Guest Post: Changing Perspective

If you're involved in the Australian Strength & Conditioning community you know who Brendyn Appleby is. He has worked with elite athletes for the past 15 years, been awarded the Bruce Walsh Memorial Award (the highest honour for a S&C coach in Australia) and is probably one of the most humble guys you could have a beer with, so we're pumped he penned his thoughts for us. 

Things I Thought Were Important in S&C (But Probably Aren’t)

When Grant first asked me if I’d like to write an article for propelperform, I was stoked! I have enjoyed all the contributions to the site and each contributor has offered a lot of real world advice. I happily tweet the links and tell fellow coaches to get on there and have a read.

Then he gave me the topic and I thought he’d stitched me up. Talk about a controversial topic.  But it was too late – I had said yes, so here’s the controversy.  Things I thought were important (as a young S&C coach) but probably aren’t (now that I’m not so young):

1. Everyone needs to weightlift

Weightlifting (commonly referred to as Olympic lifting) is a very popular, almost mandatory tool in the S&C coach’s tool box. For good reason: it requires competent movement patterns, the triple extension utilised in so many sports, full ranges of motion and flexibility of the shoulder, hips and ankles.

Additionally, there’s development of power, the eccentric catch rapidly loading the body and the acceleration of a bar without the deceleration at end range. It all adds up to an exercise with many advantages.

Unfortunately, whether it is the clean or the snatch, the complexity of “movement competency” that makes it so appealing, can also be prohibitive. That will cop a hit from the functional movement people – this is not what this bit is about, so relax. I think you need movement competency.

MORE: 10 Goals for Undergrads

However, the point is if you are not very competent at the lift, all of those wonderful benefits I just mentioned are not achieved. Yes, you get a lot of “bang for your buck”, but I have found it to be a large investment of time that just does not pay off for every athlete.

Whilst it would be great if every athlete entered an elite or professional program being able to power clean or snatch with sublime technique, the reality is, not every athlete can do them well enough for the exercise to be included in the program, nor, more importantly, does the time exist to teach them when there are so many other training methods that can return quicker results.

The professional sporting world can be cut throat, and when you have a one season contract (effectively an 8-10 week period really for the S&C coach in the pre-season, because there are not a lot of strength training sessions per week in-season) where you need to get an athlete in peak condition to perform immediately, doesn't lend itself to having a 12-18 month plan to improve their weightlifting competency.

With respect to competitive weightlifters, it should not be easy to perfect. That is why they train the lifts so much every week; that’s what they do. They don’t do cleans twice a week for four or five sets. Additionally, they don't just clean and jerk; but break that lift down to many subtle versions of pulls or presses for different phases.

Team sport athletes have much less gym time by comparison. I have been fortunate to work with a number of athletes who have competed at the international level across several sports. Some of them were excellent at the lifts, and others were terrible but that did not prevent them from being physically capable of competing at the international level. What they had in common was strength and sport specific skill.

The solution to “everyone needs to weightlift”: there are components of the lifts that may be more appropriate and not the entire movement sequence: deadlifts, clean pulls, push presses, split jerks.  These can all produce various benefits listed earlier and can be incorporated into many athletes programs that might not be able to clean or snatch.

Not everyone needs to weightlift, but they do need to be strong!

What is important:  Any tradesman will tell you that you need the right tools for the job, and not all tools are equal.

2. Every player needs an individualised program

As a young coach, every athlete needed an individualised, sport specific program. It was a guiding principle, up there with overload, reversibility and specificity.

I would madly create a squad of individualised programs, that would last two to three weeks because athletes adapt quickly and need their program changed just as quickly. During that time, I would be busy programming for the next block.

However, over the years, I have spent less time writing individual programs, using the “spare time” for coaching and educating athletes through squad based programs.

MORE: Progressing the 'Bridge' Exercise

I’ve tried to create a program style that had individualisation and flexibility in-built into a few general program styles. This year just gone has probably been my most satisfying from a coach-athlete perspective with positive results in terms of strength progress, coach-athlete relationships and athlete understanding of the program.

