*Disclaimer: I use a decent bit of illustrative language in this.
As hard as it is to believe, 2019 is already coming to a close and a new decade is around the corner. For as much as I genuinely despise the holiday season, I do typically enjoy the process of looking back on the year and thinking about how to modify things moving forward. I feel introspection is an important process for any professional, but as a coach, this should be a staple in your personal practice. We need to embrace that we can always make improvements, complacency is the quickest way to contempt in this industry. To that end, I wanted to share some of the major things that stuck out for me this year. This will be a mixed bag of coaching specific insights and personal realizations. Hopefully you can take something out of this.
1.) Rehabilitative training can (and should) go beyond a Bosu ball & mini band
I like to think of my work as the “delicate balance between rehabilitative and performance training.” Considering that almost every athlete I see is injured, and most of them are quite high performers that need to return to duty I’ve had to get somewhat creative. I can’t even begin to attest to how instrumental the influence of my co-workers has been throughout my own development as a strength coach. But collectively, we do some pretty cool shit. As such, I think it’s important for me to remain vocal of the misconceptions surrounding rehabilitative strength training.
For whatever reason, performance and rehabilitative communities have held on firmly to antiquated practices with injured athletes for decades. We’ve been misled into thinking we need to wrap injured athletes up in bubble wrap, toss them a mini-band and have them do clamshells and side steps for 9 months. This just isn’t the case. Truth be told, I think a lot of the underwhelming practice is simply due to lazy coaches/practitioners, but that’s for another time.
We should approach our injured athletes no different than our healthy ones. Of course, this all applies once they’ve been cleared by a doctor and completed their formal early stage rehab. But challenge them, add different stimuli and variables, create density and layer their training that addresses specific deficits. Establish very solid communication lines and let them work with you on progressing and developing your training. For weeks, sometimes months these athletes have just been reminded of what they can’t do. Be the one to kick the door down and turn it up a bit.
2.) Get your athletes out of their shoes
This has really become a premier point of emphasis for me this past year. A lot of athletes (unknowingly) have very weak foot muscles and have very limited motor control at the foot. In part, this is due to the constant presence of shoes during training, practice and so forth. As we know, shoes can help to act as a brace for the foot structurally, consequentially reducing the demand for intrinsic foot activation. Additionally, because of the significant cushioning, training in shoes reduces the ability for proprioceptive bodies found in the foot to be stimulated. The primary thing that I've observed with getting athletes out of their shoes is that it helps to expose a more natural ability for movement. What this often leads to, is exploiting gross compensatory patterns. In other words, some athletes may have more difficulty with basic functional patterns that didn't present issues with shoes on.
There are a few particular parts of training that I specifically have athletes kick the shoes off. The low hanging fruit here is the warm-up, I think this is an easy opportunity to get them working out of their shoes and beginning to feel the effects of a natural foot pattern. Another easy one is during your accessory work, get them out of their shoes when possible. Obviously if they are performing anything ballistic or with significant ground contact this doesn't apply. But I think with standard accessory work (i.e. RDL, push press, lunge) it offers another great opportunity to let them work without the shoes.
3.) Bilateral, unilateral… who gives a shit
Single leg vs. bilateral squatting is effectively the gun control debate of the strength world. Two clearly defined sides that feel exceptionally passionate about the subject that also equally refuse to listen to the counterpoint. It is just beyond me how people get so worked up about this, and moreover how this conversation has persisted for so long.
I can’t make it any simpler than this: does the athletes’ sport (literally) require them to bilateral back squat. If yes, then yes, you 100% must perform bilateral squats in training. If that answer is no, which it almost always is, then no, you don’t have to bilateral back squat in training. There is bountiful research to facilitate either side of the argument. So if you wanna go get lost in that rabbit hole, go for it. Otherwise, pick the squat that best suites the individual at hand, and keep it moving. (More on this topic here).
4.) Be exceptionally thankful for good health and full ability
I had the opportunity to work with some special case individuals this past year. I had a couple of athletes with cancer, one with MS, and a couple of stroke victims as well. Working with these athletes is of course a tremendous opportunity; I’m extremely fortunate to be able to contribute in any way I can. But candidly, I’m a hypersensitive person emotionally, and I think way too deep about way too much shit.
