Friday, March 15, 2013

Social theory for coaches

I enjoyed this paper. It's a conversation that we need to have with ourselves on this aspect of coaching.

Denison, Jim. "Social theory for coaches: a Foucauldian reading of one athlete's poor performance." International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching 2.4 (2007): 369-383.
This paper explores my "sense making" when a male cross-country runner I was coaching performed below expectation. My initial understanding of his poor performance was to blame him for "lacking" the appropriate mental toughness. As a result, I located the "problem" within him and subsequently ignored many of my own taken-for-granted coaching practices as perhaps contributing to his poor performance. In this paper, I provide an alternative reading of my judgement of this athlete's poor performance through Michel Foucault's theory of disciplinary power. I conclude by suggesting that many everyday coaching practices may have a number of "hidden" or problematic consequences attached to them that coaches should consider in an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of their coaching and to enhance their athletes' performances.

You can listen to an interview with Jim at The Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre site (for free if you register).

Coach the shit out of the athlete. But not so much to make it yours than theirs.


"300's" or "300's"?

A 300 meter sprint compared to a 300 yard shuttle. Roughly the same distance, yet vastly different in the effects. Sprinters will often perform 300 meter runs in workouts, without the detriment to speed (total volume and rest pending). Team sport conditioning coaches will administer 300 yard shuttles, and deter speed.

The difference is confinement. The shuttle format changes things.

The 300 yard shuttle

I am guilty of administering 300 yards of running in the past, but more guilty only by the way the runs were performed. A 300 yard shuttle at 25 (or 50) yard lengths with either 11 (or 5) turns changes the outcome tremendously. Not only does the duration of the run change from something in the mid 30 and 40 seconds to upwards of 50 to 60 seconds, but the musculature involved goes from the hips and back of the thigh in straight line, to the muscles on the front of the thigh. In a 300 yard shuttle with the many changes of direction, the separation of the hips is often less (decreasing range of motion), and the large volumes of lactate/H+ accumulation seems to 'stick' in the body's memory, holding the front of the thigh muscles tight for long after the run(s) have finished.

Consider this for any distance of runs; administration of "150's" in track vs. "150's" in field or court sports.

Variables of different runs

Distance and time of a run matter, but it's the total amount of space given to do the run that really speaks in different ways to the body. Tight spaces equals more front of the thighs, and open spaces more back of the thighs. The ground contacts are usually longer in tight spaces, while shorter in more open ones. The tight space, shuttle format, if trying to match distances of 100 meters plus, ends with the athlete looking like their tires have gone flat. The finish of a straight line run is usually a heck of a lot faster than the shuttle runs.

Anything that hurts running mechanics, is likely to hurt speed. Look and run fast

The other aspect is rest. I think a longer sprint/run is fine for a sprint athlete, in an attempt to push the conditioning window a bit. A linear (or curvilinear) 300 meter run would be possible if the athletes have developed running skills and are given a good amount of rest between reps to maintain those running mechanics throughout (the body is always adapting). Like I alluded to above, longer runs seem to "burn" into the body's posture and patterns more definitively, and with the way shuttle conditioning is prescribed (many turns), it usually doesn't enhance the posture and patterns a coach would look for many of today's bound-up athletes. The shuttle format creates a lot more intermediate level work, and requires a lot of energy to stop and overcome inertia repeatedly - there's not much for fast accelerations or velocities.

Personally, I am more comfortable with getting into zones of work that are outside of true speed and power, but only if it's with the longer, straight-line runs. I would much rather have athletes feeling the burn in the glutes and hamstrings, than the oft-overused muscles in the front of the thighs and hips. Certainly not too much of this work, but over time the longer sprints can work as a 'fix-up' for the student-athlete that spends a large majority of the day in a seated position.

