As some of you may be aware I have presented a few guest lectures over the years, in particular two for Setanta College. Setanta are an online and in-person college who (for my money) are leading the way in strength and conditioning education in Ireland. Led by Dr Liam Hennessey, they have a great mix of practical, theoretical and professional links that has helped them to produce some great coaches in a fairly short space of time.
They recently hosted an NSCA regional conference all about youth athletic development in Thurles, Munster, which I was delighted to be invited to, and also sit on the Sunday Q&A panel. It was a hugely enjoyable event with some notable speakers from both sides of the Atlantic. In this series of two blog posts I wanted to share my notes from my favourite speakers from the weekend…
Des Ryan, Arsenal Football Club
Des was a member of the IRFU team that helped Ireland to its first Grand Slam in over 60 years. Since then he was moved to football, where he is the lead for youth physical development at Arsenal. He oversees a team of nine strength coaches, and he and his team are responsible for over 200 athletes. This presentation was all about the system he has been developing and continues to develop at Arsenal.
- Given how important culture and cohesion is to the success of a programme, he liked to assign players to coaches based on personality type rather than individual skill set or needs (although a huge amount of thought is given to this too).
- Each athlete’s training gets divided between team sessions and priority sessions. Priority sessions are dedicated training slots where the athlete must work on their weaknesses e.g. mobility, stability, movement skill, hypertrophy, body composition etc.
- Cooperative games are a big part of youth development. When you are dealing with kids who have grown up being the superstar, they don’t necessarily learn the cooperative skill that a player needs to excel at the highest level. This is true of kids in general too though.
- Multilateral sporting development is huge. In a sport like football where kids are specialising earlier and earlier, we have to work against this, so Des makes the kids play other sports during their training with Arsenal as they develop. Each month they get a new sport.
- Only include things if it doesn’t exceed the working capacity of the coach. Ideas may work great on paper, but they have to work in real life with the coaches and the resources you have at your disposal. Even in Premiership football there are limits.
- All academy players get monitored at least once per week. Monitoring tells you how well the programme is working, importantly how careful you need to be with developing athletes, and it gives you the information you need to work in a collaborative fashion with the medical staff.
- In a sport like football where the playing schedule is crowded and preparation time is limited, Des prefers to condition through the sport training itself. As coaches we have to control the training environment as much as possible to deliver a focussed physiological stimulus and achieve the adaptations we want. Key variables to pay attention to are playing space, rules of the game, reps, and sets. Get to know the characteristics of your training sessions so you can deliver the right training session, at the right time, in the right amount to your players.
Dave Alred was a member of the 2003 world cup winning England Rugby Union coaching staff. Although he is most well known as a specialist kicking coach (whom Johnny Wilkinson cites a mentor) he has since branched out into other sports including elite football, golf and Australian rules football.
Dave’s PhD work has focussed on motor learning, in particular the impact of attitude and psychology on the process of how athletes learn and improve motor skills. Dave’s first presentation of the weekend was all about this:
- Create a coaching environment where athletes are always competing with their previous self. When you allow athletes to compare themselves to one another or even to standard scores, you limit them. The best athletes will rise easily to the top, then stagnate, and the worst athletes will become discouraged when they are unable to close the gap between themselves and the superstars.
- Athlete success is dictated by attitude, application, and ability in that order. Attitude is the canyon of your mind. It directs how diligently an athlete applies themselves to the career long process of getting better. Application of their ability is key too, because the moderately talented athlete who never stops working will out-achieve the talented athlete who never works.
- The responsibility for improvement lies with the athlete. Are they seeking facts about how well they performed? Do they know their personal bests? Do they want to know “how to…” in everything they are doing?
- Learning happens at the edge of the comfort zone. We don’t want tasks that are impossibly difficult, but we also don’t want tasks that are trivially easy. When something gets uncomfortable, that is when learning has just begun.
- Control the controllable, do not waste mental energy on the stuff you cannot change.
Come back next week, when I will be sharing part two of my notes from the conference.