This tweet from Mladen Jovanovic, football physiologist at ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence, and the responses it generated illustrate a subject many who work in competitive sports environments are pondering.
From my knowledge of institutes in the UK, any university can designate its student gym as a “high-performance” center, as if such a grandiose title gives the impression that anyone other than the BUCS (British Universities and College Sport) competing football team trains there. There are of course some genuine high-performance facilities attached to universities with elite athletes training there. However, that does not change the fact that many institutions abuse the title.
High performance is not something you can justify by simply giving yourself, your institution, or facility that title. So, is high performance about the equipment and facilities in which you work with your athletes? The latest equipment certainly adds value to your program. Having velocity-based training (VBT) tools like GymAware, Tendo, or Push Bands advance strength and power training in your gym. Guys like Bryan Mann, Dan Baker, and Mladen Jovanovic or his articles, “The future of Velocity Based Training” or “Velocity Based Strength Training” put out quality information on how these tools can enhance your athletes’ training programs.
Advanced GPS Systems such as Catapult provide coaches and sports scientists with a wide array of sports analytics information. Performance management systems such as Omegawave allow you to monitor training, holistic, and lifestyle stress and readiness to train so you can adjust your training program if need be.
You can go on and on about the wide array of different technologies constantly being developed and updated to offer anyone involved in athletic performance development all the information they could require. But coaches and athletes were achieving world-class performances in years gone by without all this data and information. So how could you fail to be high-performance today with access to all those gadgets and numbers?
Does having all this equipment automatically qualify you as high-performance? No. Can you be high-performance without this stuff? Yes. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, it is awesome to have access to these tools, high-level facilities, the latest treadmills, running tracks, properly maintained courts and fields, and so forth. But not having it is not a barrier to high performance and excelling in competition.
Are the latest greatest, biggest, and brightest new types of equipment and facilities a prerequisite of high performance?
High performance is about much more than the name and facilities and equipment. It is not merely about capturing data. As many have said before me, collecting data has no value unless you utilize it properly. Are you monitoring athletes’ progress to gauge how your program is working for them, or to adjust future training practices? Spreadsheets, folders, and filing cabinets full of numbers are useless unless they impact your coaching.
Why is it so hard to understand that data without context is just a collection of random numbers.
— Vern Gambetta (@coachgambetta) September 11, 2015
What, then, is a real high-performance environment? To me, it consists of three simple, yet major facets: people, philosophies, and culture.
People are, or should be, your greatest commodity, your greatest resource in a high-performance environment. Talented, driven, inquisitive and ambitious people are essential You should never lose sight of the fact that people are at the center of everything when it comes to high performance.
Nice amenities do not cultivate talent … hardship does. – Brett Bartholomew
People use facilities as an excuse when in reality it is a failure of creativity. – Dan Pfaff
Learned, experienced, and forward-thinking coaches. Talented athletes with the right blend of innate physical gifts and psychological makeup: the right character, openness to coaching, discipline, and willingness to work hard. Support staff with the skills and knowledge to augment the training process, enhance the delivery of programs to athletes, and complement the coach–athlete relationship. All these people are far more important than equipment and facilities. World-class coaches working with top athletes can produce world-class performances with only basic equipment and facilities. The reverse does not necessarily hold true. Producing a high-performance environment with elite facilities but without world-class people is virtually impossible.
While you must attract, recruit, and hire elite performers in all areas of your organization, that is only the start. Once you have the right people in the right positions, you need to educate them, develop them, and allow them to grow. This must be a basic tenet of your overarching philosophy.
Many coaches have a very large toolbox but cannot decide what to do because they don’t have a philosophy. – Dan Pfaff
Dan Pfaff has 40 years’ experience at the sharp end of sport, including helping Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford complete a clean sweep of major titles by winning the World Championships in Beijing in August (Fabrice Lapierre, also coached by Dan, took silver).
High-performance environments produce high-performance results.
Working out of Phoenix, Arizona-based Altis, Dan believes successful coaches require a governing philosophy. How can you generate logical, sensible, and effective programs and adapt them to the chaotic environments of elite sport and human physiology and psychology without a defining philosophy?
Dan recently summed up his philosophy: “Training should be enjoyable, educational, and mechanically efficient.” All coaches need a similar guiding philosophy. They should be able to define it in relatively simple terms, clearly and precisely.
In an interview, UK-based sports scientist and strength and conditioning specialist John Kiely also advocated the benefits and necessity of a coaching philosophy underpinning everything you do: “Your background philosophy steers all training designs and decisions: it should be a fusion of all your experiences and learning. If you want it to be robust, you need to invest time and energy; you need to evolve it.”
You get pretty consistent messages coming out of Phoenix (though the guys at Altis are not afraid to disagree with each other). Stuart McMillan also champions the need for a coaching philosophy in his excellent series of articles, “A Coaches’ Guide to Strength Development.” I strongly recommend the entire series.
