Embrace the Unknown

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During the summer of 2017, a buddy of mine recommended Ryan Holiday’s book, The Daily Stoic. I was pretty stressed out and he told me to read this and really think deeply about each entry. I am lucky that my buddy is smart because I have reading the Daily Stoic ever since. The entry from February 15th, 2018 could not have come at a better time.

As all strength & conditioning coaches know, there is a ladder(s) that needs to be climbed in order to advance in this field. Sometimes the ladder is short, and sometimes it is long, but what is consistent across the field is that is involves many hours of hard work on the floor, copious amounts of self-education, and networking like you are on a presidential campaign. Even with hard work, self-education, networking, and coaching development, a job is never guaranteed in this field. This has, does, and will cause many young coaches a lot of stress. It definitely caused me a lot of stress when I was climbing the ladder. I had moments where I was so worried about what I wanted to do next that I lost sight of the present. There is a common phrase in the S&C profession that says, “Always focus on the job that you have in order to get the job that you want”. This is where The Daily Stoic entry on February 15th comes in handy.

After reading The Daily Stoic entry in the morning, I would have one of the more important coach to intern conversations in my career. An intern of mine was asked about what he wanted to do after this stage of his career, and he did not have answer. Rather than simply answering with all the career options we previously discussed, he just said that he had no idea. This immediately caused him to go down a rabbit hole of anxiety. He gave me a call and we talked for a while. I told him the same thing that I continuously tell myself, “Learn from the past, conquer the present, and embrace the unknown of the future”.

Seneca, one of the most referenced Stoic philosophers, says, “There is nothing so certain in our fears that’s not yet more certain in the fact that most of what we dread comes to nothing”. Thomas Jefferson simplified this thought slightly when he said, “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!” We have all felt this before, the stress of not knowing what will come next and/or not being able to control what comes next. We start to formulate hypothetical situations, which tend to be negative during times of high stress. Unfortunately, most people just tell people to relax when they are stressing out about the future.

This is a lot easier said than done because embracing the unknown of the future requires a lot of patience. I always say that patience is hard to have if you lack perspective. I told my intern on the phone to think about how many other people his age are not on the career path that he is on. He needed to remind himself that he is passionate about what he does, he is on a great career path, and he has great experience. By leveraging his intangibles, building on his tangible coaching skills, and networking, he will easily find a job after his internship.

When you lose perspective, you lose patience, and then the onset of anxiety follows shortly after that. The author Raymond Chandler said, “I never looked back, although I had many uneasy period looking forward”. We all must learn to plan the future but not get stressed out by the uncertainty of it. If you are in a mentor or coaching role, this is a vital skill to teach your mentees and athletes because we should never allow hypothetical situations to create real-life consequences. Learn from the past, conquer the present, and always embrace the unknown of the future.

Max Intent = Max Results

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Physical adaptions are primarily controlled by the effort the athlete puts into the program. You can write a perfect program, but if an athlete executes it at 85% effort, they will get 85% of the adaptations at best. As strength coaches, we talk about this a lot in terms of getting athletes to buy in to our programs. Getting buy-in involves several issues, one being the athletes’ intent during a workout.

In Max Schmarzo and Matt Van Dyke’s book, Applied Principles of Optimal Power Development, they discuss the concept of intent. Lifting with maximal intent involves completing each and every rep with the highest velocity possible. This is easy to achieve during bodyweight plyometrics, lightweight medicine ball work, or ballistic activity (below 30% of 1 RM). However, maximal intent becomes more challenging under heavier loads, specifically during the strength-speed phase.

Strength-speed is one of the most challenging phases for athletes. It involves moving moderate to heavy loads at the fastest possible speed. Before ever getting into strength-speed work, an athlete should be very comfortable with the primary movements of the S&C program. For example, an athlete should have sound squat technique and a good base of strength before attempting to move moderate to heavy loads at a fast speed. This may mean that the GPP and Basic Strength phases need to be longer if you are training athletes that have a low weight room training age.

