At the time of writing this, twelve of my BMXers are away this week for the National Championships and two of my Mountain Bikers are preparing for the last leg of the National Series (and the National Champs three weeks later) I thought I’d post some thoughts on the week leading into the Big Event (race, tournament, competition, final, match or game).

As regular readers of this blog would know, we keep things simple and basic at PropelPerform, and in the week leading to the Big Event we make sure our training and recovery maintains that theme.

 

1) The closer to the Big Event you are, the More you can do to Lose and the Less you can do to Win. 

Just as we know that a great performance is seldom off the back of one training session or one pre-race speech, so we also know that it is the accumulation of many decisions and efforts that lead to great performances.

In the week leading up to the Big Event there isn’t enough time or opportunity to amass that critical amount of quality work to positively affect your performance.

On the other hand, there is plenty time and opportunities to cause a decrement in performance.

Injuries, over-reaching in an attempt to ‘catch up’, or under recovery can all result in decreasing your performance ability.

The long and the short of it is you’re going to have to accept that the work you have done is enough and you’re going to have to stick to the plan.

 

2) Performance = Fitness – Fatigue

Imagine a marathon runner the day before their Big Event: they’d have high levels of Fitness (months and months of training) and low levels of Fatigue (following a good taper).

Hopefully they’d perform well.

Now imagine the day after that Big Event: their levels of Fitness wouldn’t have changed, they’d still be high; however, their levels of Fatigue would have increased substantially!

So you’re not going to get Fitter in that last week – Fitness is said to be slow-changing.

But you can get Fresher – reducing your training workload, improving your quality of sleep,

As a general rule, we aim to maintain Frequency (i.e. train close to the same number of sessions per week); maintain Intensity (i.e. we still go hard or fast) but we drop Volume (i.e. how long, far or much we do in that week).

 

3) Nothing New

No matter what the claims are of any intervention, if you haven’t used it over many weeks of training you shouldn’t use it now.

During the lead up to the Big Event is not the time to experiment.

This should apply to all your nutrition (especially including supplements and stimulants), your training exercises, your warm ups and your routines.

So even if your breakfast isn’t recognised as a great option, now isn’t the time to change it. If you normally sleep-in now isn’t the time to add a morning stretching session. If you understand the benefits of a supplement/stimulant (e.g. caffeine) but haven’t used it to improve performance, wait till your next big block of training.

 

4) Minimise Stress

The Big Event is going to be stressful enough as it is, so don’t add to this stress.

Flights – Book your flights so you arrive with enough time to adjust to the time zone. Allow for delays. Plan to arrive at the airport early. Book a transfer service for your arrival.

Equipment – Pack extras of everything. Courier some extra equipment in the weeks leading to the Big Event. Swap some of your equipment with some others you’re travelling with so, in the event your bags get lost, you’ll still have access to some of your equipment in those first few days.

Accommodation – Get the best and closest you can afford, a quiet, comfortable room is worth it. It’s usually best to have a kitchenette in the room so you can prepare your own food and keep your routine. Ask for a room that is furtherest from the elevators or high-traffic areas. Take your own pillow.

Food – re-read point 3!

EOTC is a series of reflections, thoughts, anecdotes and growth spurts that have occurred in my coaching career.

Some of these will show wholesale changes in direction while others might just be a continuing refinement.

Hopefully you can either learn something or identify from this evolution.

 

From Highly Recognised to Highly Valued (Or Extrinsic to Intrinsic) 

Up until 2007 (ish) every professional decision I made was geared to working in the SuperRugby or NRL (Rugby league) comps.

Part of this was due to loving both sports but I would not be able to refute the proposition that I wanted it as some form of recognition, a form of validation if you will.

Reflecting honestly, I think it might have been driven by the fact there is media hype (though I haven’t chased this), or maybe because of the relatively small number of teams and positions create an aura of exclusivity… Whatever the underlying desire, the point was it was an ego-driven goal.

In other words, the goal was extrinsically motivated.

Accepting a job working with Tennis players deviated from my goals but challenged my coaching (no clearly defined off-, pre- and in seasons; a skill dominant sport; individual; huge travel component; etc.) and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

As I grew and matured as a Coach, that previously mentioned desire, that ego-driven aspiration to be recognised morphed into an appreciation to contribute.

I realised the it didn’t matter who I was working with, or what the program looked like, it mattered that they (the Patients, Clients or Athletes) achieved their goals.

