By Carl Valle
A lot of coaches don’t have the luxury of visiting the best experts in sports performance and medicine, so I am going to do the work for you by sharing what I have learned. Some of the information is novel, and much of it is merely reinforcement, but all of it will help create better athletes. For me, education is a combination of things: not just attaining more knowledge, but also applying more science and experience.
I have used every piece of technology available, and most of it helped fine tune what my gut and records already told me. Many coaching conferences have pointed out what I knew was a problem, but they identified the specific issue and gave wise advice to alleviate the matter.
This list of the best tips for sports professionals is a group of thoughts that I thought were justified. While it is not a random list, it is in random order. Treat it like a grab bag of tips: not all of it may be a perfect match for your needs, but every item is sound advice.
1. Get Upper Body Weight Room Protection
SkinTech shirts help ease the pressure on body frames with less muscle mass. Many lighter frames need some coverage in areas that put strain on exposed zones of the body, and I really think we’ll see more workout attire actually solve problems in the future. It isn’t always easy for an athlete to rack the weight for cleans and front squats, or have the bar on their shoulders. Some protection is worth it. Jump squats and other ballistic movements can be made more comfortable with the shirt, since not every athlete is built like a linebacker. Even if an athlete is a Hulk, some protection matters, as their collarbone is exposed. A little cushioning goes a long way.
2. Prevent Illness with Cleaning Systems
Want to save a career and increase wins? Reduce illness and serious health risks like MRSA in your facility. Hire professionals to check the cleanliness and evaluate any damage. While everyone talks about reducing non-contact injuries like ACL injuries, light-contact viruses and bacteria are silent problems. Washing your hands is cute—while marginal gains matter, dirty indoor facilities can give a team much more trouble. Even if an athlete doesn’t get sick, they are using biological resources to fight illness.
I believe this is the problem with sharing wearables or using interns to clean weight rooms. The entire process must be overseen and supervised by a professional. Additionally, using a checklist similar to the ones at the bathrooms in airports makes cleaning more likely to be done properly.
3. Bang for Your Buck Biomarkers
The two most important biomarkers with athletes are ferritin and vitamin D, so test them for these four times a year. The cost is relatively inexpensive and these two simple measurements will get you the most bang for your buck. Let’s be mindful of two important factors that kill endurance—musculoskeletal injury and real anemia.Athletes should be tested for iron and vitamin D levels four times a year. Click To Tweet
I have also suggested to people that you can’t motivate team sport athletes to recognize the value of strong bones, even in collision sports like football. Most people see bone health as an osteoporosis issue with elderly women, rather than worrying about fractures from overuse/misaligned stresses and impacts. They also view taking iron or vitamin D supplements as the answer, skipping the need to test blood.
However, iron levels that are too high are not ideal, and absorption and metabolism can make a food label estimate a random number generator. Every time I see tweets on the subjects of anemia and vitamin D, I always ask to see the quarterly data on the team. So far, I am 2 for 60, with only Randy Ballard and Dave Hegland proving they are actually doing what they claim.
4. The Value of Bar Speed From Power Snatches
Peak velocity and snatching to me are sensitive metrics for power, along with total output. I use jump testing with the Raptor Test to gauge fatigue and manage power development over a season and a career, but find moderate load snatches from blocks or hang to be excellent tools for athletes. One of the issues with lifting from an elevated position is the lack of SSC (stretch shortening cycle) and a shortened impulse work length, so the lift is going to be all or none. RFD (rate force development) is less in early liftoffs from the floor compared to mid-stroke with some athletes, so using peak to represent the athlete’s best absolute output is wise. The use of mean velocity, bar displacement, and lift duration can determine how much work can be done with time and space.
5. Lower Leg Resiliency With Remedial Jumps
Plyometrics are seen as a way to reduce non-contact ACL injuries from proprioception and their use improves elastic power. I see them as a way to prepare for shin splints after listening to Boo Schexnayder again. In my plyometrics article a year ago, I showed remedial jumping but forgot to include rotational plyometrics and other options that are great for young athletes and athletes struggling with lower extremity overuse issues. Because athletes are no longer playing with things like jump ropes, they simply need more contacts in various foot positions. Foot health and tendons can be improved by 60-80 contacts of multi-planar activities. I plan to include more remedial jumps in my warm-up and use pressure mapping to see what they do.