Yet on a "program sophistication" level, almost embarrassing.

My total programs this year for a squad of 40 athletes – just four, plus a couple of rehab ones along the way.

A big part of this was the periodisation and in-session loading which I gladly attribute to Dr Greg Haff. I don’t underrate networks, mentors and learning from people smarter than me!

I think a big part of the success of the program was the ability to keep it simple, the load progression individualised and accurate and, as a result, (and most importantly) the training intensity high.

By taking the complexity out of the program, with less “chopping and changing” of exercises, the players were able to apply themselves to every session (they did not have to adjust to new exercises every other week, just loading parameters) and I was able to coach and educate more, rather than having to explain complexities.

What is important: The big rocks. Don't get distracted with the "sexy" things or the latest fad. I know they are appealing. But it's the foundations that determine the magnitude of the building, not the fancy antenna on top.

3. There is only one way to do …(it) (eg. lift, recovery programs)

As a young coach with a uni degree and a few coaching course certifications (not to mention all those uni prac hours picking up cones at the local AFL club), you can easily think that you know more than your athletes.

After all, you did all that study, not them. However, as I have become more experienced, and perhaps more comfortable with what I do and do not know, I appreciate the input from my athletes more. And the older the athlete, the more it’s a discussion.

What is important: People and communication skills, which include listening.

Coaching is about teaching, and that includes talking.  But it is listening to our athletes that is most important.

It is when our athletes feel that they have listened too that we develop trust in our relationships - and that is what coaching is; a relationship.

4. "One percenters".

Every year there seem to be more and more 1%'ers and elite sport is an appropriate driver of this.

The fact is, regardless of your favourite sport, at the elite level, there is very little separating the top teams and each one is desperately searching for the edge.

It's innovation, and that is another principle characteristic of S&C coaches. However, for the majority of coaches, the 1%’ers are distractors.

As I said previously, coaches at any level should be concerned with the big rocks - strength, movement competency, fitness and nutrition before worrying about 1%’ers. They are really only the icing on the cake.

What is important:  Get the 98% right first.

5. Master of everything

I used to think it was important to know everything.

That is an admirable goal and I strive to know as much as I can - I don't like being unable to answer a question on the spot from a coach or athlete. However, I know that there is also a lot to know and from time to time I’m not going to know and that’s ok. But I do try to get the information as soon as I can from whatever source I need too.

I believe that it is important for S&C coaches to continue to learn - I think that is another constant character for S&C coaches; always seeking new knowledge.

It's what drives our profession. However, as I have gained experience, I have become more comfortable knowing that I do not know everything. Whilst I continue to learn, I also try to find as many colleagues as I can who are experts in the areas that I am not. I believe that it is important to develop a network where I can go to get every answer.

What is important: Developing a network is a critical skill and you have to work at it.  A colleague of mine has reminders in his phone to touch base regularly with his S&C friends throughout the world.  If you applied for a job with him, I would think that if he does not know your reference on a job application, he is no more than two phone calls/emails away from someone who does know your reference - two degrees of separation. Remember S&C is a small world and networking is important.

MORE: 11 Ways to Improve your Coaching

Networks are also a two-way street. You need to look after your mentor and not just take everything from them, but help contribute to them. Remember respect.

I feel that my Australian S&C colleagues are a fairly laid back, informal group, and I think that younger coaches get caught out. The fact that you call them by their nickname, that does not make them your mate.

And whilst you learnt all about EMG, force plates and GPS at university, and their assignments were possibly hand written, 20 years of fundamental application has taught them what is important to look at, so remember to be respectful of the old guy/gal.

6. I used to think that if it was on the internet, it was important. 

What is important: Just because some coach wrote an article on the internet, does not make it right. Don’t blindly follow, but seek to understand.

Brendyn has worked in elite strength and conditioning with a diverse range of athletes. Currently, he is the Head of Conditioning with the Australian Men’s Hockey team, the Kookaburras.  Follow him on Twitter  @BrendynAppleby.

About Grant