The other day somebody alerted me to a video that had been posted up by a major rugby nation detailing part of their world cup gym preparations. In the two minute video the guys were shown training, and the head of performance was interviewed about their system. He shared a few details:
- They are using a popular system from the USA that is designed to individualise programming according to each athletes individual strengths and weaknesses.
- They want to try and eliminate glaring weaknesses, whilst still playing to the athletes strength rather than try and train them to be something they are not.
- Above all their goal is to keep the guys on the pitch.
This tiny video prompted a massive reaction from the armchair coaches on Facebook, including: “They aren’t going to beat the all blacks in the gym. Get outside and put a ball in their hands”, “I can lift more weight that”, “Their technique is terrible”, “Those programmes aren’t individualised, they’re all doing the same exercises”. In my experience this is to be expected, there are a lot of uninformed people out there. That is precisely the reason I have this website!
Some actual coaches jumped on the bandwagon too, which again I have no problem with as discussion, learning and critical thought are what most of us coach for. It certainly isn’t the money. However one thing that particularly pissed me off was a blog post of outright criticism from one coach, who took the time to dissect almost every second of the 2 minute video to point out how tremendously flawed this particular coach and the system being used is, and how he could do a much better job.
For the record I’m not friends with anyone involved here, and I can agree with several points that are made in this blog post:
- The science behind this system is a little shaky, because it relies on proprietary software and unpublished data. I’d also question its ability to truly predict injury risk when previous injury history, left-right asymmetry and movement technique are not taken into account.
- No, the programmes aren’t individualised. But they certainly aren’t cookie cutter. My understanding is that they divide athletes into groups according to their “force signature” and provide progressions/regressions of exercise groups depending on the magnitude of the imbalance.
- No the form isn’t the best at times. There are little things that could be better, but I’ve seen worse and it certainly isn’t what I would term as unsafe. These guys get paid to run into other men at full speed for a living. I can handle a slightly-off rack position in a clean or front squat.
- What goes on in the gym is a small, small piece of injury prevention. For me what is far more important is controlling the total work load that players are exposed to, and the quality of their nutrition, hydration, rest and medical support, and their stress outside of training. To chalk injury prevention up to one programme is a little reductionist I think.
In the interests of balance I decided to check out the coach behind this blog post. He certainly makes some very good points in his writing and his athletes post some very impressive strength numbers in the gym.
However I quickly realised that all the videos were of the same three athletes again and again. The same three American football players: athletes who enjoy an extremely long preparatory period, who have only a few physical qualities to worry about in their training, who can train all day long, under the watchful eye of a coach with a coach:athlete ratio of 1:3, who only has to worry about what he wants to do. And yet there are still plenty of little technical flaws in how his athletes lifted and moved that I could pick on- very easy to do from the comfort of a keyboard.
Now let’s contrast this to professional rugby. You don’t have three athletes, you’ve got between 20-40 at a time. They all play for different clubs, and have different levels of experience and skill in the gym. You’ve only got about 3 weeks in total to prepare for a major international competition. You’ve got roughly three hours a week to get your prep in and that number will only ever go down, not up. Let’s also not forget that rugby, and what the rugby coach wants, comes first. All you do is support.
Apples and oranges. You may be able to do a great job with your best three athletes in the perfect training environment, good for you. But do not use it to judge someone on their worst athletes in an environment with totally different demands.
Personally I see stuff in some of my sessions every day that would embarrass me if somebody filmed it. I would be surprised if 99% of coaches didn’t feel the same. But the important thing is that they are better now than when I started, and I expect they will be better in a year’s time than they are now. Judging a coach from a snapshot of one training session is worthless without the context of knowing if they are steadily improving. It’s like reading one page of a novel and pretending you know the ending.
When is it OK to criticise coaches?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying criticising coaches should be off limits. I’m all for it, especially with the number of bad coaches out there, who occupy jobs that could be given to more accomplished individuals. However I think we need to establish some criteria first:
- No snap decisions.
- Before criticising, you have to have truly observed a coach for multiple sessions. The longer the better.
- Are their athletes consistently improving in the relevant areas? Yes? So the F what. Stagnating or getting worse? Fire away.
- Do you have a realistic suggestion or solution to offer about how to improve things? If not, keep your mouth shut. If you criticise others, you have a duty to advance the field at the same time.
- Keep the criticism to a person’s work, not qualities as a person.
- Don’t be a dick.