By Carl Valle
We see them every year, the same misguided arguments by team coaches and fans about the limits of strength and conditioning training. Ignorance and false logic often dictate how training should be done, casting aside science and reason in favor of bias and tradition. Even worse, we have performance staff members who use the same logic to defend their positions, which safeguards these questionable methods, including skipping training altogether.
If you’re tired of circular logic and poor rational thinking that leave everyone frustrated during staff meetings, this article solves these headaches. Don’t stress about myths and other outdated philosophies—sound communication will defeat bad logic when executed properly.
How to Manage Philosophical Differences
There comes a time when strength coaches find themselves in this difficult position, and we can’t always blame management and team coaches—sport science and sports medicine can be just as bad. No profession is without blame when stubborn coaches and a few bad apples render a strength and conditioning coach limited and ineffective.
I’ve experienced differing degrees of insanity, ranging from a few parents who think a high school team needs to do certain workouts to a head coach who believes in a way of preparing that’s embarrassingly outdated. Many coaches eventually must face the argument that training isn’t a good use of available resources and accept that good ideas are dismissed for no reason. It’s a frustrating part of working with a group or team.
This article can’t solve all of the cultures and dysfunctions that can exist in teams and organizations. What I can do is shut down a few logical fallacies and make progress against ideas that sound good at first, but really don’t hold water. If you’re tired of the debates that repeat the same old points without seeing their fair share of justice, this blog tackles them and wins.
You do need to be careful though. Winning an argument might mean winning the battle but losing the war, as nobody wants to be embarrassed in front of their peers. If you decide to join an intellectual game of wits, take the high road on tone but don’t give up ground to people who impair your job effectiveness. There are times when it makes sense to move on since you can’t change everyone. And if you decide to leave a situation that’s not working, it’s better to do so with a sense of pride when the relationship is still intact. If you’re the only one with a different opinion—even if you’re right—you’re not in a good position. Bob Alejo has great articles on healthy job environments.
When you suddenly can’t train the way you think is best for the athletes—and you’re in a healthy, nontoxic workplace—hold a meeting to discuss how to manage the training needs. It’s not about your program, it’s about your athletes’ rights to proper training and health. We literally have athletes injured permanently and even dying during training. And don’t think this is just about the Chelsea coach and other soundbites because it’s not.
The profession of strength and conditioning involves more than weight room supervision; our responsibilities have expanded to athlete care. To improve the betterment of athletes, you’ll need to address your own job responsibilities before growing in a leadership role to take care of other facets. I don’t mean that a strength coach is a hero. I mean that when our role affects athlete wellness, we must do what we can to help reduce injuries and improve performance.
Bad Argument 1: Weight Training Is Not Sport Specific
Year after year, we hear the same tired discussion about how weight training is not sport specific, even among track and field coaches. I realize this section is a long one, but I promise it’s worth reading. The logical fallacy of sport-specific training is not new. When someone is overconfident with a joke at a press conference, make sure the person talking is aware they are not making a new argument. When they believe they have a great point to make because they unknowingly bring up an idea from the past, they usually don’t have much to say after the one-liner.
In addition to the argument that sport does not look like some specific exercises—often using a barbell—it’s not unusual to hear about a talented athlete who achieved great results without any outside training. If you’re a strength coach who has heard either point it, it’s like hearing you have no value, and it’s demeaning. Although it’s frustrating and can hurt your ego, use their points against them constructively.
Strength coaches are not above having the sport-specific argument among themselves; the subject often is debated internally. How many strength coaches have you talked to who claim they understand the “demands of the game” and break down the event or sport into such detail, you wonder if they see the forest for the trees? Since coaches can’t collectively agree on training internally, it’s understandable how the external sporting world is not policed for bad reasoning. The answer is to talk about what the sport can do and how an athlete’s genetics matter.Since coaches can’t agree on training, it's understandable how the external sporting world is not policed for bad reasoning, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Many strength coaches talk about “speaking coach,” or knowing how to communicate with a team sport coach who often has dated training methods. If they experienced a certain way of training, they’re likely to use the same techniques. Don’t fault them. The way you learned from other coaches is often the way you train others, so you can understand where they’re coming from.
If you want to get everyone on the same page, be careful the page is not dumbed down to the point where it makes science foreign. You don’t have to drop scientific knowledge bombs to win an argument, but avoiding what’s evolving in our profession misses the entire point of continuing education. You need to educate the people who keep the field in the Dark Ages. (SimpiFaster has articles on continuing education and training aids, a guide to continuing education, online resources, and top S&C books.)Avoiding what's evolving in the S&C profession misses the entire point of continuing education, says @spikesonly. #continuingeducation Click To Tweet
Let’s address the elephant in the room. A coach who doesn’t like weight training is likely to have similar discussions about sports medicine and sports nutrition. If an athlete has a head injury, are they going to take the reins and suggest smelling salts? Should athletes drink brandy before games like they did a hundred years ago? The best way to handle strength and conditioning is to put the entire process on the table and talk about it.
