A few months ago, I asked a question as to what people would be interested in reading about with regards to my training. The most overwhelming response I got was “What types of things are you thinking about when you’re training an athlete?” This was an extremely loaded question and it took a lot of preliminary unpacking before I could even begin to fully understand what was being asked. My brain is working at light speed in multiple directions throughout the duration of my sessions. This includes things such as communication strategies, the way I provide feedback, when to provide feedback, how to correct movement faults, how to progress the workout, and most importantly connect with the athlete. Though many of us have different niches, backgrounds, and skillsets; the foundations of performance are largely centered around the precise execution of movement that is situational in nature. So when asked about the things I’m taking into consideration when training, the most simple yet complex answer I can give is: It depends.
Before we can delve into what I take into account when training an athlete or myself, we need to take about ten steps back in order to see the framework we are working in here. What I do to train an athlete means nothing if I’m not taking into consideration all of the things that make the athlete who they are. In other words, an athlete is not simply an athlete and there is no generic approach that I (or any other coach) should be taking when working with or attempting to develop an individual or group. The psychological and social aspects of who you are feed directly into the way that you approach every situation in life. The way that it impacts your interactions every day may vary, but there’s an underlying constant that all people have as to the ways they’d prefer to learn, be approached, and interacted with. You can’t expect all athletes to respond the same way to a generic interaction and approach to training. There is not a “one size fits all” approach to human interaction that will get your desired results every time. So as I begin working with an athlete, I have to get a feel of the type of person they are. I need to learn how to interact with them in such a way that they are not only receptive of what I’m teaching them, but they understand and are motivated to work hard at it as well. In other words, training athletes goes beyond simply designing workout plans and walking them through it. You must be able to connect and meet them where they are socially, academically, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually for your program to mean anything in their lives. If I have a cookie cutter program and I implement it the same way every time, I am effectively trying to force the athlete to fit into my program when in reality, I should be finding ways that I can change the way I implement my program to complement each athlete’s personality traits, learning styles, and feedback preferences.
When it comes to feedback, you will find that athletes respond very differently to similar cues. One athlete may hear something and overdo it, while another athlete may not have the coordination to even attempt the task. One athlete may feel attacked by my feedback and it takes away from their performance, whereas another athlete receives the same feedback well and it motivates him/her to be better. It is up to you as a coach to be able to read athletes and see that what works well for some athletes may be detrimental to others. Because of these discrepancies, we as coaches must be able to provide feedback in a variety of ways. I’ve listed a few feedback mechanisms below.
Something else to consider along the lines of feedback is the way that you communicate said feedback with each athlete. Similar to feedback mechanisms, you must have the capacity to communicate in a variety of ways. If you don’t have this skill it is going to be detrimental to your long term success. Consider the way you communicate as the language that you are speaking with each athlete, both figuratively and literally. If an athlete doesn’t “speak your language” per se, even the world’s best program becomes useless. If I can’t convey my message to you in a meaningful way, then none of it matters. So as coaches and trainers, we must be adaptable in picking up on an athlete’s preferred communication style and letting that influence the ways we choose to teach them in order to maximize time, build rapport, and ultimately produce better execution and outcomes related to our programs. Some communication styles are as follows:
Revisiting feedback mechanisms and communication, it is not to say that your program mantras and ideals need to be changed. The way that you build a team culture should never be compromised. The points I made above are simply asking you to entertain the idea that there may be athletes on your team that aren’t reaching their performance potential because you aren’t communicating or providing feedback to them in a way that is productive to their individual learning styles and interactive preferences. There are tons of athletes all over the country who are under-achieving every day. Is it due to feedback and communication? Do they understand what is expected of them? Have they bought into what you’re telling them? Why or why not? Do they need an extra boost? Figure out how to pull the results out of them and everybody wins.
