Thursday, July 21, 2011

Coaching Wisdom

Some remendous insight from a recent discussion with a great mentor of mine, Greg Lanners, commenting on the necessary care that must be taken when coaching young athletes and students…

"As coaches, how much drilling should we be doing with kids. Why do we feel such a need to program kids? I understand improving strength, which would seem to be a necessity in our current competitive world, or addressing a significant motor deficiency or movement impairment. And of course injury rehab is an entirely different story. But how do we best impart on kids the pure joy and freedom of movement within their bodies? Not using others as a guide as to how they should move, but allowing them to experience their God given abilities in a natural and pain-free way. And through that also promote the same enjoyment and satisfaction of participating in an athletic or competitive activity. Yes it may change when kids get to college and certainly when they are paid as professionals, the rules/expectations are different. But kids need to be shown and should come to realize that they have a set of very individual abilities or skills that if used frequently can lead to a healthier, more emotionally stable, and fulfilling life. And everybody's skills/abilities/gifts are different. So how fine and precise and specific and technical do we actually need to be? Just get kids to move without inhibition- the old "watch a kindergarten PE class” argument.”

No matter the level of the athlete, a global perspective of the 'larger' picture needs consideration; coach what needs to be coached, don't what doesn't… and it’s not always what you do, but many times, what you don’t do.


More on "False" Stepping

I apologize about the clarity of the videos, they were taken with my phone (and it's not an iphone).

In this first video, I had a group of soccer athletes line up in an athletic stance and the only direction I gave was to sprint 10 yards as fast as possible; ALL athletes utilized the "false" step. The next series of 'races' were with the athletes paired-up; this time I directed the faster of the two athletes (athlete is on the right; determined by electronic testing) to NOT "false" step... even though many couldn't help themselves from not doing it (subconscious... and faster). (I also reversed it and had the other athlete try to NOT "false" step, and the same occurred with them being slower of the line... however the phone on my camera did not save that footage for some reason)

In the second video it is much more clear with court lines to determine who crossed the line first. The first 'race', I instructed two volleyball athletes to line up in an athletic stance and race through the cones. Both employed a "false" step. In the next races it is very evident which athlete was instructed to NOT take a false step; the athlete directed NOT to "false" step was slower or struggled neurologically to utilize the directed strategy (or lack thereof in this case), but arguably both occurred.

In both these cases, the athletes only had to focus on 1 option and that was sprinting straight ahead, let alone in a more dynamic, open chaotic environment where the athlete needs to be ready for a multitude of movements. I feel confident to say that I believe almost every athlete of any level would employ the so-called "false" step in this or similar situations... but don't take my word, test it out with other athletes.

Again, just to reinforce yesterday's blog post on "false" stepping, I really believe the athlete has some very effective instinctive hardware that we need to be careful as to how much we tamper with. Some techniques are important to teach and potentially correct, some are not. We need to figure out which 'skills' need work and which to leave alone, and in certain situations, it appears the "false" step should be left alone. As I stated yesterday, too much focus internally can create a tremendous mess.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"False" Stepping 2

We often talk about the wisdom of the body and I see it all the time with athletes; subconsciously stepping a foot back to put themselves in an optimal or better acceleration position. Is coaching against false stepping going against the wisdom of the body?

There has been some research in support of stepping backwards prior to acceleration, as some coaches term as the “plyo” step. While others are adamantly against the so-called, “false” step. Is there research supporting that NOT “false” stepping is faster than “false” stepping? In talking with elementary educators, they say all young children perform this movement at the necessary times... so is it really a learned bad habit? Or an innate ability to play with the physical qualities of the world in we live? Humans have been evolving and living with gravity much longer than we have been teaching how to move "better"...
How does this change in a reactive environment in which the athlete does not know which way one is going to have to move?

In an open environment an athlete is trying to position themselves quickly and effectively into an optimal biomechanical position (positive shin angle) displacing one’s center of gravity. In order for an athlete to overcome inertia, one has to displace their center of gravity ‘outside’ of their body … along with that, how does the “plyo/false” step set up each subsequent step thereafter?

In a reactive environment in which an athlete might find themselves in an athletic position but not aware of which direction of movement comes next, I have seen many levels and abilities of athletes utilize a “plyo/false” step for advancing forward. (i.e. tennis, infielder in baseball, basketball, volleyball, football). An objective measurement would help settle this long standing debate, but is very difficult to control for in an open environment. The environmental context will change things and I think the “plyo/false” step might at times be an athlete’s most successful option...

The question remains for those coaches that believe you need to coach this instinctive false stepping out of the athlete, how does increasing conscious control in a reactive environment enhance an athlete’s success at getting from point A to a random point B as fast as possible?

