Monday, 7 January 2013

A Coach is a Coach is a Coach?

A Coach is a Coach is a Coach?

                After receiving my 900th email requesting information about some of our staffs hockey “sport-specific” knowledge, I decided to change from writing about my exploits with pain, work and life and switch gears to coaching.  I completely understand the questions that are being asked by these parents as their greatest source of information is usually under informed coaches, other parents or the internet pumping them with sales pitches.    My full-time career involves working as a strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer and depending how you look at it, they are one and the same.  I am just starting my 13th year in this field and also volunteer as an assistant coach to local club and high school football, wrestling and rugby teams.  The beauty of my job is that I get exposed to all different walks of life from many diverse backgrounds.  I have worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Utah where I was fortunate enough to work with 16 different teams and coaches, many of our national teams and athletes, professional athletes from Kabaddi to the NFL, NHL and more; though my passion lies with working with development athletes.   What I am hoping to share with you is a brief collection of thoughts that I have amassed from spending numerous hours with different coaches, management teams, therapy staff and athletes.   What I have found is quite simple; we all have different coaching styles, but the fundamentals are the same through almost every sport and individual I have worked with.

                I am going to open with something I learned from my friend and a great mentor Jim Miller.  Jim was the Canadian National Wrestling Coach for years and is the owner and operator of Jims Gym in Parksville.  “The best coaches are thieves; we steal/learn from each other, take the good stuff that can be incorporated into our systems and scrap the rest.”  I may have butchered that quote, but you get the gist of it.  Please keep in mind, if you are using someone elses ideas, it is important to give credit where credit is due.  The day the learning stops or you let your ego take over is the day that your job loses meaning and momentum.  Learning isn’t always just about what you should or should not do; it’s about making decisions as to what will fit within your given system at that moment.  Every group and individual  athlete, housewife, rehab client or weekend warrior is different and if you don’t treat them as such you may be doing them a disservice.   As coaches, we should hold our values and traditions tightly without the fear of change.  Over the years, my philosophy has not changed much but my methods are ever evolving. 

Before I get into it, I would like to thank some people that have helped shaped my philosophies and have made me a better coach.  Barry Callaghan, Giulio DeCotiis, Ian Macdonald, Gianni Buono (wrestling), Mike Morgan, Rick Majerus (basketball), Earl Henderson, John Buchanan, Craig Rigsby, Alex Gerke, Ron Mcbride (football), Doug Barker, Jimmy Martin, Tom Larisch, Tim Murdy, Tony Healy, Ian Hyde-Lay, Quentin Fyffe (rugby), Tony Kook (tae kwon do), Bob Joncas (snowboarding), Tina Moberg-Parker, Al Clark (sailing), Chris Doyle, Joe “Big House” Kenn, Jason Veltkamp, Mark Uyeyama, Cheyenne Pietri, Anthony Findlay, Scott Vass, Carmen Bott, the Level 10 Fitness team (strength and conditioning), Greg Kirk, Ben Suen, Isabel Grondin, Clayton Cross, Jay Innoue (therapy) and all of my clients, teams and friends that have supported me over the years.  I apologize if I missed some of you, but I am trying to keep this under 10 pages!

What I have stolen and made my own:

·         Everyone is an individual (even in team sport).  The strength of any team lies in the effort and cohesion of each member.  Some people like to keep to themselves, some share all, some are nightmares, some have learning disabilities, some are highly skilled, some are not, some are strong or fit, some are not and your ability to bring them together is key.  This may differ a little in individual sport, but I can’t think of too many individual sport athletes that have not made it without the help of other team mates pushing them on a regular basis. 

·         There are plenty of grey areas.  I know many coaches that like to try to have set systems with no leeway and I completely understand why.  But there are always circumstances where those systems will be tested and your reaction to it may be the difference between success and failure or an athlete buying in or fading out.

·         We all learn from our shortcomings or failures far more than we do from our success.  We can’t dwell on the past, but if you can’t take an educated look at your shortcomings and make adjustments, you enter a downward spiral.  The exception of mediocrity and fear of change fast tracks us to averageness.

·         The strength of your team or athletes heavily lies on the strength of your support staff.  This includes management, strength and conditioning, therapists, receptionists, assistant coaches and all other support staff.  One weak link in the chain can make a bigger difference than you may think.  One of the greatest aspects of my playing career and two years as a strength coach at Utah was the fact that everyone in the University was in support of each other.  Other teams and athletes, receptionists, janitors, everybody! 

·         Understand the rules and regulations like the back of your hand.  This applies heavily to the strength and conditioning coach as well.  A few examples may be: we need to know the governing body’s rules for weight cutting sports, banned substance lists, work to rest ratios etc.

·         Time management.  In the private industry for strength and conditioning, I usually have one hour with my clients.  I have to have the ability to place the most pressing issues on the fore front whether it is spending more time on technique or on the table.  In many of our National team settings, we have a short duration with the teams and coaches must triage their time effectively to get the most out of it (skill work, tactics, positional work, recovery work, strength and conditioning, therapy, team building etc.).

·         We must have the ability to break down all points but only cue what is needed in any skill or technical sessions.  Over cuing can be equally as detrimental sometimes as under cuing and at the end of the day, athletes need to be able to figure out certain things on their own (with our guidance of course).  When we are in a group setting, this becomes very difficult as not everyone will learn at the same speed. 

