Coach Dan Pfaff has tutored 49 Olympians including nine medalists, 51 World Championship competitors (also nine medalists), and five world-record holders. He has directed athletes to 57 national records across a multitude of events.
Dan has served on five Olympic Games coaching staffs in five different countries and nine World Championships staffs for six different countries. He has lectured in 27 countries and is published in over 20 countries.
He is the former Coaching Education Curriculum Chair for both the United States Track and Field Coaches Education Schools and the NACAC Caribbean Basin Project, as well as being the lead instructor for each organization at the Level I, II, and III schools.
Freelap USA: You have been coaching for a long time and are now heavily involved in educating other coaches. What are some of the key lessons you have learned throughout your career that have impacted your practice, and what are some of the differences you see in coach development now compared to when you were developing as a coach?
Dan Pfaff: Coach Tellez was a huge influence on me when I first started my college coaching career. He valued essentialism and therefore wrote simple programs that you could probably fit on the back of a matchbox! With Coach Tellez, the fundamentals were the fundamentals, and he didn’t waste any time with nonessential items. He didn’t do sprint drills or things that would probably fall under the category of ancillary work. He ranked the most important qualities, and those were the ABCs of his program.
When I was a young coach, education consisted of potentially going to a couple of coaching clinics each year and receiving a couple of journals each year, so the challenge was accessing information. Nowadays, I can open 80 web pages on any topic, and social media has exposed us to much more information from different coaches and practitioners and facilitated interaction with these people. So, the challenge now becomes critical thinking and filtering through the vast amount of information available, and it’s challenging to discern truth from misinformation.
Young coaches now have an endless menu list. How do you prioritize the elements amongst that and rank them in order of importance? After all, it’s not possible to train everything equally. I think it’s a lot more challenging now to identify the essentials and the fundamentals, and therefore coaches need the ability to think critically more than ever. Even if the exercise or concept has some validity, it needs to be cross-referenced against the athlete(s) the coach is working with, their stage of development, and the time of year. Questions need to be asked, such as: Do my athletes need this at the moment? Will adding this exercise be a game changer?
Being a scientist, I like to compile information over time, look at longitudinal trends and patterns, and see what’s working and not working. With social media, I think people fail to use critical thinking and don’t analyze using the scientific process. This leads to people diving into what I call “tribalism” and a polarized approach instead of viewing the training options as points on a spectrum. Most solutions exist at some point on this spectrum, and that point depends upon where you are with your athlete.You should view training options as points on a spectrum: most solutions exist at some point on this spectrum, and that point depends on where you are with your athlete, says @PfaffSC. Click To Tweet
I think it’s human nature to want to sound educated and well-versed. Because we have access to a lot of technology that can provide us with data and information in our coaching process, we get into the weeds and dive down rabbit holes, measuring all kinds of stuff that may not be necessary. I use the term “granularity” to describe how deep I need to dive to tackle an issue and find solutions. If I have a middle school girl accelerating, by filming the efforts from the side, the front, and behind, I can probably get 80% of the way there—so I don’t need a force platform, etc., and I can keep things relatively simple to make progress. Ultimately, I think this circles back to one of my earlier points on essentialism and what’s required for daily work operation.
Freelap USA: You once told me a story about Obadele Thompson being able to run six near-flat-out 120-meter runs without the pace dropping off, whereas Bruny Surin may struggle after two. This highlighted to me some of the ways in which sprinters are different, even though their event performances may be very similar. What are some of the ways you categorize your sprinters, and how might you coach these sprinters differently?
Dan Pfaff: To start with, I may make a basic judgment of a sprinter based on their anthropometrics. How tall are they? What is the length of their levers like? How muscular are they? From here, I can make some educated guesses about the way they move, such as if they are more muscularly or elastically driven.
So Obadele Thompson was very elastic, he was short, slight, and didn’t lift weights, yet he had the second- or third-longest stride length out of any sprinter on the professional circuit at that time. This enables us to deduce that he covered ground via elastic utilization and connective tissue output. On the other hand, Bruny Surin was taller and more muscular, with a background involving weight training—and previously in his career, he had been a triple jumper—giving him the tools to use a more muscularly driven strategy when sprinting.