Helping a housewife lose weight, or a businessman recover from plantar fasciitis, or working with club rugby gives me the same intrinsic joy.

While the planning might not be as detailed, I am fortunate to get my ‘high performance’ challenges through the Athlete preparation side of the business (PropelPerform will have at least 6 Athletes representing Australia in their respective World Championships in the following 4 months). 

So when people ask me to work with an Athlete, organisation or family member my first response is ‘I am happy to work with anyone who wants to work with me’.

Intrinsically satisfying.

No ego (well, maybe, less ego)… : )

For parents, the instinct to provide our children with ‘every available opportunity’, while admirable, may inadvertently be impeding their desire to achieve.

Think of this desire to achieve as a thirst. And as soon as that thirst is quenched, so is the desire.

This is captured in the oft-used quote in athlete development circles:

The easiest way to ensure a young athlete never makes it is to make them feel like they already have.

In over 15 years over of working with young athletes, I have seen this too many times.

Coaches are not blameless either.

In an effort to appear ‘professional’ we over-cater, we pamper, we end up softening those aspirations.

One way to prevent this from happening is to adopt the ‘Earn the Right’ principle.

This principle ensures the athlete only receives that which they have worked for.

In other words, they work for it first and receive it second.

Below are some common examples of the Earn the Right principle in practice.

Supplements

Almost every teenage boy, with a slight interest in physical fitness, wants to take supplements.

Many times they are researching what products they want and pressuring parents to buy them before they have trained more than a handful of times.

My athletes still have to ‘earn the right’ to use them.

The first thing to understand is that the first few months, even years, of training will garner improvements with or without supplements.

For athletes over the age of fifteen my ‘earn the right’ principle is that they must adhere to the following:

  • Get your diet sorted first
  • At least forty weeks of two times week training per year for two years. (This is in addition to the sport they are training for)
  • No fast food for at least two months prior to buying the supplements
  • Eat fast food and they are off the supplements

Private (or extra) training

Some kids want to have some personal training or extra coaching and it may seem like a good idea to give it to them.

If they are paying for it then that is fine.

If you’re paying for it then I suggest they ‘Earn the Right’ by:

  • Training and practicing by themselves (research suggests that athletes that ‘make it’ spend twice as much time training without a coach than those who don’t ‘make it)
  • Researching (think: Google, YouTube, etc.) how to improve on their own
  • Hanging out with older and more experienced athletes in an effort to learn as much as possible

The above-mentioned actions demonstrate that the young athlete is craving more, and not just because ‘mum and dad are paying for it’ but because it is their deep-seated desire to progress.

New equipment

It’d be naive to suggest that young athletes do not suffer from envy.

This can be particularly true in sport where equipment is expensive and there is a definite hierarchy in name brands.

However, at the developmental level, rarely is equipment a factor in improvement.

Dedicated practice, total engagement, owning their training and the ability to ‘hang in there’ are far greater factors.

So in the case of wanting new equipment, they need to be showing definite actions of maximising the preceding four characteristics before an upgrade in equipment is even mentioned.

Take Homes…

While we may want to help every step of the way, it is better for our kids and athletes if we apply the ‘Earn the Right’ principle.

In closing, please note that not one of the ‘Earn the Right’ suggestions is performance related.

Nowhere was it suggested that winning a race, or getting onto the podium, or beating a particular athlete had ‘earned the right’.

Rather, each suggestion was about the process, something they kid or athlete could control themselves.

Earn the right via process not performance.

While working with a National Sport Organisation I was approached by a parent who suggested that National Sports Organisations shouldn’t be involved in the development of their sport.

Paraphrasing Upton Sinclair’s quote it was difficult for me to accept his argument when my salary depended on him being wrong*.

Over the duration of my employment I began to realise he might be correct: National & State Sports Organisations shouldn’t be the primary source of development of the Athletes in their respective sports, not directly anyway.

7 Reasons NSOs shouldn’t directly be involved in Athlete Development

For the sake of this article I will use the term ‘NSO/SSO’ to refer to National or State Sports Organisation; and ‘funding’ interchangeably with ‘scholarships’ or ‘selection’.

I also differentiate between Athlete Performance (e.g. the National team) and Athlete Development (aka the ‘pathway’).

1) Our (Path) Way or the Highway.

Whether it’s through the National Head Coach or High Performance Manager, typically the NSO/SSO will have only one pathway for development. And the attitude seems to build that anything outside of that pathway is wrong or, worse, ‘contra’ to what they are trying to achieve.

