“Stay in your lane” is a widespread saying in the physical performance realm. Strength and conditioning coaches shouldn’t prescribe medical advice, dietitians shouldn’t give sets and reps, and therapists shouldn’t give out meal plans. Simple, right?
Except when it isn’t. At smaller schools like the one I’m at (Trinity Western University), we don’t have the large staff available at larger NCAA schools or in the pro environments. We are more comparable to a high school in America; we have a good department and everything we need, but nothing more.The problem with people telling me to stay in my lane is that it doesn’t work in my small setting. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done, says @chergott94. Click To Tweet
As the head S&C coach, this forces me to wear multiple hats. As I wrote about in my last article on wearing the nutritionist hat, it can be advantageous for me and the school to have people know more than they’re supposed to. Working with a large population of athletes allows me to see everyone, interact with everyone, and, most importantly, develop relationships with everyone. But then people say I should “stay in my lane” and not do too much. Here’s the problem with that—it doesn’t work in my setting. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
Stepping on Toes vs. Slipping Through Cracks
My big crusade is for people to expand to a bigger lane. Why is a bigger lane important, you might ask? Well, for starters, that effort will help you personally branch out and enhance your skills. It could be in an administrative role, in nutrition coaching, or on the therapy side. Now, I’m not referring to doing someone else’s job, but as mentioned, in smaller schools, having one person (you) cover more bases often allows for greater efficiency of tasks, as you don’t have to delegate and then wait on someone else to do their part (group projects anyone?).
Meanwhile, as you learn new skills and push yourself outside your comfort zone, you also enhance your skills and abilities. And sure, you’re likely to make mistakes the first few times, but that’s how you learn. Isn’t that what we preach to our athletes all the time anyway? If you aren’t fast, do extra speed work to get faster. If you’re weak, lift heavy. Why is it that we think we can’t work on our own weaknesses to help the team, but our athletes can? Sure, it’s the goalie’s job to stop the puck, but everyone loves a defenseman who will block shots.
Plus, the more you can tackle head-on, the greater the knowledge base you can apply to each scenario. Once again, if you enhance your skills, you don’t need 13 people’s opinions on whether your client or athlete should bench press; you hold the tools necessary to evaluate and make the decision on the spot—which makes a more efficient system for the client and yourself.
Here’s an analogy to illustrate my point further.
Let’s take an athlete returning from an injury. They start off working with the medical professionals, then they get handed off to our therapy team, and then they come see me (S&C) before heading back to be fully integrated into their sport again. This is a common model and one that works. (See figure 1 below for a brief flow chart of the common athlete experience and multi-step process and handoffs.)
What would make this model even better? If each of us expanded our lane slightly into the next so we had more overlap with the transitions.
For example, say that I wanted to pass a tennis ball to my friend—there are a couple of ways I could do it. I could either throw it to him or try to hand it to him. If he is far away, my options are to throw it or walk it over. But walking it over is too slow and takes too much effort, so I often choose simply to throw it; when I throw it, however, there’s a chance my aim is off, or the ball gets interrupted in its journey, thus not making it to my friend.
That is very similar to how the return-to-play process works at times.
If the S&C coach and therapist stay perfectly in their lane, the passing of the athlete is more of a “throw” with no crossover or communication on how to bridge the gap from their therapy work to higher-level performance training.If the S&C coach and therapist stay perfectly in their lane, passing the athlete is more of a “throw” with no communication on bridging the gap from therapy work to higher-level performance training. Click To Tweet
In my own experience earlier in my career, a common scenario happened in the pattern of the figure above: an athlete would get injured and seek the aid of our therapy team (as they should). Then, the therapy team would either refer them out if it was serious enough or give them some rehab protocols to follow to help heal and strengthen the tissue. The athlete would still lift with the team, but for some exercises, they would do what had been given to them by the therapist instead of what I had for them (e.g., isometrics for their legs instead of squats). Then, once they had gotten to a point where our therapy team was happy with their progress, they would clear them to lift as normal—first with a very light weight and then progress as able.
Sounds simple and effective, right?
Well, it’s simple, but over the last number of years, I could help cut the work in half by diving deeper into the world of return to play and injury management. Now, when an athlete hurts themselves, they still seek our therapy team first—but often, all I need from the therapy team is a simple diagnosis (e.g., shoulder impingement) and some contraindications. I handle the rest based on what the team is doing.
This allows me to help seamlessly integrate the athlete so they feel more involved, everything stays under the weight room roof, and I can monitor their progress. They might still get treatment from the therapy team if their injury is longer term or lingers, but this way, I can help free up our therapy team’s schedule for other athletes, help progress the athletes more quickly, and ensure that they’re still doing what they should as they return to play as opposed to some band rotator cuff exercises and then wondering why their shoulder blows up again in a rugby scrum.
Another routine example comes from any ACL RTP athletes that we might recruit. They might have seen a physio through the early stages but then performed the last 2–3 months of rehab on their own. Now we inherit them and need to clean up any mess left from that athlete being unsupervised and their progress not being monitored (meaning there was no accountability). This falls into both my lap AND that of our therapy team, which can be hard to deal with due to that gap in supervision often causing a lack of progress or athletes progressing themselves too quickly, both of which can lead to suboptimal readiness to return and increased rates of re-injury.