6. Scoring Foot Function and Key Anatomy Data Points
Speaking of pressure mapping, teams are naturally going to gravitate to new product options for sport. If you are at the high school level and don’t have money, I suggest that you use Bruce Williams’ Mercury XML assessment form to determine basic risk factors that do indeed add up to increased lower extremity injuries. Even if you have many of the systems available for plantar pressure measurements, functional and anatomic factors must be evaluated to really make sense of the situation.
I have flown athletes to the Weil Foot and Ankle Clinic in Chicago and have seen more than a few resurrections, as well as the remediation of nagging problems that even the best specialists were unable to solve. Baseline scoring of foot function and key anatomical factors that matter is the future, as forces throughout the foot are complicated. There is certainly a beacon of light in being able to measure that which was hard to measure.
7. Practical Applied Sports Psychology
A lot of athletes can tap into integrated training and mind sessions that are short and sweet, and I like ultra-short options that are realistic. Add a sleep mask during visualizations to help athletes block out more distractions. Athletes can create “short teleport vacations” with a nap of five minutes while listening to Pandora or similar streaming audio. Many speed and power athletes have a hard time chilling out, and reducing the use of alcohol (depressants) and marijuana requires natural and effective alternatives.Research shows that even short periods of visualization can help athletes counteract stress. Click To Tweet
I like to use SMS messages to assign random combinations of guided imagery to use when doing “dry” deprivation sessions on the couch or La-Z-Boy chair. Instead of athletes just sitting or lying down, listening to their breath, I like to have them envision flying or swimming in exotic natural locations during their visualizations. According to research, even five minutes can really make a difference for stress hormones, and doing short interventions is sustainable and practical.
8. Realistic Sleep Interventions
I love sleep monitoring, but hate sleep education because it doesn’t help move the needle as much as changing sleep culture does. How many people ignore sleep advice because more interesting things are going on at midnight than simply lying in bed and trying to sleep? Like adrenaline junkies who have a hard time relaxing, hardworking athletes who need quality sleep time are often paradoxically punished—the elevated cortisol in their system from heavy training compromises their ability to sleep.
Attempting a few interventions as a quick fix does indeed help, but coaches need to adjust loads or reconstruct training in order to reduce sleep disturbance. Sleep and below-rolling-average HRV indices should be used to see how overreaching like symptoms can be hurting recovery and adaption. The trick is to create more precision, not just rest guys and be “recovery coaches.” Most of the problem is athletes not adapting to demands their body is fighting, and that is a capacity or preparation error, not an avoidance of stress by just going easy. When people are not sleeping well and have poor HRV scores, view their output in training and competition as the willpower they are mustering up and think withdrawals from the checking account. Sleep, HRV, and training are the holy trinity for rest monitoring.
9. Eccentric Damage and Glycogen Stores
More and more people are using the Kbox, and the KMeter is going to be more and more valuable in quantifying loads for people doing rehabilitation and training for sport. It is important to know the effects of impaired glycogen re-synthesis rates with eccentric damage. This should not matter too much to teams, except for NFL and D1 football. The reason? Glycogen stores decrease quickly when high work rates are used and rest periods are brief.
I suggest prioritizing feeding strategies from Wednesday to Friday, as I have seen some interesting patterns of some teams getting tired instead of getting fresher and sharper. Every football player will bring it on Saturday or Sunday, but doing so on empty or near empty digs a deep hole.
Athletes with low glycogen stores usually have poor free-testosterone-to-cortisol ratios. Since football has only one speed besides walkthroughs, it’s hard to manipulate variables. While the solution for the NFL is simple—rest longer and decrease practice density—it is nearly impossible to change the culture there. In the early 1990s, one team experimented with a combination of walkthrough instruction intervals (reviewing verbally) and full speed work. It was accidental sport science; the equivalent of coaching penicillin. Someone is going to find a way to use virtual reality (VR) training of the brain at a maximum safe dose in practice, all while resting properly.
