Physical and verbal cues
Verbal: Cues work similarly to motivation, if your parents want you to be All-American that is extrinsic motivation, if you have the desire to be an All American that is intrinsic motivation and that is a much more powerful tool. Similar principles apply to coaching, for example : If you’re in quadruped position (on all fours) and coach tell you to raise your right leg and left arm and hold till cued to switch, you’re going to do just that. However if the desired result is for you to have a straight back with your toes dorsiflexion and arm pointing straight ahead coach may say “drive your right leg back as if your trying to touch the wall with your heel first, and reach your left arm as if your trying to touch the other side of the room” you will end up in the right position or close enough so that minor adjustments are needed. If coach wants you to land in an athletic position during plyometric drills, you have heard the words athletic position so many times over your athletic career that it becomes white noise. If not it’s just me, and that’s fine. But if you are like me and having dealt with about 12-15 years of being coached in multiple different sports with multiple different definitions of “athletic position”, a cue like, “land so I can slide a credit card under your heel and you’re ready to move”, may cause an enormous light bulb to go off over your head. But then again maybe not, maybe coach simply need’s to say land on the balls of your feet and be an athlete.
Physical: One of the most common mistakes that occurs in the weight room is squats, we had it down as babies but somewhere along the way we screwed it up. Anyways, most athletes at one point at time have been told put your weight on your heels and keep your eyes all the way up KNOCK THAT OFF! Just don’t do it your weight should be in the center of your foot and your head should be in a neutral position. A physical cue to get you into the correct weight distribution may be for coach to physical squeeze the middle of your foot prior to the lift so you can know where your weight should be. Most athletes are tactile learners you need to learn a play you need to physical do it, it is the same way in the weight room a coach can tell you head neutral, don’t bounce on your way up, weight in the middle of your feet, till they are blue in the face. If you’re a tactile learner you need to know what it feels like to be in the correct position and replicate it.
If what your doing or what the coach is saying isn’t clicking with you, JUST ASK!!
The Art of Coaching.
The FIRST thing you need to know about coaching is that it is a two way street, the athlete and the strength coach are both responsible for the task ahead and the desired results.
That being said knowing your athletes is key, their age group, sport, male or female, and every other variable under the sun is what is going to determine if your team, and your coach are going to reach the goals of having a successful and healthy season. For example if I tell you to reach your hand as high over your head as you can…go ahead do it (I’ll wait)….Now reach higher. You will find some way to get your hand a little bit higher no matter what. That’s how coaching works, you may work hard on your own but a coach can help your reach higher.
Buying-in. Is easier said than done, the only limiting factor during a workout is yourself. These reasons can span from a broken wrist during a game all the way to, you broke up with your girlfriend/ boyfriend, drank too much and didn’t get enough sleep on your friend’s sofa. No matter what kind of coaching is done you are not going to have a successful work out. If you have the same amount of focus on the coach as you do on the ball during the game you will be pleasantly surprised at the results. Buying-in, is not all about the mental aspect, it is obviously physical we are in a weight room after all. Going through the motions is a lot different than concentration on doing it right. The corrective exercises built into your program are so that you feel less banged up during the lift after the lift and most importantly during the game. The exercises are designed and tailored so that you can be more successful in your field of play. The coaches around you got into the professions for the passion of helping athletes succeed and the sooner you buy in the better you will be.
JUST ASK. Communication between athletes and coaches is what is makes the sports world go round. Coach why am I doing this wall supported reach between sets: because we are trying to realign your hips correctly so that you can move more efficiently and reduce the risk of injury. Coach why am I doing trap bar deadlifts: because we want to develop power and strength in your lower body specially your posterior chain ( glutes, hamstrings, ect) because that is the main driving force when you push off to skate. Any coach will be happy to answer your question and show you the right way to do things, that’s why they coach.
It happens every year; the freshmen athletes arrives on campus, anxious and ready to get started. This year I had the opportunity to be the first to meet those freshmen at the door, shake their hands and welcome them into the weight room. Their first day I was asked to take them and show them how to move. Thrilled to have the opportunity to take on a more involved and hands-on role, I dove right in, hoping for the best.
Working with these athletes throughout the last three weeks I feel that I have learned so much and am excited to share a few notes I have taken away from the experience:
1. BE CLEAR AND CONCISE. Find cues that are simple and effective. Use external cues (“break that wall!”, “drive the ground away from you”, “shut the car door with your butt.” Don’t over explain things.
