Nicolai Morris is a strength and conditioning specialist with High Performance Sport New Zealand, working as the lead S&C practitioner with the Black Sticks Women hockey team and previously with New Zealand Rowing in the elite and U23/Junior pathways. Nicolai previously worked in a multitude of sports and has incorporated gymnastic skills and principles throughout her programming. She is an ASCA Level 2, Pro-Scheme Elite coach, with a Masters in Strength and Conditioning and more than a decade of experience, as well as a background in coaching men’s gymnastics.
Freelap USA: What is your take on the use of grappling or “roughhousing” style movements in training, particularly with female athletes?
Nicolai Morris: Most children grow up roughhousing and playing with their friends or family This is a great skill, and many great athletes have a history of this style of training and play. As children grow, males tend to continue this style of training either formally through contact-based sports or informally with friends and their dads. In females, this often starts phasing out when there is no pathway in contact sports, and it is discouraged for being “un-ladylike.”
Based on my experience working with female athletes in chaotic field-based sports (in particular, those in contact-based sports like AFL, rugby league, and union), programming elements of grappling, roughhousing, and play-based movements is essential for both performance and injury prevention for the robust athlete. Many female athletes have not grown up with this style of play encouraged; they have commonly been removed from sports like rugby and AFL at age 12. When they return to the sport in their adult years, many have had a significant chunk of time without these movements and often struggle to anticipate where their body should be or how they should move/fall. Wrestling and grappling are also essential skills for many of these sports, to ensure they are prepared for contact conditioning, so teaching them elements of these movements in a safe space and a small group is a great way to get transfer onto field performance.
With my women’s rugby team, we used to schedule time each week for exploration of movement. This included different types of tumbling, gymnastic elements, wrestling, games, and play-based movement (including games such as schoolyard handball, tug of war, various relays, Swiss ball tennis, and ball games with a medicine ball). At times, I would choose what they needed to focus on, but over time the athletes had the opportunity to ask to learn different movements and skills. Some related to rugby, and some didn’t; however, all increased their robustness, movement capabilities, creativity, and enjoyment of training.
Freelap USA: Can we build robust athletes through childhood/play-based movements?
Nicolai Morris: I think, in our world today, we have removed the opportunity for children to experience play-based movements. In Australia, you would be hard-pressed to find a set of monkey bars in schools anymore; we have evolved into a risk-adverse culture without understanding the consequences. This can be attributed to the litigious nature of our society—I taught at a school where, as soon as an injury occurred in PE, the sport was removed or banned.In our world today, we have removed the opportunity for children to experience play-based movements…We have evolved into a risk-adverse culture without understanding the consequences. Click To Tweet
There is no dispute in the research: Play-based training is superior for children and adolescents. However, with the emergence of coaches seeing the value ($$$) in coaching development of athletes, many of them market training youth athletes like an elite athlete. But what about the inverse? Is coaching athletes through childlike and play-based movements beneficial? I believe it is, particularly when they missed the step in development where they learn these key movements. I had a 14-year-old athlete who couldn’t even skip (without a rope), and many athletes have large movements gaps in their athleticism that we need to address.
All humans should be able to run, jump, throw, catch, crawl, tumble, fall, push, pull, hinge, squat, balance, skip, and climb. If athletes are unable to do these, there are gaps in their movement capabilities that we need to fix. Play-based movements can have other benefits, including the increase in creativity, joy, and chaos they expose athletes to. Most athletes play sport because they enjoy it, so we should encourage the play element and exploration of movement while using different skills in our toolbox to target key performance areas.
Freelap USA: What is your take on the importance and usage of gymnastics in physical preparation?
