When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Carl Valle
Sometimes you just have to stop and write down the way that you come to conclusions when making training and coaching decisions so you can learn more about yourself. I did this a few months ago, and concluded that much of the way I think is the result of many different mentors, as well as one maverick who I met only once: Henk Kraaijenhof.
If you ask the average strength coach or even track coach under the age of 30, I bet only single digit percentages of both fields would know who he is. In addition to conferences and many workshops in the States, Henk has resurfaced more in his blog and now in a new book.
I give him a place in the top five on my short list for helping me avoid the traps of following the wrong path, as I have done that many times. In this blog piece, I outline eight indispensable lessons that are my compass for what matters to me. I am sure readers will agree that what he has done is pure science, applied masterfully.
Who Is Henk Kraaijenhof?
Currently, Henk is a consultant and educator in training and high performance, but in the start of his career he was a track coach known to be very innovative. The term or title, “innovative,” is easy to put on a business card, but as someone who has had a director’s role in innovation, I know that it’s very difficult these days to be part of something revolutionary. Henk is a former track athlete himself, from the Netherlands. He has worked with many elite athletes in different sports, and is one of the most holistic coaches I have ever known. Always ahead of his time, the things he and his colleagues were doing decades ago are now being rehashed and polished. It’s important to document what practitioners do in training, as what is not written gets lost in a retelling of history from a scientific standpoint.
I first learned about Henk more than 20 years ago, reading a few exchanges when Netscape Navigator was my only connection to information online. Years later, when the “Supertraining” group was en vogue with the sports performance community, I read his very clever and insightful comments during a debate discussing the value of low-intensity running for conditioning in the sprints. His responses were a combination of wit and wisdom, and left me pondering everything I was told for months afterward. I am grateful to this day for being guided to think outside the box, while being taught to do my homework inside the black box as well.
If you are a coach looking to be liberated from trends and misinformation, I highly recommend learning how to become a thinker, as well as a practitioner who applies sport science in an ingenious manner. Truthfully, I have learned more than just eight lessons, but I wanted to share principles, more than just a list of examples.
Lesson 1: Results Matter, and They Are Everything
Henk has a great talent for ensuring things are simple enough to be practical, but never oversimplified just to be convenient for the lazy. Results must show up in performance and must be obvious to know if the coaching is working, and you must also show the cause and effect. Henk was very straightforward about results and accountability in this post on sprinting, and reminded us that we have the simple responsibility of getting people better:
“The fast expanding knowledge about epigenetics will help us a lot to understand the adaptation processes and to individualize and optimize training programs for sprinters. Sometimes you build an athlete from scratch, sometimes they come from other coaches, mostly at a later stage in their career. Just make sure they run their personal best when you are coaching them.”
Getting better isn’t simple in team sports, especially when more variables are involved with less training time. Henk warned everyone that improvements in the parts of an athlete might not show up in game performance, so changes in jump power may not show up in actually running faster from point A to point B. Henk’s training is very vanilla in my opinion, but that’s the strength of what he does—getting clear improvements from the athlete.Coaching must show improvement & that improvement must connect to what you are doing or not doing. Click To Tweet
As coaches, many of us—including myself at times—rationalize our value by grasping for things that don’t matter when training isn’t going well, as a sign we are doing the right things but performance just hasn’t shown up yet. It’s true that the acquisition of skill or performance isn’t always an immediate response, but it needs to be eventual for us to know if what we are doing is working. My lesson is that performance needs to show improvement, and that improvement must be linked to something that the coach is doing or not doing. Sometimes talent makes us look like a genius, but it’s vital to make sure coaches are rich from building wealth versus just inheriting it.
Lesson 2: Technology Is a Tool
It’s no secret that Henk is a big proponent of using the right technology to get the truth of what is happening in the training process. He is decades ahead of most coaches and is, to me, the best applied technologist in sport. Henk warned us that technology is sometimes abused, and it becomes “toys for boys” and “tools for fools” if not selected and used correctly. The primary reason Henk uses tools is to get objective feedback on his training process.
Recently, some controversy on the current sport science applications of the force-velocity relationship has stirred up some heated discussions, mainly on what is novel and innovative. Several notable ideas on using loads to help acceleration and jumping performance were published over the last few years, and a very fair question you have to ask is the significance of the revelation historically. In the 1980s and 1990s, Henk was using very coaching-friendly tools to see how power was trending over a season and the career of athletes. What was important was that he looked at the end results, specifically the athlete running faster, and that dictates the transfer value from the specificity limitations of the exercises.
Other tools besides velocity-based technology options were used decades ago, such as EEG, EMG, and even early versions of the Omegawave. Henk experimented with vibration platforms, laser contact mats, and sometimes new training solutions from cutting-edge companies.
