Friday, December 21, 2012

The Navy SEAL Delusion

It's quite amusing to see all the make-believe military and special ops training that many athletic programs are doing these days. I am not quite sure what it's for. Maybe coaches think they might be developing "mental toughness" or "team cohesion".
It seems every week there is a story popping up about how some team trained with or like the Navy Seals this past off-season. Now, I enjoy learning and reading about the Navy Seals as much as anybody and I think there are principles to take from them. However, the delusion that doing a week of "evolutions" or a few days out the year pretending to be on the beach of Coronado Island seems a bit ludicrous for athletes.

BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) is a filtration process to become a Navy SEAL where the enlistees are able to DOR (drop on request) at any time, which is a good thing for the SEALS, as it gets rid of those that aren't mentally tough enough. The SEALS aren't expecting BUD/S to develop as much mental toughness as they are to weed-out those that don't have the mental character. I highly recommend Dick Couch's (one of the original 'frogmen') book "The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228" to get a very descript look at what BUD/S training is.

The Navy SEALS are the best at what they do, because they plan, prepare, and follow through day after day, month after month, year after year - "the training never ends" -  it's no way just BUD/S... and the way I see those teams that use faux BUD/S is downright sloppy - how about just good technique and hard work in the weight room, field or court? Navy Seals are disciplined, grown-up men who are warriors that take their job very seriously. I work with student-athletes.

How about just following through with some of the principles that make for good SEALS (and equally, good athletes)?

-Required to be prepared (eating right, going to bed on time, extra practice, study, stretching, whatever...).

-Being held accountable, showing up every day and on time (and making sure teammates do also). Such as being able to get up and perform early in the morning at any point in the year... not just one or two weeks in the summer. If a SEAL screws up, there is a consequence (we should have consequences with our athletes too, aka, holding people accountable).

-Expecting things to be done right (respecting technique and effort, no screwing around when it's between the start and finish of the allotted training time), and having a deep respect for the process, with the intent to get better each day.

-Being consistently great at the fundamentals (what's more of a mental challenge than doing both the little things and big things right every day?).

-There are no "off" days, everyday has a focus (all the things above, along with going to class and maintaining grades).

Maybe the "Hell Week" is used for team building? Each year, it seems someone is doing something more radical, like all the military training, to "team build". How do you top this stuff? I get athletes and sport coaches wondering why we aren't doing the same or how we might be able to do something "outside the box" too. Maybe someday, I'll take a team up Mt. Everest? Athletic development/strength and conditioning has nearly become an entertainment profession. I remember playing "War" when I grew up... I guess it's all the same. Whatever happened to team building like challenges from something called 'practice'?

There is the possibility that sometimes pressing too hard for all this mental toughness training and team building can back fire too. I know I've participated in some of these 'exercises', and I thought they were the stupidest thing I've ever done - artificial and fake. Everyone wants more with "new and better", yet often paradoxically, trying too hard, gets you less with "old and worse".

But what do I know... the placebo seems to be the thing these days.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Black Box

Heart Rate, Resting Heart Rate, Heart Rate Recovery, Heart Rate Variability, Left Ventricular Hypertrophy, Autonomic Tone, Electromyography, Motor Unit Recruitment, Energy Systems, VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold, Glucocorticoids, Testosterone, Human Growth Hormone, Hematocrit, Body Composition, Protein Synthesis, Glucose, Insulin, and on, and on...

Important measures? Maybe. Helpful? Debatable.

I like the internal details - they can definitely add insight and direction... but when it comes to coaching, you better have the awareness, skills, and diligence to work with a black box.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Gun Control Debate: My Thoughts

I get the different perspectives of this argument.

Most of it revolves around fear and trust: fear of losing something or someone, and a trust of each other and that the 'right' thing will be done.

Those that are for the right to bear arms, have a fear of the impingement of their "rights" and fear for personal and social protection, but deeper, likely a fear that somehow this country will slowly transform into George Orwell's "1984" or Nazi, Germany. I get it. I too, don't want to lose what's great about our country.

While I also get it that we can't just stand as the "innocent" bystander to the most heinous of acts, and just point to the individual as the problem. It's a fear that the easy availability of guns can get into the wrong hands, and so the government should at least make an attempt to protect its people of something like the school shootings from happening again.