This Pathway often has very few entry points.

Athletes that don’t fit this Procrustean Bed are often neglected or left behind.

 

2) Targeted Athletes have the Inside Lane. Again. And Again. 

Wild cards into events… Team selections… Extra funding…

Athletes who have been given funding early on tend to get second and third chances.

In fact, many observers note that sometimes it is harder to get out of the ‘system’ than it is to get in.

Of course, this is understandable on two fronts. Firstly, the decision maker who first offered the Athlete the funding wants to be shown to be correct. There is a certain amount of pride on the line.

Secondly, and probably most likely, the Decision Maker will have a better relationship with that Athlete, have a better understanding of their journey and possibly have a greater commitment to their improvement.

 

3) All on Same Page (or Increasing Fragility

It’s every NSO/SSO’s objective to ‘get everyone on the same page’.

As one of my respected colleagues once whispered to me ‘What if it’s the wrong page?

This is a particularly valid question: why do the Decision Makers imply there is *only* one page for success?

Who is to say the Decision Maker encouraging everyone to follow them is going in the correct direction (bearing in mind that this direction will naturally include certain Athletes and exclude others)?

Something interesting to note is that the Page often changes, not with the addition of new information but with a change in Decision Maker.

In other words, the Page is more about the Decision Maker than it is about the current information.

Heuristic The only people who need to be on the Same Page are those that are immediately surrounding the Athlete: Coach, parents, S&C, psychologist, etc. – and even then, some fresh ideas from ‘other pages’ are most likely a good thing!

 

4) Only Athletes that fit the Description get Funded.

Often, a NSO/SSO will have a certain paradigm of the Athlete they are looking for. This paradigm could be physical (a certain shape or specific abilities), psychological (for example, competitive or relaxed), technical or tactical.

This Ideal is usually based on the current world leader/champion. If this is indeed the case, at best the NSO/SSO will get a copy of an original.

How many tennis coaches wanted their players to hit ‘heavier’ when Nadal was at his peak? Or how many rugby players were instructed to kick like Johnny Wilkinson post the 2003 Rugby World Cup?

Rephrasing the same questions: how many tennis players and rugby players were discarded from their national programs when they couldn’t mimic Nadal or Wilkinson in their respective sports?

Often, in similar cases to those mentioned above, the focus is on what the Athlete cannot do relative to the world leader/champion rather than what they can do.

 

5) Athletes Train but not Compete.

Some NSO/SSO set their programs up where the Coaches train the Athletes then release them to play for other clubs or teams. In other words, the Coaches are not accountable for the performances of the Athletes.

The worst, but all too often, scenario is that Coaches start to coach towards KPIs/Excel spreadsheets, ensuring ‘Gym Numbers’ go in the right direction with little consideration of the Athlete’s performance.

I once had a phone call from a NSO/SSO Coach informing me a mutual Athlete had to decrease his skinfolds. The fact this Athlete had been presented four consecutive Man of Match awards did not interest the Coach – his Excel sheet showed the Athlete was above the average in skinfolds measurements and this was deemed more important.

 

6) It’s not just the Athletes… Coaches too. 

When there is a ‘Our Pathway or the Highway’ paradigm, not only do a certain type of Athlete have the inside lane but certain types of Coaches too.

Independent thinkers are seldom valued in these systems.

Coaches who coach in a particular way choose Athletes who compete/look/play/train in a particular way.

The underlying message is clear: it you don’t fit our mold you’re on your own. This mantra often gets translated into ‘be like us, or be against us’.

 

7) The ‘What About Me?’ Complex

“She got selected into the program but I beat her at Nationals”… “My ranking is higher but he got the funding”… “They gave us some money but I heard they gave them more”….

The final reason that NSO/SSO shouldn’t be the primary deliverer of Athlete Development Programs is not the fault of the NSO/SSO but a natural, almost inescapable consequence.

When funding, wild cards & selection are not based on black and white criteria, and is based on someone’s perception (i.e. grey and fuzzy) there is bound to be some backlash from those who missed out.

 

Conclusion

To sum up the above 7 points, when the NSO/SSO take on the responsibility of Athlete Development it immediately becomes a ‘Top Down’, instead of a ‘Bottom Up’ scenario.

It becomes Fragile (when we should be chasing Anti-Fragile).

And the younger the Athlete the NSO/SSO aims to get in their program the exponentially worse each of the above points are.