10. Once-a-Week Recovery Sessions and TRIMP
Many coaches ask about proper ideas in heart rate monitoring and using basic accelerometers to estimate work. Instead of wondering how often you can use a heart rate monitor, think about how you can create valuable workouts that allow for frictionless interpretation. I have nothing against TRIMP and other tools, and if you are capturing it already, kudos to you, but many coaches just want a simple metric that is meaningful and can change things.
I like the idea of monitoring one key training session that is timeless—like a recovery session in football or a common half-court basketball practice followed by shooting—and watching that trend over a season. Sometimes circuits can be monitored, and I like rotating to new workouts and comparing one month to the next, rather than recycling a session and having athletes get bored of it. Just getting a simple total score in TRIMP form is a nice way to see competitive seasons from a set-up perspective. Using one day also allows you to audit the workflow process of everything, from the communication of head coaches to the assistants doing equipment and data collection.
11. Are Lactate Testers Worth It?
One thing that coaches are asking for is a pragmatic use of lactate testing in a world where MRSA and HIV risks are a reality. Many colleges are interested because the lactate and speed/power curve is still relevant, even in the modern wearable era of Moxy and BSX Insight, which get similar data non-invasively. Sometimes N=1 experiments with difficult-to-acquire data like blood and muscle biopsies can open the door to new modeling ideas and training strategies.
A good idea is to see how GPS and HR overlap, and how a gap in understanding can affect lactate response. For example, I don’t like using lactate as a fatigue marker as much as a calibration of RPE. The RPE fans need to calm down, since most athletes are going to score 6-8 for the duration of practice because of the “flaw” of averages. By gauging Peak Lactate with RPE, you can determine whether someone is tough or a kitten. As smart fabrics bring back GSR, we will see more ways to separate the lazy from the beasts, since many talented and blessed athletes are mentally weak.
Typically, coaches want to know how different types of athletes respond to training. I like three simple profiles for most situations: who goes hard, who is “normal,” and who is lazy. Clearly, the middle ground is wider and higher, like a common distribution curve, so most of your effort should be rewarding the hardworking, pushing the middle, and managing the lazy. Lactate testing a few athletes in each group can calibrate effort, which is something that is harder to measure.
12. Ankle Dorsiflexion Hype and Solutions
Dorsiflexion is always discussed and often bragged about, yet I rarely see anyone sharing team scores and evidence-based therapy programs to address joint restrictions. After months of responding to tweets, I am convinced that everyone knows about the problem, most people are afraid to measure the severity of the problem, and nearly everyone is doing self- or therapist-guided mobilizations. The important takeaway is that the reduction in ankle mobility is often the result of poor ankle rehab in youth sport. Multiple ankle sprains in high school means college and pro baggage. It is likely that everyone has sprained an ankle at some point, and even a mild sprain can restrict the ankle joint by a few degrees in the long term. The solution at the elite level is to use radiology, and nearly every athlete has.Combine manipulation, neurological reduction, full-range weight training to reclaim ankle mobility. Click To Tweet
A note to pro and college teams: Take advantage of our medical-imaging-happy culture and see if the athlete’s ankle has the structural ability to hit normal ranges. Self-mobilization helps sustain range, but gains are always going to stem from world-class therapy. A combination of manipulation, neurological reduction, and full-range weight training can restore even the most-stubborn ankle to double digits. An ankle with just five to seven degrees of range means more bending at the hip and less rebounding in basketball, and increases patella tendon overload in other jumping sports.
What is interesting is the array of jumpers in track and field that do tremendous training sessions and have used remedial work by Dan Pfaff to have great ankle ranges, even when doing more jumping training. Dan has advocated both straight and bent knee calf exercises and various lunge walk routines. While 20 degrees with regards to dorsiflexion is a nice utopia, I just don’t see legions of athletes with that type of range in professional team sports; likely because of genetics and the cost of doing business.