When someone says they don’t see athletes lifting on the ice, pool, grass, or court, remind them athletes also don’t sleep, eat, or get treatment while playing and practicing. If they double down and say something sillier, ask if you’re allowed to make athletes weaker and slower with bad training and sports nutrition. If they’re still bluffing, go to them after practice (so you’re not screaming in front of the team and fans) and explain that it’s not specific enough and walk away. I’ve never heard of a discussion getting this bad, but we can use it as a reference point to think about.
Nearly all second-guessing is about small slights. For example, a coach complains that the athletes look sluggish and then passive-aggressively points out that they lifted on Wednesday. If an athlete is injured, they may point to an exercise they think is the problem. Sometimes they’re right. An experienced coach can observe a lot, and many have very talented eyes. The problem is that all coaches, even good skill coaches, are sometimes wrong.
Instead of defending what you’re doing on the spot, demand time with them later so you can explain. When a coach sees your plan—or a past training program—they see that you’re organized. One of the reasons Bill Belichick was hired after an interview with Robert Kraft was that he simply had a plan. Team coaches have plays and similar materials. If I had to compare a periodized program of a good strength coach to that of a team coach, I would make a case that an outsider would be very impressed by what a “weight guy or gal” can do.Sell the team coach on the results of your methods, not the visual appearance, says @spikesonly. #sportspecific Click To Tweet
It’s also worth talking about what something looks like and what it doesn’t. Weight training is strength training, and some methods look more like a sport than others. We need to sell the coach on the results, not the visual appearance. Agree that it’s a general, non-sport-specific movement, and explain that it is athlete appropriate. Personalize the movement to a specific athlete by mentioning their name and beat the coach at their own game by going even more specific to remind the coach it’s about the players. I’ll cover other follow-up counterpoints later.
Bad Argument 2: We Can’t Predict Performance with Hypotheticals
How many times have we heard either side of this argument: “If only Athlete X did Y, would we see them do Z”? Similar to the sport-specific fallacy, each side of the hypothetical is likely to be wrong. (Also, when you’re in strength and conditioning, you have to be careful not to over promise.) When Usain Bolt’s coaches, for example, announced he was training in the weight room, they heard a lot of criticism, and suddenly his injuries were blamed on his weight training. This happened long before Bolt; past athletes had weight training that was far from perfect and some incurred injuries in the weight room.
It’s easy to see the connection when a promising athlete is out of the sport permanently due to bad training. It’s harder to see when athletes are among the best and don’t do anything spectacular or even productive in the weight room. People who use deceptive and intellectual-sounding rhetoric to advocate no training for an athlete who has talent hurt our profession. Better athletes can get away with less input from all of their coaches, including their head coach and sport coaches.People who use deceptive rhetoric to advocate no training for naturally talented athletes hurt our profession, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
And yes, teaching an athlete how to play and perform is more powerful than the supportive training, but even world record holders can improve their marks. In some sports, it’s true that we only need to make sure the athlete continues to be effective, which means improving the probability of their availability—an athlete won’t always be able to dodge bullets and avoid injuries (an argument I’ll address later but need to mention now). Some athletes get away with no training or bad training throughout their career. But assuming someone could not have improved because they were the best is not evidence, it is speculation. We’ll never know what former athletes could have done if they were trained well.
What we should do with the less gifted athletes is tricky; working harder or differently aren’t always the perfect solution. Training a less talented athlete the same way we train a more talented athlete using questionable methods is precisely the problem. We need to base training on a process where we can see a systemic improvement that is both safe and probable.
A winning team is often copied. When this is successful, is it because the training program is great or is it another example of success despite the program? For example, look at the importance of the quarterback in American football. The team that wins the Super Bowl usually has an MVP or Heisman caliber talent behind center. So, we see a great quarterback often dictating the future of an entire weight training program for 29,000 high schools the next year. Monkey see, monkey do. Sometimes the monkeys are right because occasionally there’s a great program that benefits the athletes who adopted its principles. Still, it’s not a good strategy to help future athletes improve. Unfortunately, history is told by the winners, and in sport this affects how people prepare for competition.
Dealing with people who scoff at asking what if requires patience and discussion. Ask them: If you were to take over the reins, would you still do something dangerous and ineffective? It’s an important question. If a coach is easily willing to compromise their beliefs because they don’t want to rock the boat, they put their athletes at risk.
I’m not talking about whether an athlete benches with dumbbells versus barbells—that’s a training preference. I’m talking about major compromises. When an athlete has a bad clean technique, for example, it’s better to either teach them how to do it correctly or not do that exercise at all.Training less talented athletes like a superstar athlete could lead to immediate injuries and poor performance, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Bad training with great athletes is not similar to the story of King Midas turning everything he touches into gold. Having less talented athletes train as a superstar athlete could lead to immediate injuries and poor performance. And what about punishment runs and other poor choices? Not only are they ineffective, but they also risk an athlete’s wellbeing. True, plenty of athletes have succeeded even when forced to do suicides and similar training, but we can do better.
