Elisabeth Oehler is a weightlifting and strength & conditioning coach and consultant who helps organizations to evolve and develop their athletic development programs. She also helps coaches and athletes from different sports (e.g., weightlifting, rugby, etc.) on a remote basis. Currently, Elisabeth works as an expert in long-term athletic development and youth sports at the école nationale de l’éducation physique et des sports, an executive department of the sports ministry in Luxemburg.
Oehler studied sport science with a focus on sports pedagogy at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany, and is currently an MSc student in sport coaching at the University of Birmingham, U.K. From 2017 through the end of 2020, she worked as a full-time coach for the German Weightlifting Federation, first as a manager of the youth department and later as head of talent identification. Elisabeth is a licensed weightlifting coach (DOSB A-Licence High Performance) and specialized Youth Coach by the German Olympic Sports Confederation and has further qualifications in strength & conditioning.
Oehler has a huge passion for rugby and collision sports in general and has worked as a strength & conditioning coach with national team players leading to the Rugby European Championships 2019 (Germany 15s), professional rugby players in France, and youth rugby players on an individual basis. In 2019 and 2020, she interned with the Stormers (South Africa) and shadowed the coaching staff at Saracens (U.K.) and the Blitzboks (South Africa 7s).
Freelap USA: Young boys and girls can get a lot of confidence from weightlifting. Can you get into why starting weightlifting early is not only safe but beneficial in the long run? Many coaches see cleaning and snatching as advanced, but lots of young kids under the age of 10 look amazing!
Elisabeth Oehler: Teaching weightlifting techniques to kids should focus on developing strength training competencies and adding movements to the “toolbox.” Resistance training with kids does not have an impact on growth plates, but it improves bone density and intra- and intermuscular coordination. If a kid has learned correct techniques for exercises like the snatch, clean, or squat, S&C coaches have a much easier time applying training methods (e.g., hypertrophy) in an effective and safe way later.Weightlifting is safe when kids can follow instructions, enjoy training, and are supervised by a coach who is aware of the motor & psychological development tasks of the different age groups. Click To Tweet
Weightlifting is safe when children can follow instructions, enjoy training, and are supervised by a coach who is aware of the motor and psychological developmental tasks of the different age groups. Especially before peak height velocity (PHV), children still have balanced body proportions, which change with growth spurts and can also lead to coordination problems. Many kids under the age of 10 usually don’t deal with hip, ankle, or shoulder mobility issues (yet), and therefore it’s easier for them to, for example, get into a deep squat position.
From my experience, most kids do not “overthink” the process of learning a new technique or skill as much as older athletes do; they just naturally imitate movements they see and are curious about learning new skills. Teaching “advanced” and especially technical lifts like the clean or snatch during PHV when, for instance, the leg-to-body ratio is constantly changing makes it more difficult. Actually, during and especially after PHV, we as S&C coaches want to focus on developing strength or power and not start with teaching technique.
Freelap USA: Teaching horizontal jumps, hops, and bounds is important with some athletes. Can you explain how you progress an athlete who is talented but not skilled in plyometrics? Often great athletes are good at their sport, but when you take them out to a gym, sometimes they are less skilled. How do you train plyometrics with intermediate and advanced athletes?
Elisabeth Oehler: When I worked in talent identification for German Weightlifting, I mainly used the standing long jump as a functional test to assess leg power. This was an option to separate actually talented youth weightlifters from those who have advantages in the sport-specific tests only due to early specialization. If the athletes are not able to use the best possible technique for the long jump, I’m not really able to assess their true potential.
Furthermore, we assessed jumps, sprints, and throws in youth weightlifting competitions as a part of athletic development. Therefore, I had to train it, especially from a technical perspective. Athletes who are intermediate or advanced in their specific sport—in this case, weightlifting—have not automatically learned correct fundamentals. So, the focus was on learning or improving landing mechanics and then finding an ideal and effective takeoff angle for the standing long jump. I’ve done this as part of warm-ups or general preparation for lifting.
After mastering those, we can expose the athletes to different kinds of jumping exercises and add hurdles or boxes. The next step was adding intensity and volume and integrating jumps into the actual weightlifting program. The fundamentals, especially landing, can’t be trained too much, even with advanced athletes, to make plyometrics safe and effective.
