Category: Coaching

Reflections about coaching, strength and conditioning and the emergence of cargo cult science in sport

I have been thinking long and hard about writing this blog. Mostly because time to put in words what I have been thinking about in the last few months has been lacking but also because I wanted to reflect about what I have been seeing in the last 12 months around the World and take stock.

For the readers, I am not having a go at any particular individual and/or association/group of people, I am just writing about my worries and they way I see things going.

Before getting into some details, it is important to understand where this reflection is coming from. It is coming from my personal career history, where I started and how my journey is going, and how things have changed during my journey.

When I started this career in 1993, right after graduating with my first degree in Sports Science, I was mostly a coach with an interest in the scientific applications of strength and conditioning. I was fortunate enough to have met Professor Bruno Cacchi who was the Head Coach of Italian Athletics which setup the first laboratory to study strength training in Italy in the then ISEF of Rome. What I learnt in the 4-5 years I was in that lab was to develop an inquisitive approach to training. Prof Cacchi was the most famous Italian track and field coach at the time and I remember him telling me that he organised the lab so he could learn more about what he was doing as he had many questions about the activities he did with his athletes on track. So he wanted to measure as much as he could and simulate sessions he was doing to separate the wheat form the chaff. Equipment was very limited at the time, computers were running MsDos and Windows 3.1. Very few laptops were available and the state of the art for our testing activities was the biorobot (the early version of Muscle Lab) and photocells mounted everywhere (with very basic software). My coaching was mostly on the track and on handball courts and I was starting to provide strength and conditioning support to various sports. What Prof Cacchi always told me was: “if we want to understand what we do as coaches we have to have a training programme, we have to know what the athlete completes and we have to assess how they progress“. This lesson still drives me today but somewhat it seems lost.
This was taken in 1998 in Sportilia in a training camp with the Italian Handball NT

Despite the enormous advancements of sports science and the subsequent professionalisation of sports science specialists, things do not seem to get much better. I still see enormous improvisation in the coaching community, with far too many people not having a programme and a structured approach to assessing what works and what does not work. There is still a lot of improvisation in too many places. Coaches turn up and do something, completely unstructured, with not much clarity and knowledge over the implications of their sessions and unclear ideas about progressions. In many cases, I see coaches picking “sessions” in random order and with limited control over loading. This is why I believe we see many injuries still. Injuries are too many times the result of inappropriate loading patterns which is a consequence of poor planning and/or inappropriate training choices.
Scientific support in these cases is challenging, as most of the times it is only necessary to point out inadequacy of the training paradigms used. And there is no way sports scientists can help improving the quality of a training programme if there is no programme.
The other worry is the proliferation of cargo-cult science in coaching communities. The Internet is now full of courses, podcasts, articles, online access to content. Information is now available anytime anywhere. But sadly there is also a proliferation of coaching courses offered by various entities in different part of the World of dubious quality. International and national federations do offer coaching courses which should have some form of quality control/assurance, but clearly the big bucks are in courses and activities offered by private institutions and/or individuals. While I am a strong believer that knowledge comes form anywhere and confining it to rigid structures can be counterproductive, I also believe that somehow somebody somewhere should guarantee quality of the message. 
Well, in many instances I see a lot of pseudoscience and absolute rubbish being “sold” to coaches. Some of the terminology I hear makes no sense, and the mutterings of aerobic, anaerobic, power, force, CNS etc etc in random order really drives me insane. Not to mention the non existing definitions and /or observations and definitions that have no evidence and are totally non-sensical. If you have ever heard about “CNS session” you know what I mean. This is not a war on semantics, it is about making sure that the distribution of bullshit stops. Too many coaches are now convinced about things that do not exist and in an era of high speed cameras are still convinced they can see stuff that it is not there (I will call it the “Nessie Phenomenon” to pay tribute to the monster nobody can see in the North of Scotland). 
Training Philosophies are now turning into religious-like beliefs (are you a “believer” and a follower of coach X method? ) and this is probably the consequence of too many coaches teaching other coaches such beliefs not supported by evidence or sold on the basis of some athlete winning some medal somewhere. What I have rarely experienced is a coach which lectures about what they do (for real!) without too much philosophy but with evidence of what is the programme, what they assess and when, what are the typical changes in whatever indicators they have during the seasons and what evidence they use to predict performances for their athletes as the season progresses. Instead of this, I sit in too many lectures in which I hear about philosophies, I listen to non-existing pseudo-science, and I see few pictures or videos of successful athletes. But no idea of the content (what did the coach do? How was the load progressed? How progress was assessed, how did the coach “teach” the athlete”, what did the athlete learn etc etc.).
The worrying aspect is when coaches are also encouraged to branch out to other professions providing therapy, nutritional advice, medical advice, interpretation of clinical examinations etc etc. This is unacceptable and dangerous. This is the reason why sometimes athletes may fail a doping test and/or might delay rehabilitation following an injury and/or develop an injury. Coaches should be great at coaching and teaching as well as creating positive environments for athletes to improve. Everything else should be left to specialists, people that know what they are doing. Having a coaching philosophy is for sure a good idea (anybody needs a vision/beliefs/ways of approaching a problem), but at the end of the day sport performance is brutally simple, it is in fact about getting better and trying to be better than others. 
Philosophies seem to permeate the development of the strength and conditioning community as well. When I started, it was pretty clear to me that my job was to try to make people stronger, faster, more flexible, I was driven by writing content and assessing outcomes and trying to understand what worked and what didn’t. In my view after having seen quite a few lectures/presentations from strength and conditioning specialists, I hear a lot about philosophies but I rarely see content and I mostly see poor or non-existing outcomes. I fear the scientific approach is gone (and for science I do not mean the one you do to write a paper, I mean systematic approaches to documenting what you do and measuring some outcomes). While I see all this, the era of Big Data is upon us. Everyone talks about it, but many are struggling to see where the big data are. To me the biggest data still missing are the ones related to training content, what is planned vs what is executed and how things progress. I am also interested in knowing about technical development, how we should teach things to athletes and we should assess if they develop technically. In the Athletics World you hear a lot about techniques and how coaches “see” technical errors in sessions and in competition. What I am stil struggling to find is evidence about how true are such errors and most of all how and if such errors can be corrected. This to me is the art of coaching, but we can now build the evidence for it and we should strive to understand this aspect more.
Sports science is evolving, we have more devices, more information, more ideas. However we are still lacking easy, simple, non-invasive ways to understand more about the implications of single training sessions as well as the effectiveness of different training schemes. We have to still rely on invasive approaches in physiology and some of the approaches in other aspects of science are not practical in the real world (have you ever tried to play table tennis with an EEG cap and wires?). So this is where the biggest gains will come, in the ability to understand more what happens in the real world moving the labs on the field as much as possible.
So this is my pledge, I will try to understand more, learn more and try to develop better ways to work in sport. My advice to you working as a coach, as a strength and conditioning specialist or as an “ologist” with athletes at any level is to avoid the “Nessie Phenomenon” and try to critically analyse any information coming your way. Do not accept what you hear or what others tell you. Go and find the information, try things yourself, try to assess what works and what not, document your experiences, reflect. Only in this way you will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
We are exposed to B–sh-t every day, and there is science about it too, just read this paper and hopefully you can find a way to use appropriate filters.