In those “oh shit” moments that occur so often in open-skilled sports, it seems that it would be much more effective to allow the subconscious hardware to at least do some of the work. It seems that it is very ‘effortful’ to try to override a subconscious, faster network in a chaotic environment. Technically speaking the “false step” usually/most definitely doesn’t put an athlete in a biomechanically dangerous position; but for those against the “false” step, do what we gain from not stepping back, do we lose during the lag time of the conscious decision to not do so?

Research has shown that activity in the brains motor region can be detected 300 milliseconds prior to the person feeling he/she has decided to move. Lots of research in neuroscience regarding free will is pressing this issue too; regarding subconscious decisions vs. conscious ones and many are showing a delay in the time between the two.

Also, in the forward model of motor control, it’s stated that often the consciousness is alerted to movements/behaviors that are already being planned and performed, and isn’t necessarily ‘causing’ these behaviors/movements. To me, 300 milliseconds is a long time… and every time I line athletes up on the line in an athletic position with feet square to the finish for a 20 meter race (I did it with a group this morning) they all “plyo/false” step on “GO!”. Is every athlete wrong? Or do their bodies have something to say about this interplay with gravity and physics?

If it is a movement error and needs to be 'trained out', what’s the timeframe and payoff? Can it be done in 5 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week? If it can, then why do other skills and physical qualities take so long to develop? Are we again overriding an innate startle reflex that entirely makes up for the “false” stepping, by saving us a few milliseconds in nerve conduction velocity? There is lots going on in the sporting environment, and the body is a big part, but what happens centrally in the brain with inputs and outputs is a large factor too.

Of course context is the key and not every movement in sport requires or should have a false step, but if it happens, most times it’s because it was the most necessary and optimal movement option for that situation.

I personally don't teach anything regarding it. If it happens, it happens. I try to teach good position, expose athletes to multiple different changes of direction (pre-planned and open), and teach them how to position their body to put their COG where it needs to be in order to move effectively. Movement issues sometimes might be lack of awareness, other times it might be a strength issue.

Observe great athletes, because I don't believe they lie; they are great because they are the most successful at accomplishing movement problems and I think there is much to learn from what they do, and I feel that coaching the "false" step out of them would be time better spent on other aspects of athletic development.

It's easy for us as coaches to critique and criticize what we see from the sidelines or stands, but get in a game and one quickly realizes that relying on subconscious processes is the way to go. Too much override from the 'higher levels' of the brain slows things down tremendously. In motor learning, external vs. internal attentional focus shows that external focus far surpasses internal focus in the success rate of accomplishing different skills, along with faster speeds and a decrease in neuromuscular activation… saving both time and energy. (I highly recommend one checks out Gabriele Wulf's research and book, Attention and Motor Skill Learning)

Working against the subconscious to NOT "false" step in certain situations would be an internal focus... less effective than external focus of attention: getting to point B as fast as possible. There are many factors to take into consideration when analyzing and deciphering training plans… in open sports, taking in the sensory information, interpreting, and decision making in the fastest manner possible is all part of the visible physical movements that we see in game action.

Agility/change of direction, acceleration, speed, and jumping are all very interesting movement components to sport and can be a tremendous challenge to prepare athletes who play sport. While certain ‘skills’ look nice to work on in training such as not “false” stepping in situations where it is actually a better option, often very few of these ‘skills’ really occur the way we think they do in a game setting. How much do we try to teach and control movement vs. how much do we let the body self-organize the movement challenges? I’ll share more thoughts later in regards to change of direction in sport. Do what we can in training, give the athlete movement problems to solve, and get out of the way.


Game Acceleration

In Conditioning or Speed Reserve? I mentioned acceleration from tall(er) positions and transitioning into acceleration out of different movements. Some great coaches have been doing this for a long time; but in order to prepare for what's ahead, athletes need to be able to accelerate anytime, anywhere.

Sprinting at maximal velocity is a major component and helps with acceleration from different positions. Also, plyometrics are vital, but we can't forget what might be the most 'plyometric' of them all, max velocity sprinting.

Everything in training is accessory to the game, but the closest training connections as far as specificity goes must be running, jumping, and agility movements; bridging the gap.


Monday, July 18, 2011

"Football Training"

Most of track and field is exempt from this discussion because the sport is measured objectively, and athletes and coaches usually do what's necessary to perform well. At the very least, it isn't easy to hide...

The argument I get tired of hearing is "we don't want to train like football players". I hear it all the time and ask what does a football player train like? You mean with a high level of effort towards developing great speed, power, and strength?

Taking a Socratic approach...

Would your athlete benefit to become stronger/faster/change direction better/jump higher?