* For those interested, after much thought, I agreed with this Parent while still employed by the NSO.

I even proposed a similar version of this article (with a strategy that would eliminate these criticisms) that would have made my position redundant.

“The reason you have that injury is because you have a muscle imbalance.”

“Oh, I have some questions…”

  • Did you compare peak force or average force?
  • Did you use yourself as the testing instrument? How do you know it’s not your muscle imbalances we’re testing?
  • Is it structural or functional?

 

  • What ROM did you use?
  • Were the muscles/movements measured at the same velocity?
  • What muscle contraction type did you compare? Concentric to concentric? Eccentric to eccentric? Concentric to eccentric? Eccentric to concentric? (You get the picture).

 

  • Is the imbalance a strength issue? Speed issue? Skill issue? Endurance issue? Rate of force development issue? Or a fear issue?
  • Was it in a seated position? Prone? Supine? Standing? Walking? Running? Cycling? Bracing?
  • Is it a cause of the injury or a symptom of the injury?

 

  • What would you say was my level of arousal during the test?
  • Did you use an isolated test or an integrated test?
  • Assuming the muscle crosses two joints, which joint action did you choose to test?

 

  • For my sport/position/body type/chronological age/training age/ etc, what should the ‘ideal ratio’ be?
  • How do you know that athletes in my sport don’t succeed because of that supposed imbalance?
  • If I do have an imbalance why didn’t the injury happen sooner?

You are responsible for ANYTHING & EVERYTHING in your body.

Some thoughts & heuristics regarding Supplements:

1) If it’s promises seem too good to be true, don’t take it.

2) If it’s a ‘pre workout’, don’t take it.

3) If it’s made by a company that doesn’t sponsor a NRL, AFL or S15 team, don’t take it.

4) If it’s not made in Australia, don’t take it (A study suggests 1/4 of all US supplements are either contaminated or don’t have what they claim to have).

5) If you don’t need it, don’t take it.

6) If it was sold to you by a Gym Junkie, don’t take it.

7) If it doesn’t have the ‘Informed Choice’ or the ‘Informed Sport’ logo on it, don’t take it.

8) If you’re not sure, don’t take it.

 

Below is a link to the current (January 2016) WADA Prohibited List:

https://wada-main-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/…/wada-2016-prohibi…

And some information on Prohibited Substances and Methods.

https://www.asada.gov.au/…/prohibited-substances-and-methods

ASADA Help Line: 13 000 ASADA (13 000 27232)

In 2011 Novak Djokovic had a winning streak of 41 matches. Included in this streak is his Australian Open title, as well as titles in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome.

His streak was broken when he lost to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the French open.

About two thirds of the way through his incredible run reports emerged that he’d recently switched to a ‘gluten-free’ diet and commentators attributed this switch to much of his success.

Disregarding any bias for or against gluten, it is difficult to assume that one change in his diet set him on a path of nearly unprecedented success, yet I had an extraordinary number of requests from parents and players requesting that they too be put on a gluten-free diet.

While on the sport of tennis, it is frequently pointed out at the number of successful players who have ‘difficult parents’.

In fact, if you think of Agassi, the Williams sisters, Dokic, Tomic and Mary Pierce’s father you’d be forgiven if you started to wonder if it was actually a requirement to have a ‘psycho parent’.

(This is not a joke but I did have one parent who read Agassi’s book ‘Open’ and informed me that Agassi’s father’s method was the way to produce a champion).

The connecting theme between these two stories is that in both cases we had people looking at the evidence, not the ‘silent evidence’.

WHAT IS ‘SILENT EVIDENCE’?

The silent evidence* is the proof that we do not register. It is there if we look for it but since no one is writing about it or highlighting it, we have to look harder.

Referring to the two stories above:

  • STATEMENT: Gluten-free diets are the key to performing  well.
  • EVIDENCE: Novak Djokovic.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: All those other athletes who are on gluten-free diets who did not win anything substantial.
  • STATEMENT: To be successful in tennis one needs a psycho parent.
  • EVIDENCE: Tomic, Dokic, Agassi, Pierce, etc.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: The thousands of players who never made it (or quit) due to the parental pressure.