An interesting side note to this, I suggest looking closely at the athletes' postures and gaits after performing longer sprints 50+ meters (so long as they were quality, because of adequate rest times and fast speeds)... from what I've noticed, they stand taller, with the shoulder blades back and relaxed down, with the front of the hips open, and the pelvis set nicely and flowing (nutation/counter-nutation, and rotation about the transverse axis) Quality, fast running seems to 'wake-up' the body.
Because of this, I believe running fast is a challenge to one's health (risk of strains), but also enhances overall health (open up movement / ranges of gait motion) - one of the many reasons I like getting small space sport athletes (ex. vollyeball) to 'get out and run fast' once and awhile.


Soccer coaches will use different size fields to practice different technical and tactical skills. I see the field changes as different stresses on the body, as discussed above.
In the warmer months (whenever that might happen in North Dakota), we have to take advantage of the opportunity of bigger spaces. For conditioning, I'll use tag games, where I find it more common to see 'game speeds' and involvement of the brain with reacting. In tightening up the spaces (playing field), we, again, get the front and sides of the thighs and hips conditioned, with the specific stability for the hips, knees, and ankles. With larger spaces you can condition the back of the thighs and hips better. The longer sprints, and varying accelerations and curves (speed 'cuts') within those sprints, can help strengthen the hamstrings, and expose the lower body joints to the velocities of top speeds and forces. The muscles, tendons, ligaments, and enzyme activity is different for the different spaces.

Being aware

It's not that the small space shuttles don't have their place... they can be used for the conditioning aspects discussed above. I just find it important to look at all the details of the physical actions of different runs, not just the measurables of distance and time. All movements strengthen the body, just in slightly different ways.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

'Vicious' Angles

I vividly remember a former coach of mine reprimanding me for slipping on a hard cut at the line of scrimmage, "killing" the play where my body fell. I also remember being reprimanded again (for the same play) the next day watching the film of the scrimmage. I thought, 'it's not like I was trying to slip'.

Fast forward to today. Having put quite a few athletes through change of direction tasks, I think twice about reprimanding an athlete for slipping on a change of direction move - especially if it was one made out of aggressiveness.

Often, I don't say anything. Other times, I commend it. I don't coach an athlete loose their footing, but I do compliment them if it was caused by aggressiveness. Coaching is as much as what you don't say, as you do. Sometimes great abilities come with potential costs... costs that just need to be managed as best as possible.

The mechanics of effective change of direction requires instability - getting the center of mass to fall outside the body (to either push or resist it's velocity). With greater velocities, this means teetering the 'edge' of losing friction. The most agile athletes (in terms of changes in velocities) are those that are comfortable getting into these unstable positions; positions where there is no other option than using intense force production/reduction and rates to keep them from falling. And sometimes athletes are bold enough in their bodies that they will create such extreme forces and angles, that friction will be missed.

I've seen it happen to Adrian Peterson quite a few times, which is likely part of the reason he is the player he is. By mentioning him in this post along with myself, puts us in the same category, right?.

The "pro agility" drill, while artificial, is a test I like to use both quantitatively and qualitatively. Qualitatively, I assess athletes ability and comfort level of getting in and out of these acute angles (or lack thereof). For conditioning, multiple power, jump cuts and stops, and putting them to application in different tag and mirror games, are some ways of trying get the point across. The big message I tell them is to 'assaulting the ground', as opposed to 'tiptoeing through flower gardens'. Sometimes descriptive language helps too; "catch the ground", "on a dime", "vicious angles", etc.

Interestingly, I see the 'tiptoeing' more from the athletes that have specialized in one sport for much of their organized sporting careers as opposed to multiple. (It's funny that I call them 'athletes', when they are specialists)
Great agility is about getting athletes comfortable with getting their feet outside their line of gravity. I think it's important to get them doing tasks that reinforce this aggressiveness to the point where on occasion, they will fall. And using the times they slip as a teaching point - to encourage the maintenance of that aggression yet emphasize utilizing the tools on their feet (shoes with rubber soles or cleats) for friction, better.

Just as many of the tactical aspects of games are about angles, so are the technical in creating the appropriate angles for powerful movement - angles and Newton's laws

Don't squander aggressiveness, encourage an athlete to harness it.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dorsiflex or Not?

