By Carl Valle
If you are new to sports performance, you may wonder where you can find the best information. And if you have coached for a few decades, you may wonder if it’s worth attending some of the conferences that are available these days. There are plenty of options, and I have previously shared a few ways to know where to get the best resources online or live in person.A lot of information gets lost because the history of sports performance is written by a select few, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
This article is not just a list of seminars with explanations why they are the standard for future education; they also are a good way to audit your own education. Hours of experience matter, but if we are to truly stand on the shoulders of giants, we must improve our learning curve. Otherwise, we will repeat the same mistakes, just with newer models of spikes or smartphones. Like the burning of Alexandria, a lot of information is lost because the history of sports performance is usually written by a select few. Sport science and technology have helped for sure, but those two fields have refined the craft, not redefined the coaching profession.
Are Conferences as Good Now as in the Past?
I am only halfway through my career, and I expect to coach into my 60s as it’s not a grind. Sure, the hours are long and sometimes the job doesn’t give back what you put into it, but I am not going to complain. Talk to the construction workers on their feet doing brutally hard work about how it feels working all day. Teaching squats to freshmen or running conditioning sessions is tiring, but I don’t know where I would rather be.
The gray-haired strength coach is like the Mexican Gray Wolf: endangered and under-appreciated. It seems experience is an afterthought, and new ideas mean going young (read: cheap). So what to do? The answer is simple: Focus on education that involves experience rather than hustle. Give young professionals a chance to share, but don’t push anyone that was born before the internet into the coaching graveyard.Focus on education that involves experience rather than hustle, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Conferences now are far better and far worse than in the past, but the average is likely a step below what I remember. I don’t blame anyone, it just seems to be an issue that education is a hard juggle of budget, instruction, and promotion. Below I list the five seminars that I think transformed me and other coaches, and I hope we can learn from these resources how to repeat the magic with coaches’ education in the future.
Building and Rebuilding the Athlete, 1997
I remember, as a sophomore in college, getting an ad for a seminar from Perform Better in the mail (old school), and it feels like yesterday. For years, I ordered the old Nemo medicine balls for training and even the rotator cuff solution, as well as the VHS tapes of Vern Gambetta’s training methods. Liking what I read and saw on video, I invested my money into a two-day workshop in downtown Tampa as it was right next door. Keep in mind that I was likely 19 or 20 at the time and only knew how to do warm-ups and technique drills. Most of my education came from my experiences in high school and from bodybuilding resources from bookstores. If I had been a better athlete and gone to a college to compete, I think I would at least have had more exposure to weight training outside of dry-land training or a recycled football workout, but who knows.
What I learned in two days transformed a kid who really didn’t have a clue to someone who was competent and had a vision. Several seminars exist that add knowledge or even wisdom, but this was my blueprint for the next 20 years because it was a living history of training and coaching. If I listed the people in attendance, you would be amazed by the wide range of quality professionals, including high-profile medical and performance experts.This conference, with its living history of coaching, served as my blueprint for the next 20 years, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Vern challenged conventional wisdom and also ensured that classic principles were still respected. For example, Vern showed a slide of an elderly Japanese man doing balance squats on one leg, and actually showed MLB pitchers doing the same exercise in his presentation. I am not saying Vern Gambetta is the father of single leg training, but his workouts from decades ago definitely supported the philosophy and importance of unilateral training.
Without hesitation, the workshop was mind-blowing, and anyone who attended will recall the amazing long-term athletic development clips of kids from Switzerland learning to become better athletes or, just miles away, Werner Gunthor training. I still review the workbook every late summer as a reminder of what I must continue to do and what I must do better. Years later, I had a chance to present at GAIN (2010), Vern’s annual educational retreat that continues to grow coaching careers. I was proud to show two athletes who were All-Americans due to a diet of the training concepts from the 1990s utilizing radically different methods. If I wasn’t exposed to an international perspective years ago, I would likely have been years behind or starting from scratch, so I give Vern credit for putting me on the right track.
I recommend coaches read Vern’s blog and carefully look at the books and people that have influenced him. Vern has openly shared where he finds his ideas and methods, as it provides more meaning to know about the discovery than just package information without history. I see a disturbing trend in the strength and conditioning and performance fields of not sharing the journey of information acquisition, and it cuts the soul out of the equation.