2. FIND THEIR CUE. Not every athlete responds to the same cues. Find out what works for them and stick to it.
3. USE YOUR TOOLS. Isometrics, eccentrics, bands, RNT- Use them all! Throw everything at them that may help them pattern the movement or get “that feeling” that you are aiming for.
4. DON’T BE AFRAID TO REGRESS. If something looks that bad, chances are they need some patterning and an exercise that is a little less complex (real life example = regressing DB RDLs to a PVC hip hinge). Take a step back, make it look good, and move on from there.
5. MICROMANAGE. Take charge. Be assertive. They move when you say so. This was one area that I was told to be more intentional about. “Left. Right. Go on me.” Coaching is not personal training. When you have a large group, the group is much more organized and time-efficient when you actively run the workout (especially the warm up and activation exercises).
This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to be an effective coach for beginners. These are simply things that I have taken note of that have helped me navigate these first few weeks working with freshmen athletes. I am happy to report that I have seen vast improvements in their core control and overall quality of movement and am excited to see them continue to improve with time and continued coaching and effort.
Two basic but very important exercises for core stability and strength are Deadbugs and Planks along with the many variations/progressions of these exercises. I’m adamant in saying that these exercises should be included in every warm up routine or program.
For me, and I’m sure to many people in general, crunches and all the variations of crunches seemed like the ‘go to ‘ when working the abdominal muscles. In actuality, it shows you how little we really knew. Yes, the six-pack looks great, but what’s going on underneath and around the hips? How do you feel? Do you know what feeling normal actually feels like? What is normal?
For starters, it’s having a neutral pelvis and spine, having no dysfunctions or limitations and knowing how to breathe and move properly and efficiently. But how many people fall under this category? I would say not many. We all are naturally asymmetrical and the responsibility lies within the anatomical position of our organs. On top of this, many people, athletes especially, unknowingly have lordosis in their lower spine or an anterior pelvic tilt. How do you correct something like this? Not by doing crunches. This may only exacerbate the problem. The repetitive flexion of the spine and the compressive forces that occur is the main culprit. Something will weaken or fail eventually. Not to mention, the muscles used for stabilization (the transverse abdominus, and the internal and external obliques) aren’t getting enough attention. These are the muscles people should be concerned about, because they’re helping to control limb movement. The risks far out weigh the rewards. There are a number of movement patterns, postures, and activities in everyday life that can affect your alignment, but luckily there are some corrective exercises that can be beneficial.
The ‘deadbug position’ is like that of a deadbug lying on it’s back with legs in the air. The deadbug exercise is as much a breathing exercise as it is a core activation and stabilization exercise. The keys to this exercise are keeping the spine neutral, the ribcage should remain down and the pelvis should have a slight posterior pelvic tilt. There should be no space between your lower back and the floor, and your legs shouldn’t have any tension. Also, there should be no extension in the neck, if there is any difficulty with this then a pad or a pillow should be placed underneath the head and neck area. There will be a reciprocal effect with one area if another is displaced.
Before you begin any movement, inhale through your nose for a two second count followed by a four second exhalation through your mouth. Let the breath-in occur naturally while focusing on filling your belly and back with air. On the breath-out, make a conscious effort to forcefully get all that air out (think of blowing air into a balloon). This will create tension in the core, which should be maintained through the duration of the exercise. After you breathe as much of the air out as possible, movement can take place. I can’t stress the breathing aspect enough. Not only will this increase the difficulty by forcing your abdominal muscles to be under tension longer, but it will teach you how to breathe properly and it will help to put your ribcage in a better position. The movement is where individuals might differ. Constantly keeping your pelvis stable, your rib cage down, your spine neutral, and the tension in your core will dictate how far and how often you are able to move your limbs. This spine, pelvis, and ribcage position, along with the proper breathing, takes a lot of focus, discipline and control. But it should be mastered, because ideally you should take the same concept to the majority of exercises you perform.
Another great exercise, the plank and its variations, can be very beneficial in developing core strength and stability. The ‘front plank,’ (which is similar to a push-up position, but instead with the arms bent at 90 degrees and the elbows aligned underneath the shoulders), is an isometric exercise. The plank is similar in concept to the deadbug with the neutral spine and pelvis position, but involves more glute activation and upper body strength and stability. You can intensify this exercise by increasing the duration, adding weight, adding upper or lower limb movement, or by adding an unstable surface to the upper or lower body. A dowel rod can be placed along the spine to make sure the alignment is correct. The dowel should be making contact at three points: the back of the head, thoracic spine (upper back) and sacrum (middle of the buttocks), if the exercise is being done correctly. Look for a gap between the dowel rod and the lower back. If this occurs then, most likely, the pelvis should be adjusted posteriorly and the individual should be cued to put tension in their core.