The pretension concept of the ankle upon jumping is an interesting one. Pretension caused by ankle dorsiflexion during air time, is something that I (try to) teach for certain multiple double-leg jumps. But, is it the optimal way to perform a repeated jump? In coaching different athletes, I find that it doesn't seem to be very natural.

To determine the effectiveness of this technique vs. another strategy would require accurate measure to assess the impulse of the jump(s); something difficult to measure without the right technology. I think you can get a good visual idea of it, but obviously this is subjective.

The pretension theory makes sense in working to develop and increase foot/ankle stiffness and elasticity, especially as it relates to sprinting, just prior to the support phase, where this foot/ankle position is commonly found (although this is questionable for some sprinters). The idea with the pretension, I presume, is minimal ground contact time with maximal rate of force development. Simon Hunt's video below is nice demonstration of the ankle position and the reactivity of the rebound in these types of depth jumps.

The excerpt below is from Jim Radcliffe and Robert Farentinos's "High Powered Plyometrics". In this case the 'pogo' would be a learning exercise for the jumps, and the specific technique involves the pretension position: "upon takeoff, the ankle must lock the foot into toes-up position (dorsiflexion), maintaining this locked position throughout to ensure sturdy contacts and quick, elastic takeoffs."

Again, in my experience, dorsiflexing the ankles (pretension) after takeoff does not seem to be a natural method of preparation for the subsequent landing or repeated jump... I am thinking of a tip rebound in basketball or a repeated jump in volleyball. Is the toes-up/dorsiflexion position the most optimal one? Of course, the goal is not to land on the toes, but is it necessary to unnaturally pull the toes up after takeoff? Or is it just the easiest way for us coaches to explain, teach, and get the right effect - elastic conversion of kinetic energy?

The Maasai people of Kenya and part of Tanzania, are well-known for the adumu, a dance ritual of repeated jumps, attempting to jump as high as possible. I would be very interested in what sorts of impulses they create and heights of jumps they can attain. To me they seem to get pretty good heights with good elastic rebounds... without the same dorsiflexed position as taught in some plyometrics.

So does this mean that the dorsiflexed position is flawed, or could the Massai be more reactive if they adopted a more dorsiflexed ankle upon jumping? Or, do the Maasai possess better innate capabilities to modulate stiffness at the appropriate times? 

In my experience, certain athletes have this natural elasticity, and others are like flat basketballs and takes a great deal of work. Pretension is an interesting concept, and it's utilization in training should help make for better training, however, it's relation to ankle dorsiflexion is one I am curious to investigate further. 


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

40 Yard Perfection

Every year, I am amused by the football players coming out of high school and their precise, and extreme, knowledge (or at least what they think they know) regarding the start position for the 40 yard dash.

The athlete will walk up to the line and then step off every single dimension and angle possible, to position the front foot exactly so. When I watch these guys, I feel like I am watching the most complex algorithm playing out in real time right in front of my face... (A half a foot length this way, another foot length that way, back a half a foot length another way)

And then, they repeat the step off dimensions and angles process for the back foot.

After which the athlete has their feet placed, will crouch down, as if they are using starting blocks.

And then, start with the process of positioning the hand that will be placed on the ground.

And, then bring the hips up to set the angles of the legs just so.

And then, bring the hips back down, and do it again (sometimes going back to re-stepping off both foot positions.

So the whole process is done again, and sometimes a third. Finally, after what seems like about 10 minutes later, they are in ready, and cock the free arm back into position, with the finger tips fluttering - set to go.

AMAZING. The detail. The precision. Just AMAZING.

I did not know how such an athlete just out of high school, could have such a biomechanical awareness and detail of one specific skill.

I wonder how well they know their position on the football field?