Once an athlete has developed excellent movement proficiency and a good foundation of strength, they can enter into the strength-speed phase. During this phase, the most important coaching cue is to lift with maximal intent. This is required in order to accomplish the greatest increase in power production. I have seen many athletes get under heavy weight and become nervous. They move slowly throughout the rep because they are thinking about control instead of velocity. However, these two are not mutually exclusive. Think of it like an elite sports car; they can go 200 MPH and maintain quality control. We need to coach our athletes to maintain control throughout a high velocity movement in order to maximize power. Schmarzo and Van Dyke say that the perfect rep is the result of maximal intent plus most efficient form. This principle also translates well to the field or court of play; the best athlete is a mix of maximal speed plus efficient movements.

Training with intent is the primary reason behind the creation of velocity-based training (VBT). Using a system like EliteForm or GymAware gives the coach and athlete immediate feedback about how fast they are moving a prescribed load. There are specific speed zones that correlate with certain physical traits. However, many schools do not have the ability to get sophisticated VBT systems. Therefore, coaching and reminding your athletes to execute each and every rep with the intention of moving the weight as fast as possible with the best technique will maximize physical adaptations.

References:

Schmarzo, Max. Van Dyke, Matt. Applied Principles of Optimal Power Development.

Mentoring the Future of Our Profession

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It is a simple but factual statement; interns are the future of the coaching industry and current full-time coaches need to act like it. The Collegiate Strength & Conditioning profession revolves around a built-in hierarchy; unpaid intern, GA/Part-time, Full-time, and then various title differences such as Assistant, Associate, Head, and Director of Strength & Conditioning. Every coach climbs this ladder, and it’s beneficial because you are always learning from those above you. This ladder is also what helps several young coaches get jobs if they network properly. However, this hierarchical structure comes with consequences. It is not uncommon for full-time coaches to look down to interns and only think of them as free help.

I had an amazing internship at University of Michigan. Thanks to that coaching staff, I was taught programming principles, movement technique, and given a lot of responsibilities that helped me develop as a coach. This type of mentorship continued as a Graduate Assistant at Northwestern University. However, the more interns I met as I was progressing through the career ladder, the more negative stories I heard about their experiences.

One of my interns at Maryland told me that during his previous internship, he was only allowed to set up, clean up, and record numbers. He was never allowed to actually coach, there was no education curriculum, and he was even told not to ask questions. Another intern that I met told me that a previous staff actually called him “the help”. The ironic thing is that older coaches usually do not learn this behavior on their own. More often than not, they were treated the same way as an intern.

Robert Sutton published a fantastic book titled The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The title is blunt and the content is unbeatable. In summary, Sutton believes that one asshole employee, no matter their ability in the workplace, can ruin the potential of an entire department. He has two tests for identifying an asshole in the workplace; “Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him-or herself? Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at people who are more powerful?” Treating interns poorly and flexing full-time authority definitely passes Sutton’s two tests. Also, this type of negative treatment of interns spreads to create a negative work atmosphere for all employees, even the assholes.

The problem has been identified, and now we must look for solutions. The general solution is that we stop playing the seniority card and start playing the mentor card. Mentoring is not about authority, but it is about education. Mentoring is about providing the generation below us with the skills and knowledge to grow and contribute to the profession. Three ways to do this are through an educational curriculum, hands on supervised coaching, and constructive performance reviews.

Educational Curriculum

Every intern program should be based off a thorough, educational curriculum. The curriculum should include teaching strength and conditioning methods, movement technique, programming principles, exercise variation, on-floor coaching style, testing protocols, and coach-athlete communication. The curriculum should start with the most fundamental strength & conditioning principles and progress to more complex topics like advanced programming and coach-athlete communication. The curriculum should also include networking assignments. For example, here at Maryland, the interns’ first assignment is to meet with one sport administrator, one head coach, and one athletic trainer to discuss and write about the relationship between their respective role and the S&C coach. Also, we make the interns visit 3 other S&C staffs in the DMV area. The goal here is to introduce them to other staffs, see how other departments operate, and see different collegiate settings. Assignments like these force the interns to network and help them build relationships they may have never thought they had access to. Another integral part of the curriculum is presentations. Whether it is a program presentation or topic presentation, forcing the interns to stand in front of the entire S&C staff and present helps build communication skills and confidence speaking to a group. All intern curriculums should finish with resume workshops and mock interviews. As full-time staff, we need to make sure that our interns are prepared to take the next step up the ladder and be successful.

