Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Pitfalls of Tradition in Sport:


            As both a positional/team coach and strength and conditioning coach, I have seen all ends of the spectrum as to where tradition both helps and hinders performance.  The majority of what we do on a daily basis is deeply rooted in tradition ranging from sport, politics, religion and work.  I think we can all understand how traditions came about.  At some point in time, there was a need to develop some sort of structure to advance different aspects of society.  With this, we have developed the attitude that we should continue on with what we are doing because we have always done it this way.  See where I am going with this?  As much as I would love to talk politics and religion, I am going to focus on how tradition pertains to sport; starting with training camps. 

            One of my coaching philosophies is to embrace tradition without the fear of making change to it.  There are amazing traditions in sport that have been around for years that should be applauded: the postgame handshake, the HAKA, national anthems, honoring past players and staff, lifelong friends etc.  Having said that, I am going to touch on one that is the bane of my existence.  Lets use the entire off-season to build you up to begin to feel great, be strong, fit, agile and all the goodies that go along with what we do to break you down to feel like shit for the first game of the season.  How does this make sense?   I get it, in the past sport science did not play as big of a role as it does today, so off-seasons were more used as a vacation and very few athletes continued to train for their sport.   As far as I can see, training camps are used to bring the team together (usually pre-season), determine player positions, individual roles and depth charts, build character and learn systems.  Makes sense right?  Here is what I see for the majority of athletes I work with ranging from novice to elite athletes in regards to training camps:

·         In general, teams tend to try and pack 3-6 weeks worth of work in 1-3 weeks.  There are rules and guidelines from most governing bodies as to the amount of time you are allowed to be on-field, but that doesn’t mean much.  Quality is far more important than quantity at all levels and the ultimate goal for a training camp should be to prime athletes for the start of the season.

·         Camps are high in intensity and frequency (2-3 sessions per day) without adequate rest.  Many coaches use training camps as a way to test and increase physical and mental toughness. This is all good as long as you are noting and listening to the player’s mental and physical conditions.  A great coach knows when to push and when to pull back.  I fail to see the rationale behind beating your players to the point of potential injury because “this is what we do every year” and “this is what the program says.”   Injuries are a part of sport and so is managing them and reducing the chances, especially when you are limited in numbers and talent.  In my experience, many teams have the mentality that the strongest survive and the cream will always rise to the top.  This tends to work in countries that have professional teams that are their national sport because sheer numbers outweigh the need for practicality.

·         Testing for the sake of testing.  Many teams have a ridiculous amount of strength and conditioning tests that take away from an already limited time frame.  A major pitfall in our industry is the concern for collecting data over increasing performance and in many cases the time would be far more beneficial spent working on technique.   If you work with athletes all off-season, you should know where their strength and conditioning levels are, and use a few meaningful tests to spark competition and to chart improvements.   At the high school, club and collegiate levels (where the team may not train together in the off-season) they can also be used for accountability reasons.  Having said this, teams still run their players into the ground with a gauntlet of tests that are not always necessary.  At the professional level, you are dealing with people that are in a career and can be cut if they don’t show up in shape.  At the highest level of sport, players are an investment and as crass as it sounds, they should be thought of in that light.  You are also dealing with players that have gone through many training camps throughout their careers and may not need the same volume as a newer player or non-professional. Does it make sense to peak in multi-competition and multi-energy system sports that require you to play in 15 games or more (upwards of 80 games in hockey, basketball and baseball)?  I tend to think you may want to peak with your team when games actually account for something important, like the play-offs.

·         There should be a balance between collecting both performance and injury data and it should be used to better your system.  If performance is high and injuries are low, you are doing something right. 

If it comes off that I am anti-training camp, I apologize.  I am anti doing shit for the sake of doing shit because we have always done shit this way!  Address the needs of your team, player’s, systems and how you go about it should be evolving daily.  This takes tireless amounts of work!  We must be adaptable to the needs of our teams (within reason) and have the ability to look at what we are doing daily, learn from it and move forward.  I do believe there is a time and place to grind your players, but it takes a lot more thought than just throwing a ton of volume at them.   If you don’t believe any of my thoughts, please at least institute recovery practices on a daily basis to ensure you are preparing for the next daily grind. 

This is all observation and opinion based as are all my articles/blogs and with this, I encourage feedback so that we can learn from each other and continually better both sport and the strength and conditioning industry collectively.  I am not trying to change anyone’s thoughts on how training camps should be run, I am just hoping that people will start to look a little closer at their systems and realize that sport evolves every minute.   This is the first in a series of articles on the pit falls of tradition.  I once read a blog from some guy with 2 years experience in the strength and conditioning fields stating that blogs should only be 1 page, so sorry for going over. 


Yours in Strength,

Joe McCullum


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