“NICE TO HAVE” VS “NEED TO HAVE” IN THE WEIGHT ROOM
By Tristan Baker
January 03, 2019
The world of strength and conditioning (S&C) is full to the brim with technology and coaching aids that are designed to improve the coaching process and by extension the performance of our athletes. Not only that but more and more research and development is being put into coaching support with the latest in hardware, software, wearable technology, biometric tracking and performance analytics being released almost daily.
But to what extent are these coaching aids actually a benefit to how we work as S&C coaches and, more importantly does it make our athletes better for having access to more data? In this article I will assess what is offered to practitioners today and discuss the pros and cons of using coaching aids as well as the programming process and athlete interaction. In doing so I will broadly discuss a range of coaching related topics and bracket these into what is nice to have and what we need to have.
There is no doubt that when detailed data is presented the right way and communicated appropriately it can enhance the training experience that clients and athletes have. Better still it can set you apart from your competition, being able to deliver microscopic levels of detail that other coaches or organisations may not be able to call upon or simply don’t have access to. At my place of work we use the PUSH band amongst other pieces of tech to discern not only bar velocity, but also running speed, jump height and VO2 max and I have found that it has led to an improved perception of our facility as being the place to go to improve your athletic performance or general fitness. Day to day I make sure that all these pieces of tech have a justification for their use, but from our athletes’ and clients’ perspective I would be lying if I said that it didn’t add a level of gravitas for them to vouch for the level of support they receive. From a practical coaching standpoint though, it gives me a greater insight into their training adaptations, meaning I can say for sure whether a training intervention is having the desired effect.
Using velocity measures aids in the programming process too, it can visually show the athlete that they are stronger than they might believe they are. For example, when squatting I can have a conversation with the athlete where I can assure them that they can lift more weight based on the bar velocity. Adding a few more kilos to the bar and showing them that they are moving more weight at the same speed is a huge motivator and means that we can quickly find a load that elicits the adaptations we want.
As an industry, with all the tools at our disposal we should be able to pinpoint areas of dysfunction, asymmetry and weakness while determining the exact physical attributes that are most pressing for the athlete. Having all this information to hand, the programme would write itself and progress would be tracked on a regular basis to ensure we were heading in the right direction. Without this information you could argue that we are shooting in the dark and hoping that we are selecting the right loading scheme and presenting the athlete with a challenging enough stimulus that is going to elicit an adaptation while avoiding overtraining. Essentially if we aren’t assessing are we just guessing?
A nagging question remains; would it be appropriate to use this level of analysis with an athlete with a young training age who just needs to learn how to squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull and brace? For someone without a foundation of S&C training there will be a steep improvement in their performance just from learning how to control their body effectively in the sagittal, transverse and frontal planes. When this progression begins to plateau is when a deeper level of understanding is required and where technology can assist us in combating the law of diminishing returns. To continue to overload the athlete and minimise the guesswork, a greater physiological understanding of how they are responding to the training stimulus will help to maintain a positive physiological development. This is often what separates those at the very pinnacle of sport and where the “marginal gains” can be found.
For those with a low strength training age the importance of building a solid foundation of movement competency, robustness and strength with the simplest of training modalities cannot be understated. For example, the nice-to-haves that have previously been discussed can be used to entice reluctant athletes into the weight room, or even close a sale in the private sector. The use of training aids and technology should enhance the coaching experience, not detract from it. While the S&C coach may have the athlete’s best interests at heart, gathering data for data’s sake while the athlete struggles to move the bar or absorb and express force with anything resembling good technique is the tail wagging the dog.
A concept that I often consider when trying to programme for athletes who have a low training age or may be limited in their movement competency is that of “desert island coaching”. The question I ask myself is what would be the absolute minimum I would need to coach this athlete if we were marooned on a desert island, and what “luxury items” would I bring with me? This style of coaching never leads to anything that is going to get much attention on social media, because the simplest training modalities are often quite uninteresting to look at. Certainly, compared to an athlete cutting through speed gates or working on a reaction testing wall there is very little to look at, and certainly not anything that hasn’t been seen or done thousands of times before. What is important on the desert island is the attitude that the coach has towards their environment. Will they waste time wishing for what they don’t have, or will they get creative and make the most of what is in front of them? How often do we see pictures or videos of athletes training on dusty tracks or lifting rusty, odd-sized weights and are amazed that they compete a high level of sport? These athletes and their coaches are embracing the challenge that comes with their environment and finding solutions that will make them competitive. They have everything they need.
It is easy to become attached to our idea of a perfect world, always thinking about the nice-to-haves to help us in our roles. To extend this, it would also be nice to work with athletes who have no injury history, hang on our every word, perform their training programme to the letter and look after every aspect of their nutrition and recovery with monk-like diligence. Unfortunately, that is rarely (if ever) the case, so S&C coaches need to have excellent communication, personal skills and empathy. As S&C coaches we earn our living based on the buy-in we receive from our athletes. If we are unable to relate to them and earn their trust, then we may not last long in this profession. I am not saying that the S&C coach should always be the centre of attention and holding court in the weight room or on the field; for many this goes against their nature and personality – myself included. However, a perfectly executed demonstration of an exercise or drill alongside an explanation using language our athletes can understand would rank highly on my list of need-to-haves in the world of S&C. The power of buy-in cannot be underestimated, without it we will have no one to coach.
Being driven by data and analysing a wealth of metrics and variables can be, at best cumbersome and time consuming, and at worst confusing and misleading. It is easy to miss the wood for the trees by watching a laptop screen instead of watching our athletes. I am sure that any good strength coach would rather watch their athletes and continue to hone their coaching eye than be buried in data and technology that might be distracting them from their athletes. That is not to say that used appropriately this cannot make a world of difference to our athlete’s training and performance. But by continuing to strive for the nice-to-haves because we think we should have them it is easy to lose sight of delivering the best possible service to our athletes. Being present for every step of their training, being adaptable to our environment and delivering meaningful face-to-face coaching is what we need to have.
BIO: TRISTAN BAKER
Tristan is head of performance at GoPerform, a sports injury and human performance facility in Reading. In this role he coaches athletes competing in multiple sports and general population clients from a variety of backgrounds.
A graduate of Loughborough and St Mary’s Universities, Tristan has coached national and international athletes competing in Football, Formula 1, Athletics and Lacrosse.
Tristan can be found on Twitter @tristanbaker7