The merry-go-round of coaching staff is spinning again. Coaches of all stripes are being hired and fired. As sure as night follows day, once they are done moving across the country and the announcement is made by the institution, the coach’s peers will proudly proclaim on social media, “They got a good one!”
I’m guilty of this myself. I love to see my friends get ahead in life, and I want to give them their dues in public. But did you ever notice how a new hire is never met with a reaction like “This is a mistake,” “They hired this guy?!” or “But his injury record is atrocious!” Never. It therefore follows that only one of the following statements can be true:
- All new hires are home runs.
- We lack the ability to discern what distinguishes a good coach or program from a bad one.
- We can discern good from bad but refuse to say so publicly.
The first is simply not the case. Like any skill, coaching prowess is not equally distributed across the field. Many programs have been hammered in the press for putting athletes in the hospital or, worse, the morgue. A simple social media search of many programs will highlight sessions that bear no resemblance to what we believe to be optimal based on research or best practice among those sports or coaches who care to measure the effects of their training.
The latter is certainly probable. There is little to no gain from speaking negatively about another coach or program (even when it is warranted) due to the tight-knit nature of the profession. Regardless, the complete absence of negativity does seem to invalidate the praise. If I know you’ll never say anything bad about me, why should I believe you when you say something nice? But we can’t change politics and I doubt this is going away any time soon.If I know you’ll never say anything bad about me, why should I believe you when you say something nice? asks, @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
However, the middle option is equally probable and likely the most pervasive. I’d wager many coaches who speak highly of their peers truly believe that person is the person for the job, that they’re going to knock it out of the park, and that we should start engraving the trophy now to save everyone some time. This is not the case, though, as so many ruinous seasons, mounting injury lists, and firings have demonstrated. A lot of the time, they didn’t get a good one, and we need a better set of objective criteria to state why. In doing so, we can keep ourselves and our peers in the coaching profession accountable, influence more objective hiring practices, and ultimately better serve our athletes.
What Constitutes a Good Program?
Is a strength coach responsible for “setting the tone” of the culture, and realizing the head coach’s vision as the member of staff who likely spends the most contact hours with the athletes? They can definitely be an important piece of a championship-winning organization. But many an enforcer has blown up the trainer’s room and put slow, tired athletes on the field who look like they spent all summer doing the “survival shuffle” (watch any lineman run during the second week of camp—that’s the survival shuffle).
Should the strength coach hang their hat on the numbers? “Judge me on the outputs, nothing else. I don’t care if they’re having fun or not, we’re here to win.” I’ve typically fallen into this trap at various points throughout my career and it bit me when I failed to read the room correctly and athletes didn’t engage as enthusiastically with my programming as I might have liked. As much as I would have hated to admit it then, the vibe in and around the facility is hugely important. It’s extremely hard if not impossible to achieve great success when the people in the building are miserable.It’s extremely hard if not impossible to achieve great success when the people in the building are miserable, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
What about availability? If you can just get your best guys on the field, keep them there, and stay out of the sport coach’s way, the rest will fall into place, right? It is a huge piece of the puzzle, and there is certainly a relationship between on-field success and player-time losses due to injury. But the best way to not get hurt is to not do much—no weight on the bar, move slow, practice easy.
Unfortunately, it’s also a great recipe to suck, and sometimes we just have to accept the increased (managed) risk that comes with the kind of training that produces optimal physical and psychological preparation. It’s a nebulous term, but the intangible toughness that comes from “going to the well” a couple of times per year is real and a common factor among successful teams. They don’t pamper their athletes.
Is it all just about championships? Probably not. It is great to win but we need to be realistic that even in national championship-winning college programs, only a tiny fraction of athletes will go pro. Even in the pros, most will never make enough money to never work again when they’re done. 99.9% of athletes who ever take the field will eventually join the workforce. If even championship-winning athletes are spat out of the other end of the system with no qualifications or life skills to show for it, we have failed them. The cliché of training the person as well as the athlete carries weight.The cliché of training the person as well as the athlete carries weight, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Another hard truth is that we are sitting on a mental health timebomb in the American collegiate system. The pressures of competition for scholarships and playing time, being in new environments away from family, the public scrutiny, the additional pressures of study, and having access to more drugs and alcohol than ever before combine to create serious issues for young adults in the system. To chase all the above but sweep these issues under the rug is another common failing.
