In my small and humble career, I have had a few moments that have impressed me as a coach. Well, last week it was my distinct pleasure to have been a part of the apprentice coach’s program in Phoenix with Dan Pfaff’s training group Altis. The program’s intent to educate, expose and improve coaches through the different coaching philosophies Pfaff’s staff have developed. My wife and I decided to make a vacation out of a week in Phoenix. It is very rare that a coach gets to submerge themselves neck deep into a training group deep into the competition season as over a hundred plus athletes are fighting for a chance at the Olympic dream. To say I was excited and nervous before stepping onto meeting all these gods of the track and field is an understatement. Almost uniformly the coaches at Altis were welcoming, open, and very social. I found it interesting they asked nearly as many questions of us as we asked of them during the week. Early each morning the athletes march onto the Paradise Valley Community College track. One of the keys to the Altis training group is their lengthy specialized warm ups. The extended warm ups fit into our warm up at Central High School. For many years, it has been my philosophy to “slow cook the meat” to prepare the athlete adequately for the day’s training. The group’s warm ups increase in amplitude and intensity from start to finish. Pfaff has also mentioned on numerous occasions the warm up is not to teach proper mechanics but instead diagnostic for the firing pattern issues maybe from potential injuries. Training at a high level requires massive output from the Olympic athletes. Altis uses trackside therapy to help keep the athlete healthy and to iron out small physical disturbances. Altis trackside treatment looks like something out of a Formula 1 pit stop. Short sprinters, long sprinter, and jumps/multi-eventers each have their own tent. Underneath the tents is a constant flurry of activity. People were getting ART, adjustments, massage, and even acupuncture. The program is not meant to interrupt training instead it is intended to help the athlete complete as much of the plan “A” training for the day. The more training completed, the higher the level of a sprinter’s fitness and therefore a better chance of PBs on race day. Each athlete feels comfortable to get the care they need along with the confidence to let it fly in training because they know the support system is at the ready and one step away. If an athlete is bothered by more severe problems, the coaching staff is already prepared with plan “B” workouts. For example, a sprinter can go from planned flying 30s to controlled rotary runs over mini hurdles to runs over the shin to dribble runs over the ankles. If the work is not sufficient to closely match the daily training, alternative methods can be continued on a stationary bike or at lower intensities on the ground. A key principle to these sessions is to mimic as closely to the daily plan as possible.
Another aspect of healthy training programs is no excess junk training. Observing Altis many coaches might be surprised by the low volume of training but just a few weeks out of Olympic Trials things need to be sharp, high quality, and not at all exhaustive. Additionally, the athletes do a good job of keeping at a high state of readiness and never need “base” work. “Work capacity” yes but no base training. Most of the athletes fit into a 2-1 training cycle. The 2-1 plan goes for weeks and days of training. For example, the athletes are expected to train with a high intensity for two weeks straight and followed by restoration on the third week. During each week, the athlete follows a similar pattern day to day. Two on and one off. Typically, Tuesday and Saturday are what casual observers would consider the toughest days of training. Workouts are scripted. A quick title like Verdun gives the sprinters the knowledge of the script for a unit in training. For an elite athlete, each day is necessary including active recovery. Even on days of recovery athletes can be seen doing hurdle mobility, general strength activities, and medicine ball throws. Within in the daily training sessions, the activities are built to crescendo from one part of the athlete’s event to the next. An athlete may do drop in build ups, accelerations from the blocks, wickets, and finish with flying 30s. Recoveries between reps are typically long to help ensure the quality of each effort and allow time for trackside treatment. Often these recoveries are at the athlete’s discretion. The weight training and additional treatment takes place at an EXOS facility just about two miles up the road. Most of the athletes were equally efficient during their strength training. On the site, they had access to more treatment. Coaches dropped in to help explain what the athletes were doing to those of us observing training. However, they have coaches who specialize in strength training and have been tasked to make sure those activities are being performed correctly. Overall Altis athlete’s weight training fit into three zones. Zone one is where the athlete moves the bar at high speeds, zone two is hypertrophic, and zone three is maximal lifts. Before Olympic Trials, the athletes spend nearly all their time in zone one and zone three. No need for the excess muscle to slow the athlete down on race day. If all else fails, the coaches are not afraid to give their athletes more control over daily training. Coach Andreas Behm has provided sprinters/hurdlers a menu of training items they can choose workouts best suited for the conditions or feel of the athletes. After the daily workouts, we had the pleasure to be schooled by Altis staff with afternoon presentations. Each skull session was built to explain different aspects of their program. Lecture topics included genetic profiling to race modeling. At the end of the day, we got the pleasure of a daily open ended “poolside” chats with Pfaff and his staff.
Pfaff is as advertised. He has an HD eye that can slow things down, followed by quick coaching cues, and funny stories. Very few coaches can stand in the middle of a track with ten different workouts going at the same time managing it all with the timing and direction of a symphonic maestro. Pfaff strategically placed himself so he could literally spin between different groups for hours at a time. Cueing was a quick short burst of information. No athlete was given a drawn out speech. Info was provided directly with each attempt, run, or throw. The admiration for the Pfaff was palpable. In his 40 plus years of coaching Dan is still searching for the best methods to improve his athletes. That dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and willingness to explore new approaches is humbling. We should never think we have it all figured out even after we coached in 10 Olympic games. Coach Pfaff speaks with authority but not in a condensing way. Instead, there is an urgency to help us future coaches cut down on mistakes so we can best benefit all the people we work with during our coaching. “Attitude reflects leadership captain” is a quote from one of my favorite movies Remember the Titans. Interestingly most of the long time athletes in Dan’s camp reflected his attitude and interested in doing things the right way.
A highlight of my week was a quick conversation with Olympic, World, and Commonwealth Champ Greg Rutherford. Greg was an endless stream positive words about Dan. He said that Dan is the only reason he spends so many weeks thousands of miles away from home. He went on to say that Dan is the only coach in the world who can get such great results in almost any event in track and field. Some coaches can come close in an individual event but not in every aspect of track and field like Pfaff. After just a short week I couldn’t disagree with Rutherford. You could tell by the sincerity in Champ’s voice Dan was not just his coach for the last seven years, but that Pfaff was part of Greg’s family. Altis was perfect for my track and field soul. The time immersed there opened many intellectual doors as I finish up my book. I can’t thank the coaches enough to let me pester them for a hot week in June. Every coach should make time to visit Phoenix and spend some time with the giants in our sport. The experience is priceless.