It’s never the answer someone wants to hear, but it’s the answer I almost invariably come to- “well, it depends”.
As the old adage goes, the more you learn the more you realize how much you don’t know. This is certainly an applicable cliché for me personally, as I feel with each passing year I have less of a hard-line stance on the infinite variables regarding human performance. In essence, as I’m continuously exposed to different perspectives on things, or see old modalities used in new ways, I’m frequently faced with the challenge of reevaluating my stance on things. Changing your perspective on things is an inevitable occurrence for anyone, and irrespective of the subject at hand, this is often a difficult process to traverse. I find myself constantly trying to challenge perspective and feel like this is the prudent approach for anyone in the coaching industry. But what’s prudent isn’t always what’s easy, and frankly it creates a fair amount of ambiguity when discussing things with co-workers or athletes. Let me give you a few examples to elucidate this. I’ll use a simple format of question (Q), former answer (FA), current answer (CA).
Q: What’s the best way to improve my vertical?
FA: Increase your leg strength, back squats are most effective for this, and do high volume plyometrics.
CA: What’s your current vertical? Do you have any pertinent injury history? Can you back squat twice your body weight? If you can’t squat twice your body weight, that might be a good short-term goal. If you can, you probably don’t need to improve your lower-body strength much, so I would suggest doing lighter, faster back squats, and couple that with a wide-spectrum of reactive plyometrics.
Q: Should I have my athletes do Olympic lifts?
FA: 100%, yes.
CA: What age are your athletes and what sport(s) do they play? Do they currently perform conventional barbell exercises? What point of the athletic calendar are they in? I’m a big believer in Olympic lifting for an athletic population but based on their age (both biological and training age) I would utilize Olympic lifts with varying frequency. I feel for high school athletes with a reasonably dense training history, it’s wise to introduce them to Oly’s and focus on teaching the proper technique. Once they become proficient, I would incorporate frequently in the off-season periods, and moderately during in-season.
Q: What’s the best way to shed belly fat?
FA: Abs are made in the kitchen, so if you’re not eating right, you won’t lose belly fat. Once your nutrition is on par, do cardio 3 days/wk and lift weights 2 days/wk.
CA: I’m not a nutritionist, so I can only really speak to the training side of things, but let’s consider a few things. How do you eat currently? What does your sleep and stress levels look like on a typical day? How long have you been or felt overweight, and how long have you been exercising regularly? I feel like everyone can benefit from consulting with a registered nutritionist, so if that’s something that’s within your budget and available to you, I would explore that. As far as training considerations, it’s important to understand you can’t really “target” fat loss areas. What I’ve done with people in the past training for fat loss is expose them to a myriad of exercise modalities, including lifting weights, running, and body weight-based movements. I feel like it’s important to have a good amount of variety in your training, and to switch the stimulus frequently for early-stage weight loss. As I mentioned, I’d also be sure you’re eating correctly and have healthy sleep and stress management strategies. If you don’t know what constitutes healthy eating, I can show you a few things to get a broad idea or put you in contact with a nutritionist.
It's not difficult to observe the difference between the former and current answers. The caveat to this is that the current answers are really just a roundabout way of saying “it depends”. The more people I work with, and the more people I learn from, the more I’ve begun to realize that we can’t box ourselves in and be prisoners of the moment when we’re dealt these broad, open-ended questions. It’s a tough position to be in, because when we get these questions, 99% of people are searching for that short answer. As humans, especially in today’s world of quick fix solutions, people almost inherently just want the quick “do this” answer. The problem is, not only is that quick fix answer often wrong, but it’s flagrantly unprofessional. Don’t fall into this trap, no matter how pressured you may feel to just give someone an answer. What limits most coaches on this, is simply ego or avoiding the feeling of inadequacy. They’re apprehensive to provide open-ended questions with open-ended answers because they don’t want to be perceived as incompetent or ill prepared. So the alternative is to just give a blanket “yes/no/do this” answer. Contrarily, the coaches who comfortably default to these quick fix answers are the ones who develop poor reputations among their peers; or the ones who can actually decipher the ones who are worth their salt from the ones who aren’t.
Don’t be afraid to give “it depends” answers. Truth be told, it not only reflects better on you as a quality coach, but also invites more dialogue between you and the recipient. These often-ambiguous answers, or at least perceived as such, are great opportunities to properly educate your athletes without them even knowing so. Another key point to consider with this is that people need to be receptive to what you’re saying, and if they initiate the conversation with a genuine question, they are likely at their most impressionable moment. So rather than attempting to give a mini-lecture between sets when your athletes are fatigued and just focusing on finishing the workout, use the opportune time of them coming to you with questions outside of the training realm and provide them thorough response. This is when questions become conversations, and that is when they will receive the message.
Another facet to this concept is that perspective is the underpinning to every answer. Before we can give an answer to even the most rudimentary questions, it’s imperative to know where they’ve been, where they are, and what they’re trying to do. Obviously, this is all in context to what the person is seeking, but the point being that you can’t get encapsulated in just the now of things. Referencing back to the first example above with improving someone’s vertical, just think for a minute on exactly what, and how much needs to be considered with improving vertical jump height:
-Rate of force development
-Ability to dorsiflex
-Hip structure and function
-Limb length and ratio
-Anterior and posterior core strength
Playing my own devil’s advocate here for a second, I know that “improving leg strength” would likely be a sufficient answer for a good majority of athlete’s, especially younger athletes. But what about the population that wouldn’t benefit from just getting stronger legs? What about the athlete who’s coming off of an ACL tear last year? What about the athlete who’s 6”8 and can’t squat 225 but can put his armpit in the rim? The point is, understand fully who the subject at hand is before you give them an answer.
The final point I wanted to make on this topic is how the “it depends” philosophy benefits you directly as the coach. As we’ve already discussed, open-ended answers for open-ended questions invite the opportunity for dialogue. If these conversations are between you and another professional, this often becomes engaging discourse and effectively forces both coaches to “show their hand” a bit on how they analyze problems. For you as the recipient, this can be fascinating when you find yourself in these conversations with the right people. It’s really a great way to approach “talking shop” and ultimately affords you an unbeknownst chance to extract knowledge from other coaches.
When these conversations occur between you and an athlete, family member, friend or otherwise, you won’t always actually know or have an answer. Personally, this has happened more times than I care to count, and yes, I’ve felt like the jackass far more than I’ve felt like the stallion. But one thing I will give myself credit for, is when I don’t know the answer to something, I always openly state that, and immediately follow that by finding that answer and getting back to people once I have it.
So when these situations arise, even though you have to bite the bullet from time to time, it’s an incredible way for you to expand your knowledge base. Recognizing that you didn’t, in fact, have an answer for someone, should inspire you to find that answer and now you’ve added a little more to your repertoire. Moreover, it will inevitably challenge your own thinking and responses. Maybe you thought you felt strongly on said subject, but after digging a little deeper on a question you received you notice that answer wasn’t right or wasn’t thorough. These are invaluable ways to evolve your thinking, and ultimately your coaching.
Don’t be afraid of “it depends”, because when you dig deep enough, it almost always depends.