Monday, 5 September 2011

The role of the Strength and Conditioning coach while travelling

                Quite often I get asked what the role of the strength and conditioning (S & C) coach is when we travel with our teams.   For some, it is difficult to comprehend why we would be included on the travel roster of teams when our work is done in the weight room and on the field, ice, court, mat etc.  As both a sport coach and S & C coach, I have seen the benefits of why our teams travel with this extra coach.
                I have been fortunate to travel all over North America, Cuba, Japan, Cayman Islands, Wales, England and Ireland with basketball, football, wrestling and rugby.  My next trip is to the Under 20 World Trophy Tournament for rugby in Moscow this May.  The preparation for this trip will have included 7 weekend camps at Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island that I will also been involved with.
                I have listed the duties I fulfill when travelling with teams below.  Some S & C coaches may have a different opinion so I will explain a little bit about why I do what I do when travelling.  Please keep in mind these are the main roles we fill when travelling and do not include programming, field and weight training sessions etc.
Team and staff contact hours/recognition
·         This is a great time to be in contact with players and coaches and to reiterate the role of the
S & C staff to the athletes.  In Canada, most S & C coaches working with our national programs                   are based in one city while the athletes are all over the country and in some cases the world. 

Recovery and Regeneration-team bonding
·         Ice Baths-At the end of most practices and every game, the S & C coach will set up and monitor ice baths (including ordering ice and setting up and acquiring the appropriate vessels to use).  Whether you like them or not, they are great for team bonding, reducing imflamation and ridding the body of waste products.
·         Hydro Therapy-I know some coaches don’t see the benefit to this, but I have had great success with this as a recovery tool whether there is science to prove its benefit or not.  From a performance standpoint, I see it as a great means to build the team bond and have some fun through low impact activities.  I try to mix in some fun with work by having the athletes do relays, play games, synchronized swimming as a means to get their minds off sport for a little while.
Nutritional Guidelines-I am in contact with the hotels well before we travel to ensure we are getting the correct nutritional values and variety needed for performance.
·         This can be quite challenging when travelling to foreign countries.  At world cups/championships the sport governing body will quite often outline meal plans for the hotels to ensure all participants are receiving adequate meals that their stomachs and minds can tolerate.  The traditional meals in foreign countries will not always bode well with the western athlete (Traditional Japanese breakfast was rice, pickled vegetables and fish eggs).   This can pose a bit of a problem!  Example: For last year’s U-20 World cup of Rugby in Japan, the host hotels were given strict nutritional guidelines to follow.  They were asked to provide “X” amounts of protein, starches, vegetables, fruit etc.  The problem with this was we received the same meals everyday!  After one week of eating the same meals, the athletes start to lose their appetites.  It is our job to meet with the catering managers and try to modify meals to ensure the athletes are getting what they need.  In Cuba, trying to get a meal other than rice and beans or ham and cheese sandwiches was next to impossible.  The athlete’s nutritional plans play a vital role in performance, recovery and regeneration so the S & C coach must be inventive and creative in their methods to ensure that the best possible product is made available to them and that it is somewhat enjoyable.  As S & C coaches we sometimes have to consider what the best options are and decide whether they are practical or not.  Many coaches have a pre-set menu in mind when they travel with teams.  We know what is optimal, but one must consider the psyche of the athlete.  If we feed them chicken and rice for every meal, they will dread meal times and their appetites will diminish.  We must consider that many training camps include 2-3 training sessions per day which results in a high caloric output.
·         In the Cayman Islands, we stayed in a Church camp and were responsible for making all of our own meals.   We had a small kitchen with one fridge and a large dining area.  The daily temperatures were above 30 degrees Celsius with limited refrigeration.   Although this was not an ideal situation, I cooked all meals with the help of the players.  It was a great way for the team to bond and learn how to cook (shocking how little 20 year olds know about food preparation).  It was not in my job description to be a cook, but I realized the importance of them receiving healthy meals each day with regards to enhancing their training sessions, competitions and recovery. 
Rolling and Stretching
·         When travelling with teams, there is generally a very high volume of training sessions for the athletes in a short period of time.  Because our country is such a large land mass, we usually do not get to train as a team very often and need to make the most of the time available to us.  Consequently this results in many aches, strains and stiff muscles.  To help aid in recovery, I will set up a training table to stretch, activate and do light massage to ensure our athletes will be ready to perform on a daily basis.
Active Rehab, Liaising with therapists and team doctors
·         If teams have the luxury of travelling with a therapist and team doctor, the S & C coach will often help with some of the prescribed exercises to treat injuries and to allow for the therapist to have more contact with more players.  In rugby, we generally travel with 26 players and one therapist making his/her job very busy.   In contact sports, it is not uncommon for the therapist to be working from early morning to late night on a daily basis and any help the S & C coach can offer can go a long way in aiding the therapist and team.
Warm ups and cool downs
·         The S & C coach will generally sit in on coaches meetings to see what the daily practice plans are.  This helps us tailor the warm ups to suit the needs of the upcoming practice.  In some cases the practice entails a large amount of contact which would need a different warm up than one that is more skill oriented.  In game or competition settings, the S & C coach helps to ensure the athletes are physically and mentally prepared for the game.
·         After every training session and game, the S & C coach leads the team through an appropriate cool down based off the athletes needs.  I find this acts as a great way to increase the team bond and ensure that the athlete understands the value and benefit of these methods so that they will create healthy habits for the future.
·         In many cases, the athletes will be on the road for weeks at a time and they must maintain their strength and power throughout the competition and training sessions.  Quite often this poses a problem when travelling to other countries.  In Japan the weight room was the size of a small locker room.  There was minimal equipment and it was not set up for a team to use.  We had to lift in small groups and I was forced to be inventive with my methods.  I have been to other countries where there is no possibility of getting into a weight room.  If this occurs, we must make do with what we have even though it may not be ideal.
·         Testing is usually done when we are able to hold local camps and training sessions.  It is hard to organize testing when you only have a limited amount of time with the team and some camp locations may not be able to accommodate the large numbers of athletes.   As an S & C coach this can pose a dilemma.  Ultimately it is our job to help increase the performance of the team and our job is often validated by test results.   In many of the camps I am involved in; we assemble for a weekend and are forced to pack in up to 13 training sessions in 3 days.  Most sport coaches are also put in a difficult spot because they must select the best players for their squads to ensure the best team is put forth.  It takes careful deliberation by the entire staff as to when and what to test (regardless of protocols) as we want to avoid potential injuries as these athletes bodies are being pushed to the limit in such a short period of time.   
·         AS an S & C coach I believe testing plays a vital role in ensuring the athletes are being accountable and are doing everything in their power to increase performance.  Having said this, many teams have set protocols in place and for the most part they are all valid, but we must consider what is the best value for our short time we have to spend with our athletes.  When I worked in the States, I saw my athletes every day and new every individuals past injury history, technical capabilities, previous loads (although our athletes across the country receive programs on a regular basis, we are unable to ensure they are following the programs correctly) and they had a set competitive season (in Canada, many of our sport seasons do not occur at the same time of year, some individuals are on multiple teams etc).   This allowed for set testing dates with multiple staff members aiding in the process.  In Canada, we tend to have one S & C coach in charge of testing an entire team which can lead to a lengthy process.
Data compilation
·         After testing is completed, the S & C coach is responsible for inputting data from the testing protocols and supplying it to the entire staff and team in a professional and legible fashion.
·         When I travel with teams I will quite often record pertinent information from competitions as it relates to the strength and conditioning field.  This includes work to rest ratios, average shift times etc.