Now that you’ve got a basic idea of how I approach the athlete as a person, let’s talk about how I develop the athletic side of things. From the moment an athlete walks up to me, I’m analyzing a lot of different things related to movement. When you step into my practice, everything is strictly BUSINESS. Throughout my warm up I give each athlete specific things that they need to be focusing on and be very mindful of. The warm up is not simply to increase your body temperature, blood flow, CNS stimulation, or to improve excitability of muscular tissue, it goes much deeper than that. The warm up should be specific to the end goal of what you’re trying to accomplish from a movement perspective. In other words, I am incorporating outcome specific movements and postures during the warm up so that I can begin to improve movement patterns and rewire lifelong motor maps from the start. From the moment we began to crawl, walk, hop, jog, sprint, and play sports, we have each developed our own unique ways of accomplishing the different tasks. These personal strategies make up our motor maps and are engrained in our muscle memory typically through numerous repetitions and the absence of feedback. It is my job to reinforce the good things within these unique motor maps and rewire the bad habits so that the athlete can begin a trajectory towards optimal movement and improved performance. Throughout the warm up I am looking for clues that may lead me in a certain direction with each athlete. For example: I see an athlete that readily bends in their trunk rather than their hips. It is prominent in their dynamic drills, plyometrics, running, putting their shoes on, and it is screaming at me with everything else they do. Is this a coordination issue? Are their abs weak? Are their hips stiff? Can I address this through the warm up? There are many other examples I could give on all the insufficient and cheap ways that athletes have taught themselves how to move, but we must continue. The key here is that the warm up should be given a purpose and can be utilized to address a variety of movement and postural insufficiencies. If you’re not giving the warm up purpose, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to make a difference in your program, especially considering the warm up takes up 15-30+ minutes of your practice plan. Once you have identified the movement issues, you can continue to implement more specific drills to build upon the targeted movement or posture.
You may be wondering why I have such a high focus on movement. I have one word for you: Efficiency. If I can change the way an athlete moves to improve overall athletic performance and decrease risk of injury, why wouldn’t I? One false step can be the difference between getting an interception and giving up a touchdown. Time wasted can be the 0.01s difference between a championship and missing the podium. Poor technique can be the difference between squatting a house and injuring yourself. I personally used to live in the weight room and became very strong for my body weight, though I was confused why my times were staying the same even though my numbers were through the roof. It wasn’t until I figured out how to apply these principles to my own performance that my career began to take off as a sprinter in college. Going from an above average high schooler (10.98/22.41/49.19) to a competitive Division I sprinter (10.57/21.18) was rooted in improving my mechanical insufficiencies and execution. The way that I applied my force into the ground was sub-par prior to attending Iowa and after a few years I had a massive mechanical breakthrough that allowed me to apply my power correctly and thrive at the starting line and in relays. It took me buckling down on my lifestyle and movement habits to really figure out how to become the athlete I always envisioned myself to be.
While I believe there is an idealized biomechanical model for various sport-specific movements, I understand that athletes have unique structural variations that must be compensated for. Knowing this information is important, but it doesn’t mean that I should totally abandon the pursuit of ideal movement economy. I’m constantly assessing movement throughout the session and looking for trends so that I can decide what I’ll be targeting and how I’ll accomplish what I’m after. Establishing this plan of attack is crucial as you work through various progressions, cues, and demonstrations.
THE DECISION TREE OF HABITUAL CHANGE
There are four performance outcomes associated with making biomechanical changes: improvement, decline, neutrality, or in some cases a compromise of safety occurs. Because it is relatively simple to assess the effectiveness of biomechanical changes, I don’t think it is a waste of time to try. The first time an athlete gets the movement right will not be indicative of the effect it has on their performance. Allow them to get more comfortable with it, gain more control of it, and integrate it regularly prior to visiting The Decision Tree of Habitual Change. This decision tree applies to technique, execution, biomechanics, and any other habits that are able to be varied by a coach. You can apply this tree to other process outcomes that occur throughout daily life such as studying, weight lifting, human interaction, and more. I just made this model up, so please feel free to tear it apart.
The Decision Tree of Habitual Change:
1. If you make a change and it improves performance, maintain the change.
Exception: If safety is compromised, abandon the change.
2. If you make a change and performance declines, abandon the change.
Exception: If safety is improved, maintain the change.
3. If no change in performance occurs and there is no change in safety, let the athlete decide.
IMPORTANT: Safety should never be compromised in the pursuit of performance. The best ability is availability, and if you can positively affect availability, you should absolutely pursue making that change. On the other hand, any changes that begin to elicit persistent pain should be abandoned. This isn’t to say that injuries still won’t spontaneously occur, but you should do your best keep the athletes moving in such a way that does not further feed into that susceptibility.