Without guns, some acts may never occur or might substantially diminish the horrendous outcomes of them. Although, with guns, the exact same can be said. A gun is a tool, and with all tools, different domains and users determine their deeming morality.

A gun and it's many different forms are the products of what we might call technological progress. With that, one of the challenges I see is the different ways we define "progress" in general as a human species. Is it technological, biological, or ideological? Are those even separate?

The current state
The reality is the technology of guns is here, and will likely never go away regardless of their regulation. In that case, I ask, has our biological and ideological progress kept up with our technological progress? Can we, should we, will we be able to handle the presence of guns.

I don't think there is a 'right' solution, but I do know that we, as individuals, have a responsibility to give an effort to make our local communities/ecosystems better through our connections and actions. I particularly like Kwame Brown's ideas for action that he recently shared in his post, Friday in Sand Hook: My Thoughts.

Moving forward
One, of my many questions, is: at a fundamental level, is a gun necessary for life?  I would say this is, arguably, contextual. Guns are for destroying life, and/or protecting it... depending on how you view it.

How we've handled guns, and will handle guns (as with any tool, and all matters) moving forward is going to be dictated by our level of respect for life - all life, not just human life. Guns create major headlines, but there are also far deadlier killers and threats happening quietly all around us and inside of us (and this issue has similar argument sides as the gun control debate)... like I said, a respect for life.

The following video has circulated quite a bit in the past few years, and the focus has often been on the hunting method and humans ability to display great endurance... yet the part that breathes into my soul the most is from the 6:00 minute mark on - in the face of killing and death, the hunter knows the true purpose of killing, and takes great care to show his sincere empathy and respect for life, and his connection to it. He understands. He understands he's not 'above' or 'below' life, but embedded within it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pull Like A Pole Dancer

I haven't been to any strip clubs lately, and I don't watch any sort of risqué movies, but I have seen enough music videos to get an idea of how most dance these days. Regardless, all forms of dance have much to offer in terms of learning, assessing, and teaching movement. My most recent observation comes from the exotic dancing realm...

One of the trickier parts of the Olympic lifts is the first pull from the floor. Depending on the athlete, some may do fairly well from the hang position, but as soon as the bar goes to the floor, the pull becomes a mess. Sometimes it's failing to hold the back angle (in relation to the floor), sometimes the hips pop up too soon, for others the shoulders drop back behind the vertical line of the bar.

One cue that I have used with pretty decent success is to 'pull like a pole dancer'. This seems to help clean up the first pull by getting the athletes to hold their hips back (butt out, against an imaginary pole), while getting both the shoulders and hips to rise at the same rate. Sure the hips sliding up the pole my be exaggerated for some, but cues that get an athlete to exaggerate the movement usually make it easier to settle into a happy medium with what you are trying to accomplish.
As soon as the bar passes the height of the knee, I tell the athletes to put the bar on the thigh and go. We try to be smooth off the floor (pull before you pull) and progressively accelerate to the point where passing the knees is the trigger.
I am not totally sure why the pole dancing cue has been so effective, maybe because the guys and ladies are so good at exotic dancing these days (or more likely have just seen it so much everywhere)... and/or the fact that the cue would fall under an external attentional focus. Either way, it's worked well for me.

**I strongly suggest having a great relationship with your athletes first, so as not to be offensive in using such a cue.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I have to give some real credit to the sport and culture of swimming. They are required to have a certain toughness about them to participate. The swimmers start practice sometime in early September and the season goes through March. During that time, I know our team practices at 6 am five days per week, sometimes six. They also train through many of their meets. When I say they train through them, I mean they practice and lift as if there was no meet. No reduction in training time, days, volume, intensity. There is no taper. They taper only for conference and NCAA championships at the end of the season.

Now of course I would suggest swimming can do better. There is such a thing as being stupid about training. But I have seen it on the other side of things, where there is a constant hyper-vigilance in regards to doing too much. Making training too easy. Teams wanting to taper from tapers... and tapering again off that! 

In my time working with swimming, I remember there being an odd day when the coach would call for a later practice. Moving practice to 7 am was like a gift. You would have thought each athlete won a million dollars. These athletes have a different perspective than others. Early mornings and constant training are the norm, with recovery very much an afterthought... but this is all they know. So don't complain to a swimmer about an early practice, or lifting the day before a game or let alone, the day of! When they finally do taper at the end of a long, grueling season, it's an amazing thing to witness the changes in attitude and energy. Is this optimal? Unlikely. Does it work? It works often and well enough for coaches to continue this approach.