Hands On Coaching

A lot of times, strength coaches are hesitant to give up the reigns of their program to an intern. However, it is up to us to make sure the interns know enough to take the reigns and succeed. An intern will never develop as a coach if we do not let them actually coach. The first couple weeks, the full-time staff should educate the interns on the premise of the program, technique cues, workout flow, and team dynamics. Then the interns should be allowed to take a small group of athletes. If there are a couple of injured/modified athletes, the intern can start with those. If I ever have a large group of freshmen, I let the interns take the main group because they are usually more self-reliable. Either way, the interns must be responsible to coach a small group of athletes. Towards the end of the internship, the intern should have to conduct an entire team workout. This includes pre-workout communication, all on floor coaching, and post-workout communication. I like to completely stand off to the side and observe, which gives the intern a sense of ownership. After all coaching sessions, the full-time coach should review the interns’ performance and give them constructive points of improvement.

Honest & Constructive Performance Reviews

This is a must-have in any internship program. The mid-term review is crucial for the development of any intern because they still have time to work on things. The review should be a collection of thoughts of all full-time coaches. Some coaching characteristics should then be compiled into a rating system (we use a 1-5 scale 1 being poor and 5 being excellent). These includes things like enthusiasm, work ethic, asking questions, building relationships with athletes, adaptability, dependability, and ability to handle stressful environments. Then there should be open answer questions that analyze the interns’ ability to communicate, use proper resources, knowledge of strength & conditioning, and professionalism. The intern coordinator should present these reviews to the interns, and they should give each intern 2-3 things to focus on improving immediately.

The final evaluation is very important for the intern moving forward in their career. It should review the same characteristics as the mid-term review in order to assess improvement. However, it should especially focus on the 2-3 characteristics that were emphasized during the mid-term review. Most importantly, the final review should include a constructive conversation about what the interns need to do in order to advance in the profession. The intern should leave the final review knowing that both parties did what they had to do in order to maximize the experience, or what they could have done differently to make it a better experience.

Conclusion

It is known that a problem in the Collegiate Strength & Conditioning profession is the treatment of unpaid interns. A lot of times, they are treated as free help and they spend an entire semester setting up, cleaning up, and obeying. Unfortunately, full-time coaches use their power to boss interns around and demean them for no good reason other than to flex their authority. Like Robert Sutton says in his well-known book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, one asshole can ruin the dynamics of an entire department. Instead of full-time coaches using their power to control interns, they need to start using their knowledge to mentor interns. Our internship revolves around 3 things, an educational curriculum, hands on coaching, and honest, constructive performance reviews. All great leaders came about because of great mentors. In order to improve and secure the future of our profession, we must throw away the power struggle and accept our role as mentors for future coaches.

Lessons Learned from Mom

Throughout one’s life, no matter how much they try to fight it, they learn A LOT from their mother. Mothers are masters at caring for you while turning you into a man at the same time. The ancient philosopher Seneca talks about the transition from boyhood to manhood, and makes mention that having the freedom of a man but the desires of a boy is a poisonous combination. I believe that mothers have the ability to force the boyish behaviors out of their sons and turn them into men.

These thoughts have entered my mind ever since my mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. On Thursday February 18th 2016, my mother had surgery to remove a tumor from her colon. As she was in her hospital bed with my father, brother, and I by her side, I asked myself, “How can she still be so powerful in such a powerless state?!”.