Not One Thing But Many
No program should aspire to be a 13-0 championship-winning team full of miserable, broken athletes who will spend the rest of their lives paying for sacrifices made in pursuit of those wins. Nor should a team full of healthy, well-adjusted but underperforming 0-13 losers be desirable or acceptable. It is not any one thing that makes the ideal program, but all things in balance. Rather than being viewed as competing goals that we are forced to choose between, performance coaches need to adopt the mentality that these elements can actually benefit one another in a synergistic fashion.
For example, all organizations speak of culture and being coachable, and they implicitly understand that sport mastery and recruitment are the twin engines of on-field success (see sport coaching salaries relative to physical prep for proof). But few organizations understand the profound impact that physical and mental wellness can have on these variables. Happy, well-adjusted, physically and mentally robust athletes tend to make better life choices, be better learners, practice harder and more often than their peers, and speak more highly of their program to recruits.
And it’s a two-way street. I would wager that sport practice design/load is the hidden killer of athlete availability and the sport mastery that flows from it, not to mention the psychological impact of injury and heavy losses on athlete well-being. Integrating all departments to individualize and progress training load would undoubtedly pay dividends on and off the field.I would wager that sport practice design/load is the hidden killer of athlete availability and the sport mastery that flows from it, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Psychologist Abraham Maslow is credited with devising the hierarchy of human needs, which theorizes that to become fully self-actualized, people must first have their most basic physiological and security needs met. Until basic needs like food, water, and shelter are met, humans cannot busy themselves wondering what their highest purpose on earth is.
Conversely, just having the essentials in place is no guarantee of long-term fulfilment. Quite the opposite. It isn’t until we pursue and achieve higher objectives like love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization that Maslow considered as the finished article of human beings.Just having the essentials in place is no guarantee of long-term fulfilment, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
I would argue that useful parallels can be drawn in the strength and conditioning world to assess the degree of actualization of an organization, hereafter known as Wenham-Flatt’s Hierarchy of Coaching Needs, that I may receive my due adulation. The pyramid is organized as follows:
1. Physical and mental well-being
Just as the Hippocratic oath commands physicians to do no harm, so too should strength and conditioning professionals aspire to the same. I am not talking about missing the occasional hamstring strain, but rather ignoring or causing catastrophic physical and psychological events through negligence: exertional illness and death, mental illness, suicide, major orthopedic injuries, etc. This should be considered the absolute minimum of any program as they pose an existential risk to the athlete’s career or life.
2. Preparation for life after athletics
If we accept the math and hard reality that 99% of our athletes will never make a penny from sports (or retire if they are pro), we have a moral duty to prepare athletes for that eventuality. That students graduate college with improved prospects and skills to serve them as functioning adults should be as fundamental to the coaching hierarchy of needs as employment, property, and health are to the original hierarchy of needs. But beware of any institution that claims to have a world-class program and crows about their graduation rates, but can’t field a team thanks to soft tissue injuries and has a bare trophy cabinet.
3. Sport participation
The hard truth for strength coaches is that if you can just get your recruitment and sport practice right and keep them on the field, you’re 90% of the way there. Let’s run a mental simulation in reverse: if we have a team full of enthusiastic but untalented 5’10,” 180 lb. Keir Wenham-Flatts with every i dotted and every t crossed in the weight room, the team will still suck.
Consequently, the percentage of practices participated in, number of games missed, and number of soft tissue injuries accumulated per year are all more foundational metrics than any physical output like strength, speed, or power. Although it can be difficult to separate enhanced performance and reduced risk of injury, it is certainly possible to increase outputs while exposing athletes to unnecessary risk. For example, the extreme but unfortunately real example of running German Volume Training in-season.
4. Generally effective evidence-based physical training
One hundred percent availability with zero injuries is obviously a fantasy. Players will get hurt despite our best efforts. But if an organization continually posts injury rates significantly higher than similar teams, that is a problem that needs to be solved. If and when it is solved, the strength and conditioning staff can busy themselves with training to maximize the broad array of physical outputs that underpin performance.One hundred percent availability with zero injuries is obviously a fantasy, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
At the most basic level, this should be characterized by training that research and best practice has shown to work, and a program that significantly increases the physical performance of most of its athletes, most of the time. Justifying programming decisions with, “This is what they do at X school,” “This is what coach asked for,” or “This gets the guys juiced,” should constitute a failure at this level. They may be a secondary effect of decisions made, but not the primary objective.