Throw in the side plank version and it’s progressive variations and you’ll be treating yourself to some great ab exercises, if that’s what you care about of course. However, the benefits go far beyond the abdominal muscles if done properly and substantially. Technique is of the utmost importance with these exercises, so if you can’t do them properly then you’re better off not doing them at all. Your brain needs to know what is right, so you can start moving and feeling right.
Last week I took it upon myself to film clips for an instructional video on change of direction and lateral speed work. With a background in soccer, I understand the importance of the development and patterning of these two components of movement. Not only do they play a crucial role in performance testing (did I hear someone say “beep test”?) but they also play an important role when it comes time to compete. As a quick transition sport, soccer especially requires tight and efficient changes in direction. Being efficient requires patterning and patterning requires practice.
Through my time this summer working with the women’s soccer and hockey teams at Northeastern I have gotten the opportunity to observe, coach and personally put myself through a progression of movements intended to begin this patterning of efficient change of direction.
This progression begins with the “line punch”, a slight shift of the lower body to one side while maintaining the original position of the torso, loading the inside leg and creating an inside lean. This “punch” is the base camp of change of direction movements. It is an elementary, isolated movement that is patterned with the intention of incorporating it into every shuttle conditioning session moving forward. The second movement in the progression is learning how to push. “Push! Don’t reach” is a common cue during these training sessions. The goal is for the athlete to push laterally using their back leg (pushing through full extension of the knee). The ability to produce power from this type of pushing far exceeds the natural tendency to reach and pull with the front leg. The third movement we stress with the athletes is developing the crossover. The crossover involves pushing the ground away with the front leg as the knee of the back leg flexes and steps laterally. An important thing to stress while coaching the crossover is that the pushing/fully extending front leg is doing all the work. The back leg is just along for the ride, landing where it naturally falls.
Sleds or bands can be helpful tools in the patterning of these lateral, change of direction movements. The effort required to work against the resistance cues the muscles in and gives the athlete the ability to feel which muscles should be firing once the resistance is taken away.
Once the three basic movements (line punch, push and crossover) are taught, practice and patterning at least two times a week can help the athletes to maintain and improve their change of direction efficiency. Once the movements become fluid, more emphasis can be given on achieving length and covering more ground. Simple line punches, pushes and crossovers can be combined together to form more complex and continuous movements that closely simulate competition situations.
While the video has yet to be edited or compiled into a finished work, the process of breaking down the movements for this project has proved to be a valuable experience that has given me the confidence to feel comfortable both writing about and coaching an athlete how to transition and change direction more efficiently.
Flexion is bad. Extension is good. Neutral is natural. Right?
As anyone who has spent significant time in a weight room setting could tell you, flexion during heavily loaded exercises is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Personally related horror stories of blown discs and early retirement from heavy lifting may come to mind for some. With these types of experiences fresh and ever present in our minds, we have been coached into and have coached others into extension.
Back extension under load is a sympathetic response that provides a system of protective bracing and the strength necessary to complete a strenuous movement. It allows the body to get the work done that needs to take place to remove the body from the perceived threat. The problem lies in the tendency for athletes to not just get into extension, but to stay in and live in extension.
Just as flexion of the spine and being in a parasympathetic state under a heavy load would be dangerous, staying sympathetic and in extension after completing a lift is also dangerous. This concept was explained to me using a mental visual of a jelly-filled donut. Spinal flexion under load puts an overload of pressure on the front of that donut (vertebra) causing the jelly (disc) to ooze out the back. Similarly, picture that donut during daily life of someone who has become accustomed to living in extension. Although the abdominal bracing during a heavy lift is able to compensate for the sympathetic-induced spinal extension, once that bracing goes away but extension remains, this position begins to wear down on the back side of that donut, just waiting for the right movement, big or small, to bring that athlete out of commission. In this case it does not even have to be a heavy, maximal load. This type of injury could be while completing a simple daily task. In this case it is a chronic problem of positioning stemming from an athlete staying in a sympathetic extension pattern long after the need has passed.
