Erik Korem, Ph.D., was appointed William & Mary’s Associate Athletics Director for Student-Athlete High Performance in May 2018. He brings nearly two decades of national expertise to the Tribe at the professional and collegiate levels, most recently serving as the Director of Sports Science for the National Football League’s Houston Texans. Korem is responsible for all areas of student-athlete performance, including nutrition, sports medicine, strength and conditioning, and performance psychology.
In 2019, Erik was selected for the fifth class of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, which is designed for mid-career leaders from diverse backgrounds who share a commitment to helping solve society’s greatest challenges. Participants connect with some of the best minds in the study of leadership and benefit from the assets of the Presidential Centers and the insights of former Presidents and the people who served them.
Freelap USA: Mental training (and mental health) is becoming more and more of an important issue in sport. How is the field of sport psychology in the high-performance umbrella evolving?
Erik Korem: Software drives hardware. At almost any level of sport, when skill is equal, the brain becomes the limiting factor.
These are fundamental psychological skill sets that we (Dr. Deidre Connelly and I) have identified that every elite performer must develop—mental agility, tough mindedness, attentional focus, confidence, persistence, perseverance, personal accountability, and self-awareness.
To learn more, go to my Instagram account and read the carousel “Hallmarks of Elite Performers.”
I think we should invest significantly more resources in not only performance psychology but teaching how to take advantage of neuroplasticity. One of the key limiting factors for skill acquisition is how quickly someone can learn and retain information. If you don’t understand how this happens in the brain, you’re probably just spinning your wheels.I think we should invest significantly more resources in not only performance psychology but teaching how to take advantage of neuroplasticity, says @ErikKorem. Click To Tweet
One of the critical issues we need to address is the misconception of “mental toughness.” Mental toughness is a task-specific capability whereby you become greater than the problem you are facing.
I learned this concept from Brian Decker, former Commander of Special Forces Selection and Assessment. The key is to understand your operational environment, break your problem down into its constituent parts, and then engage in a deliberate and scaled training process to overcome each of these parts. This includes rigorous physical, psychological, technical, and tactical training.
Freelap USA: What are some overblown data metrics for field sports, in your opinion, and why? What are some of the most useful metrics?
Erik Korem: Honestly, all of it. Without context for what’s actually happening on the field, the data is useless. The job of the sports scientist is to turn data into insight. PERIOD. But the one metric that most people get tripped up on is (Catapult’s) PlayerLoad.
PlayerLoad can be a very deceiving metric when you look at line play in football. PlayerLoad was originally develop for AFL athletes, and it measures rate of displacement in the X, Y, and Z planes. It’s highly correlated to running volume, and it can be helpful for athletes who cover a lot of ground in a game.
However, offensive and defensive linemen operate in a 5-yard box. Most of their efforts are isometric and eccentric—essentially grappling. So PlayerLoad is a very deceiving metric to evaluate their external load.
For field-based sports that require a lot of running, I like to look at high-speed distance (distance covered at >=75% of max velocity) or high-intensity accels and decels (>= 2.2 m/s2).
Freelap USA: What is your process of educating sport coaches on sport science and sport performance? What are the biggest education gaps on human performance that exist in sport coaching, and how do you seek to overcome them?
Erik Korem: Wow, big question! One big gap is understanding what truly drives performance: how to look at performance, reverse-engineer the process, break it down into its constituent parts, and find the limiting factors.
The second piece is understanding how the physical, psychological, technical, and tactical components of performance exist in nearly every drill coaches design. We often think of drills as solely technical or tactical, but as a sport coach you are effecting biological change in your athletes every time they train.Sport coaches need to understand how the physical, psychological, technical, and tactical components of performance exist in nearly every drill they design, says @ErikKorem. Click To Tweet
For instance, for a series of plays in football that you script in practice—depending on the tempo and other environmental elements of the drill—you create specific biological adaptations both centrally and in the tissues to operate better in this environment. You essentially create the functional system that best supports performance.
If your training/practice demands aren’t specific enough to the game, you’ve then created the wrong functional system and doomed your athletes to failure.
Once coaches understand this and can learn how to control all these factors—wow, get back! That’s what I love. I love to see coaches become the high-performance director for their sport.
Freelap USA: What are some ideas to promote synergy between sport coaches, sport science, and strength and conditioning?
Erik Korem: The POD (professional and organizational development) meeting. This is something we utilize at William & Mary, and it’s been very effective. We essentially stole the idea from lean startup methodology.
Once a week, all relevant parties (coaches, sports science, S&C, sports med, etc.) must meet and discuss the previous weeks and the objectives for the coming week. In this way, everyone shares the most vital information, and nothing (or as little as possible) falls through the cracks.
We then have sprint meetings throughout the week to update the model as things change. Just getting people to sit down, talk, and share the same mental model will help any time become more productive.
Freelap USA: What are some things to consider when looking at athlete stress management outside of weekly training and competitions?
Erik Korem: Rest. It’s very simple, the formula for growth and adaptation is STRESS + REST. Rest includes restful and fulfilling sleep (minimum of 7.5-9 hours a night) and non-sleep rest. Non-sleep rest is period during the day when your brain is not focused on the task at hand. You can be doing almost anything that’s not stressful and not related to the task.
This is a critical aspect of neuroplasticity and preventing psychological burnout.
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