Coaching Types Continued

The power of the internet and social media is incredible. The previous blog on coaching types has been read in many parts of the World and many of my former colleagues have asked me which type they are…the answer is simple, you know who you are, just have a laugh, think about what you can do to change (if you need/want to).
I have few more types to introduce, let’s wrap this up and in the following articles I will cover something about building good working relationships in high performance sport (or surviving in a pool of sharks as sometimes it may feel like).

Here they are:

6. The Bully

The bully is a coaching type you can come across frequently. This type is very popular in team sports and combat sports (stereotyping…I know…). This type is loved by CEOs of team sports clubs and tends to get hired to replace another coach when the season is going badly. It is in fact popular belief with general managers and CEOs of sports club (should write something about them as well…) that when a team is not performing you need to hire a bully as many times the perception from the boardroom is that the athletes and staff are not “working hard enough”. The bully comes in, shouts at everyone constantly and controls everything. The bully does not like freedom of expression nor alternative ideas. With the bully you execute and you have to be prepared to have a shouting match. With the bully heated discussions do not happen behind closed doors, they happen on the field, in front of anybody (that’s why he/she is a bully!). The bully has a plan most of the times (in his head), and when shared with staff and players it is fixed. The bully does not grasp the concept of progressive overload (in fact, the word progressive does not belong to his/her vocabulary). The periodisation plan of the bully is affected by good and bad results. Bad results = massive increase in training volume and intensity, good results = constant high volume and intensity. 