Although coaching extension is necessary for near-maximal lifting, coaching an athlete into living in a neutral spine position is equally as important to allow for improved posture and recovery. Neutral spine is the ideal positioning of the body that provides support and balance for the body and allows for optimal respiration and function. From the sagittal view, a neutral spinal positioning avoids both a flat back and an excessively curved back. A practical way to coach an athlete into feeling where neutral may be for them is to have them completely flex and then completely extend their back in a quadruped position before having them settle between the two extremes. Although it would seem that neutral spine should feel natural to an athlete, for many this is not the case. As lifelong athletes, many experience chronically shortened hip flexors and stretched hamstrings and glutes, pulling the pelvis into an anterior tilt causing the spine to compensate by extending to appear in a natural spine positioning that is in extension rather than true neutral.
Everything is situational and has its time and place. Flexion is bad, under load. Extension is good, during a stressful maximal effort. Neutral may very well not be natural but can be coached and is where athletes need to live in to recover and avoid injury down the road. What is important is the ability to coach and have your athletes come in and out of these positions at the proper time and in the appropriate situation. Coach extension, but also coach neutral. Bring about the sympathetic response, but then bring your athletes back into a neutral, (likely not natural at first) spinal positioning.
Many endurance athletes train in high altitudes to create adaptations in their muscle that help them in competition. A study done in Germany, led by Birgit Friedmann, analyzed hypoxic training and tested the effects of low-resistance/high-repetition strength training on muscle structure and gene expression. (1)
Athletes who expose themselves to higher altitudes for long periods of time often experience decreases in muscle cross-sectional area and muscle fiber size, suggesting that hypoxia may be a cause for atrophy. This could be caused by the hypoxic condition, or it could be caused by malnutrition and reduced activity levels. A study showed that intermittent hypoxic training (training in elevated altitudes but living in normal conditions) has lead to larger average muscle cross-sectional area, contradicting the assertion that hypoxia leads directly to atrophy. Additionally, another study concluded that low-resistance/high-repetition exercise combined with vascular occlusion (restricting blood flow) induced hypertrophy in the biceps brachii, brachialis, and triceps brachii. This proposed that the hypoxic and acidic environment created by the restricted blood flow promoted additional motor unit activation leading to gains in muscle cross-sectional area. The combination of low-resistance/high-repetition training with a severely hypoxic environment has not been tested often. (1)
The study aimed to test whether or not strength endurance training (low-resistance/high-repetition) done under severely hypoxic conditions, while recovering in normal conditions, would lead to greater muscular adaptations. 19 untrained males were exposed to 4 weeks of low-resistance/high-repetition knee extension exercises. One group was tested in normoxia, and the other in normobaric hypoxia. Both groups completed one-leg knee-extension exercises in a sitting position 3 times weekly. They had a standardized warm-up then did 6 sets of 25 repetitions at 30% of their 1 repetition maximum. The Normobaric hypoxia was created in a room by diluting ambient air with nitrogen. (1)
“For training in hypoxia, the ambient inspiratory oxygen fraction was set at 0.12, which is equivilant to an altitude of about 4,500 m above sea level” (1).
The groups were measured before and after for strength, muscle cross-sectional area, and muscle biopsies. Both groups experienced major increases in strength endurance, but it was not matched with muscle size, fiber distribution, or fiber cross-sectional area. The normoxia group showed increases in Type I, Type IIA, and Type IIX. However, the hypoxia group showed increases only in Type I fibers, and decreases in Type IIA and Type IIX fibers. (1)
The results of this study failed to indicate whether hypoxic training is better than normoxic training for strength endurance gains. However, since the Type II fiber cross-sectional areas decreased under hypoxic conditions, the study suggests that hypoxic conditions may possibly lead to strength endurance gains without hypertrophy. This could spark the interest of athletes interested in gaining strength without adding body weight to conduct studies of their own. With more conclusive evidence on the interaction between hypoxia, strength gains, and hypertrophy/atrophy, hypoxic training protocols can be implemented more in training regimens for athletes.
- Friedmann B, Kinscherf R, Borisch S, Richter G, Bartsch P, Billeter R. Effects of Low Resistance/High-Repetition Strength Training in Hypoxia on Muscle Structure and Gene Expression. Pfluger’s Archive 446, 6: 742-751, 2003.
Having an injury in any sport is not all too shocking. All sports usually requires an athlete to excel in one particular movement. In rowing, the athlete is doing exactly one motion over and over again. Think of it this way, one stroke equals about ten meters. That means if you go for a “light” paddle row for about six thousand meters, you’ll being doing the same motion six hundred times. It is not a surprise to see many rowers have back, hip and knee problems. One side is completely developed while the other side is neglected. This past week I read an article on strengthcoach.com, about how a coach, Blake Gourley, did the opposite of what is considered to be the norm when it comes to training a rowing team. Coach Gourley, saw three possible places where injuries can occur; over-use, technical error and muscle imbalances. Coach Gourley, then went on cap the amount of volume the team could preform (emphasizing quality over quantity), focused a lot on anti-rotation core drills, and did unilateral training only. Now this article was about rowing specifically, but I believe that these rules can be used on an endurance sport and athlete.