MSTCA and NISCA State Clinics, 2003-2004
Two local conferences in the early 2000s not only had information that was outstanding, but also value that was unheralded. I don’t take issue with educators asking for any price they see fit, but I recommend they think hard about the value of their information. The state of Massachusetts provided two treats for two sports: the annual coaches conference for track and field, and the swimming clinic that brought in international and college coaches who understood high school situations.
The track and swimming clinics obviously differed in content, but the information was gold because you could actually apply it in a realistic manner. After all, if a clinic doesn’t make you coach or think differently, you may either need to attend a better educational option or be more receptive to evolving. I am not saying you shouldn’t be skeptical or you should remove your thinking cap, but you can almost always refine a few things by learning from your peers or other quality coaches in your program.You can always refine a few things by learning from your peers, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I first met John Smith in Atlanta during the USATF Indoor Nationals in the late 1990s and was mesmerized by the way he used words to coach his athletes. Years later, I was surprised to see him brought in to speak at the state conference and he was superb. During this time I was also introduced to Randy Gillon. After a few email exchanges, he became a new friend and I bounced ideas off him from time to time.
While I think it’s great to have expert speakers to guide us, the second wave of education comes from our fellow coaches with whom we can freely question and debate ideas, and I give Randy much credit for helping me rethink some things. Randy was a great college hurdler and is now a great coach at Illinois. That conference really taught me not to get too fancy and to focus on getting the straightforward stuff done—not be lost in the esoteric things. It’s fine to jump into a rabbit hole and pursue the truth, but eventually you have to coach Monday’s workout.
The swim clinics were in contrast to the state conference in track, and they featured some swimming legends. I was able to attend two great seminars in back-to-back years, and it was amazing to learn how Michael Phelps tapered and how to set up a 12-week program for high school. In addition to college legends such as Gregg Troy and Jack Bauerle, veteran coaches such as Skip Kenney and others really opened my eyes to concepts versus example workouts. Still, it was important to actually review a season’s worth of workouts to get context, which is something we don’t see much anymore.
The USATF Level III Schools, 1999-2006
After the amazing session by Andy Miller at the USATF Sprints School, the next quantum leap came from the series by Level III schools in Asheville, Grinnell, and Las Vegas. Again, I got to spend time with Randy Gillon and Kebba Tolbert, but also met another mind—as well as friend—in John Hunter. These three coaches would be instrumental for me down the road, as I often check in with them to make sure I’m not on the wrong path. The USATF Level II school in Purdue helped me become structured and balanced, but the Level III school liberated me to not just paint by numbers.
Boo Schexnayder, Gary Winckler, and Dan Pfaff helped me take a skeletal set of ideas and add flesh to the process. I have interviewed all three coaches, but also recall Caryl Smith-Gilbert and Dr. Sands adding their ideas to the mix. In fact, the ETSU connection of Dr. DeWeese and Dr. Stone was very strong years ago in North Carolina (Asheville). The science started to matter more, as it was expected that coaches had a grasp of coaching, and needed more in-depth knowledge. From those three schools I learned how the rules of training could be bent but not broken.The USATF Level III schools taught me that the rules of training could be bent, but not broken, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Besides the coaches mentioned, one of the reasons I loved the USATF schools was that they were immersive and ran all day. Social time existed, but it was focused and not just an excuse to party. I am not against going out socially to enjoy friends, but some conferences seem like a spring break for coaches rather than a time to get better. Currently, the IAAF and USATF are collaborating to facilitate education. It looks like my window closed on getting a USATF Level III accreditation using the earlier requirements, but I am going to start learning from a clean slate next year. I think earlier I was focused on “self-improvement” with certification or benchmarking, but now I am more interested in getting better.
The same style of sharing and learning continues now with the CVASPS annual conference, with familiar faces all spending time together exchanging ideas over meals. What I miss about the USATF conferences is the feeling of a community, rather than a group of people there for a few days. Outside of the friends I made over the years, the value of the Level III schools was in its pure education, not the promotion of brands or other business ventures. Sure, conferences have sponsors and speakers are sometimes connected in order to make the world go round, but the USATF Level III schools were excellent because the only agenda was the promotion of coaching education.