This is a loose guideline that I use:

o   You must know the technique from both the ground up and top down.  Not all athletes will learn at the same speed.  Some may need more visual cues, some may need audible cues, and some may need kinesthetic cues.  As a coach it’s our role to figure out which, if any combination to use.  If you have not used the VARK guide to learning styles, I suggest you try it.

o   Explain and demonstrate the movement (minimal time speaking depending on age and group size).  If you feel like you are leading a lecture, you probably are.

o   Have the athletes execute the movement.  While they are working, combine your observations with what your predetermined thoughts may have been. As an example, if I am teaching a young group of athletes a bodyweight squat, I can assume I will see their heels come off the floor, knees buckling, excessive trunk flexion etc.

o   If a large number of the athletes are struggling with technique and are showing similar issues, repeat your original cues then add new ones in order of most importance without overwhelming the group (this process may take many attempts).

o   If only a few athletes are struggling, walk around and cue one thing with each one as they are doing it until they can correct it.  If the group is large, I may say “if ‘X’ is happening, do ‘Y’ to correct it and repeat”.

o   Given we are in the most technologically advanced stage in history, I would suggest filming movements as often as possible for instant feedback.  In the strength and conditioning world, mirrors may suffice for your developing athletes.

·         Your ability to progress and regress movements is key.  For every technique, there are many progressions.  Where you start within the progression is dependent on the group or individual you are working with.  If I am working with a younger or untrained athlete, I may start at the beginning without fear of jumping forward (I will never hold an athlete back based on age alone unless I feel there is a risk of injury involved) and with an older trained athlete I may start near the top (without the fear of working back).  In the strength and conditioning industry, many coaches put specific movements on a pedestal (Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts etc.) and force their athletes into something they have not quite physically qualified to do yet. 

·         If something doesn’t look right it probably isn’t.  Having said that, there are some athletes that have the ability to put themselves in the right positions at the right time all the time with technique that may not fit what you have coached.  We need to have the ability to decide if this is a potential precursor for injury or if the athlete’s body type or style is forcing them to modify.  We have all coached athletes with unconventional technique that have been successful and how we deal with this should be on an individual basis.

·         Picking athletes based on size or body shape, test scores or past success over the best athlete because they do not fit into a specific mold.  This also includes moving athletes to different positions.  There are always athletes that are too big or too small that wow us in the sport world and their chance to do so lies in your open mindedness.   

·         Talk to other coaches as much as possible.  Most great coaches are more than happy to share with you and love to talk shop.  Take advantage of it! Read other historically successful coaches books.  Along with that, I read books that relate to people, business, teams, war etc.   History repeats itself and so do people’s behaviors.  Like it or not, if you coach you will be dealing with a lot of people and every person you meet may give you a small bit of advice that can help you in the future.

·         Some may argue this point, especially with new coaches, but I am not a huge fan of certifications.  I see the need for them, but when one comes out that couples experience with knowledge and a teacher that is not hung over for the course, I’ll be into it.  Personally, I put my professional development funds to learning from others in the industry rather than certifications.  I would rather spend a few days with another coach and pick his/her brain over a weekend.

·         Raise the bar for your standards.  Find the bare minimum you are willing to accept and encourage your athletes or clients to jump over it then repeat. 

·         If you do not believe in the mind body connect, you may be in the wrong industry.  Part of being a good coach is noting when your client or athletes are shit kicked, unfocused, tired or spaced out.  In camp or tournament settings, this can be a huge issue.  I do not just mean in terms of work on the field of play if you are working with a team.  A few examples may include: If you have to use the same place for meals, ensure variety is available (trust me, I ate hedgehog for 3 weeks in Russia-and not the delicious chocolate kind), if you are in a large accumulation phase make sure that part of their recovery work includes some fun games or team building activities. 

·         Not everything can be quantified.  Trying to find absolute numbers for everything will make you batty.  Not everything needs to have an explanation or a number attached to it.  Use the sport science principles to your advantage but do not be afraid to steer away from them. 

·         Put your best coaches with young kids.  Part of my big issue with sport in Canada is the lack of a development model.  You can talk about the LTAD plan as much as you like, but if you do not have a charismatic, enthused and skilled coach with your younger athletes you are just letting them get away with bad habits earlier.  It seems a lot of people in my industry are drawn to working with elite athletes, and don’t get me wrong I love it too!  But, if you can work with a group of kids, keep their attention and make them better you are one of the best coaches I know.

·         Encourage feedback from all of your team members (players, coaches, therapy staff and management).  It’s called a team for a reason and if you treat it like you are the captain of a ship, you will go down like the Titanic (which I have never seen, but I know the outcome).

·         Lastly, give a shit about everything you do and everyone you coach.  Caring about who you work with and taking pride in what you do goes a lot further than your ego will ever take you.

There is no cookie cutter answer as all situations are different.  There is no formula for success and dreaming will only get you so far.  These are just a few points that I have gathered and wanted to share with you all.  As I receive feedback, this will be modified. 

I have been blessed to work so many different walks of life and I am happy to say I have learned something from all of them. 

Although we all come from different backgrounds and may work with different athletes or clients, to answer the title, coaching is coaching….

Yours in Strength,

Joe McCullum

Director of High Performance Training and Staff Development

Level 10 Fitness Inc.