One thing is for sure though, their perspective of getting up early, and training all the time, even when not feeling ideal, is different from those that don't. Is it for the better? I am not sure, but I do know there isn't much they won't be able to handle in the pool.

Training and sport requires balance. It is not life or death, but it should provide challenges to broaden individual's perspectives. Sport is a microcosm of real life, and should offer up a number of lessons to help one deal with the challenges that living presents. 

I personally find it a great task to provide the optimal training, where the training and recovery is monitored thoroughly. However, maybe there are some negatives consequences in the wake of optimality. The very essence of greatness is derived from overcoming less than optimal circumstances. If things were so favorable, everyone would be great. Paradoxicality is more likely to be the rule, not the exception.

This perspective on training brings up a larger point I'd like to present. I like to read books, watch documentaries, and listen to other people talk about their experiences. I like things that give me a different perspective (some might argue that I don't, but I really do appreciate diversity) on sports, training, and life. Specifically, hardships that people of different times and places have had to endure. I find it helpful when I am present with a challenge. This diversity of life both now and historically persistently offer up the words, "it could be worse".

A couple weeks ago, I watched a documentary on the Dust Bowl of the 1930's (on the great TV station PBS!). It coincided with the great depression. Sure, the farmers of the Dust Bowl were much the victims of there own efforts, and their perspective of life undoubtedly changed, but it's difficult to not have empathy for the people of the time. And while we may not envy them and their lives in that time and region of the country (many died from the dust, most horribly the death of children, some men and women committed suicide), I do envy their appreciation for such simple things, such as single day, even just hours, when the wind did not blow, filling their lunges and eyes (the threat of dust pneumonia), and covering the house top to bottom in a thick layer of dust. The only place not to be brown of the dust was where their heads had laid on the pillows at night... but they had pillows! 
Their lives were stripped of many of the superfluous things (as have many of those in dire circumstances the world over) we so take for granted today. To hear the stories of those that lived through that time is at the same time heart-wrenching and inspiring. It was also inspiring to hear of the simple joys they (young children at the time) cherished, like a dust-free bed.

One of my favorite books, "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy presents a story of a man and his young son on a journey across the desolate landscape in a post-apocalyptic world, where many of the remaining survivors have resorted to cannibalism. The purpose of the journey is not real clear, but the purity of their lives, challenges, and love for one another is difficult to harbor under easier circumstances. The fleeting moments of safety and calm when the father hugs his son around a small fire, to keep warm. The internal battles the father fights; such as what to do with the one bullet in his pistol. The everyday struggle to find food and avoid the bad people. There are simple moments of conversation while the father holds his son - because there is nothing else to do, and nothing else either would want to be doing. Inspiring, is how the father's love provides the strength and courage, while being terminally ill, to protect his son so he may survive. 

I found "The Road" to be genuine and pure. To me it was a story for such a deep, powerful love and care for the moment, that is difficult to be possible in times of ease. Life's meaning changes. Purpose changes. Perspective changes.

I have a sense that the perspective in our affluent society is changing, as is likely vastly different from that of those less fortunate, and of generations ago. I try to have an awareness (that might be turning into a phobia) of this affluence, and the apathy it can spread. Sure, some might think having abundance is great, but I am not going to be so quick to think that the desire, aim, and creation of a so-called utopia is helpful. Having everything perfect or trying to make it so, seems to defy the logic of  what it takes to become something great.

Digressing, I think there are things to be gained from changed perspective. Maybe it's just a matter of coping, but we all are required to cope, and adaptability has served many of us well. Acquiring different perspectives whether it by choice or necessity, can create a new, deeper meanings and allow our thinking to be more adaptable - an increase in resilience, a toughness that comes from adversity. As I have stated before, how can we develop this toughness, when we are always trying to provide ideal conditions for our athletes (and children)? This doesn't mean seek out stupidity, just don't always take the easy road. Use good judgement.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Verbiage Triage

A few years ago, I had the coach-athlete role reversed with a friend who I had previously coached. He bombarded me with cues and emptied the dump truck full of verbiage I had used with him. All I could think about during the exercises was for him to shut up. It was a great lesson in humility.