In December 2019, I had the opportunity to complete the Apprentice Coach Program (ACP) at ALTIS in Phoenix, Arizona. Everyone involved in team sports is interested in speed development in some way. Personally, I work in Rugby Union, in which there are game-defining moments that will require an effective burst of maximal acceleration from a player, or for that athlete to remain composed at max or near-max speed—both abilities that are common to high-level sprinters.
Since I had been following the work ALTIS does for quite a while, I felt that completing the ACP would be a valuable learning experience. Being immersed in an environment that is so open and transparent can only reap positive rewards, and Coach Kevin Tyler reiterated this in his welcome presentation as he expressed gratitude to all attendees for investing their “hard-earned dollars” at ALTIS. In the end, however, I was even more grateful to ALTIS for opening their doors and allowing for this interaction.
In this article, I discuss four key learning points from the four days I spent at ALTIS. There were, of course, many more noteworthy insights and hands-on sessions, but these four central points were particularly applicable for me in my environment. In addition to providing a balance of the art and the science of enhancing performance, the ACP served as a reminder to critically evaluate everything in the context of my own program.
Acceleration – Error Detection and Correction
“S&C coaches often have a PhD understanding of lifting weights, but an elementary school understanding of sprinting.” –Dan Pfaff, ALTIS
Coach Stuart McMillan’s first presentation on acceleration error detection was incredibly thought-provoking, and it was not until the day was over and I reflected on what he said that I took so much from it. When analyzing movements, Coach McMillan looks at:
For example, in acceleration:
- Shapes: touch-down and toe-off
- Patterns: one gait cycle
- Rhythm: multiple gait cycles
There are more key shapes in top-end sprinting (Coach McMillan identified 3–5 key shapes), but for this section, we will focus on the acceleration phase. According to Bondarchuk’s exercise classification system, sprinting (a specific development exercise) arguably transfers better to team sports than does lifting (general preparatory and specific preparatory). I must also note that it is next to impossible to measure transfer— especially in team sports.
If a coach does not know what they want, they cannot reverse engineer the training process, says @Jordy_Cass. Click To Tweet
Coach McMillan’s presentation sparked considerable debate and discussion around acceleration mechanics and creating an acceleration model. As McMillan tweeted after his presentation: “all models are wrong … some are useful – George Box.” In this context, all acceleration models are wrong, but some are useful because, as Coach Dan Pfaff declared, “You’ve got to coach to something.” If a coach does not know what they want, they cannot reverse engineer the training process. An acceleration model will give coaches a framework to decide how best to intervene with an athlete in front of them.
Reflecting on this presentation and the ensuing discussion stimulated a lot of thought: Performance is a conscious effort, and it is important to equip players with tools to execute most effectively in the environment in which they find themselves. In a chaotic and variable environment (like team sports are played in), players must have a variety of tools to choose from. A couple of my other impressions resulting from the afternoon’s talk are:
- The question becomes, do we want players accelerating to maximal speed or optimal speed (where they can still execute the sport-specific skills of the game—e.g., passing—to a high standard). Of course, like almost everything in sports performance, it depends!
- The acceleration rhythm in team sports is descending, like track and field (meaning, if you close your eyes and listen to the athletes’ steps, you will hear the time between steps increase—stride rate decreases). However, the external influences are random. Does this make a track and field acceleration model inapplicable for team sport athletes? I don’t know, truthfully, but I am excited to look more deeply into it.
Somebody asked a question in the poolside chat: Are team sport acceleration mechanics the same as track acceleration mechanics? Coach Pfaff was of the opinion that they were, the difference being in how coaches train it in different sports—team sports must microdose acceleration/speed work into their program, as training time for physical development must be balanced with time devoted to technical and tactical development. (These aspects are arguably the most important.)
The second part of the presentation, on Day 2, added an unbelievable amount of clarity to questions and confusion I had from the previous day.
In order to correct an error, you must identify the genesis of that error: Is it a mechanical error or a technical error? A simple method that McMillan uses to evaluate if an error is mechanical is to check for asymmetry. A technical cue cannot fix an error like this.
The information I gathered around acceleration really started to make sense when Coach McMillan explained functional anchor points (FAPs). He defined a FAP as a “fundamental shape that may act as a metaphor to which we refer while performing a more complex variation of the skill; i.e., in context.” For acceleration, Coach McMillan listed four FAPs that are “common to all movers on the planet”:
- The stance leg has forcefully extended.