Monday, March 4, 2013

Apathetic Warm-ups

Kelvin Giles' recent post got me a bit fired up. I am in complete agreement with his observations:

"Just watched an entire warm-up of a Premier League football team. It contained the foundations of a really good warm up with Stability, Lunging, Squatting, Running Drills being present. What I can’t comprehend is how the players were allowed to do such poor movements. A basic tenet of quality training is ‘variety – progression – precision’. They were just going through the motions – missing turns, moving badly, poor concentration and poor intensity – all in front of 40,000 people who probably thought it all looked OK. When the ball appeared so did a little more precision and pride. Elite performance is all about repeatable excellence in everything you do. If British Cycling has a strategy of continuous improvement by the accumulation of small gains and everyone is beating a path to their door for guidance – what a great example of a wasted chance by this football team. Repeatable excellence is an all-day, all-time trait and there is no room for the sloppiness on display today."

... so much agreement, that I have to rant about it.
I don't hate a lot of things, but I do hate a lack of mindful engagement in warm-ups. For workouts, I hate sloppiness and apathy in any part, but especially a warm-up. The beginning of the workout sets the tone for the rest of the work being done. Warm-ups are important.

I even hate to reference it as a warm-up anymore because of the connotations it seems to conjure up. I just tell the athletes "let's go!", and we get to work on different movements. If it's sloppy, we do it again. If it continues to be sloppy, we go to more extreme measures. Everything that we do, from start to finish, adds up, so crap is just going to lead to more crap. Warm-ups are not an audition for an extras role in "The Walking Dead"
'Oh, we're just doing some skips?'... NO! We are developing rhythm, foot and ground interaction, ankle/foot complex stiffness, postural coordination, relaxed stability - all with what should be a professional focus.

If a lunge is in the warm-up, it should look like a goddamn lunge. If it's a lunge walk, then each step should be a lunge, not a couple lunges inter-mixed with walking.

Lateral lunge... with a 10 degree knee bend? Hands on the thighs, like the elderly? With a spinal position of that of a dog going #2 on the lawn?

Warm-ups don't have to always be structured in drill style... for us, some days, in the beginning of our workouts we'll make things a bit more playful (sometimes adding in some type of ball) for the energetic effects - jostling, dodging, tossing and catching, shooting, kicking, etc... and I am very much ok with smiling and laughing, but there is a big difference between enjoying something and just jacking off (or slap-dicking, as a fellow coach of mine would say). I want the athletes to have the maturity to be able to be playful, yet fully engaged and trying. Once again, I loathe, looooatttthhhhe, the nonchalance.

Ironically, I've gotten the impression that movement quality, the phrase of choice the past few years, is what everybody is working on... Neat! How about those warm-ups?

Movement quality training isn't just about the ability to look pretty to a standard ideal, but also for the individual to be mindfully aware of their movement.

Within sport performance, we are learning and sharing a lot of information about so many different 'advanced' concepts and ideas in training... and yet, is it too elementary to be concerned about a focused warm-up? Is it too much to ask of the athletes? I don't even really care what is done in the warm-up (well, I do a little), than how it is done. And, not just the technique of it... are the athletes mindfully engaged - fully focused on the precision of what they are doing? Every bit of training, and how it is done, adds up.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Retrospective Training Lesson: Specificity

How much smarter am I really getting? I mean, I make a living being an athletic development coach, and spend a good majority my time reading, studying and corresponding with coaches about it, but when I think retrospectively, I wonder, 'has all this abstract study, deluded my understanding gained from my direct empirical experiences, especially those experiences I had before I possessed all this so-called training knowledge?'

Let me tell you a little story...

As far back as I can recall, I've had an affinity for trying to develop my physical abilities. And not just mine, I even tried to train my dog when I was 10 years old; making her run with a small log I tied to her... anyway...

When I was younger, I got to be a fairly decent jumper (at least I thought, by my standards), not because I was endowed with great genetics (sorry Mom and Dad), but because I liked to jump. A lot.