All Henk’s investigations with technology were to get to the truth, not to confirm his biases. Many coaches are afraid of technology or want objective measurement to go away, as their own spin on training can be quickly refuted by a few case studies showing what is perceived is not true.
Lesson 3: Coaching Application Is Everything
Knowing sports science information and being able to apply it are two different things, and this is the reason coaches need to read the sports science research but always ask how it changes the workouts. Every coach must walk away after reading a new journal article and be very frank about what needs to be done differently with the training. “Interesting” and “useful” are sometimes mutually compatible, but descriptive studies don’t always apply to the real world because the effects of the variable wash out in a comprehensive training program. We see this when a tiny component is isolated in a study of six to eight weeks, but never shows up when coaches are addressing multiple factors in training.
Clarity, potency, and directness are what make an application a reality. Simple is hard, because many activities seem or look to be easy to change. One of Henk’s strengths is he makes it easier for others to take very complex puzzles and make them more manageable, not dumbed down. Like PJ Vazel, Henk’s training is very elegant because it focuses on what is essential and not what is ineffective noise.
Application is more than just intervention use; it’s also about planning and sports psychology. My favorite example of this is when the former 60m world record holder, Nelli Cooman, had to watch her competition warm up to increase arousal. Henk understood his athletes so much that he took a gamble that others were not able to even think about trying, and succeeded in having her win the world championship without tiring her out from excessive warming up.
It’s great to read about sports psychology or sports science, but eventually you have to take a concept and put it into action. Not taking a risk is a risk, and today it seems we are focused on rest and minimum effective dose concepts instead of the strategic risk that has a great potential for reward. What makes someone clever is not just their knowledge—it’s how they can use what they have by being inventive with what they know. Coaches must be more creative with the use of sports science and pedagogy; not just try to look smarter by regurgitating the biological mechanisms.
Lesson 4: Your Internal Measurement Is Making Science
Who cares if a study shows that an exercise improves a study group if the control is doing nothing or the subjects are kinesiology students? Coaches only seem to care about what works the best with their athletes. Science struggles to tease out the primary mechanism and the magnitude of the impact of variables, so we need to be patient with the realities of the scientific method. Inferences from empirical evidence are important, but without solid science we are just arguing based on who has better athletes or who is stronger at rhetoric.
What I still find very exciting are the efforts to solve mysteries of training with internal investigations using our own athletes. By no way am I saying that coaches are always ahead of the science—it is appropriate to say making science with your own athletes is perfectly OK to do. In fact, not doing science with your athletes through thoughtful experimentation is just playing it so safe that, at best, you are trying replicate what was done years ago. Building on the past requires knowing what was done and why, and then deciding if an alternative is possible and likely to work.
Henk skipped the middleman with the indirect science, but kept the scientists as a sounding board. Henk wrote some articles on the use of measuring athlete biomarkers such as ammonia, 30 years ago. How many people have done biopsies with their own athletes to actually help them versus showing off what they are doing with their athletes to appear progressive? Direct measurement of your athletes should balance out reading the journals of other athletes, as there are no better data sets than our own. Don’t be afraid to do a little gonzo sports science on your own—it really makes a coach more inventive, and also makes you appreciate the sports scientist trying to help you on their end.
Lesson 5: Be Holistic and Specialized
At first glance, trying to be holistic and specialized sound like opposing ideals, but in reality experience and time will encourage both. A foundation must not only include all of the sport sciences, but a working education that is beyond just sports in general. New coaches are tempted to find their niche and dig deep into a fetish knowledge area and neglect having a good, well-rounded framework.
On the other hand, we have coaches spending so much time outside the field with leadership books and pop science, that they become so shallow as to be ineffective in their situation. Besides the advice to “never stop learning,” it is important for coaches to know how to win over trying to argue what research study has better statistical analysis. If you want to win, study winning; if you want to study biology and biomechanics, make sure it helps gain an advantage to win.
The amount of specialization that overlaps to experts outside of coaching can vary from barely touching the edges to being interchangeable with other roles. A boundary exists when legal and ethical practices are in play, but for the most part, the overlap is to communicate better and to respect the limits of each specialist’s role. The more a coach knows about another field, the better that questions and more demanding challenges can be solved.Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important, because your gaps can hold back the athlete. Click To Tweet
As somebody becomes more specialized for the sake of improvement, the more likely it is they become less effective unless they are aware of their own limitations. Knowing what you are good at and what may be a weak point is important, because the gaps you have are usually what is holding back the athlete. Every coach with an area of specialization or expertise drives the quality of expertise around them, since sports performance is a copycat profession. Henk exemplifies the width and depth of his knowledge and expertise by employing a holistic program, and drilling down deep enough to refine the process of training. Every coach needs to be well-rounded, and eventually go deeper in multiple areas to drive better results.