Sundsvall Wind Sprint, 2008
The only European conference I have included on this list is a tiny boutique seminar that is held from time to time in Sweden. I have attended three, and all of them were excellent. My favorite year may be the one with Roberto Bonomi and Jon Goodwin, but due to the time I spent with PJ Vazel there, I will tip my hat to the first one I attended in 2008. Anyone who knows sprints will agree that PJ is a savant, as his knowledge is as deep as it’s wide. Part of me thinks he is a vampire, as he does not appear to age and knows the history of sprinting over the past 300 years better than anyone. His presentation, with the pure elegance of training and deep understanding of the pivotal undertone of success, still resonates with me today.
You can read about PJ Vazel and his work in my article about his coaching and lectures, but the main takeaway is that his attention to detail is so uncanny, he seems to know the story behind the story. Yes, he is that well-researched and that intuitive with the training process. My only regret when traveling to France is not swinging by Paris and checking out his training, in addition to the culinary treasures of the City of Lights. I certainly recommend coaches get out of their country and visit other nations to learn. The culture of the U.S. is very competitive and that is a great thing, but also it’s very hype-centric.I certainly recommend that coaches get out of their country and visit other nations to learn, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
During my three visits to Sweden, and the Florida training I witnessed, I learned so much from Håkan Andersson. I owe him a big thanks for making me aware of the difference between evidence-based training and good applied coaching. I believe a majority of good sport science is still ignored because it demonstrates that a lot of what coaches do is just noise, and talented athletes can grow with nearly any input, given enough time. What he has done with his resources is truly humbling, and I learn from him nearly every week.
Every coach talks about the art and science of the profession in their lifetime. I think it’s time to start changing the dialogue and slang and move on to professionalism and skills, as science is a starting point and connecting to people is just being human. Some courses are available for better leadership or improving your knowledge of certain training topics, but I think smaller meet-ups foster a better way to see all of the elements of coaching.
The Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group, 2012-2013
For about 2-3 years, Art Horne and Dan Boothby ran a great conference, but when sponsors got involved, the educational summit became the gold standard, period. The quality, format, and details of the BSMPG pre- and post-conference workshops was outstanding, simply because they were about education and not just profit. I attended six of them over the years, and while it’s no longer running, there’s a rumor that a private facility is going to bring back a similar option in the Boston area. The BSMPG’s strength was its balance of information that both a performance coach would want to know and a medical professional could benefit from. Their speakers were world-class leaders, and now it looks like CVASPS has taken over as the leading education option for coaches on the East Coast.
The most rewarding part of the conference was seeing my colleagues speak. Boo Schexnayder blew people away with his keynote, Marco Cardinale and Inigo Mujika killed it with their lectures, and thought leaders like Bill Knowles stole the show. Other breakout speakers were outstanding—many of them have been SimpliFaster contributors or Friday Five interviewees.
Derek Hansen spoke a few years later, and Jose Fernandez and Bruce Williams raised the standard on applied methodology before tensiomyography, thermography, and pressure mapping became the new normal. Companies should take note: If you are going to invest in a conference or seminar, work backwards and find the right conferences to connect with. Don’t just plant speakers to do subliminal infomercials. Plenty of coaches are fans and will back your products and services, but without case studies of how the solution helps you in the real world, conventional marketing usually fails.Coaches’ education will continue to evolve, and I expect local opportunities to have a resurgence, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The future is not going to be bigger names, better venues, or even online. Coaches had audio transcripts for decades, and after VHS made its way to nearly every household, correspondence education was only the halfway point. I repeat—streaming is not the end game, as the next iteration will be far richer and more engaging. I can’t predict the exact details, but coaches’ education is going to continue to evolve, and I do expect more local opportunities to have a resurgence, if you will. The BSMPG raised the bar in quality and community, but expect a surge in new options in 2019.
Build Your Own Education Foundation
If you are interested in accessing any of the information listed above, nearly all of it was either recorded or transcribed for further study. I encourage you to check out some of the people behind the education, as everyone listed has either an article or an education course. Plenty of great people have instructed me without a formal seminar, as they just welcomed me to visit and learn first-hand. My education was more of a wake-up call than a formal process. I do thank the University of South Florida for giving me a chance in the mid-1990s as I was not a great student in high school, but learned to get on the right track when I discovered a subject I found fascinating.
If I had to do it over, I don’t think I would change a thing, because whatever the outcome I am happy with the way things turned out. As a suggestion, write down a list of high-impact experiences that you have had in the past—not just weekend courses, but real-life epiphanies such as practices that led to a breakthrough or people who made a difference. You may be surprised at what you find.