- The swing-leg thigh has flexed forward and upward.
- The swing leg ankle has flexed in anticipation of initial ground contact.
- The arms have flexed and extended to counterbalance the legs.
These four points are applicable to maximal velocity sprinting, along with one more—neutral head and torso.
Video 1. Athlete demonstrates wicket drill emphasizing upright sprint mechanics.
Coach McMillan conceded that neutral head and torso and arm position are not necessarily applicable to team sport athletes depending on the situation they are in (may need to scan playing area for a pass, may be in possession of the ball, etc.). With team sport athletes, every movement is different; this means athletes can have an infinite number of movement solutions. There are two options for a coach:
- Train an infinite number of movements.
- Train several movements or FAPs to act as metaphors for team sport athletes.
It can absolutely be said that movement is contextual; movement can be very different depending on the demands of the particular sport. However, while McMillan accepts that field sport movement differs across sports, his philosophy is that athletes should learn acceleration sprint “rules” before the context of their sport breaks those rules.
Understand Your Athletes’ Limits Before Loading
Another theme mentioned several times, in different contexts, was identifying bandwidths. Ultimately, as Coach McMillan said, this is one of the most challenging aspects of coaching—how much is too much? What is the minimum effective dose for each athlete? Establishing individual thresholds is paramount for optimal adaptation. (Paul Glazier’s recent tweet sums up this point.)
“Mailboxing” athletes is something that Coach Pfaff mentions a lot, and it can be especially useful when working with large groups. Mailboxing athletes is essentially grouping athletes with similar problems together. For example, if you have five athletes completing an A-skip for 20 meters, but each has a different issue, it will be difficult to cue each athlete to improve their technique. However, if you have five athletes with the same problems, by cueing one athlete you are essentially cueing all athletes, making your coaching more efficient.Mailboxing athletes is grouping athletes with similar problems together so that by cueing one athlete you can essentially cue all athletes, explains @Jordy_Cass. Click To Tweet
Another useful benefit of knowing your athlete is being aware of their normal behavior, and therefore being able to identify deviations from the norm:
“A loud athlete goes quiet—the session is over.”
“A quiet athlete starts talking—the session is over.”
Coach Pfaff went on to say that people don’t like to use this kind of feedback to evaluate training status because you cannot put it into a spreadsheet (offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek). But the utilization of talking to the athlete as a monitoring tool was shown throughout the day. Coach McMillan asked numerous questions of his athletes throughout the session: “Are you good for one or two more reps,” “How did that feel,” etc.
In his presentation, Coach Keenan Robinson identified the limitations of swimmers. Coach Robinson discussed the importance of being aware that, because swimmers may not have developed the ability to jump and catch, programming reactive medicine ball throws or depth jumps could pose a high injury risk, just from executing the exercise. This is further support for being aware of who you are working with and understanding their abilities before prescribing them a program to improve those abilities.
Understanding Context and Complexity When Coaching
Coach Kevin Tyler spoke about the importance of balancing art and science in any endeavor in life. His presentation on Day 3 was captivating and showed an incredible depth to the points he made throughout. The first point of the presentation was to identify that information requires context for an appropriate understanding. Without this understanding, we cannot subsequently act appropriately:
Information + Context = Understanding
Information received + Understanding of that Information = Appropriate action
Context is key
Coach Tyler’s presentation discussed the need for a combination of science and experience for optimal performance. Specifically, in coaching: A highly technical coach who knows what to train but has difficulty communicating their ideas will struggle to make an impact. On the flip side, a highly experienced coach who understands the process but has no appreciation for the more scientific side of sport will also struggle. Coaches should develop the “how” (process) and the “what” (technical) to deliver their message.
Critical thinking is vital throughout a coach’s career to ensure they can state a justification for any action. Coach Tyler discussed the story of a man who “saved a fish from drowning” by taking the fish out of the water. As a result, the fish died, and the man went on to eat the fish. There are two messages that we can derive from this anecdote:
- Understand who you are working with and see things from their point of view—humans would drown in water, fish do not.
- Confirmation bias: It is possible to find evidence to support your claims or reasoning—the man developed a “reason” to take the fish out of the water (to save the fish from drowning), but failed to think critically about his actions (the fish would not have drowned).
Coach Tyler then compared complex systems and complicated systems:
- Working with an athlete is a complex system.
