Updated: Jan 14, 2021
How do you get better as a strength and conditioning coach? How do you measure better? What happens if there are more questions than answers? As human beings we tend to have a reductionist attitude because let’s be honest, reality…. can become quite overwhelming. It is the most mystifying, beautiful, terrifying, and confusing experience to be alive. It’s one thing to manage yourself, but to manage another person, or better yet a whole team of people amplifies these concepts even more. In this article, we will discuss some of the main concepts and approaches I utilize to navigate the nuanced problems incurred in strength and conditioning or human performance, particularly with how this applies to intrinsic development & sustainability. Key topics include:
-Resonance versus Dissonance
-Evaluation and Review
Resonance versus Dissonance
By definition resonance is “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object”. Kind of complicated, but simply put resonance is a “connection” on many levels. More specifically to human performance, we can say resonance is achieved when an observable improvement occurs in a measure which we deem acceptable. Running faster, squatting more, and winning games are the common measures of success in our world. Dissonance, on the other hand, is “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements”. Better yet cognitive dissonance is when a person holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values and experiences stress when participating in an action that goes against one or more of them. In human performance we can say dissonance happens when an injury occurs, or performance suffers in the form of decreased measurable outcomes such as losing.
A strength coach should (and will) have their formative beliefs, ideas, and values. This represents a coach’s foundational structure that allows one to design the necessary measures to achieve a desired outcome… (i.e. performance increase and winning). As we see in sport, if values are stagnant or slow to adapt, they make for a poor coach. On the other hand, if one changes their values every time the wind shifts directions they will still be acting in dissonance- resulting in an undesired outcome.
While modern society has been heavily reliant on science for securing the correct boundaries for resonance, coaching is very much an art form. Art is pervasive in the very fabric of reality, and to be tuned into both the details of the fabric as well as the greater pattern simultaneously is where resonance is achieved. We all have access to the same information now, however, its mostly about picking the right variables and giving them the right amount of emphasis in the right timing and sequence. We can also say different social circles among humans, coaches included, can be measured in terms of resonance or dissonance by who a person associates themselves with, and what the “tribe” or collectives measured in comparison to other collectives. Who you surround yourself with is very much a form of dissonance or resonance.
The art of coaching can quickly aggregate into a game of mental gymnastics. I like to think of coaching as variable management in the form of zip drives. Enormous amounts of information must be consumed and filtered down to the base resource that acts as the catalyst for known outcomes. One of the best studies I’ve read on this is one from Wulf and Lewthwaite, and while it is rather dense, the image below summarizes their main point very well:
Essentially, the coach must create an environment where the participant does not even realize they are being influenced. The internal feedback loop has close to zero retention when the individual is trying to transfer the adaptation in a new environment. However, if the tasks are similar then the participant will project the desired outcome without second thought. Herein lies the dilemma, science is telling us that if we want to get better at playing the “game” of choice then we need to play more of the game of choice in order to build a bigger database of which the organism can evolve. However, if you’ve been paying attention there are plenty of people getting hurt and losing games. We want to pinpoint the exact reason why this happens when the act of pinpointing a reason is most likely why the outcomes are dissonant. Paradoxical huh?
This is often where the reductionist attitude comes from. “Well, we just need to do the basics” or “Why would I waste my time with that when I could be doing ‘XYZ” or “If you focus on too many things at once you won’t get the adaptation we are searching for” ad nauseum. As my colleague Danny Foley likes to say, “Focus on the solution, not the problem”. That being said the image below depicts how I break down my resource management. I like to use the diagram method, or a visual breakdown of my variables. In this instance we will think of the organism as a scale, and the variables as balls that must stay on the scale.
The definitive job of an S&C coach is simple- to improve athletic/physical qualities. But understanding that we need to do so without disrupting the underlying sport’s specific skill qualities can get a little more difficult. Moreover, we need to improve their performance in a timely/efficient manner, individualized enough for each athlete, while accounting for extraneous variables. So referencing back to the graphic above, this is a representation of the sensitivity to balance required in training. Too much of this or too little of that and we can add disruption to function, namely the sympathetic/ parasympathetic balance we’re all fighting constantly.
This next picture illustrates how our programming choices can influence one another. This applies especially to foundational strength and conditioning principles, as these will largely govern the athletes’ ability to recover as well as “own” the qualities of strength through different ranges of motion. This is every strength and conditioning coaches’ goal, and really good professionals are aware of the external variables such as sleep/nutrition/school/relationship/emotional states that effect training outcomes.
The last illustration is what happens to the training variable balance when you live and die by the numbers and the big 3. While I agree the basics should be mastered and that strength should be prioritized out of all the training variables, it is imperative that S&C coaches be equally versed in the conditioning side of the equation. Better yet, if a strength coach can accurately target rhythm/motor control during their programming they will create immense value with the skill/sport coaches. We can assume that the circle to square shape in the illustration represents adaptation and residual training effects which result in sustained/increased performance or resonance.
In an ideal world each mesocycle would lead a coach to an idyllic training variable balance of the above illustration. There would be a deep wide aerobic base and balanced strength and mobility to allow for specific periodization to improve performance only in the terms of power/speed. It’s hard to argue that speed is king. It’s great to be the strongest on the field, but the fastest guy usually is the one making all the big plays and the catalyst for big wins. However, we all know that the world is anything but idyllic. More often than not our job is to build a sturdy platform first, then start filling “leaks” that are reducing power output. And as with just about anything, progression is gradient.
What seems to be happening is a funneling effect in conjunction with information surplus. Since we are broadly discussing resource management, we can see how challenging balancing the scales can be when we start to dump even more information into the complex system that is sport performance. Outside of the physiological and holistic variables that a coach must manage, many are often tasked with managing administration duties such as scheduling, equipment, and inter-department projects/initiatives. The main variables when it comes to these sorts of things is a needs vs wants list, manpower, money, and the all-encompassing time.