Working with these individuals truly weighs on me. It’s so hard for me to just stand there and see the endless fucking difficulties and inconveniences they face daily. Getting in and out of cars, up and down stairs, going to the bathroom, and so forth… everything about their day is challenged. I can’t even put into words the conversations I’ve had and how those challenge me. I really don’t know how people can work with these populations on a daily basis, but I truly salute you. In my eyes, it’s the most admirable work in the world.
Be exceptionally thankful for your health, your abilities, your cognition and your ability to exercise freedom. Additionally, be equally as thankful for the same good health & abilities in your loved ones. Take full fucking control of your life and cherish your time with those you care about.
5.) Training the core is not a ‘myth’, and offset loading has value
Alright, so I had to sneak two points into this one. But in fairness, they do go hand-in-hand to an extent. Kinda similar to the debates surrounding the squat, there has seemingly been a never-ending divide between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ core training coaches. But without getting into that or the semantics of it, allow me to facilitate my perspective. The core is quite literally just that- centric to everything we do in regard to movement, structure, and kinetic function. Based on that alone, I would consider it viable as something we designate a little time to in training.
But more specifically, I think it’s important to challenge the core muscles with a variety of stimuli. Things like band impulse or battle ropes, perturbation stimulus, and offset loading are all great ways emphasize core specific training. When we look at the fundamental responsibilities of the core in sport and life demand, we should be mindful of the varying stimuli and forces the core is subjected to. Get beyond crunches and flutter kicks and understand this to be a comprehensive term to include mobility, stability, stiffness, bending/pliability, durability, and overall robustness.
I’ve been quite vocal about offset training over the last year or so, but I really can’t encourage you to try offset loading strongly enough. Without getting into the technicalities here, I promise you this will add a necessary component to your athlete’s development. Some of the major things I’ve noticed include increasing functional core strength, correcting non-functional asymmetries, and breaking through strength plateaus on conventional lifts. I can’t speak to direct transfer for things like sprinting and jumping because that’s not really my world at the moment. But if I had to guess, I’d say it has application in these realms as well.
6.) 3 C’s of social media- Context, Content, Conduct
I’ll keep this one simple… for as amazing and powerful as social media can be, boy does it have its shortcomings. If any of this applies to you, you may want to add “don’t be an asshole on twitter” to your 2020 goals sheet.
-Context: When posting, do your best to provide context for your audience. I know twitter can get tough, so I try to amend this by being very thorough on Instagram. As a reader/viewer, ask yourself if there’s a possibility something may malign with your views because it’s in a specific or different context than what you’re familiar to. If unsure, please inquire with the person privately before shitting all over it.
-Content: If you steal something from other coaches (as you should be doing) and use it with your athletes, you have two options. If you post the material on social media, give credit where its due. Or, don’t post it. Additionally, when certain things you see on social media are simply different from what you do, that doesn’t inherently make them good or bad. Before creating a shit storm, be very sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
-Conduct: Before being an asshole, always ask yourself- “does this apply to me, or pertain to something that directly affects me?” If the answers no, continue scrolling and carry on.
7.) You’re only as strong as your weakest link
This is a great way to perceive specificity and individualization in training. We want to assess the athlete, identify weaknesses & deficiencies, and then specifically work to improve those weaknesses/deficiencies. I’ve started to hypothetically assess my athlete’s in terms of injury exposure as- “is this athlete more likely to sustain injury because they were too stiff to avoid it or too soft to endure it?” This is obviously within relative context to their sport or duty. But everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and our job is to improve weaknesses without neglecting or compromising strengths. It’s imperative that we see the relationship or balance between the two.
-What is the relative margin between an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses (i.e. explosive athlete who lacks durability)?
-How frequently do we need to train strengths for them to be maintained?
-How many red flags/limitations does this athlete have?