13. Test Weight Room Interventions with Time
Debates about horizontal and vertical forces in speed training sort of faded out a few years ago, when speakers began explaining that both forces actually matter. There is very little value in chasing a phantom benefit like a muscle group or narrow quality in a complex sport action. A better solution for elite sprinting is using the 1080 Sprint and looking at right and left symmetry, and comparing it to vertical jumping profiles. The orientation of the body usually dictates the muscle recruitment; so many coaches are frustrated when exercises don’t translate to monster improvements. For example, test an athlete in a crouch-start sprint and then in a three-point start and look at the differences in force. Did the athlete get stronger or weaker instantly, or did they change their body lean?
If sprinting without other influences from the weight room or grass field can’t create more resultant (vertical and horizontal) forces, then training outside the running realm may not be a winning ticket for athletes to use the forces later. In order to determine what variable transfers, time 5m and 10m sprints and compare the athlete to the rest of the people on Earth. When we see masses of people running faster than Ray Stewart, then I will start hopping on the bandwagon.
14. Take a Pragmatic View of Fatigue
A recent discussion on CNS fatigue versus PNS or ANS fatigue is cycling in the Twittersphere, and the debate has value. What is a practical way to look at the physiology? Don’t try to be me and dissect too much: Separating systems out requires us to sew the body back up with interventions and very few things can be done in isolation. A good suggestion is to separate the body from local, central, and total fatigue.
- ANS – Think athlete wellness and stress. To me, this is often a lifestyle and health summary.
- PNS – Think mechanical load and fueling and repair. This system feeds up to the brain as a control loop. Local fatigue creates mixed signaling, as cytokines in the bloodstream may result in a poor mood state.
- CNS – While most coaches think of this as burnout from intensity work, I like to look at this as a connection of willpower based on what the athlete can tolerate. Other factors interact with central fatigue, resulting in a big gray area (pun not intended).
15. Approaches to Posture
When approaching the issue of posture, choose a middle ground, as jumping to either end of the spectrum is dangerous and very ineffective. Posture and pain are big topics now, and many people are simply ignoring the basics or trying to push an agenda. Body alignment matters to the top 1% of athletes and may give 1% back. Baseline screening does matter for an athlete’s structure, as the role of the therapist is to support what nature gave the athlete. It also keeps coaches from inadvertently overloading the bodies they are responsible for.
Kyphosis isn’t going to be the end of the world, but let’s be careful not to jump to conclusions based on a few studies. Compensations are normal, but the goal of high-performance programs is to find a model of the body that best produces force and reduces biomaterial damage. I’m not suggesting that somebody with a pair of hips that are not designed for deep squats should ignore their anatomy, but the gray area is too easy for people to hide in.
Anterior pelvic tilt is similar to dorsiflexion. Coaches need to know the body structure someone is blessed with, and see what training errors may change the alignment that shows up mechanically and kinetically. An athlete with a lumbar architecture that is very curved isn’t going to change from blowing up balloons, as skeletal formation is in the DNA. What may change is chronic shortening of muscle groups that are overused and this is transient in nature.
I have seen plenty of athletes improve their structure using individualized therapy. So, yes, I agree that “restoration” of posture makes sense, and I have witnessed plenty of athletes change alignment from droopy to gorilla chest by using heavy Olympic lifting programs. Limits exist though, as plenty of Olympic lifters are simply born with a good body type. I believe changes of 10% can happen and none of this is going to make a difference to the general population.
16. Auditing Hamstring Health
Hamstring health is debated all the time and I suggest creating a checklist to do what you believe. Too much energy and time is lost in figuring out what to do, rather than reflecting on the impact of what you are doing already. Self-audits are better than evangelizing or trying to make people change their mind. Additionally, more than all of the common variables in the literature, a big factor for injury is the team coach who leads the workloads in practices and minutes in games. Sure, time on the field isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s amazing how many commentators on live TV have no sport science backgrounds, but think they see fatigue, along with the millions of fans.
The role of the sport science department is to make changes to the organization, not plot data and hope that something sticks. Hamstring health rates are about getting athletes that don’t like to train to address posterior muscles, managing the workload by converting the coaches as much as possible, and following up on tracking and testing. My own checklist consists of:
- Pedagogical – Do I get enough planned rest or is the rest really just time off because of a slight injury? Planned rest means recovery on the calendar, not ramping up the other days because the day feels like it’s been lost.