8. The friend coach

The friend coach is the nice guy. The one that sometimes even when results are bad can’t be fired because “he is such a nice guy”. The nice guy reads a lot of psychology and sociology. The nice guy does not shout and will refer any sign of DOMS to the medical team for an MRI (just in case). The friend coach cares about the health of the athletes, their families, the staff and the fans. He/She wants to make sure everyone is happy. The friend coach likes questionnaires, psychological profiling and likes to talk. His/her training approach has solid pedagogical foundations. It’s the Montessori approach to training in fact! The friend coach has a plan, but this is discussed with the athletes and staff. Everyone has a say and in the end nobody has a plan as most of the times the friend coach facilitates an anarchic system where everybody does whatever he/she likes to do when they like to do it. As a sports scientist supporting the friend coach you will need to be firm and organised (but this is a trait you need anyway for every other coach) as otherwise you will not get much done. New iterations of the friend coach these days contain “new age” elements. Sometimes in fact training sessions can be performed barefoot and with soft music in the background (have you ever tried to lift weights with Mozart’s music blasted in the gym?). He/she can take you to a camping trip so you can all bond and/or perform a training session in weird/remote places. When a friend coach is sacked there are lots of tears and teams might need weeks of therapy to recover from the loss. This is very different from the sacking of a bully coach where teams celebrate the release with fireworks displays.
9. The Statistician
The Statistician loves his/her numbers. Very common coaching type in CGS (centimetres,grams or seconds) sports. The statistician knows how fast Usain Bolt run when he was 11 and has learnt mnemonically the World ranking in his and other events for the last 30 years. The statistician make s use of numbers and loves numbers. His/her training sessions are detailed. You will know how much, how many times, how fast/slow, with what cadence and sometimes you might have add-ons like breathing rate! The statistician will get your brain going, so make sure you learn all key times and bring a calculator as sometimes you may fall into the trap of believing the numbers to find out later that they were utterly wrong (sometimes!). The statistician also loves predicting performances. He/she is able to tell you fast somebody will run/swim/cycle just by knowing how many push ups/medicine ball throws the athlete performs together with his body mass, speed in specific distances and age. How does he/she do that? Easy! The statistician uses secret formulas which were developed in East Germany in the 50s and were obtained from another coach after winning a drinking competition in a Bar in Budapest or exchanged for a box of cigars before the Berlin wall came down. The formula has also been “improved” by the statistician coach over the years adding a k he/she developed which improves the precision of the predictions. If you think you can go on PubMed and look for the formula you are a fool. There is no trace. Your best bet is to head to Budapest and try to find the Bar. Support to the statistician is relatively easy if you know your numbers and you provide evidence based reports. However, if you don’t know or understand statistics, you are better off considering a career in another industry as this one takes no prisoners.
10. The SAS coach
One of my favourites and loved by everyone with OCD. The SAS coach applies military techniques to coaching and managing staff. Your morning meetings will be at 07 hundred hours (0700 am) and will start with a briefing. Anybody arriving late to anything will have to do 20 push ups. The SAS coach has a plan, everything is planned to detail with exact times and list of activities. Meetings are sharp and run on strict agendas and end with a series of actions. Athletes and staff know their roles and responsibilities. There is no place for complacency, no compromise means no compromise. When SAS coach asks you to do something, he/she is not asking. It’s an order. Training sessions are built on solid routines. Everything is built on solid routines. The SAS coach is not a bully, but he/she can be at times. Definitively more organised than any other type, however sometimes lacks empathy. So some staff or athletes may get the “hairdryer” treatment at times, but the SAS coach means well. He/she demands excellence (and most of the times obtains it!). Not everybody can work with the SAS coach. The main aspect is to be incredibly well organised, have good routines and deliver consistent excellence.

So, my list is finished. Joking aside, in order to work with various coaches in a sports science role you need to:

– Understand how the coaches work, what is their experience/background and what their philosophy
– Learn about their approach/take notes/ask questions/observe/measure where possible
– Reinforce all the positive, anything that works
– Discuss what does not work when you have evidence and not when their philosophy does not match yours
– Be organised, have good plans, gather (relevant) data to improve the quality of service you can provide to the coach/athlete unit
– Remember you are part of the support team, not the main actor, your place is behind the scenes
– No one is indispensable
– If you get a chance, get some coaching qualifications and try to coach somebody in any sport, you will find out that putting the human performance puzzle together is not as easy as running an incremental test in a lab
– If you think you know everything it is time for you to move on, working with athletes of any level/age allows you to discover something new every day if you ask the right questions (or assess routinely certain aspects) and critically appraise what you do
– Be prepared to have the difficult conversations (and many times you will be at the receiving end!)
– Never forget that when working with a team or an individual athlete everyone is trying to do the same thing (improving performance) but each member of the team might do it in a different way
– Never lose sight of the big picture