My Final Thoughts:
                After being on well over 100 trips as an S & C coach I am finding my role with the team evolves with each tour.  My ultimate goal is to for the teams and athletes that I work with to win, and I am happy to do what it takes to help facilitate this.  Unfortunately this is an ego driven industry and many of my counterparts feel that it is demeaning to go outside their scope of expertise.  I have filmed practices, games, driven rental vans, loaded equipment for the sake of helping the team.  I am a firm believer that we all have roles to fill, but in a team setting no one is “above” any role that will help the team achieve their goals.   When we travel it is not for the purpose of sightseeing, it is to compete and win (I am talking about with a national team or higher).    I mentioned the “psyche” of the athlete earlier.  Most S & C coaches are former athletes themselves and must remember what they have gone through in their playing days.  Just because a book or study says we should do something, doesn’t necessarily make it so.  Keep in mind much of the literature we use as guidelines does not always fit into our situation.  It must be evaluated and its validity must be weighed in with your current situation.
                After working in many different gyms with many different athletes I have always believed in the motto “check your ego at the door”.  If you are travelling with a team, remember what the teams goals are, not your own.  If you are doing this for financial gain, you are in the wrong country and industry!  Save your resume for when applying for jobs, don’t tell the athletes how great you are but let them know about their abilities and how you can help them achieve their goals!

Yours in Strength,
Joe McCullum

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