An important thing to bear in mind is the mishap of feeding strengths. This occurs when we blindly assign training variables and exercise selections inadvertently making strengths even stronger. Consequentially, this not only means we've neglected the true weaknesses, but we’ve now also increased the margin between what was already strong and what was already weak. In my opinion, this destabilizes the athlete and fundamentally puts them at a greater likelihood for injury. What it all boils down to, especially in the population I work with (tactical community), is that athletes won’t always be able to rely on their physical strengths. At some point, their sport or duty will exploit weaknesses. Thus, a preemptive goal in training should simply be to make those weaknesses more difficult to find. As the saying goes, fatigue makes cowards of us all, so I try to make fatigue less existent.
8.) If your shits broke, fix it
The problem with automation is that it sucks. Don’t marry anything. Not methods, not what you learned in school or what your certification taught you. This field is inherently dynamic, things change constantly. Moreover, largely in part due to the influence of social media, we’re all being exposed to new practices and applications on a damn near hourly basis. If your training becomes stagnant, change it. If your shit isn’t producing results, change it.
I’ve been very fortunate to have never had an athlete get seriously injured during training. But I hit a weird stretch this year where I had 3 athletes have to perturb and heavily modify their training due to non-specific low back pain. I was perplexed, because I didn’t think what I was doing could cause back issues. After a quick chat with Vern, he pointed out how I was probably doing an unreasonably high number of hinge patterns. After making a few simple adjustments, the problem went away immediately. It’s important you keep a close eye on what you’re doing, and it’s even better to have a second set of eyes on your work when possible.
9.) If you aspire to carry one trait, make it authenticity
Despite this being such a cliché point, hear me out…
One of my personal goals for 2020 is to smile and laugh less. Yes, I mean less. I guess I’m one of those people who “always looks pissed off” or whatever, but I promise it’s not suggestive of my mood. I don’t know… it’s just my face. Anyhow, working with individuals one-on-one forces us into adopting some peculiar habits. For me, it’s fake laughing and forced smiles. Because of my significant social awkwardness, I’ve 9/10 times just rather fake laugh or smile to avoid awkward or uncomfortable conversations. It became so routine for me it wasn’t even conscious anymore.
I work, deliberately, on being as organic as I can be in every aspect of my life. And what I’m noticing as I mature is that I’m just a very intrinsic, stoic person. Hence, my ‘goal’- I want to cut the fake smiles and laughing shit out. Of course, there is an obvious professionalism buffer, but you get my point. I think being organic is a fading quality in our world today. Although the exclusivity factor is far from the motive, I feel it’s important to truly embrace the short time we have here. And I feel a part of that embracing is recognizing the delicacy of life. When we recognize that delicacy, it should then promote relishing in exactly who we are. We should welcome influence from our surroundings, our mentors & and our loved ones; but we should always process that influence introspectively, and project authentically.
10.) Remember who the fuck you are
I’ve always excelled in the weight room. Being that I was never really a good athlete I always went extremely hard on the weights because it allowed me an opportunity to ‘stand out’ and make a name for myself. My affinity for lifting grew throughout my early 20’s and frankly, I got pretty strong. Nevertheless, while going through a bunch of personal shit throughout the rest of my 20’s, I completely got away from lifting. I mean entirely nothing for a few years. I always put my studying and work (ironically as a strength coach) first and therefore had a justifiable excuse (in my own mind) to push my own training aside. Internally, I resented becoming that.
The last 18 months have been a turnaround, refusing to put anything before my own training. The first year or so sucked. I hated it, I hated sucking at it, and it frustrated the shit out of me “not having my strength”. But, over the last 6 months or so, I finally hit a stride. I’ve put on 20 lbs., and all my lifts are creeping up on what I was doing back in college. I can say with certainty getting back on track has made me feel more complete as to who I want to be. I know some people don’t give a shit about their numbers or how much weight they’re moving, but I do. It matters to me. By pushing my lifting away for so long it began fundamentally changing me as a person, which really prompted a change. Also, I must give a huge S/O to my boy Tim, who has been a significant influence in getting me back on track.
But point being, don’t compromise who you are. Yes, we need to put certain things to the side throughout life and I get that. But you have to actively and continuously work to not let life compromise who you are. If it matters to you- make the time for it.