An important distinction here being there are different tiers of problems. At the high school level, it may be a sport coach with no strength and conditioning professional. Whereas at the elite sports level, there’s a whole team of people dedicated to sometimes just one athletes’ livelihood. Someone like Lebron James comes to mind, when he says he spends over a million dollars a year or more on his body between strength training, nutritionist, recovery practitioners, and more. While it’s easy at professional development conferences to admire the peak of the pyramid and what the true limits of the human body and organizational testament are, most of us are more than likely working with the lower echelon of organisms as well as wearing multiple hats in the organizational structure which mean limited time and financial resources to start creating our training scale. The next two sections are where the meat and potatoes of ones’ coaching skill is honed and refined much like the forging of a blade.
We’re all familiar with periodization of macrocycles/mesocycles/micro cycles. While that is all necessary to become a good strength and conditioning coach, it’s very hard to explicitly quantify what it is that the strength coach does for a team that wins in the complex strategy and timing/momentum-based sports. This is where number chasing comes in, and while that is certainly a part of what we do as strength and conditioning coaches it is not everything. Especially, in speed-based sports. I like to think of goal setting like casting a broad net. We know with SAID principle that if we focus on one thing, we will get better at one thing. There are short periods of time to go through periodization like that, however, it is important to create your own formulas and quotients so that each variable that is chosen can cast a broad net as to which issues it is addressing. A lot of times in S&C we get two for one value with the correct exercise selection when combined with the appropriate duration, intensities, and pattern outcome. In essence, coaches should always feel that they are assessing their athletes, albeit on a micro or macro scale.
We need contrast and construct to move forward in reality, and change is the only constant, as paradoxical as that seems. Like we discussed, you are either resonant or dissonant and only your awareness can determine those variables in the moment. When self-selecting these variables and evaluation, process is needed. These are my big 4:
Expression: This is the act of doing, creating, or moving in a direction. Some common examples of expression being powerlifting, golf, gymnastics, or CrossFit, etc. No matter your choice of expression, there will always be an aspect of multi-dimensionality to everything you participate in. Nuance is where crazy and genius meet. As S&C professionals our form of expressions can range from exercise selection & training mode, or programming and athlete communication. Like a complex tapestry, every decision we make is weaving an outcome and it is not always fixed. However, after enough repetition and resonance we decide to internalize that expression as our “known” outcome, or our comfort zone. Progress is rarely made when never leaving your comfort zone. Expressions and expectations can have similar definitions in this instance, but it’s always up to the coach to decide, and sometimes extraneous variables make that decision clearer.
Experimentation: This is where we try something new with no expectations or known outcomes. Only observation, and presence to ascertain whether the subsequential events are resonant or dissonant. For me, I have had some athletes who cannot walk “normally” due to catastrophic injury, doing exercises like squatting, lunging, rotating, and jumping. In order to get them to these points, there is quite a bit of experimentation that goes along. If the initial results are dissonant, I scrap it immediately. However, if there is the beginning of resonance or the next evolution seems possible from the current demonstration, then I take this process into the next step. Which is integration. This is also the space beyond the dreaded comfort zone where the concepts of over-reaching can be applied with calculated attempts to reduce the effort in order to impose supercompensation.
Integration: This is the summation of the lessons learned on the floor and off. These are the concrete skills, strategies, values, virtues, and ultimately variables that coalesce into your character as well as the results you produce as a coach. There are certainly variables that stand the test of time, no matter how many iterations. There are others with a long shelf life or residual that allows other variables to take its place or move in front of it in the priority line. And, in other cases, we plug in new variables only to see they’re ineffective or suboptimal. We can consider these transient variables as the ones with a short shelf life. The empirical point being, variables come and go, but the process never really changes. The frequencies, volumes, intensities and applications are up to each of us to assess and apply individually.
Transcendence: This is the spiral staircase or paradigm shift where new lessons are learned and repackaged in a similar manner to the old ones. The more adept you become the quicker one allows the process to happen, and the more complex and complicated the tapestry becomes. However, don’t mistake the top for complexity. Give me a professional athlete with a high movement literacy, and I can pretty much get them to do anything on my program the way I want them to do it. It is very little room at the top, and there is only so much to accomplish from the coaching end when discussing increasing training ceilings. The challenging paradigm is to raise the training floor. Human bodies are a poetic and downright mystical experience both to watch and to conduct. Achieving feats with populations that have low expectations is where true coaching complexities are uncovered.
In conclusion, I wanted to write this article because much like our athletes are never a finished product, we as coaches are never a finished product. There are certainly paradigms and plateaus we must navigate, and we must simultaneously be looking forward while integrating lessons from the rear all while making calculated decisions in the present moment. I wanted to provide some insight on what I think are the most important variables to focus on in terms of progressing one’s situation as a coach. Ultimately, resonance and dissonance are prevalent in every decision we make. And, having the most important principles and a rapidly adaptable training system without inversely chasing tangents that stagnate results, is what drives success. Key points:
- Literally visually drawing out your variables outside of excel
- Casting a wide net for goal setting
- Expression/Experiment/Integrate/Transcend your paradigm every session, but don’t rush your process. Write down your system, values, and belief. Frequently adapt your system as you see fit using your definition of resonance or dissonance.
- Raising the training floor for everyone you work with will vastly outweigh the height you could potentially push the training ceiling.
-Not only are we coaching our athletes, but we are simultaneously coaching ourselves while coaching our athlete to coach themselves. Essentially, autonomy is a key indicator in coaching success and will only further the progress in later iterations.
-Lastly, ask yourself questions every day. Not to be confused with paralysis by over-analysis.