Looking around the world of sport we can see plenty of examples:

  • STATEMENT: To be successful we need high altitude training/a hyperbaric chamber/magnetic beds/to fly at a low altitude/Pilates/etc.
  • EVIDENCE: The team that won the premiership/Super Bowl/World Champs.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: Every other team that used the same intervention but didn’t even make the finals series.
  • STATEMENT: To become elite one needs 10,000 hours of practice.
  • EVIDENCE: Bill Gates, the Beatles, Bill Joy, Bobby Fischer, Mozart, etc.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: Every tennis player over the age of 25, outside the top 150.
  • STATEMENT: Weightlifting stunts growth.
  • EVIDENCE: Weightlifters are short.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: Weightlifters who are too tall to be successful (and quit).
  • STATEMENT: I am a successful coach.
  • EVIDENCE: Look at the players I produced.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: The other players who quit, were burned out, went backwards, etc.
  • STATEMENT: CrossFit is a great way to train to improve one’s physique.
  • EVIDENCE: Rich Froning.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: The queue outside the orthopaedic surgeon’s office.

There is a saying ‘Success leaves footprints’ implying that by following those footprints the reader will also achieve success.

The catch, however, is that there are many footprints (interventions, training methods, culture, structures, gadgets, luck, etc) and we need to improve at our ability at distinguishing which footprints to follow.

In other words, we need to improve at differentiating what is relevant and what is fluff.

One way to improve this is to be aware of the silent evidence and ask this simple question: Who else is doing that and NOT succeeding?

P.S. A simple heuristic to apply:

If the reason for the success is printed in the popular press, it is not the reason for success. 

*As far as I can tell, Nassim Taleb coined this term.

Hopefully you’re not using the Beep (or more correctly, the Multi-Stage Shuttle) Test in your testing and training programs.

But, if like me, you have to due to some decision makers needing to justify their positions some protocols you should know how to optimise the information.

For a bit of background, I was working with a National Sports Organisation where we had to test every player in the Academy system twice a year. Unfortunately, none of the tests correlated with, nor predicted performance or development, least of all the Beep Test.

In fact, one year an email went out where another Academy was patting itself on the back for having one particular player run a 17 or 18 on the MST and breaking the official, NSO record. Less that two weeks later that kid wasn’t in the Academy as his results in the actual sport weren’t good enough…

As an Academy we wondered if we could use the Beep Test in other ways that might actually feed into our programs. Aside from the easy to administer, easy to compare, low value numbers, the Beep Test may be able to offer some insight that may benefit the Coach.

Regardless of whether you want to run the Beep Test or have to run the Beep Test, don’t only record the numbers, have a look for these Athletes:

 

The Gritty Athlete

This Athlete isn’t the fittest or the fastest, and probably has their tongue hanging out early, but they’re hanging in there. They might miss a shuttle but work so hard to get back on time they make the following one. Their desire is greater than the current fitness, and that isn’t the worst place to be. They’re great to work with because they will push themselves to their own limited limits, and often push the more talented Athletes to their’s too.

 

The Easy Stopper

AKA the Non-Gritty Athlete. Without missing a shuttle and hardly looking tired, this Athlete suddenly pulls out. They were just about to get uncomfortable so ended the test. It’s amazing how often this behaviour carries over into other aspects of their life, particularly training and competition.

 

The 2nd Finisher

Watch this one closely. They usually wait until the first person drops out and then pull out straight after. In other words, they’re aiming to ‘not be the worst’. They’re the ones who do things not because they believe in them but because the Coach is watching, or because it looks good. It’s hard to become a Champion with this mindset.

 

The Big Stage Competitor

If there seems to be a mismatch between the Test results (they seem rather low) and their ability to endure in the Sport (they can keep grinding), they might just be a Big Stage Competitor. This is the Athlete that will step up on the big stage, they need that pressure to compete and rise; and probably (and maybe wisely) don’t see much benefit in this aspect of your program.

 

The Great Trainer

The anti-thesis of The Big Stage Competitor, their MST results often look way better than anything they have produced in competition. They’re a dream to coach in the training setting and a nightmare to coach in performance setting. While they may not ‘make it’, do not discard their value to the training environment – they often lift the (physical and professional) standards.

 

The Quick Recoverer

This isn’t a positive characteristic. The fact that the MST is meant to be a maximal test suggests that it should take a long time to recover. This person hasn’t learnt to, or decided not to, push themselves. If it’s the former, this education should be infused into their program. If it’s the latter, as a Coach you have to decide 1) what is the underlying cause? and 2) can the behaviour be modified?).