Endurance athletes’ brains usually tell them the more the better. Their only concern is to rack as many miles or meters that they can because that’s how they have been trained to think. They are not concerned with getting stronger, or better yet don’t see the value in spending the necessary time in the weight room, to keep them from getting injured. And I think that is how you need to sell this type of athlete. Our goals as strength and conditioning coaches are to get them stronger but not in the way of bulking them up. Our objective is to strengthen muscles that will fatigue during competition or practice, so that there is a lesser chance of being hurt. This article talks about how important technique is. When you go out for a row or a long run, your form will start off great but then probably weakens over time. When this happens the athlete is relying on muscles that shouldn’t be working. Or maybe their form is great but without knowing it, the athlete favors one leg or arm over another. Creating a muscle imbalance and could then later cause an injury. Rowers for example, always want to get stronger to their side. But they are already plenty strong to their side. To truly make them stronger, a coach should focus on balancing their body so they potentially are at less risk to get hurt. If the athlete is practicing more than they are treating injuries, then in my mind the athlete is stronger. Endurance athletes are definitely a group where their technique is key. They need to “respect the process” and learn how to properly move. Getting a rower to do a simple hip hinge or a runner to lunge the same weight on both legs is not as easy as it sounds. In both cases, you are trying to stop years of muscle memory. Overuse is also a huge problem. This type of athlete thinks that they need to do certain exercises for many repetitions in order to get better. But because they already do that during practice, the quality of the work should be the message not the quantity. Athletes need to understand it is better to do something perfect once then wrong ten times.
Now at the end of the article Coach Gourley, did say that it could quite possibly be that he was lucky. But he did show that most of his athletes were injury free and did not in anyway lose their ability to compete. I think this a great way to approach any athlete, but with endurance athletes it is even more important because of the repetitive movement patterns. Injury prevention should be priority number one, and with some types of athletes and teams, coaches should take the time to go over the basics, like technique. This will make your athletes stronger.
A coaching philosophy is a statement of purpose and an established expression of values. It serves as a reference point and guiding light in the day to day life of a coach. Once formed, this philosophy ought to be looked to in answering tough questions concerning athletes, programming and training sessions.
With that said, a coaching philosophy is a fluid concept that shifts and grows as much as the individual to which it belongs. It is not static, but is able to be adapted or revised as new information, experience and feedback dictate.
As strength and conditioning coaches, I believe the expression of ideals and values is worth taking the time to reflect over and write out for three primary reasons.
Are you really the coach you think you are? Do you follow and act on the values that you claim to hold closely to? Do you think that you value quality over quantity but allow sloppy reps to let your athletes get a higher number of chin-ups? Do you value hard work but praise talent over effort? An established value system can give you the opportunity to check yourself against your own standards and see if your actions are in line with your beliefs.
Establishing and sharing your philosophy with athletes and sport coaches will allow them to better understand why you make the decisions that you do. Opening up this lane of communication can help to get sport coaches and athletes alike to buy in to your program and give them reason to appreciate your work once they understand the thought processes behind your methods. Considering, for example, that injury reduction is listed as a primary goal for your athletes, sport coaches may come to better understand why there are so many corrective and activation exercises required before even beginning “the lift”.
Sharing your coaching philosophy in a formal way with your athletes serves as a precedent. Assuming that you are consistent and follow through with your values and belief system, the expression of this statement provides your athletes with valuable information regarding both what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.
A coaching philosophy is a tool that helps both you and those around you. It provides the opportunity for improved understanding and communication, gives you something to look to when you have to make a quick decision and establishes a reliable system of expectations for both you and your athletes.
The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is used commonly around the world of athletics as a standard of mobility and flexibility among athletes. The FMS is a series of 7 tests designed, scored from 0-3, designed to screen the probability of risk in each subject. Movements include:
The deep squat
Active straight leg raise
Trunk stability push-up
Many strength and conditioning programs use the FMS before prescribing resistance training programs for their athletes. The FMS uses these tests that are key to normal movement patterns to reveal functional limitations and muscular asymmetries. Athletes that score a total below 14 on the FMS are at a much higher risk of injury, and therefor need to take steps to improve their score before performing complex athletic movements or loaded movements.