“Good coaches are better able to learn from history—because they have a philosophy,” he says, and adds that “a philosophy protects from the comings and goings of the various trends that permeate the profession. Good coaches maintain a core set of principles—and are far less influenced by the current trends of the day.”
Stuart records his philosophy annually, restricting himself to a single side of paper. Being that exact and precise allows him to dial in on what is really important. Stuart identified his major principles as
- Mastery of the Basics
- The Planning Trap
- Micro dictates Macro
If one line sums up mastery of the basics, it is this—consistent application of the fundamentals. Only through applying consistent stimuli and analyzing the results can you make more confident predictions of how athletes will respond and adapt to current and future training.
Emotional attachment to a painstakingly prepared training program is what Stuart terms the planning trap. Coaches often write these detailed plans weeks and months ahead of being carried out. Devoting so much time and energy to constructing an intricate plan makes it difficult for the emotionally attached coach to deviate in the midst of delivering it, according to the physical and emotional state of athletes and how they are responding.
McMillan’s micro-organization has certain repeating fixtures throughout each cycle. For example, Monday is potentiation day, followed by acceleration day on Tuesday. There is little variation in the program in terms of structure and loading in relative terms. So in this way the micro dictates the macro.
Altis, therefore, is the very definition of a high-performance environment, with their athletes picking up five medals at the World Championships in August. Hopefully, these examples highlighting the emphasis they put on creating a guiding philosophy show how vitally important it is to operate as a high-performance coach within a high-performance environment.
The remaining vital facet in operating a truly high-performance program is culture. Culture encapsulates the ethos, values, principles, and beliefs of the people and the environment as a whole. Culture can be a powerful driver in your organization by instilling a subconscious driver of desirable behavior among everyone involved in the program.
Build a program and a culture that is built on positive expectation and accountability. – Chidi Enyia, sprints coach, Altis.
Rugby fans are fully aware of the culture of the All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby team with probably the best all-time winning percentage of any team, a staggering 78%!. That percentage has climbed to 84% since the sport went professional. Part of the reason a team from such a small country (population 4 million compared to 50+ million in England) can be so dominant in the Rugby Union is its culture.
All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw and Coach Graham Henry celebrate winning the 2011 World Cup. Culture plays a critical role in their unparalleled success.
For a sports team littered with superstars, there is a humility, dedication to hard work and doing what needs to be done. “Ego has to be left at the door; there is a rigidly enforced ‘no d—head policy’ in the squad, and every player takes turns in sweeping the changing room clean after each game,” says assistant coach Gilbert Enoka. Players themselves—not just the coaches—enforce standards. Players who transgress are answerable to their teammates.
The All Black mantra is “leave the jersey in a better place.” There is strict accountability and responsibility. The team, the jersey, and the role models they are required to be stand far above and beyond the needs or wants of the individual. This is an exceptional culture at work.
Culture drives Habits
Habits drive Behavior
Behavior drives Results!
– Alan Stein
Working in an established high-performance culture is one thing, but what about developing your own culture? Brett Bartholomew often extols the importance of creating a culture. In this article, he discusses his views on nurturing the right culture. In the gym and in training, athletes must move with a “violent grace.” He links the explosive intent of a squat or Olympic lift to a sprinter exploding out of the blocks or a throwing athlete launching their chosen implement to their training—in every case, bringing a focused intent to the work they are doing.
Brett remarks that there are many painters but few artists in coaching. Many coaches have all the paintbrushes and color palettes but cannot paint a picture. Starting the session with the “why”— the desired outcomes of the session and their relevance—brings the painting to life for the athlete. This idea is reinforced at the end of the session by helping the athlete to identify and understand what just took place.
This ties in neatly with Dan Pfaff’s coaching philosophy and the overall philosophy of athlete education at Altis. Altis proves that high performance is not about equipment and facilities. They utilize a University track and rent the strength and conditioning suite. Altis coaches expect athletes to “become PhDs in their sport.”
This approach can be summed up by Altis founder John Godina: “My only hope is that we can continue to be able to help everybody that could possibly want help from us; it is a good problem to have when your biggest concern is being able to keep up with the demand. I work hard to make sure our coaches and administrative team have everything inline for what they need, so they feel like they are pursuing what they love to do the best way possible. If we take care of our people, then I know that the athletes will always have a great place to be.”
Altis provides graphic evidence that people, philosophy, and culture are the key pillars to a high-performance environment. These three elements are intertwined, difficult to separate, and there is a great deal of overlap. How much does one drive the others? It is a bit of a chicken and the egg situation. Good people with strong, enlightened and efficient philosophies drive a positive and effective culture but each pillar reinforces and develops the other.