5. Highly individualized physical training
Inevitably, a general, blanket approach to training will fail some of the athletes some of the time. A more individualized approach that takes into account the specific needs of the athlete will theoretically produce much better results than a cookie-cutter program, but is far more time- and resource-intensive. For this reason, nascent programs will inevitably have to produce results with a general approach before ascending to this level of the hierarchy.Inevitably, a general, blanket approach to training will fail some of the athletes some of the time, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Individualized approaches will be characterized by testing that tells coaches not just what or how much they did, but why they did it, and more importantly what the most productive training intervention is likely to be. For example, establishing a force-velocity profile to establish training needs, then monitoring training loads and volumes with velocity-based training tools, would likely result in more adaptation than using the 30-40% of 1RM that research says optimizes the development of explosive strength.
6. Organization-wide integration across all disciplines
Much to the frustration of strength and conditioning professionals—even once the training holy grail of “right stimulus, right amount, right time, every athlete, every session” is achieved—they can still be terrible at their sport. The holistic four-coactive model popularized by Fergus Conolly dictates that any one of physical, tactical, technical, or psychological preparation can be the rate-limiting factor within the system that is the athlete. With a limited amount of time and recovery resources that can be deployed each week to improve performance, it follows that the rate limiting factor should receive the bulk of this allocation, with all other preparations and their sub-qualities receiving retention loads.
Such an approach requires a level of data collection and sharing, collaboration, and organization that evades all but the very best of organizations, but inevitably predisposes to success as much as is within the control of the strength coach (typically by this stage titled the “high performance manager”). Not only is this approach the most costly in terms of staff, technology, time, and resources, but it is also the most politically treacherous. It can take years to build the kind of trust with sport coaches that a fully-integrated program requires. You will be told to “stay in your lane” more than once when attempting such an audacious project, so make sure you have your own house in order with levels 1-5 of the hierarchy before reaching for the peak.It can take years to build the kind of trust with sport coaches that a fully integrated program requires, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Both Maslow’s Hierarchy and my unimaginative adaptation operate according to the same rules as the physical pyramids they resemble: the wider and more secure the base, the higher the eventual peak. A broad foundation upon which nothing is built is unimpressive, and a towering peak with no meaningful base is soon toppled. We should evaluate our own work and that of our colleagues in the field through a similar lens. Ask yourself:
- Does the coach have no association with major catastrophic physical or psychological events?
- Does the coach have a track record of helping to produce well-adjusted athletes who succeed in life even if they do not reach the pinnacle of their sport?
- When the coach steps into a program, do the drains on player availability and productivity associated with injury go down or at least stay down if they are already low?
- Do athletes typically improve year-on-year in the same metrics (not an ever-changing list of tests) for the duration of their time with that coach? If they are in the pros, are they improving at least until their mid or late 20’s?
- Is there a high degree of individualization in the diagnoses of training needs and the programming that follows? Is the program devoid of sessions in which every athlete does the same session regardless of position, age, or individual needs?
- Does the organization place the athlete at the center of every training decision? Is there give and take between all athlete stakeholders to attempt to individualize and optimize every aspect of training and maximize the long-term performance of the athlete?
Now ask the same questions of your own career. For every time you answer “yes,” award yourself a point:
0- This field is not for you and you should leave before the lawsuits start landing on your desk.
1- You’re a babysitter and nothing more. Raise your standards.
2- Your work makes a difference to your athletes and to society as a whole. Good work. But your actual job hasn’t begun yet.
3- They don’t necessarily feel your impact, but they will certainly notice your absence.
4- Now you’re starting to really make a dent. Take stock of your achievements and push hard to really get every drop out of your athletes.
5- Your program is probably among the top 5-10% of our field. You have a lot to be proud of, and if you’re a glutton for punishment, invest a few years in trying to reach the peak.
6- You are in the 1% of our field.
Be honest! Good luck.