Which athletes in the USA do those things the best?

Which athletes accelerate the best?

Which athletes are the fastest?

Which athletes have the best vertical jumps?

Which athletes are the strongest?

Which athletes change direction the best?

The gap to be bridged between "football training" and a sport is done by conditioning techniques and practice of the particular sport. Either way, we can go on kidding ourselves or really start to make changes in athletes.

I understand that football can and, to many extents is, be an entitled culture, but that does not mean there has to be an emotional resentment towards the methods of a sport that has embraced strength and conditioning more than nearly all other sports in America; to developing athletic qualities that almost all athletes can greatly benefit from.

The delusion that we can make something out of nothing is rampant in athletic development; heavy loads and fast movements are necessary. Adaptation doesn't come easy.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Conditioning or Speed Reserve?

Conditioning is important, but what exactly is conditioning? Athletes need to be fit to play their sport and in the majority of sport, repeat sprint ability is king/queen. Carl Valle asks some great questions in Repeat Sprint Ability and Dutch Tables.

I think a giant speed reserve helps with many things… and mechanical efficiency is going to be the driving force behind it. Maximal sprint training and mechanics are a must, and lead to very positive adaptations. Max speed and acceleration technique and training are very specific strength and create a level of competency that can present itself at many movement velocities less than maximum. Many coaches are afraid for their athletes to jog or run at slower speeds, and usually rightfully so, as many look like zombies because of weakness. However, jogging and slower running is inevitable, so how do you attack this glaring issue? One observation I have made is I don't see many high and elite level sprinters that jog poorly. On the other hand, I have not seen as many distance runners sprint well (a presentation of specific strength or lack of...).

Empirically, I competed in sprints in high school at a fairly honest level and the one thing I remember was that the better I got mechanically and the faster I got, the greater the ease at running at sub-maximal speeds. A simple thought experiment is to think of the ease at which Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt could run 110's (the common football conditioning run); run a 100 meter in 15 seconds? Sleeping.

Everything is relative, but working up and right on the force-velocity curve with special attention to mechanics leads to special abilities... or at the very least, great potential below and left of the curve.

The other thing that gets talked about so much is movement efficiency with screening galore, and lots of evaluation at slow speeds and "corrective exercise" at sometimes even slower speeds. This discussion on speed reserve is different and mechanical efficiency at high velocities is usually much different than movement at slow velocities; and sometimes my thoughts are that focus on developing efficiency at higher speeds may lead to improvements in the slower stuff, or maybe it doesn't matter (or maybe you can't because of dysfunction to being with???)... but sport is played fast, not slow.

Another aspect, depending on the sport, is sprint training becomes a discussion of absolute speed vs. acceleration...

My comments from the discussion at elitetrack from Carl's blog post above, "Obviously this discussion has taken a different route beyond repeated sprint ability and gone towards max velocity… but the way I look at it is; a sport like basketball does not specifically involve resisted back squats, cleans, or depth jumps, or rarely has athletes running at max velocity, however, running at max velocity does have some very unique biomechanical and neuromuscular qualities that make it fairly useful method such as the utilization of back squats, cleans, depth jumps, etc.

The “plyometric” effect of max velocity sprinting is pretty intense, and exposing the body’s systems to sprinting, may go a long way in getting and keeping athletes healthy, fast, and athletic. (read: Changes in muscle activity with increasing running speed. Kyrolainen, H. Avela, J. Komi, PV.)"

To add to the above statement, many small court and field sports require athletes to accelerate from tall positions, plus transitions out of runs and changes of direction with the potential to hit high velocities. I think regardless of the sport, max velocity sprinting has a place; Acceleration and Absolute Speed.
There are many questions that fall under the blanket term conditioning and the other is volume. How much is necessary? As Carl stated in his post and as was some discussion at GAIN, some teams are throwing out the old/traditional means to get fit for the specific sport (ex. gassers, shuttles). At the same time, there has been a resurgence of coaches advocating aerobic development; what and how much is necessary? The totality of training needs to be looked at carefully. Those teams that are training high intensity qualities such as speed, power, agility, strength, while doing lower intensity mobility, purposeful circuits, technique and skill work... how much more is necessary as far as specific aerobic or even anaerobic development? How much of the energy systems are developed through those means (i.e. cumulative)? Skillful movers are usually skillful movers and to develop leads to some great efficiency... a giant speed reserve. All this comes full circle with more questions of how much, how often, and how intense? The search continues...
A couple thoughts going into the 4th weekend:
-Jim Radcliffe eloquently stated at GAIN, "we learn to negotiate the ground well." Key word: LEARN.
-Speed kills.
Have a safe and happy 4th of July! (Happy Canada Day too)