I remember my neighbor had a Jordan Jammer, and I'd wait by the phone for the call to come over and play. My neighbor was older and taller (I was about 6 or 7 at the time), so we'd have the rim set to the top height (7 feet, if i remember right; maybe it didn't even adjust lower), forcing me to really have to work to display my Jordan-esque moves.  I remember many hours of this, in his basement during the winter, and in the backyard during the nicer months.
A few years later my family moved to our newly built house outside of the small town we had lived (closer to our farm), and the cool thing was, a living room with vaulted ceiling (over 10 ft at the peak, which became a later goal of jumping and touching). The room was quite large and the one end was open into the dining room, which was not vaulted and had an eight foot ceiling. It made for a very nice imaginary, makeshift basketball backboard. I used it to go up and slap after making two-handed lay-ups, blocking my younger brother's shots by pinning them against this 'backboard', or just slamming the ball into the wall, with one of my many thunderous dunks (I thought I was Shawn Kemp, among other NBA stars). This would be a daily thing, every time I entered or left the room, but especially when I was watching NBA basketball on T.V. - dunks at commercial breaks, dunks during fouls and free throws, a full blown dunk contests at halftime.
My mother was plenty upset with me about the dirty hand prints on the beige wall. Thankfully she didn't put the kabosh on it though, or maybe it was my total disregard. Either way, the jumping went on. (I am sure it was a bit of a relief to my mom, and the house, after my younger brother and I grew up and moved out. We used that room as a stadium/arena of all sorts.)

Then in the 8th grade, I remember a kid a year older than me, who was able to jump and touch the "box" part of the rim (the spring loaded component) on a basketball hoop. This upset me. This kid could get higher than I could. Now my jumping got serious. So, I spent the next few weeks using my plastic, water-filled 5lbs. dumbbells and practiced repeated double-leg jumps in my bedroom. I jumped continuously as high as I could with those dumbbells, trying to hit my head on the 8 foot high ceiling (literally, that was my goal). I was probably about 5'8 at the time. The beauty of this jump training, by default, was that I did it in my bedroom where I didn't have much space, so I had to be be sure to jump and land with care: working on both my jumping and landing ability with accuracy.

Within a few weeks, I wasn't just hitting my goal of touching that orange box, I was touching the rim! Getting the rim - now that was an attainment: a measuring stick for the kids in high school. I thought I was cool. Thankfully not so cool where I quit.

As I went throughout my athletic career (high school and college sports), my jumping slowly, but progressively made more improvements, to the point where I was dunking (barely, but it was), at 5'10 (and a 1/2, I argue) - of no particular fashion or authority of the NBA greats I emulated in my early days, but I could do it.

Fast-forward to today...

Now, I sit and beat my head against the keyboard, trying to devise the world's best training program: concocting methods, to elicit, among other things, tremendous jumping ability - heavy strength training, plyos, mobility, etc. Yet, in my ignorance, as a kid, I skipped what might be, the superfluous stuff, and got to the point. I jumped. And jumped some more. Then I added a small amount of resistance (10 pounds to be exact) and jumped. Then I jumped more, this time 'aiming' for different objectives (the different ceilings in my house, the orange box, the rim, dunking...). I jumped off 2 legs, off 1 leg, reaching for the rim with my right hand, reaching with my left hand. Coming at the basket from this angle, and that... In the end, it was specificity at it's purest.

Jumping high did not start out as my goal. It was something that was a fun part of what I did. As time past, and I got older, there were aspects of jumping high that became a goal. For this, I used (maybe not the most effective way, but it's a hard press to find much more effective methods) jumping with weights. Surely, I didn't know it at the time, but by default, the resistance was just the right amount to stay in the right location of the force-velocity curve: 5 lbs. dumbbells maintaining the precise blend of coordinated force and velocity found in jumping. Dumbbells of such meager mass that I often scoff today... but not everything is so, and sometimes improvements take just the right 'nudge'.

The last thing I'd like to finish up this lesson with is, sociology and jumping. The ability to do something well certainly has a genetic component, but social influence is often the catapult to put potential into action. The saying "white men can't jump" is because, often times, socially, the white kids didn't have any social pressures to jump high. Many were not, are not motivated to jump because it doesn't bring with it any apparent increase in respect or achievement.

As Daniel Coyle has written many times in his book "The Talent Code" and his blog, it takes that 'spark' to get the fire going, and then the timing of the right 'fuel' to keep it going along way. Mine was my neighbor friend, Michael Jordan and the NBA high-flyers, a cool living room, and a pair of measly five pound dumbbells.