Coaching types

In the last few weeks I have been reflecting a lot about the evolution of the coaching profession. When I started my career in Sport, I was more interested in coaching than sports science, later on I drifted to science, mainly because I am the kind of person mostly interested in evidence and numbers, in structures and processes and find difficult to get lost in philosophies and opinions which unfortunately still permeate part of the coaching community.
In my view, coaching is teaching. It is about making people better, and it is about “igniting” passion for something. Coaching is about facilitating the expression of talents as well as instilling a culture of hard and honest work and passion for the activity the athlete is doing.
So, when I was coaching, I aspired to be a great teacher, a great motivator, a man with a plan able to communicate clearly to my athletes what we were doing and why and I tried to measure and understand most of what I was doing in order to separate the good from the bad. In my view at the time, a great coach was also an excellent communicator, and was somebody able to facilitate creativity within a structure of play (I was a Handball coach after all). 
As a Strength and Conditioning coach I was clear about my role: I had to make my athletes stronger and faster and robust enough to endure training and competition. Over the years my career has taken different directions, from pure science to scientific support to managing holistic approaches to performance. In such roles I have met many coaches and practitioners with my daily interactions, but I also came across many individuals in coaching conferences, workshops and seminars and also on the Internet. I have to say that over the years I learnt to “box” coaches according to the way they work and would like to share this on my blog. This is not a critique to the people working in a coaching role, but is a tongue-in-cheek  blog which I hope it can be used for self reflection to understand where the coaching career is going and also be used as a guide for young sports scientists.
1. The multi-medal winner who is always right
This is challenging coach to work with. He/She has won everything there was to win, has been successful over the years and is grounded on his/her beliefs of what works and what does not work. In general, the multi medal winner is obsessed with (old) routines and thinks that his/her way is the ONLY way to improve performance and win. The only way to win his/her trust is learn about his work, collect evidence. Build and collect evidence and he/she will listen to you. With no evidence your philosophy and your beliefs count nothing. After all, he/she has won everything, not you, so why should the coach listen to you?
2. The motivator
The motivator gets incredible attention from staff and athletes. He/She can get anybody to climb mount Everest. He/She is capable of inspiring the most incredible performances. However most of the times he/she is completely disorganised. Cannot put together a structured plan with a sense, improvises and has no idea why certain things work and what does not work. If you work with a motivator coach you will always be in a great environment but unstructured and random. So what you will need as a sports scientist is organization and structure. The motivator suffers from ego-boosts periods when things go well and excessive rehearsals of Al Pacino’s any given sunday speeches when things go pear shaped, so be ready for loads of pep talks and inspirational videos.
3. The Lecturer
This coach is going to lecture everybody, his/her athletes and hi/her staff. However, just like any university lecturer, few times athletes and staff will fall asleep…The lecturer coach is always prepared (to give a lecture) but most of the times what he lectures about is not what he/she coaches. He is too busy to put together cool quotes to self reflect and find out that what he thinks he/she is doing is not what is happening. Sports science support to a lecturer coach is challenging as it means many times falling into the trap of producing power point slides to get to your points. If you end up working with somebody like that, get ready for death by power point and numerous hours of meetings in which you will be lectured.
4. The pseudo-science guru
This one is fascinating. This is the guru. The one that also has sometimes cargo-cult science following. He/she is always right just like the first type, is a great motivator and a lecturer. Is the combination of all of the above. What makes this type more dangerous than others is that this coach reads stuff. Blogs, books, articles in Russian, philosophy theories, books nobody has read or can buy, and has a side interest in physics. This type comes up with new terms previously unknown to mankind and claims facts that were published in some obscure journals (or on the walls of a cave) which helped him/her develop the new theory of coaching. This one is lethal, because will challenge any sports scientists using collections of sciency words in random order and will confuse you so badly that at times you will think that what you learnt in your degrees was just a pile of nonsense. He/she has a following after all, and everyone wants to work with him/her. So if you question or refuse to accept the mumbo jumbo you will be quickly dismissed as an innominato, a non believer. Best way to work with this type? Get your facts right, über right! Make sure you translate the mumbo jumbo in something meaningful and take your time to understand how he/she works. Sometimes great gifts are given in ugly packages, so you might learn something new if you listen but this happens rarely. Many times you will shake your head in disbelief and will have to challenge the non sense using scientific facts. Be prepared, as the pseudo-science guru does not like to be contradicted, so unless you are really really good and absolutely correct, you might lose your job before you know it. 
5. The Artist
The artist creates. He/She is never prepared. There is no structure, no plan, no thinking forward, no idea of what happened last week. Nothing, nada de nada. The Artist coach will surprise you with curve balls coming from everywhere. His/Her plans (which reside only in his/her head) will be always changed at the last minute. Whatever you agreed to do will have to change. So if you work with this type, better learn how to sail and read the wind, as the working journey with this type will take you to places you have never been before…This type should come with a warning if you have OCD and/or love structured plans.