- Preparation – Do I get enough meaningful weight sessions and speed sessions to have the results show up somewhere?
- Medical – Does my therapy team screen out any risk factors besides strength and conditioning factors?
If I have done all three consistently and it moves the needle, I can sleep at night. Trying to do too much, too early, just isn’t sustainable.
17. Group and Individualization with Circuit and Remedial Work
Progressions in core and total body circuits should be based on training age, and coaching and planning should individualize as much as possible. The common approach with general work is to contrast the demands of the specific work, but that should be customized by sport and program factors. I like to use the remainder of the time to have highly specific but brief interventions so athletes can’t talk or put in apathetic effort for remedial training.
When athletes are in circuits, the rest and pace naturally allow some socialization between reps and a few comments between exercises. When athletes are doing self-care, as Kebba Tolbert calls it, assigning unique and brief eight-minute routines improves focus. I like getting a variety of different tools like stretch bands and yoga mats to keep things interesting and keep people on their toes. Noted coaches have called this variation without change, and I believe that it works much better with mobility and flexibility routines.
18. Time Management for Millennials
The Time Pyramid (5S) is my biggest pillar of performance. Set up like the old food pyramid, it shows that athletes need eight hours of sleep, six hours of school, five hours of study, three hours of sport, and two hours of social time in a day. When the top of the pyramid affects the bottom of the pyramid, the system crashes. All of the hours in a day must be delegated properly, as athletes left to their own devices will get sick or injured. If you want people to sleep, make it a priority. If academics matter, outline study and class time. If people spend too much time on social activities and things get a little too flexible, define specific hours by organizing “fun time.”
In my CVASPS presentation a few weeks ago, I emphasized that planning in training should start with the fun stuff first, so athletes know you are aware of—and care about—time away from sport. Coaches at the high school and collegiate levels should create an infographic to show student athletes that no excuses exist. When athletes have to get more academic work done, they must sacrifice social time, not rob the other areas like sport and sleep.
19. Teaching, Talking, and Tasks
I believe in effective communication for better instruction by coaches, but task-based teaching is expanding too, for good reason. The name of the game is having an athlete acquire motor skills by setting up a better environment and reducing noise. I spent a fortune visiting and attending conferences, hoping to discover magic words (Abracadabra) or secret words (Open Sesame!), but the best choice is simply to not skip steps. Don’t fight the forebrain; tap into the cerebellum.
Tasks are simple exercises or movements that create a framework for coordination. The underlying point is that tasks are not drills, but just small instructional goals that allow athletes to self-organize rapidly. Many smart coaches are talking about self-organization as they realize that athletes can get better without a lot of mumbo jumbo. However, like the right word, the right task is not easy. I highly recommend the PE books from Achieve’s Jeremy Frisch: Physical competence training is the future because it worked in the past.Tasks aren’t drills: They’re small instructional goals that let athletes self-organize rapidly. Click To Tweet
20. Modern Coaching and Character Development
Once, in the 1990s, I was disciplined for showing up late and not following directions. It was at the Stanford National Swim Camp, and coaching legend Skip Kenney stopped the entire practice because of me. This was a monumental point in my life. Even in a group of athletes with much more talent, he didn’t want to let the slowest guy think practice didn’t matter. While he raised his voice and hurt my feelings, it was done professionally and my soul was baptized beyond the chlorinated pool water. Now coaches are pals to athletes and private trainers are “hanging around” a little too much.
The best way to handle being the judge and jury is to make sure that athletes have a handbook of the rules, and a list of how discipline is carried out. My first five years coaching in high school were very much about remembering what happened to me in high school as an athlete, so I would have benefited from a document like this from the start.
When athletes sign a “team contract,” it should include the rules and policies of the organization, even at the high school level. Create an athlete handbook, a contract, and a thank-you or discharge document in order to enforce a program of character and dignity. It’s tough to be the bad guy when everyone else is babying or kissing up to talent, but doing the right thing works out in the end. Coaches talk about earning an athlete’s trust, but honestly, it’s about the athlete learning to respect people. Athletes trust water boys to do their job, but they also need to respect everyone, from the custodian to their fellow teammates.