- Launching a rocket, although difficult to understand (it is literally rocket science), is a complicated system.
For me, it comes down to the power of the conscious brain. While launching a rocket is undoubtedly a difficult task, you can break it down into a series of simpler steps and, ultimately, if programmed correctly, the rocket will launch. The launch performance will not be negatively affected by illness or injury, lack of sleep, an argument with a partner, and so on. Therefore, it is a complicated process. However, these things can negatively impact athlete performance and affect different athletes in different ways, making it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to predict how certain circumstances cause a change in athlete performance.For me, complicated vs. complex comes down to the power of the conscious brain. Programming is a complicated process, but the human aspect of coaching is what makes it incredibly complex. Click To Tweet
The human aspect of coaching is what makes it incredibly complex, and careful consideration must be taken when adding support staff members to a support team. This process is simply adding to the complexity of an already complex task. In team sports, there could be a backroom team of 10 people; meaning the possibility of more than 40,000 conversations or interactions. However, the ALTIS model is simply the coach, athlete, and therapist—this means that there are only six possible conversations. While this is still a complex task, having fewer options reduces the complexity of the task.
How Science Can Support the Practitioner
Coach Robin Thorpe discussed how science can be used to support the practitioner, showing that a great deal of awareness about ensuring the role of science was neither overstated nor understated, but simply a piece of the puzzle.
What does sports science help coaches achieve? It helps them ask better questions rather than finding answers. Thorpe detailed three specific aims of sports science:
- Reduce uncertainty to help make better decisions.
- Support opinions: It is important to remain data-informed rather than data-driven.
- (mis)Interpretation: Help coaches understand what is happening both acutely and chronically.
With these factors in mind, Coach Thorpe discussed his Ph.D. work at Manchester United, and how it all stemmed from the manager asking the question: “Are my players ready?” Thorpe invested time into investigating the effects of different types of fatigue on player performance and injury risk, recovery strategies to enhance recovery from specific types of fatigue, and monitoring strategies to better understand when and what type of recovery strategy to implement with each athlete.What does sports science help coaches achieve? It helps them ask better questions rather than finding answers, says @Jordy_Cass. Click To Tweet
In a world where data is becoming more and more prevalent, and with more and more wearable technology coming out each year, it can be difficult to decide what measures to invest time in assessing. Thorpe discussed four areas to look at when deciding:
- Reliability: Does the test give the same results if we run it twice?
- Validity: Does the test measure what we think it measures?
- Sensitivity: Is the test responsive to load?
- Usability: Is the test practical in your environment?
The last point—usability—is the factor that should come first when assessing what measures to use. Ultimately, sports science needs to be as smooth as possible to ensure there isn’t a situation of the tail (sports science) wagging the dog (coaching processes).
In order to get a complete picture when monitoring an athlete through a training program, it is important to balance both external and internal loads. Ultimately, knowing the external training load alone (high-speed running, sprints, accelerations, etc.) tells us very little as training load is contextual—depending on athlete training age, time of year, injury status. What is important is the internal training load; to better understand an athlete’s response to training load.
This presentation highlighted the importance of mindset in any sports organization at any level. When people are curious, there are no limits to the amount of learning opportunities that can occur. Being open-minded to investigating the best way to do things helps improve the support provided to both athletes/players and coaches.
Progress Relies on Different Points of View
The variety of methods and perspectives of everyone at ALTIS is a huge positive. Different perspectives stimulate different thoughts; if everyone had the same point of view, things could get very stale very quickly, and progress could stall. What enhances this is every single person at ALTIS is willing to express their point of view and be challenged. Challenging a person’s view or opinion can only be positive—the person will change their opinion for the better and their thought process will become more robust, or the person will strengthen their argument why they feel the way they do and be in a stronger position next time they come under scrutiny.When people are curious, there are no limits to the amount of learning opportunities that can occur, says @Jordy_Cass. Click To Tweet
The biggest take-homes were to always be kind and remain curious. In his book, Mastery, Robert Greene wrote about how important it is to maintain an inferiority complex in order to learn. A child learns quickly because they are dependent, and they need others to survive. However, as we grow older, we become more independent and less reliant on others and even develop a mindset where we feel we can’t learn anything from someone else (experienced coach vs. novice coach; head coach in one sport vs. head coach in another). Retaining this child-like curiosity is essential for lifelong learning and continued development in whatever walk of life we invest in.
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