When coaching and assessing athletes, I look at zones of the race: blocks, acceleration, speed, special speed endurance, and alactic runs. To clarify, special speed endurance would be classified as 70- to 90-meter efforts at top-end speed, and alactic runs as 120- to 150-meter efforts. So, I have all these categories, and within each category, I look at kinematic data like excursion angles out of the blocks, times, and outputs.
Everybody will address each of these categories, but I look at ranges of individual volumes and what the upper and lower limits of these volumes are for each athlete. What’s the minimum we’ve got to do to get the desired biological and skill effects, and after how many efforts does quality start to become compromised? I like to call these “ceilings” and “basements.” Using my own observations and the research of others and speaking with colleagues, I started to see where these limits were. Most experienced sprinters who have been well coached could do between 15 and 18 block starts to 20 or 30 meters without a big drop-off in performance or alteration in mechanics.
So, this would be the ceiling—but at the same time, I know I probably need to do six to eight of these, or else we will start to see a performance decay over time due to a lack of practice targeted toward improving this skill. Muscular sprinters tend to be better accelerators, whereas elastic sprinters tend to be able to maintain their speed better and handle more volume on the longer distance reps.
Oba would struggle to do 15 block starts, and I think the most he ever did was around 10. But if you put him in speed, special speed endurance, or alactic runs, he could go all day! By contrast, Bruny could do maybe 21 block starts with no performance drop, but if you asked him to do four 150-meter runs, there would be a sharp decay in the times.
If I ever have an athlete who can’t meet the typical minimum required volume for a particular zone of the race, I make a note of that gap, and over time we work on it. An easy mistake to make is to identify a weakness and then go all-in on that while ignoring the strengths. Then the strengths start to become average, and now everything is average!An easy mistake to make is to identify a weakness and then go all-in on that while ignoring the strengths. Then the strengths start to become average, and now everything is average! Click To Tweet
I think it is possible to shift the genetic expression with training bias. For example, had Oba lifted, he might have become what I would call a hybrid sprinter, muscularly driven at the start and more elastic at the top end. But he didn’t want to explore that, so he remained very elastically biased.
This raises a very important point regarding the emotional tendencies of the athlete and whether they are comfortable stepping a long way outside of their comfort zone. People are naturally drawn to wanting to do what they’re good at, and it’s generally less comfortable attempting things that don’t come as naturally. However, it is crucial to be aware of what effect emphasizing one aspect of the race may have on the other aspects of the race.
For example, what impact does an intervention with the start or early acceleration have on an athlete’s execution later in the race? It’s possible for programs to get out of balance, and I saw this in the UK, where there was a significant emphasis on the 60m, and athletes got pretty good at running fast 60s, yet the 100m results often didn’t equate.
Freelap USA: In the mid to late 1990s, you had an outstanding sprint group including the likes of Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin, Rohsaan Griffin, Obadele Thompson, Kareem Streete-Thompson, Nobuharu Asahara—the list is almost endless. Is there any technology available now that you wish was available then that you think would have benefited those athletes? Are there any challenges associated with having such easy access to technology nowadays?
Dan Pfaff: I would have loved to have some timing gates and a smartphone/tablet instead of using a stopwatch and a big VHS camera! In this scenario, we could watch the film pretty soon after the workout.
When I first started coaching, though, we’d use an 8mm movie camera, and you’d have to take it to the photography shop and wait two weeks for it to be developed—by the time we got it back, we were likely on to a new problem and had resolved this one. The immediate feedback available with smartphones and tablets is great, but you do have to be careful because it allows for a greater volume of feedback, and the athlete can easily become confused if they receive too much of it after each run.The immediate feedback available with smartphones and tablets is great, but you have to be careful because it allows for a greater volume of feedback, which can confuse an athlete, says @PfaffSC. Click To Tweet
I think it again operates on a spectrum, and with the Paralympic athletes I’m currently working with remotely, we do a combination of Zoom sessions and delayed video reviews, and the different athletes prefer different styles of feedback. Some like to receive instantaneous feedback, whereas some prefer it to be delayed; some like lots of feedback, and some don’t.
