Fresh off of (another) incredible weekend down at Sorinex for their annual Summer Strong event, it felt like a good time to write this article. Summer Strong never disappoints, but this one was particularly memorable for us, as I was fortunate to be invited as a speaker. This was my first time presenting in front of an audience this size, and, there were several coaches in attendance who I've looked up to for years. To put it lightly- it was certainly a weekend I’ll never forget.
In my presentation I spoke about my introduction to VHP, which included a completely unexpected change in our business model that took place shortly after I came on staff. When I arrived at VHP, I was under the impression I would be working with athletes. Not even 6 months into my tenure I was informed we were halting all athlete training and a concentrated, multimodal program was being stood up for Veteran and active-duty military. This truly blindsided me, not only did I know nothing about the military world, but I also never had any intentions of working with this population. The extent and spectrum of injuries (and personalities) prevalent in this world is extremely vast. At the time, I was overwhelmed and there were so many questions and concerns running through my head. Chief among them- How was I going to work with such an extensively injured population? How would I fit in with this population? How was I going to populate 10 hours of training each week? No doubt, I had my work cut out for me.
Paranoid and frantic at the time, I was in need of guidance. So, I arranged a meeting with Alex (Owner of VHP) in search of tangible direction on how to best go about my job. I sit down across from Alex and explain my frustrations and concerns to him, eventually asking outright- “How do I work with this population?” Alex, true to his “man of few words” form, didn’t exactly offer me much. As he kicked back in his chair, he began by telling me that I have a “left and a right flank”. On the left, and most importantly, we must establish trust with every athlete we see. Trust is fundamentally rooted in this population and if we fail to establish trust early, anything else we do or say will be moot. Over here on the right, nobody gets hurt on our time. However you go about your training and methods is up to you, but nobody can get hurt on our floor.
In addition to my left and right flank, he would go on to say that I need to know the foundational sciences, understand the why behind the methods I’m using. And, for anything else that falls in between- go figure it out. I couldn’t have been more dismayed with this conversation. Here I was looking for precise X’s & O’s only to be met with broad boundaries and ambiguous instruction. But as time would prevail, “go figure it out” would become a mantra to not only my work, but my life. It wound up being, undoubtedly, the most profound career advice I’ve ever received. Life will invariably present you with problems. You can choose to be subservient to your problems or, you can go figure them out. This largely depends on where you choose to divert your focus, and as we say- Fuck the problem, find the solution.
There were two critical takeaways from this period for me. The first was never having the time to create expectations or assimilate their culture. Given the rapid turnover from athletes to military, I was never given a chance to go watch Netflix documentaries or YouTube videos to try to understand their world or assimilate their culture. This is a unique population that is often critically misrepresented, and had I gone and done “homework” to present myself as the person I thought they would’ve wanted me to be, I wouldn’t have lasted with this community. The second impression was not reconciling with coming up short. Very bluntly this is not a group of individuals that have tolerance for under performing. I know it sounds cliche as shit to say, but this is a no quit, no excuses community. You either hit the desired outcome, or figure out why you didn't and then try again.
A Casualty of S&C
“Go figure it out” was open ended enough for me to become more curious for potential solutions, without feeling constricted by “staying in my lane”. In a sense, it required a complete deconstruction of what I thought I knew to be strength and conditioning. Even to the point of selecting certain verbiage, for instance seeing what I do now as human performance, rather than S&C. But more importantly what this created for me was a solutions-based mindset, whereby I’m only focused on what’s required for a successful outcome. As a result, I’ve studied and sampled multiple modalities and training applications that I never would have considered “in my wheelhouse” prior to this awakening. By broadening my perspective on what’s required for human performance, I feel like I am much more capable in complex problem solving and quick thinking. Because I’m not filtering athletes to assess them as they fit within “my programming/training style” I've become far more fluent with programming and exercise selection.
There is an overt rigidity to the development of strength coaches, especially in the elementary phases. From undergrad onward, we are bludgeoned with formulas, normative standards, progression charts and so forth. Damn near everything is presented as a matter of fact, and in a way that discourages independent thought or meaningful discourse. Consequently, we see similar practice throughout the coaching world today. The greatest detriment to the coaching industry is the discomfort we have with differing viewpoints or adopting new principles. But this cycle must be broken. We must be more comfortable traversing the grey areas of human performance.
