This is the final part of a series of three posts I have written about the last couple of months of random training thoughts I have had since travelling out for Rugby World Cup preparations. In part one I shared a bunch of the recent realisations I have come to about training. Specifically:
- It is possible for athletes to score identically on a particular assessment but in markedly different ways.
- At its core, all sporting movement is just problem solving. The job of the coach is to equip the athlete with the greatest possible chance of solving those sporting problems.
- There is huge variability within sports (and positions within those sports) about how athletes will solve those tasks based on their personal strengths, weaknesses, personal preferences, training history, intellect etc.
In part two of the series I discussed what the implications of these realisations are to us as coaches, and how this actually flies in the face of a lot of what we are taught in University and professional courses. Namely:
- Needs analyses may be dangerous ideas because they tell us the average of the sport or position. Most elite athletes are elite because they are decidedly un-average in some aspects. Rather than striving to make an athlete the average of their peers, perhaps we should concentrate on making them dominate their peers in some regard.
- Testing can be misleading. As coaches we should not be concerned with raising the team’s average. In this paradigm it is too easy to fail individuals. Rather we should worry about raising the performance of a group of individual athletes. Sometimes that will mean going off-script about what the accepted science or practice is.
- Perhaps it is OK to suck at something, and sometimes the reason you excel at something is the very reason you suck at something else. Being stiff and immobile may make you a great scrummager. Having the leverages and elastic qualities that make you a poor accelerator will make you extremely fast once you approach top speed. And so on…
In this final part of the series I’m going to be talking about how I think we should be training athletes in light of these new (at least new for me) realisations and the ramifications on strength and conditioning that follow.
As I wrote in part one, it is frequently possible for different types of athletes to score identical values on a particular assessment but do so in very different styles; A “greyhound” sprinter may have an identical personal best to a “bulldog sprinter” in the 100m. Some athletes may vertical jump 30 inches with a deep countermovement, whilst some may match that with little countermovement. Some number 8s make their name in International rugby by being aggressive ball carriers, whereas others are more known for supporting play and footballing skill.
It should be obvious that these different athletes are going to have quite different training needs, despite their identical scores. Suddenly these tests don’t look so useful. To that end I propose two ideas. Firstly: we need to utilise tests which provide us not just with the information of what an athlete scored on a test, but also HOW they did it. We need to scratch deeper below the surface in our assessments. For example:
How did the athlete achieve their vertical jump?
How deep was the countermovement? What was the length of the amortisation phase? How long did the concentric effort last? Do they produce force evenly throughout the range or does all of their power come on at the end? Do they get a big contribution from their arms or are they inefficient in this regard? Do they leak a lot of energy in the frontal and transverse planes or are they clean and efficient?
Why are they that fast in the 40m sprint?
What is their 10/20/30/40m split time like? Do they look more comfortable- technically and physically- during acceleration or transitioning to/sprinting at top speed? Do they have a lot of unwanted movement? What is their limb stiffness like?
What caused them to get level 19 on the yoyo test?
How early or late in their test does their heart rate rise above lactate threshold? What is their running economy like? Do they exhibit smart movement strategies during the test or run like a headless chicken? What is their mental toughness/CNS tolerance of fatigue like?
There are as many ways to score a particular value on an assessment as there are athletes. Until we start to dig deeper and understand the individual make up of the athlete, we won’t be able to get the maximum value out of the testing/information gathering process.
Obviously what I am suggesting will entail a LOT more data gathering and number crunching, which will not be viable in non-full time professional environments. But at the very least I think we need to start incorporating video, the eye of the coach and accompanying notes into the needs analysis of the athlete a lot more. Taking data at face value is not sufficient for truly elite physical preparation.
Eliminate the weak links
The likelihood is that once we’ve identified which physiological systems/strategies/movement patterns the athlete draws most heavily on in the sport or test, it is common sense that these are the very same qualities in which the athlete is most developed. Conversely they will probably be weaker compared to their peers in those qualities which they naturally shy away from using.
Some coaches (certainly me in my earlier career) would take the approach of trying to aggressively target these weaknesses in athletes until they rise up to average standard of the group or some other pre determined value. However these days I am not so sure. To paraphrase Charlie Francis, you are never going to turn Usain Bolt into a sumo wrestler, so why try? You can spend forever trying to turn an athlete’s weaknesses into a strength, but most likely it will never become one, and eventually this will come at the expense of your ability to improve the stuff that they are already good at (presumably where they possess the most potential for improvement).
Nowadays I am inclined to target a weakness only as long as it is a serious bottleneck to performance or a significant injury risk. It is ok to be bad at something, as long as you are not REALLY bad. If you are, get it out of the way as early as you can in the prep. After that, move on to the training means which will be most productive for you or your athlete.
Side note: with regard to addressing weaknesses, I have been doing a little reading recently on removing bottlenecks in systems by Nassim Taleb. He suggests that often the most effective solution is by removing something existing rather than adding something new. For example:
- Poor recovery? Stop going to the club four nights per week rather than start taking contrast showers.
- Too slow? Remove some body fat before looking to significantly increase max strength.
- Mobility sucks? Look first to inhibit overactive tissues before trying to generate new range in others.
Expect an article on this in the near future!
Develop the strengths
Once weaknesses have either been addressed or at least alleviated, it is time to exaggerate their strengths. Look at the athlete: what is it they they do better than anyone else? Which physical qualities do they exemplify better than any other athlete? Are there any particular styles or strategies they habitually gravitate toward?
Whatever the answers to these questions are, these are the things that should be the focus of the athlete’s training, and we should programme accordingly. The programme should fit the athlete, not the other way around. We need to make the athlete more of what they already are, and make them even better at what they already do well.
Again this makes for a lot of work on the part of all coaches- technical, physical and otherwise- which would be difficult to implement on a purely individual basis. However I would propose trying to create broad categories within sports/positions, creating training templates according to their strengths/weaknesses and then assigning different athletes to different groups. This is a direction I’ve started to try and move towards with my athletes, having stolen the idea from David Joyce at Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL.
I was discussing this article with my friend and fellow coach Fernando Levy the other day. Interestingly he said that this very idea forms the core of the Sparta training philosophy, where he interned for 3 months last year. They summed it up a lot more eloquently than me by stating: “Get rid of the major weaknesses, then make them more of what they are. Don’t try to make them something that they’re not”.
Where I see this going in the future…
This series is definitely not the end of my train of thought, and I’m sure I will continue to think on these topics in the future. Eventually I would like to have these ideas running through every aspect of my athletes training. I can also see them being incorporated into other areas of athletic preparation, for example decision making styles (as discussed by Professor Vince Walsh at BSMPG). Likewise many coaches are well aware of learning styles. This is certainly not limited to physical preparation.
The big thing that strikes me about these ideas is simply the huge amount of data they will generate. As we get a deeper and deeper understanding of our athletes, we risk drowning in numbers. At the elite level we are already at risk of this, and perhaps in the future it will be even more common that the successful teams are those with the best systems who are able to get the most meaningful information from the most amount of data and (vitally) use it to make changes in the real world.