With remote coaching, we have a couple of technical themes that we focus on at any one time, and delayed feedback often allows me to see how they’re progressing in that theme and with any cues with less noise than if there was feedback after each rep. So, while it may seem like a lack of immediate feedback is a limitation, there are some positives to this setup. I like to look at trends and patterns and then consider what the average performance is. If we’re going to do 10 block starts, and I jump in with feedback after the first one, then I’m not reacting to the mean; but if I watch all 10 after the session is complete, then I can base my judgment and feedback on the average trends I see.
When I was in the UK, I wouldn’t provide feedback with some of my jumpers until the jumps portion of the session was complete because if an athlete is in a stadium with 80,000 people, it is nearly impossible to hear the coach! Therefore, some skills relating to autocorrecting are necessary, and this type of approach helped to facilitate that.
The performance feedback from timing gates needs to be managed carefully as well. When I was coaching my sprinters, I very rarely told them their times until after the workout. If they knew their times after each rep, the subsequent rep would likely become a race to beat that time. You’d end up with a session where every rep is a race, and mechanics would become compromised, or the technical focus we had that day would go out the window. Instead, I would give them technical feedback and then marry that with their times and say something like, “When you did this correctly in rep three, look how much better your time was.”
I find assisted sprinting interesting, and Hakan Andersson has years of data with MuscleLab that have led him to progressions he uses so that the overload is very gradual. I think a risk with assisted sprinting is that, again, you can go all-in, and then, in an effort to keep up, the athlete lets their mechanics go out the window. At such high intensities, the risks associated with bad mechanics become heightened, making injuries more likely and more serious. Ineffective patterning can also become an issue—so athletes now hit similar speeds in a race and begin to move with less optimal mechanics. Therefore, I think it’s imperative to implement any form of assisted sprinting systematically and gradually and consider factors like the time of year before doing so.
At the other end of the spectrum, in Austin, at the University of Texas, we used hills for resisted sprinting on acceleration days. With Baton Rouge being so flat, this wasn’t possible at LSU, but we used these things called Accelerators, which was a system developed by a Canadian company using flywheel resistance to provide a similar stimulus.
Related to technology in coaching, and again referring back to my point about Tellez and the essentials, we always tended to be so busy mastering the As, Bs, and Cs that we never got to Ls, Ms, and Ns. Most of my athletes had things like medical/health problems or mechanical issues, so I wasn’t too worried about implementing something like assisted sprinting because I always felt like we had bigger concerns that needed to be addressed.
Freelap USA: What common technical errors do you see with sprinters?
Dan Pfaff: First, I should say I’m not a hard model guy, but I am a bandwidth guy, so I look at the kinematic bandwidths in each phase of the gait within each phase of the race. Once I’ve found the acceptable ranges with regard to the different aspects of technique, I assess whether or not an athlete sits within that range. These ranges can also vary depending on whom you are coaching, so with youngsters, you can have a lot more bandwidth because they’re more resilient, but a 32-year-old world-class veteran has much less wiggle room.
For example, an issue I’ve noticed in maximum velocity mechanics is the lower leg casting out after knee block. Research has shown that the risk of a hamstring injury dramatically increases once the lower leg casts out beyond 30 degrees to the vertical. While a young, elastic athlete may exceed those 30 degrees and come away unscathed, an older, more muscular sprinter is less likely to do so, so your population can determine where to focus some of your efforts, technically, as a coach.
One of the most common issues I see relates to gait control in upright sprinting. By that, I mean controlling the path of the movement as the foot travels from the backside to the frontside, and what happens behind the body is related to what happens in front of the body. For example, if you tend to over-push horizontally, which takes place behind the center of mass, then you also tend to reach out, which takes place ahead of the center of mass, so the path of the movement of the foot becomes more like an elongated ellipsis as opposed to a more circular shape. I’ve noticed this to be common when athletes are under pressure at top speed, so they try and press or push harder, and the ratio of flight time to contact time gets out of whack.In starting, the front leg shin roll is a big issue. This can have a knock-on effect on what happens later in the race, as it gets an athlete in positions that are very challenging to get out of, says @PfaffSC. Click To Tweet
In starting, one of the biggest issues I see is the front leg shin roll, and this can have a knock-on effect on what happens later in the race, as it gets an athlete in positions that are very challenging to get out of. So, as the athlete moves forward after reacting to the gun, the front knee drops, and they end up with a very acute angle between the shin and the ground. This is often not sustainable, so the athlete has to abruptly alter their posture to avoid falling and therefore break the line of attack and bend at the waist. This leads to another issue I see a lot of, which is hip hinging during acceleration; too often, due to some preconceived notion or through being told to “stay low,” athletes try to accelerate with their head and torso down.