I should be clear, that having a wide or eclectic skillset doesn’t infer breaching scope of practice, nor does it mean I’ve distanced myself from the foundations of what I do (grassroots S&C). Having a genuine interest in the practice and adopting concepts is a far cry from pulling out a table and busting out a dry needling kit between deadlift sets. But a more practical example here being breath work, for instance. Having a better understanding of how the diaphragm and respiration affect mental and physical state made it a logical component to add into our strength training paradigm. While including breathing drills a couple of days a week isn’t going to change anyone’s life, there is tangible takeaway that can positively influence our training ability/capacity.
There is an overt rigidity to the development of strength coaches, especially in the elementary phases. From undergrad onward, we are bludgeoned with formulas, normative standards, progression charts and so forth. Damn near everything is presented matter of factly, and in a way that discourages independent thought or meaningful discourse. Consequently, we see similar practice throughout the coaching world today because this is how this era was raised. The greatest detriment to the coaching industry is the discomfort we have with differing viewpoints or adopting new principles. But this cycle must be broken. We must be more comfortable traversing the grey areas of human performance.
Perspectives & Expectations
If I had to point to one single variable for coaches that I think is devastatingly overlooked it's perspective. Nothing has impacted my coaching more than when I transitioned from charts and tables to spectrums and graphs; not to mention conversations. Rather than having a preconceived construct of what I believe to be “right or wrong” or “good or bad”, I simply observe the athlete for how they move in the present moment. As more is uncovered throughout our time together, I am better able to assess their movement and provide more precise training selections. This can include everything from more context surrounding their past injury histories, training preferences and/or general understanding of who they are and what they do.
Perspective works in a multitude of ways. I suppose in our field, foremost this includes how we perceive movement but frankly it goes well beyond that. We need to sharpen our sense of perspective for what it’s like being in our athlete’s shoes. If you work with high school athletes, understanding their situation by remembering what it was like for you at that age. Being empathetic for things like testing stress, first relationships, social difficulties, etc. In my world, this speaks more to having better understanding of the challenges injury manifestation and chronic stress/sleep deprivation can present. Understanding what it’s like to be on overdrive for decades and overcoming the most incomprehensible work endeavors. In a human sense, this boils down to simply having compassion for the complications and demands of their world.
Your perspective is what drives your thought and decision making. If we are inflexible with our ability to perceive movement in a new lens, or understand our athlete’s difficulties, we will inevitably burnout in this field. Every aspect of coaching is a dynamic correspondence. Beyond the obvious grassroots of human performance, we have to be malleable in our thought, and approach to performance. For me, I feel that my “toolbox” has expanded rapidly, and not because I’m smarter or more qualified than anyone. I have just been a beneficiary of curiosity, which has prompted me to look at human biology and performance from multiple angles. My work has provided me with a multitude of skillsets and viewpoints of movement and problem solving, for no reason other than demand. These are viewpoints that wouldn’t have been adopted had I “just stuck to being a strength coach”. I’ve also benefited greatly just by being surrounded by multiple subject matter experts on a daily basis who can always teach me something.
Ultimately perspective is a major influencer for expectation as well. The way we see the world, or our athletes in this matter, will set the foundation for what will become our expectation. For instance, if we see someone as broken, or slow, there’s a high probability we will hold a lower expectation for what we deem to be a successful training process. Lower expectation typically infers less pressure to succeed. Instinctively, when we see something that we know will be more laborious or complicated, we tend to shy away. We aren’t as willing to go beyond the minimum for those who won’t make us look good. But conversely, we should only be concerned with what the post-training numbers or measurements look like. And when that becomes the focus, the drive becomes how far you can take them, not what they may provide for you.
Go Figure it Out
I couldn’t be happier with the position that I’m in now. And while this hasn’t been a predicted path for me, it has become one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. My house rules talk with Alex set me on a ferocious path. Being guided by “go figure it out”, has led me to so many opportunities and learning curves that have changed the course of my career. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the unknown, and frankly had I known what this job would entail, I probably would’ve stepped away. But if I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that there are always more resources to get better than there are excuses not to. You just have to be fiercely committed to what you do.
The world has seemingly become entrenched by self-victimization. It’s always easy to paint ourselves as being dealt a bad hand, or not being gifted enough to do something. But I believe there are two primary factors that have been remiss for us- commitment and empathy. And when you work in a coaching related field these two traits are non-negotiable. We have to stop looking outward to solve our problems, as I’ve said before- look in the mirror before looking out the window. When problems arise, shift your focus to the outcome, rather than emphasizing your security and comfort in the short term or along the way. Get beyond the self-preservation of feeling inconvenienced and go figure your shit out. Answers are abundant, but it’s on you to go get them.