Lesson 6: Monitor the Athlete Properly
Monitoring is as old as training, and Henk has done more for monitoring in his career than most professional teams today have done with a dream team staff. Monitoring is about observing change in training status and, in my opinion, Henk has pushed sports science to the limit. “Peak monitoring” has likely already been hit, as coaches are starting to realize getting a number is one thing, knowing what to do is something else, and applying training so you don’t need a number is likely to be the end game. Henk’s background in monitoring helped popularize, “do as much as necessary, not as much as possible.” Recently, he has coined the phrase, “overload not overkill,” as he has seen enough injuries simply because the workload was not managed.
My first real appreciation for the management of load and response came from the DVD on overtraining in speed and power athletes. This rare educational product included private lectures from leading experts in Europe on monitoring overtraining. When the market went mainstream and was diluted to the lowest dominator, I went the other way to something that was sophisticated only to the elite and found the information shockingly practical. Henk was explaining—in great detail—how he used monitoring, and this is when I started looking at central fatigue beyond the neuroendocrine system. His outline of information including DC Potential was very compelling, and while I am not a user of Omegawave, I am a fan of brain-based monitoring.What separates Henk from the guru with the latest device is his wisdom in interpreting information. Click To Tweet
Regardless of the marker or metric, what separates Henk from the guru with the latest device is the wisdom of how to interpret the information. In a very though-provoking article about the simple use of reaction time, Henk shared why he is the best at what he does. Fatigue is often an interpretation if the data is not analyzed properly, and reaction time is also about concentration and focus, not just a pipeline into the nervous system. Henk is the master of monitoring, and his expertise is also in seeing what happens when the rubber hits the road.
Lesson 7: Decode the Brain for Performance
I have mentioned the brain a few times already, and several SimpliFaster articles on motor learning, neurotransmitters, and interviews on brain science have been posted in the past. Most of the information I have read is very heavy in theory without application, and Henk is one of the go-to guys on the athletic brain. Now, with the rise of brain stimulation devices and the use of neurodoping with drugs, we need more thought leadership on what we are trying to do instead of amplifying bad methodology. Adding more volume to a bad record doesn’t fix poor musicianship, it only makes the problem worse. It’s like monitoring bad training programs—the efforts are admirable, but the results are still going to be poor.
Currently, the brain is still a bit of a mystery so it creates opportunities for gurus to make a living, and that’s why I love reading Henk’s work. The most important value of Henk’s information on the brain is he understands the goals of the coach, not the latest buzzword or research study that appears innovative. Coaches are trying to enhance it or reduce problems that impair performance, and what I love about his thought process is he is trying to connect the two areas that people accidently separate: the body and mind. Instead of staying in an isolated realm, Henk brings the complexities of the brain down to earth with very pragmatic suggestions.
In the future, we are going to see more measurement tools and more interventions to the brain and this is scary to me. With all the mistakes people are making with other organ systems, we don’t just need more science—we also need more wisdom. My concern with any of the advancements in supplements and technology is the lack of “horse sense,” as Boo Schexnayder calls reason. Without a leadership role like a coach, the progress we are making on the brain can backfire if not applied properly. I have read more and more about how we think and how the brain works, and I find that my coaching becomes more effective when I try to support how athletes self-organize instead of just being instructional with teaching.
Lesson 8: Use the Past to Change the Future
Many of Henk’s articles give a brief history lesson, or at least tell his story behind the story. Why is this important? If you want to innovate, you can’t create in a vacuum—you must reflect on the past and the present, and make a trajectory that matters. Henk is aggressive about the fact that velocity-based training is not new on his website, and I appreciate that because many inventions we think are radical or pioneering are old versions of earlier work that was just less known.
A lot of coaches want to discover or be the first with something, and that’s only human. But it’s also human to be selfish and greedy. Inventing is real work, and often the harder and less exciting something is, the more likely others quit before it’s finished. Several coaches and scientists falsely believe what they are doing is game-changing or revolutionary, when they are really just adding a spin to what was done before they were born.
This last lesson is the best lesson for me, as it deals with more than being a better coach. It’s about being a better person. The more I read and learn from the past, the more I can help the younger coaches today, especially my interns over the years. Every year I usually get a college senior or young coach who is desperate to fill the void of completing a set number of hours. I know I am not the first pick, as they usually want to go to a performance facility in California or a big D1 track program, but what they learn from the internship is priceless. In order to predict the future, you need to make it, and that starts with knowing how people succeed with a lesser deck of cards.
Audit Your Athlete Development Program
Don’t wait for a convenient time to review what your influences are and who shapes your thinking. I highly recommend writing down who you believe your top five biggest mentors and influencers are, and finding out what makes them tick so you can learn what makes you who you are. I have had the privilege to learn from Henk and believe he is a major pioneer in performance. I suggest learning more about him from his blog and attending his coaching education workshops if he is in your area.