 

Caveats:

1) Obviously do not base your program on a single MST (or any other test), this may be one way of revealing some aspects of your Athlete’s character and perhaps used to any trends that may develop.

2) Hopefully, as a Coach, you don’t just put the Athlete in a box without realising that many of the ‘negative’ attributes can at least be modified to help build the Athlete. 

As with most things in life, reducing an Athlete to a bunch of numbers hardly does anyone any favours so maybe this guide may add value to your program.

PS If you’ve found any other characteristics please send them through.

The original title of this post was ‘Impress your Coach’ but I thought it was more appropriate to call it ‘Getting Better at Getting Better’.

You see, almost everyone in your Sport is improving. You need to accelerate your improvement. You need to get better at getting better.

 

Get there Early (and Get Ready)

Even if it’s only five or ten minutes before training, spending that time warming up, foam rolling, stretching, working on your weakness or practicing that activity that you didn’t quite nail in the last session will help improve your abilities or reduce your chance of injury.

Let’s be clear here: it’s not about that ONE time you do it.

It’s the accumulation of 5 minutes, before EVERY session that starts to add up over the preseason, over the season and into Finals or Championship time that you’ll start to see the difference.

And that is when you’ll need it the most!

 

Ask Questions

No doubt about it: engaged Athletes improve more than submissive drones.

If something doesn’t quite make sense, or you want to understand it at a deeper level, ask for more information.

Understanding why your Coach wants you to do something in a specific way, or why they want you to do a specific activity will help you plan your time away from the Coach.

 

Answer Questions, Honestly

If your Coach asks a question, have a crack at the answer.

They are not trying to make you feel stupid nor catch you out, they are probably trying to gage the depth of your understanding.

The deeper your understanding, the less they might need to explain… The less your understanding, the more they might need to explain.

Either way, it’s probably not a test, just a way of ensuring they got the message across effectively.

And when you do answer, give your honest answer, not what you think your Coach wants to hear.

They’re probably using that information as feedback to understand where your program is and where it needs to go.

 

Aim for Improvement, not Perfection

No one expects you to complete the task, challenge or activity perfectly first up. In fact, trying to be perfect will almost always hinder your development in the long term.

What every Coach wants to see is a shift towards doing it better each time; of moving forward.

Don’t get down on yourself if others in your team or squad can do it better than you can, that’s not the point.

The point is that every session you’re getting a little bit better than you were the last time.

 

Gather Feedback

After the session, or away from Training, ask your Coach for specific feedback about how you’re going and what you need to improve on.

It might be based on your last few Competitions or a Training block you are currently in.

This feedback can be used for you to 1) plan your sessions away from the Coach; 2) focus especially hard during certain parts of training; or 3) what you should be doing before training even starts.

 

Stay Late

When the session ends don’t sprint off.

Get a few more reps done while you’re still warm. Or grab a buddy and ask them to help you work on the thing they do better than you.

Alternatively, offer to help someone who was struggling with something in training. Give them some guidance on how they can improve. It might not make you a better Athlete but it’ll definitely make you a better person.

 

Say Thank You

The ‘winningest’ team of all time, the New Zealand All Blacks, have a saying ‘better people make better All Blacks’.

With that in mind, saying ‘thank you’, helping pack up after training, leaving the gym in a better condition that what you found it on… All of these actions will help make you a better person.

Do these things, follow these processes and you too can put yourself in a position to Improve More.

In the early 2000’s, as a young Strength & Conditioning Coach, I was appointed the S&C Coordinator for AFL Queensland.

My first priority included physically preparing Queensland’s top U18 footballers for the National Championship while my second priority involved preparing those that were invited for the AFL Draft.

Since I typically favoured ‘Strength’ over ‘Conditioning’, and given I have a rugby union background, it would be fair to say I wasn’t impressed with most of the young athlete’s gym numbers (i.e. squats, cleans, bench press, etc.).

In fact, I was so unimpressed with their general weight training ability I wanted to institute a rule of non-selection unless they could achieve certain numbers in the gym.

I can’t recall the exact goals but it would’ve been along the lines of:

  • Squat = body weight for 3;
  • Bench press = 75% bw for 3;
  • Chin ups = 10x chin ups

If they couldn’t achieve these rather low numbers I felt they weren’t deserving of selection for the State team.

I had a ‘Procrustean bed’ and I wanted to make my athletes fit into it.

 

Greek Mythology – Procrustes

According to Greek mythology, Procrustes was an evil character that would promise a ‘perfectly fitting bed’ to tired, and unsuspecting, travellers.