So, if this is not the best option, we need to look at another option (trying to hand the ball directly to my friend). But as mentioned, if they are far away, that walk takes time and energy. What would make the process smoother? If both my friend and I could reach far enough so that we could each extend our arms and I could hand the ball right to him. That would eliminate my poor aim and the chances of the ball not reaching its target and allow for an accurate and fast transition.
That is how I see the role of the S&C and therapist working in a return-to-sport model—it can enhance both the effectiveness and efficiency of working with your athletes and clients by reducing the number of people they must see to get the desired results.
One major obstacle to this transition—whether between you and the therapist or you and the registered dietitian—is proving you know what you’re doing. As mentioned earlier, you’re going to make mistakes along the way, and that’s all part of learning and growing. The key is not to make major mistakes (e.g., putting an athlete under too much load too early) and to always ensure the safety of athletes and clients.
By enhancing your skill set and knowledge, you can also broaden your vocabulary so you can now speak at the same level as these other disciplines. As S&C coaches, we often get told to learn how to speak “sport coach” or “athlete” to better enhance the message we wish to give to the team or coaching staff.We need to learn to speak the language of these other disciplines because it not only enhances their trust in your ability but also your relationship, says @chergott94. Click To Tweet
This is 100% accurate, but I also think we need to learn to speak to these other disciplines because it not only enhances their trust in your abilities but also enhances your relationship. Just like how it’s hard to build a good relationship with someone who speaks Spanish if you only know English, if all you know is “meathead sets and reps” and they only know “rehab,” then you will have a hard time getting along to the fullest. When one or both sides broaden their knowledge and vocab (having longer arms for the ball pass), communication becomes much easier—once again, enhancing the overall process and relationship.
Both need to work on their skills, expand their knowledge base so that they know enough about the other discipline to have conversations, use common language, and then develop a plan together to make the transition smooth and comfortable for the athletes they work with. That expansion of their knowledge base is what gives them longer arms to reach closer to one another and hand the athlete/ball off smoothly.
For example, after I spent many hours diving into return-to-play protocols, I could have better conversations with our therapy team on what they were looking for from an RTP standpoint in order to clear the athletes. From that direct insight, I rewrote our current ACL return-to-running protocol.
The first rendition was a simple cardiovascular progression of increasing volume and eventually adding change of direction work (shuttles). I was able to convince my therapy team that we needed to include more running mechanics work, more high-speed running, and eventually max effort sprinting. I thought we were spending too much time on their cardiovascular work (which is hugely important) but then sending them back into their sport slower and unable to keep up with the training demands, thus delaying their return time.
Adding in the speed work allows our athletes to enhance their training, work on more sport-specific skills (which enhances their buy-in), and develop skills they need in their sport so they can return at a higher level and keep up with the play much more easily (which hopefully leads to a smoother and more efficient return to play). I could have easily just told the athletes to do whatever the therapy team had for them—which wasn’t bad—but through my education, I could tell it needed to be tweaked, and thus learned how to deal with it.
To give one last real-world example that might frequently occur—most of you will have a client or athlete who needs nutritional advice. You could simply refer them to a registered dietitian and be done with it…but then they would have to spend more money and more time for the consultation to get the answer they need. Instead, I recommend delving into nutritional science yourself and learning what your athletes and clients need from that area. Then, you can help answer simple questions and problem-solve with your athletes and clients, saving them time and money and making you look more like a hero!
Staying in your lane is good, but you shouldn’t just accept the size of your lane and complain you can’t do more. Make your lane bigger so that you can stay within it but have a greater impact on those you work with. This can be as simple as reading more research on other disciplines (S&C coach reading about the ACL RTP process, therapist reading about sets and reps for hypertrophy, etc.) or as formal as getting certified in areas outside your current comfort zone.Stay in your lane, but don’t just accept the size of your lane and complain you can’t do more. Make your lane bigger so you can stay within it but have a greater impact on those you work with. Click To Tweet
Some strategies I’ve used that could be helpful are:
- Watch YouTube videos on return-to-play processes for different injuries.
- Chat with your therapy team or a local physio about what they want to see in an athlete for them to be cleared for training/contact, etc.
- Talk to registered dietitians about some simple strategies they use when first starting to work with clients.
- Follow different people/groups on social media to see different content (e.g., RDs, sports nutrition teams from NCAA programs, clinics, researchers, etc.).
- Read books not directly related to S&C, such as leadership books, anatomy texts, or nutrition books.
- Listen to podcasts from other disciplines.
- Call, chat, Zoom, or shadow other disciplines (physio, AT, osteo, chiro, RD). Learn what they want to see and how they treat.
Once again, as I have written about previously, becoming a certified nutrition coach can allow you to work more in that realm, just as a therapist getting their NSCA CSCS can help with common understanding and language in the training process. This can benefit your institution by enabling the current people employed to work with more athletes and return their clients and athletes to the sport in a more efficient and effective manner, improve your business by expanding the clients you can take on, and help the athletes by enabling you to give them more services than you could before.
So, yes, stay in your lane—but don’t be afraid to make it bigger so you can pass the ball faster and more effectively.
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