My mother has always been a powerful, disciplined lady. When my brother and I were younger, she was commonly referred to as “The School Nazi”. A B in school led to a speech about effort, and anything below a B led to the paddle being brought out and us running away. As we got older, she was swift to take our car keys away for any wrongdoing (and I mean any at all!). In college, she would monitor our finances like the IRS and give us telephone lectures about improper spending and financial discipline. Growing up, my brother and I would always get annoyed with her “helicopter mom” behavior, but she always acted out of a deep love for her children.

Motherly Lesson #1 – Tough love, especially in coaching collegiate athletes, helps with proper development of an individual. You cannot develop someone by always coddling or praising him or her. An athletes needs to be held to consistent high standards in order to promote growth physically, mentally, and emotionally. As a coach, do not congratulate them for simply doing their job because that is what is expected of them. Save the praise for when they go above and beyond, and when they succeed in their sport as that is the ultimate goal we are aiming for. For example, my mother never praised me for doing my homework, but she would congratulate me for getting straight A’s. Coach with tough love, expect the job to be done well, and save praise for the achievement of the ultimate goal.

Motherly Lesson #2 – About 3 weeks prior to surgery, my mother found out about the cancer. Starting that day, she modified her diet and wrote herself an exercise plan. She walked 2-3 times a day, only ate vegetables and lean meats/fish, and started taking supplements to increase her micronutrient intake. In a matter of days, she felt more energetic, more alert, and all around healthier. I was absolutely amazed by this because I find it almost impossible to follow a diet plan. That is because my mom is about 30x more disciplined than I am. Discipline in times of triumph and times of struggle makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful people. My mother has been through good times and bad times (with two sons, there was a lot of stress), but she was always disciplined through it all. Always remember, you should not run back to the dugout just because life throws a fastball at your head. Stay in the batters box and make life see that nothing will scare you.

Motherly Lesson #3 – I never expected my mom to get cancer with her health conscious attitude the last five years. I also never expected to laugh as much I did that day while hanging out with my mom at the hospital. Life gets hard sometimes and makes you want to give up. When this happens, toughen up and smile. School gets tough and you may have four tests in one week. When this happens, toughen up and smile. Athletes get injured and lose the ability to compete in their sport. When this happens, toughen up and smile! I always have the mindset, life could be a lot worse. When you put things into perspective, it is a lot easier to remain happy through a stressful situation. Seeing my mom smiling and laughing is yet another reminder that when life gets tough, toughen up and smile!

My mom is doing well now, and she is still teaching life lessons every single day. No matter the situation, there are always lessons to be learned. It is up to you to learn them and then implement them into your life.

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Coaching Cues – Less is More

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I watched a documentary last night called “Born Strong” that followed Eddie Hall, Brian Shaw, Hafthor Bjornsson, and Zydrunas Savickas as they prepared for the Arnold Strongman Competition. As always, I was impressed by their unbelievable strength, unwavering competitiveness, and discipline when it came to training and eating. Another characteristic of these four men is their knowledge and feel of their own bodies. For example, Eddie Hall injured his elbow and knew exactly what occurred, how it occurred, and how long it would take to recover. Kinesthetic awareness is a very common trait among all professional strongmen, weightlifters, and power lifters because they spend the majority of their lives lifting weights. However, if you are a coach that works with collegiate or youth athletes, we rarely see athletes with a high level of kinesthetic awareness in the weight room. This is when the Art of Coaching becomes so important.

During my coaching career, there have been many times where I watched an athlete do a movement and immediately came up with about six things that can improve. One time, I got so excited to correct their movement that I told them all six things at the same time. They started the next set, and I talked to them during the entire set. Unfortunately, that second set looked almost exactly like the first. So I asked them what they were confused about, and they responded by saying “EVERYTHING”. This was quite the wake up call as a young coach. I realized that athletes with a low training age can only focus on one or two cues at a time.