Nicolai Morris: To me, gymnastics represents the base of nearly all human movement. It improves your strength, flexibility, mobility, power, and coordination. In gymnastics you are taught all the key movement capabilities and shapes that can transfer to any sport, and from what I have seen, this makes you a more robust and well-rounded athlete. However, a challenge for many coaches is the application of this to strength and conditioning programming. Understanding how, when, and why you would add elements into your program is the key.Gymnastics teaches you all the key movement capabilities and shapes that can transfer to any sport…A challenge for many coaches is the application of this to S&C programming, says @Nicolai_Morris. Click To Tweet
Commonly, tumbling is used in rehabilitation and contact-based sports to teach falling and landing in a multitude of different ways. I believe handstand and hang-based work can also play a large part in programming. I have used handstand work to increase wrist and shoulder strength, stability, and control, as well as thoracic mobility, pelvic control, and spatial awareness. Equally, hanging modalities can be incorporated to improve shoulder mobility, control and strength, thoracic mobility, whole body control, joint integrity, upper body strength, and core strength.
One of my three favorite things about using gymnastics is the idea of being like bamboo: being able to bend but not break and being strong through all ranges and movements so you have the ability to move through it, control it, and use it. The second is the almost limitless progressions and regressions that you can use with any type of athlete; it teaches you to fail and overcome as well as work through the process to achieve a goal. The last is that, in gymnastics, you are not segmenting your body; everything is integrated and working together as one to achieve the skill or movement.
Freelap USA: What can the world of swimming teach the world of S&C?
Nicolai Morris: There are many things each sport can teach us as coaches. The world of swimming can teach the strength and conditioning community to understand transfer without replicating movements. In the gym, many coaches who do not have a strong understanding of swimming will attempt to mimic the stroke using bands or weights. However, working in water sports is very different than land-based sports. As coaches, we understand how most movements translate and transfer to sport through a large body of research and experience. However, there is a lack of understanding of what skills are needed to transfer in swimming.
Many swimming coaches will tell you that swimmers need to avoid muscle bulk (outside of your sprint group) to ensure they “float like a cork” and can be smooth and efficient through the water. Therefore, it is essential to understand what will transfer in the pool, when strength is or isn’t needed, and what is necessary to ensure the athletes are robust and can withstand daily life without injury (harder for swimmers than you think!).
Working with swimming also teaches patience, creativity, and communication. Many elite swimmers do not have a large training age in the gym and can at times be rushed through their development because they are elite standard swimmers. Slowing it down, ensuring they move well and are robust, is most important.The world of swimming can teach the strength and conditioning community to understand transfer without replicating movements, says @Nicolai_Morris. Click To Tweet
Coaching swimmers involves a lot of creativity to get the best out of the athletes and ensure transfer into the water. This is where I usually start adding gymnastics elements, which can have great transfer into swimming if applied appropriately. Lastly, communication to both the coach and the athletes is vital. Understanding your own “why’s” in your programming and being able to communicate them to both the athlete and coach and being aware of how it fits into the overall periodization will make a large impact.
Freelap USA: What are your favorite technology and/or tools to use in your coaching practice?
Nicolai Morris: Through my coaching career, I have not always had access to technology or tools to assist me. Many of the places I have worked at had limited funding for exciting technology. While many young coaches were playing with force platforms, I was at a club that could not afford an exercise bike.
This has influenced my style of coaching, where I believe in doing the basics well. If I plan to collect data, the information needs to inform practice and be applied. There is no need to use advanced technology for athletes who do not have the training age or experience or have not earned the right.
I am also a big believer in earning the right. Many athletes don’t sleep eight hours a night, hydrate, or fuel correctly. They need to address these key areas before we use extra technological interventions. There is a time and a place for technology, and it can make a big difference to a performance or coaching if used intelligently.
Being a coach who loves good movement and doing the basics well, my favorite technology or tool that I use the most is the video feature on my phone. This allows me to communicate what the athletes are doing if they cannot feel it, and it can show progress over time. At times, being able to see the intricate detail in movements, rather than just relying on coach’s eye, can be beneficial.
Other technology that I have used over time, which have informed my coaching and I have found beneficial for the athletes I work with, are GPS, velocity-based training, and the NordBord.