THE MOVEMENT PUZZLE
Once I have made a positive change, I continue to implement it every chance I get until the change is mastered and becomes second nature. Think about movement like a puzzle in that there are many pieces that comprise the big picture. Without a visual, the athlete may not understand what the end product is supposed to look like and it will be difficult to put all of these little pieces together. Initially, it is overwhelming looking at this pile of pieces and it may be frustrating trying to figure out how to begin both for the coach and the athlete. With your help the athlete can begin to make sense of each piece of the puzzle in isolation, but will be unsure how it is all supposed to fit together at the end. There is no singular piece to this puzzle that will allow the athlete to complete it, but rather it will take a combination of pieces becoming aligned for the athlete to start to see the bigger picture without your guidance. At this point in the conquest, each piece falls into place slightly easier than the one before and eventually the entire puzzle completes itself. The most difficult part of this journey is getting to the turning point where you find the one piece that makes the rest of the tasks much easier to complete. Maybe there are 30 movement faults that you see and being able to correct 5 of them allows 15 more faults to work themselves out. There are still a lot of things to work on, but 67% of the puzzle was solved by figuring out how 17% of the pieces fit together. This is another example of less being more in that we don’t need to feed the athletes 1000 cues and fix each aspect of their movement all at once. If I’m trying to fix the way I move and I hear “elbow here, knees there, feet this way, head that way, bend here, stand up, bigger, faster, etc.”… I’m going to be super overwhelmed and unable to make sense of all of these moving parts. If I can focus on a few things at a time, there’s a chance that the majority of the faults may work themselves out in the process. This is the premise of the movement puzzle and how it applies to task-specific movements.
TASK VARIATION AND INTENTIONAL LOADING
The athletes have been performing a variety of dynamic postural and mechanical drills to this point. Until they’ve demonstrated a certain level of coordination and competence with sub-max repetitions, I am typically pretty restrained with how I structure the actual “workout” portion of the session. If your mechanics are flawed and putting you in foreseeable danger, why would I want you sprinting full speed under my direction? That would be an incompetent decision on my part and may result in decreased trust, buy-in, and respect from the athlete (and/or parents). This is an athlete’s career and possible livelihood that you have in your hands. Your decision-making should be well informed and intentional at all times.
Fast forward to skill competence and it is time for the higher level stuff. We have a strong foundation and can begin to dial in on more task-specific movements with variable difficulty. For a wide receiver, the progression might be routes on air, routes vs a single defender, half drills, 7-on-7, full team scrimmage, with the most difficult task being game time. The more realistic you can make the practice environment, the more carryover you will likely see when it’s time to compete and it should be known that this concept can be applied to all sports. I also believe it is good to have competition within the athlete and between athletes, so any time you can objectively measure a repetition of a skill, drill, or task; you should absolutely do so. Tony Holler has mentioned the benefits of Recording, Ranking, and Publishing results of these objective measurements. You begin to see a higher level of excitation with each rep, friendly competition, cheer teammates to personal bests, and they want to improve within themselves all at the same time. Competition breeds high quality performance and any time that we can tap into that type of practice environment we will ultimately better prepare our athletes for the real thing as well as reap greater benefits from superb practice sessions.
In summary, my approach to working with athletes begins with assessing the ways an athlete responds to feedback and communication. If I can’t provide effective feedback or appropriate communication, I will fail no matter how tried and true my program’s history has been. You need to get buy in and belief in your program to maximize results. An athlete that believes in what he/she is doing will ultimately give you more effort, take what you say more seriously, and care about continuing to refine and implement what you’ve taught them outside of your practice sessions. It is also important to me to begin to work on movement and execution as soon as possible. If an athlete can’t complete a complex movement, I need to break it down into simpler pieces and help them put each piece together so that they can see and work their way towards the bigger picture. Increased movement economy can lead to a variety of positive performance outcomes the same way that poor movement economy can take away from performance and lead to injury. By not addressing it, we are complacent with what we’ve got and selling ourselves short by not attempting to pursue improvements. Once movement has been mastered and the puzzle has been put together, I begin to challenge the athlete with higher loads, intensities, velocities, and complex tasks to continue to refine this mastery which then becomes second nature and is easily executed during competition. Sports and life are defined by movement. Success and failure can be decided by movement (or lack thereof). If you’re not addressing movement, you’re missing out on a large piece of the very foundation that makes up performance.
I want to thank you for reading this article and hope that it has helped stimulate thinking for your future interactions and practice plans. I also encourage you to come to me with any and all questions that you may have regarding the various topics I wrote about. I’m always open to feedback as it is the only way that I can refine my writing techniques and produce better content in the future. I’ve listed some viable options for contacting me below. Once again I appreciate your time and never forget, SPEED KILLS!
Brendan Thompson, SPT
WashU - Anticipated DPT 2020
BT Exceleration, LLC
Division I All-American Sprinter
Twitter/IG: @BrendanThompsn / @BTExceleration