However, instead of fitting the bed to the traveller, he would either cut off the limbs of his guest or stretch them out, so that the traveller would fit the bed.

This myth has lead to a few terms that are important to understand in Athlete Development:

  • Procrustean bed – an arbitrary standard that is (usually) mandatory to achieve.
  • Procrustean solution – applying a predetermined structure to a query or question; or ‘making the data fit’.

Examples of the Procrustean Bed in the world of sports and training are rife in many domains.

Rehabilitation

Recently, one of my master weightlifters ‘tweaked’ her back.

Sitting caused her immense pain, as did rotation and any quick movements.

Wanting to see a physiotherapist as soon as possible, she called around and booked in with the first appointment available.

This idiot informed her that, according to his KPIs and despite her obvious pain, there was nothing wrong with her back.

He had a Procrustean bed and wanted her to fit to it.

Nutrition

It is not uncommon for dietitians to set skinfold targets for certain playing positions in each sport.

For example, rugby union props might have to be under 100mm, or in the AFL midfielders might be aiming to be under 50mm.

Is this based on evidence? Is it Individualised? Or is it a Procrustean goal?

(Heuristic: If the number is neat – e.g. 50 or 100 as opposed to 47 or 109 – it’s probably Procrustean.)

On a personal note, while I mainly adhere to higher fat, paleo-type diet (think: low sugar, low processed), my BMX squad performs well with their nutrition that includes high GI carbs.

On the other hand, my triathletes and ironman have improved their training and performance through adopting a similar nutrition plan as mine.

Applying a Procrustean solution to both groups would be detrimental to at least one squad.

 

‘Pathways’

We see this in ‘pathways’ of National and State Sports Organisations: to be selected the athlete must achieve X on the beep test, Y on the VJ or have a Sit ‘n Reach of Z.

The question each NSO and SSO needs to ask themselves: Are your selection criteria predictive of ability (based on evidence) or just easy to administer and monitor (Procrustean)?

350lbs Bench Press

Andre Agassi wanted to bench press at least 350lbs leading into the Australian Open.

This is not an example of a Procrustean goal.

Andre and Gil Reyes (his Strength & Conditioning coach of 17 years) had built up such a strong relationship, that Andre totally trusted Gil’s programming and planning.

He knew that when he hit 350 on the bench, combined with the accumulation and balance of all the other work he had performed, he was physically ready to take on anyone.

The 350lbs was not an arbitrary goal. Rather, it was built on experience and evidence (including Gil’s extensively detailed notes!).

(Side note: Andre is one of the few players who used to ask AO tournament director, Craig Tiley, if he could be scheduled to play during the middle of the day in the hot Melbourne sun, such was his belief in his preparation).

Other Potential Procrustean Beds

  • Flexibility – How many athletes are unnecessarily told to ‘stretch their hamstrings’ to achieve the ‘ideal’ 90 degree single leg raise? Or to touch their toes?
  • FMS (or potentially any other screening)
  • Forcing all your athletes to squat with one technique (weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, etc.)
  • What about minimum reps for a body weight exercise before external weight?

AFL Queensland and the Brumbies

Returning to the opening anecdote… Before pulling the trigger to include minimum strength standards into the selection criteria I called Phil Mack, a Strength & Conditioning coach who was contracted to the Brumbies Rugby Union, for his thoughts.

He shut them down pretty quickly by informing me that George Smith, arguably one of the best rugby union players in the world for a period of over 10 years, never got close to Level 12 on the Beep Test (Multi-stage Shuttle Test).

What makes this even more powerful is that Smith played ‘on the flank’, one of the highest work load positions in rugby.

So one of the best players in the world, playing in one of the most physically demanding positions, never got close to reaching what many of us would deem a ‘minimum’ level for an elite athlete.

Why not? Maybe it didn’t challenge him? Or he wasn’t motivated in that context? Maybe he saw it as irrelevant? Maybe his ability to read the play and make decisions more than covered for his low test scores? Who knows?

The point is the Brumbies staff were astute enough to realise that it was performance on the field that was important, not some Procrustean aerobic test.

Conclusion & Challenge

Needless to say I dropped the idea of creating a Procrustean strength standard for my young athletes; and continue to ensure my paradigms are designed for my athletes, not the other way around.

Your challenge, is to ensure your athletes are getting what they need, when they need it and in the manner they need it… Not a Procrustean Bed.

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