I recently had a chance to visit and speak at Altis as part of their Apprentice Coach Program (ACP). As I’m sure most readers of this blog know, Altis is a track & field training center in Phoenix, AZ focused on providing a world class training environment for elite athletes. The group placed 16 athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympic games highlighted by the unforgettable performances of Andre De Grasse (2 bronze, 1 silver medal). Due to a tight schedule I wasn’t able to spend as much time at the center as I would have liked but I took mental notes for the days that I was there and wanted to share some of my (random) observations of things that stood out for me. These observations likely reflect my personal biases and things that I’m accustomed to seeing. I tried to observe each event group but probably spent the most time with the short sprint group.
Professionalism. Altis has an interesting and unique model: professionalizing a sport that has previously viewed itself as an amateur sport. Athletes pay (in some cases top dollar) and in return receive stellar coaching and a world class training environment. I hope for the sake of this sport that this model works and proves sustainable as it has the potential to cure much of what has gone wrong in the sport. Track & field cannot continue to expect professional-level performances while continuing to embrace the amateur ideal. Much like the best leaders often eschew government for business, when there is better money to be found elsewhere, the top talent will leave for better opportunities. This is true for both athletes (going to other sports) and coaches so the Altis model is a good case study.
- Expertise. With a coaching staff that boasts the likes of Andreas Behm, Stu McMillan, Kevin Tyler, and Kyle Hierholzer, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience. Master coach Dan Pfaff is no longer coaching full time with Altis but he lectures at all the ACPs and his influence is very obviously and felt throughout the program.
- Atmosphere. The atmosphere is very laid back and similar to what you might see in a college training atmosphere. This is true of the coaches interaction with their athletes as well as with the visiting coaches participating in the ACP. The Altis coaches were more than willing to share with visiting coaches. Coaches walking around barefoot is representative of the overall chill demeanor of the sessions. While this might be perceived as negative by traditional strength coaches it is quite similar to my experiences coaching post-collegiate Track & Field athletes. When you spend 20+ hours a week with a group of athletes for 40+ weeks of the year, the traditional formalities and contrived behaviors classically associated with intensity in less time intensive coaching (like yelling and giving motivational talks, etc) fall to the way side and are replaced with a level of comfort from both sides that is far more productive and conducive to long term development.
- Experimentation. I asked quite a few questions about a certain technique or training method. On several occasions I was told by an Altis coach that they were experimenting. This is something that I frequently do to see if a seemingly worthwhile idea is as good as I’m thinking it mightn’t be. This is the scientific method at work…have a hypothesis, run an ‘experiment, test to see if the results were as expected. If you’re not experimenting with your coaching techniques and method I can say without hesitation that you are falling behind your more open minded coaching peers. The key is to make sure you have a valid reason to experiment in the first place and then be open minded to the results of your experimentation.
- Wickets. Having followed the Altis Instagram feed I knew that they used wickets (mini hurdles) quite extensively. While I have used them in the past it has never been to the same extent as what I’ve seen at Altis. The coaches at Altis use wickets for a variety of purposes including but not limited to reinforcing front side mechanics, enhancing frequency, posture, angle of displacement,
- Surface Modulation. The coaches regularly used surfaces other than the synthetic track for training. This is something I’ve been doing for several years based on the research on surface compliance and leg stiffness but also, anecdotally looking at the success Jamaican sprinters had running largely on grass surfaces. At the very least, it’s safe to say that spending all your time on a rubberized track is not essential to world class performance do there appear to be a host of benefits.
- Intensity. During the sessions I was able to observe, athletes rarely operated at maximal intensity. This was especially true of the speed sessions. Coach Stu McMillan has written about his philosophy elsewhere and why he doesn’t feel that sprinting at maximal intensity is as important as many believe.
- Focus on Skill Acquisition. Skill acquisition seemed to take precedence over intensity. This is not an uncommon practice for technical sessions (especially in the field events) in many camps around the world but it’s quite rare to see movement efficiency stressed over intensity during sprint sessions. This emphasis was evidenced in several areas: complexing of skills to increase movement variability and contextual interference, variation of surface to enhance environmental variability, cueing strategies, overall practice design, and an explicit deemphasis on intensity.
- Frans Bosch Influence. There was a significant Frans Bosh influence in much of the weight room work. Some of this was admittedly experimental and it seemed to go hand in hand with the collective emphasis on skill acquisition over traditional intensity based loading models (where load on the bar might be viewed as the chief emphasis in the weight room).
- Therapy. Performance therapy is a critical component of what they do. The professional athlete group (which makes up a subset of all their athletes) has access to the highest level of track-side care by world class therapists. The therapy not only takes place before and after a session but is actually embedded within the session. This takes place to a degree that I have never seen before. For example, on a low intensity / regeneration day that I observed, the athletes alternated several times between standard movement / warmup protocols and scheduled time on a therapist’s table in an interval-like manner.
It was an honor to speak and be a guest at Altis. If you are interested in checking out their ACP programs you can find more info HERE. They are currently running a promotion on both the ACP and their associated Performance Therapy Program (PTP). Additionally, Altis has a new online program called Altis360 that shares much of the content from their programs in a web streaming format. They have loads of great content on their site and I’d recommend checking that out. Membership on the site is normally $299 per year but you can sign up for just $249 by clicking HERE and using coupon code MYOUNG.