Monday, November 29, 2010

A great read; the power of culture

It's been a busy semester and I have not had as much time as I would like lately to read, but I did get a chance to take a look at this excellent paper looking at the ecological components of the IFK Vaxjo track and field club in Sweden:

Successful talent development in track and field: considering the role of environment.

Henriksen K, Stambulova N, Roessler KK.

Institute of Sport Science and Clinical Biomechanics, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark.

Track and field includes a number of high-intensity disciplines with many demanding practices and represents a motivational challenge for talented athletes aiming to make a successful transition to the senior elite level. Based on a holistic ecological approach, this study presents an analysis of a particular athletic talent development environment, the IFK Växjö track and field club, and examines key factors behind its successful history of creating top-level athletes. The research takes the form of a case study. Data were collected from multiple perspectives (in-depth interviews with administrators, coaches and athletes), from multiple situations (observation of training, competitions and meetings) and from the analysis of documents. The environment was characterized by a high degree of cohesion, by the organization of athletes and coaches into groups and teams, and by the important role given to elite athletes. A strong organizational culture, characterized by values of open co-operation, by a focus on performance process and by a whole-person approach, provided an important basis for the environment's success. The holistic ecological approach encourages practitioners to broaden their focus beyond the individual in their efforts to help talented junior athletes make a successful transition to the elite senior level.

Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Oct;20 Suppl 2:122-32.

A few quotes from the paper that stood out to me:

-A prospect athlete commented on training with elite athletes:
"I believe they remind us that it is possible to become best in the world when training in this club. We train besides them and see that they also get tired, but manage to stay focused. Sometimes they invite other world class athletes, and we see how they interact and benefit from training together."

-"I was called up by an American coach who asked me about some training issues in heptathlon. I told him it was difficult to describe over the phone, but I could just send him Carolina’s last seven years training plans. He was stunned and said: ‘‘You are crazy, man. You should make a fortune on those plans’’. I told him it was just training, not secrets, just a lot of papers with numbers on them. What counts is what you make of it, how you make the athlete train with focus and intensity. He did not understand."

-Ten years ago we rejected co-operation with a set of parents. They were very skilled coaches, but they wanted to turn a group of 13-year-old kids, including their own children, into an elite group. We told them: ‘‘You are more than welcome here, but in this club we will not break up a prospect group to create an elite group. If you want to do so, find another club’’. They did. Three years later, all of their three sons, who were very skilled athletes, had left the sport. I talked to one of them later and he told me the experience just wasn’t any fun.

-The athletes must learn to be responsible, which requires foremost knowledge of oneself. If they miss training, it is up to them to catch up and show me what they have been training on their own. Every day we work with their personal development finding a balance between helping and not helping too much.

... and an important, uncommon, look at some of the discipline characteristics of their athletes, (an approach many of our athletes might find useful to adopt)...

-The prospects mention partying as a major part of youth culture among their non-sport peers that fits poorly with life as an ambitious athlete. The athletes appreciate their Saturday morning training session, which gives them an excuse to leave early on a Friday night and several athletes have at some point deselected friends, who were unwilling to accept their athlete life style. A coach commented on the high expectations placed on youth in Sweden: “The young athletes, particularly girls, are expected to do well in sports and school, to help around the house and even to look pretty and dress right. These are tough demands”.

... and one more; a great point on attitude...

-Another resource worth mentioning is the attitude of coaches and managers involved in the different track and field institutions in Växjö, clearly illustrated by the words of an elite coach: "We have managed to build an elite organization with exceptionally many and skilled coaches. In this regard I give a damn about the club. I refuse to see this in a perspective of club, high school, university or whatever. What counts is all track and field in Växjö. We need to disregard who has the main role and simply provide the best possible training for any serious athlete. In total we are 26 coaches involved with elite and very talented athletes. You will not find this anywhere else."

IFK Va¨ xjo track and field club has a special booklet to present their core values of the club to new coaches, parents, athletes and business sponsors. Within the book are a set of 7 assumptions followed by the club:

-“Our blue book represents a mindset. Adopt this frame of mind and you will be able to answer almost any question… We have deliberately compiled a philosophy rather than a manual”

1. Excellence can be reached through cooperation and openness
2. We are a family, in which everybody contributes
3. Group and team organization is a precondition for the development and continued motivation of athletes and coaches
4. Attitude beats class
(explained by an elite coach: “To be crude, I really don‟t give a damn about how good they are. I can work with any athlete as long he or she really wants this”)
5. An athlete is a whole person
6. Successful development is more important than early results
7. The club can always improve

Pretty damn good stuff if you ask me.


Friday, November 12, 2010


One thing I realize more everyday is to not mistake common for normal. Or even common for average, because I am afraid common is usually far below average.

But then again, I guess it is all relative to perspective.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Coaching" assumption

It's important to have good cues for teaching different techniques, but what's always been a real 'eye-opener' for me is asking the athletes to explain what those cues mean. On many occasions a cue I have been telling athletes for a certain lift, drill, or exercise has meant something entirely different to the athlete... or meant nothing at all. I have asked athletes, "do you know what I mean, when I say ______ ?", or better yet, "can you show me what I mean when I say ______?" The responses have often times been 'I don't know' or a blank stare. No wonder they have not improved.

Coaching is more than just telling athletes what to do and barking out a few cues. Interpretation of those cues is critical. Patience with the time it takes to do things right and to coach right is vital to the opportunity for success within any program. I am continually working on this patience and making sure to take the time to utilitize not only words, but even more importantly in ultilizing good demonstration, followed by repetition, then the necessary/optimal feedback, followed by more repetition.

It's easy as a coach to fall into the trap of assumption, but athletes usually don't have near the understanding that you do as a coach. It's important to not overload athletes with too much information all at one time, but to give it in small doses and then be absolutely certain that they know what you mean.

"You haven't taught until they have learned" -John Wooden.