the knee- are then required to take up the slack. Given that the knee is a modified hinge joint, it is fundamentally not designed to tolerate very much rotational force. The combination of lacking foot stability and hip mobility ultimately means the knee must be a torque converter, and that is when (at least I believe) we start to really jeopardize the integrity of the knee.

6. Training dose

You will never find a shortage of literature or twitter threads discussing programming and periodization models, with an abundance of convincing theories from experts and non-experts alike. Needless to say, this can be confusing for young coaches and for some really set them in the wrong direction. I still feel confidently that the best program is very simply the one that works best for the athlete. This is an ambiguous way of saying- you’re not married to models, your married to flexible methods that are interchangeable and fluent. But here’s a very basic approach you can use to at least help set some broad parameters for your programming:

7. A coaches two most coveted traits.

This one doesn’t pertain to just strength coaches, but coaches in general. As I’m approaching 10 years into my own career, I can’t think of any skills, traits or abilities that are more impactful than being adaptive and being an effective problem solver. These are traits that can only really be refined through repetition and exposure and require being fully mentally present while working with your athletes. A perfect program on paper is great, but how do you navigate it when shit doesn’t go accordingly (**which it never will)? Knowing anatomy and biomechanics like the back of your hand is great, but what about when we see things that oppose our conventional knowledge? While the foundational sciences, the technical applications and so forth will inherently separate good coaches from bad ones, being able to adapt on the fly, think critically, and problem solve is what will separate great coaches from good ones. For the young coaches reading this, I promise you, dedicating yourself to improving these qualities will immensely improve your ability as a coach, and will give you a much broader spectrum of athletes to work with.

8. Movement variance in, redundant/chronic heavy load out.

I know this will piss off some coaches more than others, but I’ve firmly come to the conclusion this year that repetitive, redundant accessory movements are simply wasteful for athletic populations. Beyond entry-level, foundational strength, having athletes perform 4-8 weeks of bent rows, RDL’s, and push-ups without variation is not doing us much good. If we consider the extreme variability to sport, it shouldn’t take much for us to recognize that our training needs to extend well beyond these fixed, bilateral simple movements. In lieu of this, I’ve gravitated completely towards the “layering” approach, in which we retain the same basic concepts, but consistently modify the exercise parameters or constraints. Meaning, if we broke up an RDL for example, I would follow this model:

-Wk 1: DB Bilateral RDL

-Wk 2: DB SA Bilateral RDL

-Wk 3: DB SL RDL

-Wk 4: DB Unilateral RDL

-Wk 5: BB Bilateral RDL w/ Eccentric tempo

-Wk 6: BB SL RDL w/ Eccentric

-Wk 7: BB Bilateral RDL w/ Isometric tempo

-Wk 8: BB SL RDL w/ Isometric tempo

I believe once we pass the point of attaining foundational strength, our diminishing returns on these movements deteriorates rapidly. Another thought to consider, is continuing to improve strength in very specific, limited planes and ranges of motion ultimately creates greater margins of strength deficit in the undefined areas the athletes need it. Put simply, keep your primary lifts reasonably redundant, but every other aspect of training should invite more variation, more “abstract” and more non-conventional path and range of motions. Fight me about it.

9. Do More.

We’ve been on quite a community wave of zealously cautioning coaches into overstressing themselves, working too hard, etc. It’s seemingly become a trend to deter coaches away from working long hours, rather preserving themselves and being firm on personal boundaries. While I agree with the obvious message- don’t work yourself into a medical condition by 35, keep your family in focus, and have personal hobbies, I think this has become an overtly misleading way of influencing young coaches. Go ahead and say I’m just full of shit and putting up a façade or I’m a fake tough guy or whatever. But I patently disagree with this. And really, it comes down to two points:

-This advice is often asymmetrical, whereby established coaches with 30 years in the industry and an abundance of success tell others to not immerse themselves in their work. Well, to them I would ask, would you be where you are now if you didn’t work your ass off for the first 10-15 years of your career? It seems a little self-fulfilling to me, and I think it’s an irrational belief that you can coast in your early years and establish success over your career.

-For most of us, throughout your 20’s and early 30’s, you’re going to have an incredibly low amount of responsibility and commitment. As we all know, time is the most valuable resource that can never be replenished. I believe it’s fundamentally imperative to take full advantage of this point in life. Utilize the abundance of free time to study, sharpen your skills, reach out to other coaches, and work more than you probably “should”. By doing so, you can set so much up for yourself long term that will be much easier to manage and evolve. Not to mention, this is when we typically have the physical and physiological resources to be able to push the needle and not reap negative health consequences. So, when you’re young, healthy and not bound by obligations- utilize the time effectively.

If you want to be a coach, you absolutely must love what you do. The hours are long, the pay is shit, the work gets stressful, and you will compromise some other aspects of life. But if my path has shown me anything at all, it’s that it’s worth it. And of course, do all of this within logical reason, but don’t be fear mongered by hard work. Get after it, bust your fucking ass and be ravenous for answers. The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war.

10. ) Be curious, not causal

In addition to bullet #3 above, I’d say this has been my other primary learning point this year. It’s so easy for strength coaches to get sucked into trying to be medical experts- and reminder, we patently are not. Strength coaches are movement experts, and that’s not only ok, but tremendously valuable and needed for the world of athletics. When we analyze athletes from a medical lens, we’re inclined to look to diagnose. When we analyze from a movement lens, we’re inclined to identify possible relationships. Latching on to this phrase- “be curious no causal” has helped remind me of this, keeping me more interested in discovering “why” rather than “what”. Additionally, some other benefits from this I’ve noticed include improved dialogue with athletes, more organic training solutions, and more investment into studying. I think if nothing else, this mental framework will keep you more mentally engaged and prevent you from stepping outside of your scope.

Stay tuned for part 2 to follow (10 Non-Training Lessons Learned)

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