In terms of how to fix a lot of these issues, that comes down to the art of coaching and how cues and concepts are communicated. I would say, though, that once the fundamental technical concepts are in place, many issues are often taken care of.
Freelap USA: Can you take us through a typical weekly training cycle for early specific prep for your “super group” in the late ’90s? How has your training evolved since then, and can you outline some of the thought processes that go into your training design?
Dan Pfaff: We did four main workouts: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, and the days between were largely focused on recovery to enable those main days to be completed with high quality. I structured the Friday and Saturday back-to-back as it mirrored what they may have had to experience at major championships with rounds.
Monday – Acceleration 3–6x3x10m–30m
Tuesday – Recovery/Technical refinement
Wednesday – Speed 3–8 x 40m–60m
Thursday – Recovery/Technical refinement
Friday – Acceleration 3–6x3x10m–30m
Saturday – Special speed endurance 2–4x70m–90m or work capacity 4–6x120m–150m, and the 200m athletes may go out as far as 350m for the first run of a breakdown and complete somewhere between two and four runs depending on the time of year, etc.
At this time, I was battling between the ideas I’d learned from the Eastern Bloc systems and what I’d learned from Coach Tellez’s systems and trying to develop a system that made sense to me. Therefore, we probably trained too many days a week and too many weeks before we unloaded.
During this era, we would typically train for three weeks and then unload by pulling some days out of the fourth week. In contrast, during the off-season now, about 50% operate on a two-week loading phase before a one-week unloading phase, while the other 50% operate on the three-day rollover before everybody goes to a three-day rollover during the competitive season.
For example, Monday may be the acceleration workout, and we do not get to the speed workout until Thursday, and then we may run a special speed endurance workout the following Monday before completing the work capacity runs that Thursday. The beauty of it is that it can be expanded or contracted to fit the athlete’s needs.
Back in the ’90s, the Golden League meets were often on a Friday night, so the athletes might have done a block start workout on the Monday, and some who liked to work back to back would do the speed workout the next day. Donovan, however, didn’t like going back to back like that, so he wouldn’t do the speed workout until Wednesday. Thursday would then be a pre-meet, and Friday would be the race, so the work capacity work wouldn’t take place until the following week.
The weekly density pattern was often dictated by health, recovery, access to therapy, etc. Obadele Thompson, Greg Rutherford, and Nobuharu Asahara had large injury histories, so to help manage that, they would have a hard workout day. Then the next day would be complete rest before a pretty big therapy day, and then they could do the next workout the following day. In this situation, the recovery days may be dropped, so some of those days off were literally days where the athlete might lie in bed all day, and some may have been a light warm-up, and I classified these as complete rest or active rest.
It’s important to realize that our biological systems don’t operate based on a calendar or a clock, and the time-based guardrails that own us are artificial. I see value in being fluid with my planning to allow for this. To make that point, many athletes like to train back to back or 48 hours apart, but if Oba had three or four days off between sessions, he was money!There’s a myth that if an athlete trains harder or more frequently than an opponent, they’ll improve and increase their chances of beating them, says @PfaffSC. Click To Tweet
There’s a myth that if an athlete trains harder or more frequently than an opponent, they’ll improve and increase their chances of beating them. This may work for very young athletes, but eventually, it levels off, and ultimately, this line of thinking can become the enemy. So weekly training cycles must be carefully thought out, and progressions must be moderate and systematic, with segues to higher training loads; otherwise, there will likely be issues developing talent and keeping athletes healthy.
When I was in the UK, the young athletes in the club system typically trained on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and one morning of the weekend. If they were then identified as talented, they were often put straight into a six-day-a-week training program and would end up injured or burned out and out of the sport. Ultimately, I think it pays dividends to take a cautious approach to programming, and keeping the athlete healthy has to be the number one priority!
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