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Principles of Human Performance Series Part 2: Coaching Nuances

Nuance is an interesting concept, and something we’re all in pursuit of. Nuance is often associated with expertise, which is why nuanced methods are typically coveted by coaches. The problem is, most people believe nuance to be this fast-tracked biproduct of brilliance, and in a sense something that provides you an exclusive advantage over your counterparts. This is not the case. Nuance cannot be attained without extensive bouts of coming up short, experiencing failure, and having your back against the wall with limited resources to punch your way out. Nuance is not acquired in a transactional sense, or from going to a few weekend courses, it is aggregated over thousands of hours of practice that become discovered as you go along.

This also speaks to why it’s so important to not lead a path that is averse to risk or failure. Without obstacles, nuance all but certainly cannot be developed. Developing skill (and nuance) is a messy, non-linear, and unpredictable process that will challenge you before it excites you. There needs to be some level of understanding early on that you just need to put your head down and let the process unveil itself, don’t be too concentrated on becoming an expert because the underlying constant of expertise (before anything else) is simply time & exposure.

While not all experience is created equal, it is a fair generalization to say that we all just need to start moving in some direction before too long. Building your experience, like everything else, will come with its ups and downs. If you can see each endeavor as providing some input to learn from, even if it’s what not to do, then you become responsible for the value you take from each step of the way. And with that, this installment of the Principles of Performance series we’re going to discuss nuances of coaching, and I’ll cover a few of the intangibles that I feel have helped shape where I am today. Where the fundamentals that we outlined in part one provide us the bedrock for coaching ability, the nuances are how we polish those foundations and let them shine.

At this point in my career, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to assess the role of a strength & conditioning coach than that of being the Swiss army knives of the human performance umbrella. Especially if you’re a younger coach, the best advice that I can give you is study a wide spectrum of disciplines, both directly and indirectly related to your work. Understand the injury process and basic rehab protocols, understand their sport and skill acquisition, and continue learning different training protocols. Beyond that, understanding general human behavior as much as we seek to learn the human body is essential. At the end of the day, we are working to influence behavior as much as we are trying to change physiology, and with this, we need to be adept with uniformed studies like psychology, sociology, and emotional wellness.

Developing some of these “eclectic” skills can be game changers for strength coaches. Speaking from my own experience, being highly efficient with software programs like Excel and Canva have helped my programming and content production, namely by making these processes much more efficient. Others that I have found significant value in include understanding social media, website design, financial literacy, learning the basics of entrepreneurialism, and studying psychology and sociology have all been tremendously helpful. But the overarching point here is simple- if you want to be more than a coach, you need to get beyond the stopwatch and debating which squat type is best.

While there are obvious boundaries with what we can do, especially when injuries are present, I believe this is a self-limiting perception of what we can provide. Even if you aren’t providing the direct treatment or applications, having a deeper sense of understanding of what different specialists provide will help the transition process immensely.

Versatility and adaptability are two traits I would argue are irreplaceable for successful strength coaches, or a coach in any setting for that matter. The coaches I’ve seen have the most difficulty in this field are those who are gridlocked in what they believe to be “the right way” of approaching performance training and are immune to observing new perspectives. Dogma is a quiet killer of growth, and as it applies in our world being led by absolutism is a surefire way of becoming a forgotten artifact of human performance. There are too many variables and far too much complexity to the human body for us to be so convinced what we know now is the undeniable truth.

A great rule of thumb for strength coaches that I’ve adopted is to “generalize when you can, specialize when you must.” Adding a little visual element to this and we can think of it as “knowing when to be a scalpel and when to be a machete.” One of the everlasting debates amongst coaches is whether we should be masters of simplicity (redundancy with the basics) or if we should continue to see the boundaries of our practice as an expanding model. Like most things, I try to avoid the polarities and settle somewhere in the middle.

Every strength coach at any level has been guilty of the overkill approach. Typically, this is nothing more than a young coach coming back from a conference excited as hell to make an impression and getting lost in overtly complicated, often ineffective “specialty” methods. This phase will affect us all, but inevitably, you will realize that you’re doing nothing more than trying to put 10 lbs. of shit in a 5 lbs. bag. I know for certain I’ve been guilty of this. On the opposite of the spectrum, we go back to my favorite crowd of “basics, basics, basics!!” In my opinion, this is equally an ineffective approach. Oversimplification is the crux of underperforming, and for the sake of our work, sure, there are certain populations who don’t need much beyond the routine squat, sprint, pull, press, rotate. But what happens when they do?

Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be, but also don’t meet every situation under the premise of “basics will suffice” or “minimal effective dose.” There is absolutely a time and place for simplicity, but there’s also a place for nuance, experimentation, and for more sophisticated methods. Make it a priority to understand when you can be effective without having to be expansive or fancy but being able to do so when it’s required of you. Remember, you’re a problem solver, and this is going to require versatility at times. Just as we can’t overcomplicate, don’t undermine the depth of your work either. Don’t fear the deep end.

I’m a firm believer that in life or in training there is no such thing as black & white, we are always navigating the grey (original, I know…). In all seriousness though, this is a big one, and once I was able to break away from the rigidity of conventional S&C, things really started to roll for me. I think everything works in thresholds and bandwidths, in which we all need mostly the same things, but rarely are these in the exact same amounts or proportions. Therefore, especially as a coach, we need to remain cognizant of individuality and the undulations from day-to-day; no two athletes are the same, just as no two days are the same for any one athlete.

This is a concept that applies to a ton of areas, and again, not just in the coaching sense but for life in general. So with that, I broke this one down in a short video so I could cover all facets of how this applies.

I’d say in some form or fashion, the concept of connective vs contractile tissue has probably been my most frequent point of discussion in 2022. This is something that has been largely influenced by my ventures into the fascial system and how it relates to performance and injury occurrence. But to put it simply, I believe that the majority of our field has been overly biased towards weight training, and this has consequentially been influential for rising soft tissue injury rates. Our job is to prepare athletes for sport, not make them the best in the weight room.

Look, I get it, we’re strength coaches, so of course we’re going to be inclined to have a bias towards weight room numbers and performance. But the unfortunate reality is, nobody wins or loses a ballgame based on their deadlift max or 10-yard split times. Ultimately, the best attribute we can provide our athletes with is the preservation of health and durability, and this is where connective vs contractile tissue becomes a prominent consideration. I see the margin of difference between connective tissue resilience and contractile capacity as the window for injury. In other words, if an athlete is very robust with expressing force but does not have a similar capacity for resisting or sequencing force, they are likely going to have some problems. And with the grassroots of S&C being what it is, it’s quite common for strength coaches to exacerbate this imbalance unknowingly.

Develop foundational strength. This is unquestionably an important part of athletic development, however, it’s not the panacea of performance. Once that foundational strength has been developed, I believe it is far more pragmatic for athletes to start emphasizing more variability in their training than continuing to pursue overload. This transition from conventional overload to more structured variance is a simple way to close the gap down on contractile vs connective tissue. And the best part is, it doesn’t require you to do anything dramatically different, just some things slightly differently.

I think there’s a misconception with what the purpose of recovery is, primarily by treating it as a responsive endeavor. In other words, most tend to see recovery as something that is only utilized once athletes report soreness or fatigue, and this can be problematic. The goal should be to have deload days or active recovery sessions programmed in advance and building the training stimulus around them, rather than impromptu additional foam rolling because athletes come in sore and tired. A simple way to view recovery work is to think of it like hydration- if you’re already sore, it’s already too late. Programming is essentially the balancing and distribution of stress, as such, despite unforeseen factors and compounding variables, most coaches should be able to program for their athletes with reasonably high accuracy. And with this being the case, we should be able to forecast when downregulation will be needed.

Of course we understand that without a solid foundation of sleep, stress management, and proficiency with nutrition & hydration are all non-negotiable for optimal recovery. But beyond that, the best recovery protocol for most, especially team sport athletes, is logical programming that is well balanced and distributed in accordance with competing stressors. Additionally, building in “micro” bouts of recovery throughout the training week can accumulate quickly. A few things I tend to utilize for all my athletes include a collective hour of NormaTec time each week, 10 minutes of soft tissue work per day on your feet, and 10 minutes per day of breathing protocols. The biggest advantage to these is that none of them take away from training time, and in fact, most of this can be directed to the athletes as at-home work.

When the programming prescription is appropriately distributed, there should be less demand for long bouts of recovery, as it is already accounted for on both ends (appropriate programming + proactive recovery bouts). Navigating your recovery doesn’t need to be difficult, and the specifics as to what’s included can be as simple or sophisticated as you’d like and will largely be determined by what you have access to. But in a nutshell, the priority is to remove load, keep heart rate and central nervous system demand low, and stimulate the mind. Don’t confuse downregulation for doing nothing, there is still value to be had despite intensity being low.

Stay tuned for part 3…

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