This sounds simple, but I have seen many coaches, including myself, throw several cues at an athlete and talk them through a set. What I try to do now is to give athletes the two most important coaching cues before the set starts. Then I stand back and observe. After the set, I ask them what they felt and give them time to think of the answer. If the top two coaching cues went unimproved then we do another set continuing to focus on those. If they did improve, then I give them one more to focus on during the next set. Again, I do not talk to them during the set. I just tell them to focus on feeling the movement and then I communicate with them after.

Also, when teaching an athlete a new movement or working on perfecting movement patterns, you must allow the athlete to do a high enough volume for them to feel it out. It will be very difficult for an athlete to learn a new movement if they are only doing 5 reps at a time. Keep the weight light, the reps high, and the tempo slow so that they spend a lot of time in the movement pattern. My last tactic that works great for the team environment is to put the top 2 coaching cues on their workout sheet. Therefore, if you have 20 athletes at one time, they have the two most important cues in front of them throughout the entire workout.

As the spring season starts for strength coaches at all levels, we will all be working with new athletes or starting a new program. Mastering movement patterns in your primary lifts should be the first priority before focusing on weight or speed. In order to do that, make sure you coach your athletes to actually feel the movement. Educate them on why they are doing the movement, what they should be feeling, and allow them to feel it by exposing them to high reps under a manageable load. When it comes to cueing a young athlete and movement pattern education, do not muddy the waters by over-coaching. Give concise cues and let the athlete figure it out.

Plan your route, turn the car on, crank the radio, and drive

When I first started in strength & conditioning, I was an information sponge. I was listening to all the podcasts, reading all the books, and studying all the research articles. One of the first podcasts I really loved was Barbell Buddha by Chris Moore. Chris Moore was part of the Barbell Shrugged team that had a huge presence in the CrossFit community. Chris was also a long-time power lifter, strongman, and overall awesome guy. He would occasionally talk training, but he would mostly talk about life while sitting in his garage gym sipping on his favorite cocktail. When I was a Graduate Assistant at Northwestern University, I used to absorb Chris’ life advice while riding my long board around downtown Chicago. Many times, I would cruise to the lakeside and journal some thoughts about what his podcast taught me.

Unfortunately, in 2016, Chris Moore tragically passed away due to heart failure. Following his death, Barbell Buddha; The Collected Writings of Chris Moore was released. I immediately picked it up and, just like his podcast, it has taught me a lot in a short period of time. One of the first sections titled Mile Marker 17 starts with a quote from Buddha that says, “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting”.

Most of the time, people do not accomplish their goals because they are simply afraid of starting. They would rather think about the goal and go straight to the end point while avoiding the process. Chris Moore brings up the analogy of a road trip in this section. No one is ecstatic to start a road trip when they have to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning to hit the road. They were jacked up the night before, but something about an early wake up and lots of miles tends to make the excitement diminish. However, mostly everyone gets in the car anyway and they start to drive. They get lost in the music, conversation, or a podcast and then all of a sudden they reach their first checkpoint. Now the excitement is there. They have made progress and they get back on the road again. Several checkpoints later, they are finally at their destination with little memory of the trepidation they felt that morning.

As a strength coach, I see this with athletes all the time. They want to achieve something great; whether it is a National Championship, All-American status, or a physical accomplishment in the weight room. However, the process intimidates them. Setting up sub-goals (or checkpoints) to accomplish on their way to the grand goal is crucial for making the path less threatening. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to starting. Chris ends the section with this, “Take the step you intended to take, and not another more. If you rush down the path too quickly, you might take a wrong turn. That’s an easy mistake to avoid. Prepare to the best of your ability, plot your course, then turn on the radio and drive”.

In an effort to practice what I preach, this is my start. I have always wanted to write a blog and share information within the strength & conditioning arena. I hope that you find this entry, along with future writings about training and coaching, useful and entertaining. I used to journal after listening to the Barbell Buddha podcast, so I guess now it is fitting that I am writing my first post after reading his book.

The route is planned, car is on, radio is playing Sturgill Simpson, and it is looking like it will be a good drive.

Cheers

– Christian

road trip