People who don’t like hypotheticals have every right to say they don’t know whether certain athletes would respond to training. When taking over a program due to vacancy, you might be surprised how an overhaul can work. Be warned though, even a good and scientifically valid program change may not jive with a specific athlete. Coaches who like the status quo don’t want to create change, especially if they can’t provide value. Obviously, coaches succeed for reasons other than knowing their Xs and Os, but the art of coaching is about applying the science, not likability or having a program that’s fun and compelling.
When training is not effective, you’ll eventually run out of time or talent to keep the charade going. Talent makes everyone look good. I saw my own limits when missing a state record with one athlete while shattering the same event later with a kid who received a little bit of guidance from me. Still, eventually an athlete will stop improving, and in Olympic sport, this becomes easier to see. As an athlete gets closer to their genetic ceiling, coaching methodology must prove its worth.As an athlete gets closer to their genetic ceiling, coaching methodology must prove its worth, says @spikesonly. #methodology Click To Tweet
A coach usually defends bad training when they have an agenda and they don’t like someone questioning them. If someone second guesses a champion, everyone is at risk for criticism. Having a different opinion is dangerous to those who care about job preservation or their influence on others. Be careful not to judge unless you’re intimately involved in the situation or there’s not enough information to make a fair point. People in tough circumstances often do amazing work nobody knows about. Take a look at Terry Francona and how he managed the Boston Red Sox—it’s not easy to see what happens behind closed doors.
Bad Argument 3: We Can’t Reduce Injuries with Strength Training
“Injuries are part of the game” is only half true since most injuries can be mitigated to a point. The better question is how much can we reduce injuries by training. Enough evidence exists in sports medicine research that strength-driven interventions help with injury outcomes. But what happens when you’re stuck in an anti-science environment or with an intellectual smoke screen? The opposition is saying your role is pretty much useless. Rarely today does a coach believe that reducing injuries is impossible, but reducing performance is.
While nothing is perfect and most injuries are more likely related to load management, strength interventions are shown to play a part in reducing injuries. Of course, you may hear the argument that the research doesn’t study the athletes you’re working with in your setting. It’s a valid point that requires discussion, and there’s often an easily available counterpoint. The same reasons people use to claim that strength training doesn’t help reduce injuries are usually the same reasons others use to defend its value. Don’t believe me? Take the devil’s advocate approach and try it.
If you were to hire your replacement, who would you hire? Would you be more likely to hire someone with a great reputation or someone you know? Would you be most likely to hire people who worked under them rather than with them or over them? I bring this up because coaches must think about why other coaches are successful and not whether or not their own program is good.
It’s a healthy exercise that forces you to think about how well you know if someone is doing a good job regarding injuries, unless you’re thinking about hiring a coach to do that specific job. Sports medicine is now all over load management and capacity, mainly because screening places a distant second in reducing injuries. Still, most of what they do is similar to performance and strength coaches, just with fewer demands.
Every time the word context is used to finish an argument about what’s appropriate in a specific situation, it doesn’t rest the case, it just brings up more details. The context of a training program is really about how it fits the unique elements that exist. And we need to question how unique our situation is. Nearly every athlete is unique enough to warrant individualized training. I get it. I wrote about it and support it, but we can’t use it as a shield to deflect questions about why something is failing to work. In addition to context, we must talk about such resources as time, expertise, and budgets. All of these are factors.
When someone claims you can’t do something, be wary of this blanket statement. Unlikely and improbable are fair to say, but to be completely absolute about anything represents closed thinking. Injuries and how they occur are perfectly fine subjects to talk about, as sport is a very transparent world. Although we may not exactly know what’s happening behind closed doors, we don’t need to be in the physiotherapy room to know a problem exists when an athlete is unable to play, wears a boot, or plays poorly with a visable injury. The details may not be available for the public or other teams, but patterns emerge over the years and are tracked rather accurately. Resources such as ManGamesLost.com and other websites collect enough information to draw some conclusions, but again these are rough estimates.
Some coaches play the “bad luck” card or claim that some athletes are prone to injuries. I agree that sometimes we do all the right things based on evidence-based training, and athletes still struggle with the injury bug. Good sport science and critical thinking make a program work; research is part of the equation but not the entirety. Many factors contribute to injuries outside the weight room, especially sleep, travel, nutrition, and family life. I’ve seen great coaches succeed in healthy environments and then struggle years later with a different team. The reality is that a lot of factors other than the weight room and pitch determine a program’s success—though we still need to coach our way out of a problem.
Closing the Door and Moving On
We’re likely to see the same arguments again over and over, as bad logic can be timeless. Don’t feel that all is lost and you’re trapped in a world of doom and gloom. You’re not alone, and the problems you experience with the perception of a relatively new field aren’t new. It’s helpful to realize that working with other opinions is part of the deal, and you can often learn by taking your opposition’s side. It’s healthy to see both sides of a debate, and provided you’re honest about the process, it’s a fine way to learn.
If you’re on the right side and your actions unquestionably benefit your athletes, focus on education and getting everyone to buy in. Our jobs are not always about the coach to athlete; sometimes it’s coach to coach, coach to administrator, or coach to whoever is writing the check. Although the strength and conditioning profession isn’t easy, it’s a great opportunity when you’re prepared. First, learn the common arguments so you can not only plead your case but also address your training from an outside perspective.