Defining the Field of Athletic Development – Where We Are Now
Why am I writing this? Who am I to tell you how to train or rehab your athletes? How can I have the impudence to question some of the hallowed concepts of training and performance, even question sports science? I have consistently questioned much of what passes as conventional wisdom in regards to training and rehab and I have the audacity to ask you to do the same. Think and question. Why? On whose authority do I speak? Frankly I speak on the authority of wisdom based on experience and common sense. I have a passionate belief in defining the field of athletic development. I am defined by what I am not, I am not a sport scientist, physical therapist, ATC, a doctor, or a sport psychologist, I am a coach. As a coach I have had to travel in all those worlds, because of my experience in those worlds I am not restrained by conventional wisdom; rather I choose to use conventional wisdom as a starting point. I certainly have learned from all those disciplines and have incorporated those ideas into a systematic approach to athletic development. I have specialized in being a generalist. Being a generalist allows me to focus on the big picture, the connections and relationships that define athleticism. The arena of athletic competition on the track, the fields, courts and pools of the world are the laboratories to test these concepts. There is no hiding in this arena, it is a results driven world where training mistakes and inadequate preparation are quickly exposed.
Athletic development is about optimizing training to enhance performance in the competitive arena. The basic concepts are quite simple. My experience has shown that simplicity yields complexity, you don’t have to try to make it complicated. That is why being a generalist is so important; it allows me to make relationships that the specialist because of their narrower vision will not see. Sophisticated technology and computer algorithms are part of a much bigger picture. Over reliance on tools and technology will not get the job done. You need the coach with experience to ask the key questions and interpret the data. Without that, high tech tools are no more than random number generators.
Much of what I stand for is not new, we already know it, it has worked in the past in a myriad of environments but has been rejected as old fashioned, not high tech, not scientific. We have abandoned proven methods in the name of progress. Certainly in every field of endeavor everything old is new again, but because of our society’s rejection of the past we have not studied the coaches who paved the way for us. It is trite to say that we stand on the shoulder of giants but without coaches like Bill Bowerman, Doc Councilman, Geoff Dyson, Franz Stampfl, and Percy Cerruty where would we be today in terms athletic performance. They were innovators who were not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. No one stands alone, I have been very fortunate to learn from many people. Most importantly I have learned from the athletes that I have coached. Who better to learn from? They were the ones who did the training; they were the ones, who competed.
My concepts of training are based on study of past training methods, sports science research and practical experience working with all levels of athlete. You learn through deliberate practice, through trial and error. You learn in the trenches, not in a book or a laboratory. You learn form your mistakes and your successes. That is where you start, but that is just a beginning. What I do is common sense; it works because it is simple and natural. If we follow our survival instincts we will do the correct things concerning movement and training. Modern society and conventional wisdom in training has dulled our instincts to the point that they are buried. The key is to unlock these instincts and allow the body to solve movement problems the way the body was designed to function. This is not dangerous or extreme, it is essentially what children do in free play when unrestrained by adult supervision and burdened by having to do the movements correctly. Today even at the highest levels of sport coaches are creating robots. Movement is not paint by numbers, it is an expressionist drawing, it is not a classical music aria, it is jazz riff.
We need to get away from reductionist thinking, stop breaking movement and exercise into its smallest parts and the focus on those parts in hopes of producing a moving flowing working whole, it won’t happen. It will only happen if there is a quantum approach, an approach that focuses on the big picture and the connections. In many respects this is where sport science has failed us. In the rush to publish and the desire to show statistical significance we have become so reductionist in our thinking that we now fail to see the forest for the trees. Focusing on Max VO2 or trying to isolate the internal oblique and transverse abdominis, while very neat and clean in the lab just do not transfer well to the performance area. Is it important to understand scientific concepts? Yes it is, but we must not be restrained by them. I remember scientists and sports medicine people publishing papers on the Fosbury Flop after the 1968 Olympics when Fosbury won the gold medal in the high jump. The substance was that this was an inefficient dangerous way to jump, merely an aberration that would soon go away. Several years later when a jumper using the Fosbury technique broke the world record, the same people were publishing articles and papers extolling the biomechanical advantage of the technique. Coaches and athletes knew it immediately, it was more natural, they could see and feel it. It took advantage of body structure and function to effectively apply force against the ground. Where would high jump performance be if we had listened to the initial response from the scientist? Coaches and athletes lead innovation in training and technique, not scientists.
Most scientific studies are isolated studies out of context of the spectrum of human movement demands. Science needs to measure an isolated component in order to conduct “valid” scientific experiments. I understand that those are the rules of the game for the scientist, but outside the lab in the real world of performance the rules are different. On the field or in the pool we cannot isolate variables. Does that mean we should reject science and rely solely on practice and experience, absolutely not. As coaches we need to travel in both worlds. As a coach, statistical significance does not mean anything to me, I am interested in coaching significance and how it applies to making a particular exercise or training method more effective. The great coaches I have known are both artists and scientists. They know what canvas to paint on, what brushes to select, the brush strokes to use and how to blend the colors to achieve the result they desire. We must get all the pieces working in harmony. In performance the essence is linkage and connections, not isolation. Therefore the training should reflect this and focus on muscle synergies and connections.
I am alarmed with the biased one sided training regimens that I see imposed on athletes. If you are doing a lot of something then you are probably not doing a lot of something else, a zero sum relationship. When you do this the result is a highly adapted athlete, the athlete adapts to that one component being trained. To thrive in the performance arena demands a highly adaptable athlete whose training is not biased, but reflects the demands of the sport and the needs of the individual athlete.
Certainly we are not going where no one else has gone before, we are not sailing uncharted waters, the path is clear, and the destination is obvious. That begs the question then, why with all we know and the supposed progress we have made, why are results so inconsistent. Why are preventable injuries at levels never seen before in sport? Do we need to take a different approach? We must take a long look at what got us to this point. Look back at what worked in the past. Look at those people who are producing consistent reproducible results. We need direction, definition and leadership, not more marketing and hype. We need to recognize and acknowledge the problems and address them with concrete solutions. To achieve this we need to shift the focus back on people, not facilities, equipment and training methods. Coaching is a people profession, people working with people to raise performance levels. We must do everything possible to raise the standard of coaching. I hope this stimulates you to get on board and help me to define the field of athletic development. We can change and we must change or we will go the way of the dinosaur. I implore you to get out of the weight room, go out and work to build highly adaptable athletes that can thrive in the competitive arena.