Freelap USA: Rugby is obviously a collision sport. How do you prepare the body for taking hits outside of adding muscle mass? Do you do any neck training or similar?
Elisabeth Oehler: I had the chance to learn from some freestyle wrestling coaches and implemented wrestling drills into training sessions early on. Young rugby players especially don’t only gain a lot of physical benefits from wrestling, but also confidence and toughness for tackles, mauls, or rucks. Wrestling drills can help players understand in which positions they are most effective in collisions or where they are weak and therefore unsafe.Being strong and muscular will not help a player if they don’t know how to approach contact situations, says @eo_performance. Click To Tweet
Being strong and muscular will not help a player if they don’t know how to approach contact situations. Just because you have something like strength, it doesn’t mean you know how to use it. But you cannot use something you don’t have in the first place. This is not only a task of the rugby (defense) coach, but also of the S&C coach, who can combine wrestling drills with running intervals or use certain wrestling drills for developing core or neck strength.
I’ve programmed wrestling neck strength drills for all youth players, and I think it’s negligent to introduce them to scrums or tackles without having built a base first. (Unfortunately, I’ve seen that a couple of times in U12-U16 teams.) From the U18 level on, I’ve implemented mainly isometric extension, (lateral) flexion, and traps strengthening exercises like farmers walk for all players but especially for forwards. But for players who are not returning from injury, I prefer to do neck training in the rugby setting and not isolated in the gym.
Freelap USA: Return to play is a tough part of strength and conditioning, and mistakes are often made. What have you learned over the last few years regarding the psychology of injuries rather than the physiology and biomechanics of rehabilitation?
Elisabeth Oehler: In the past few years, I have seen quite a few serious injuries happen on the rugby field or the weightlifting competition stage, and I worked with athletes in the return to play/compete process. From a psychological perspective, I’ve experienced certain injuries actually ending a career early because the athlete was mentally unable to return to full resilience and readiness.
For example, in weightlifting I’ve experienced (not just once) a young athlete dislocating his elbow during a heavy snatch, and even after surgery, a long rehab, mental support, and quite some willpower to return to competition, there was a constant mental barrier when loads got heavier, and the athlete lacked confidence to pull under the bar. He wanted to, but that last bit of mental toughness and unconditional courage you need to compete successfully on the international stage wasn’t there anymore, even though the athlete was completely physically recovered and had the will and desire to compete again. After several attempts to bring the athlete back to competing, we recommended he not progress the elite pathway in Olympic weightlifting even though he was physically very talented.
From a coaching perspective, this experience showed me that there are psychological factors in the return to compete/play process to which I need to be sensitive, but that I also find difficult to influence. In the end we are still physical preparation coaches with, at best, some courses in sports psychology during our studies. However, we should be aware of our limitations and always seek support from qualified experts and provide holistic support, if possible.Many players, especially young players, do not have the necessary patience in the rehab process because they are afraid of getting fewer chances to play, says @eo_performance. Click To Tweet
This example also shows how difficult it is to apply psychological models (e.g., cognitive appraisal models) for sport injury rehabilitation in elite sport with very specific mental demands that only coaches with an in-depth understanding of the sport can define.
In rugby, it has been my experience that many players, especially young players, do not have the necessary patience in the rehab process, because they are afraid of getting fewer chances to play and missing out on opportunities. Many are not honest about how they feel about pain or their perceived progress. This is especially challenging if the sports coaches are not involved in the rehabilitation process to influence the player’s psychological response to the injury and the return to play process.
Freelap USA: Barbell path is important in weightlifting, but many strength coaches think it’s not important for regular athletes who are just trying to improve power. From the research, we know that having a great bar path will help load the body better and safer. How do you coach bar path during a training session?
Elisabeth Oehler: Strength coaches who implement weightlifting for power development and don’t care about the bar path miss opportunities to achieve the results they want. For example: If the bar path and the body movement of the athlete in the first pull of a clean are not technically sound, the athlete will lose velocity when transitioning to the second pull and therefore can’t achieve the best possible Vmax. There is no question about the safety aspects of having good form and a decent bar path.
I break down the Olympic lifts into key positions, where the athlete has to know what the bar does and what his body should do. The foundation is the starting position—if an athlete makes mistakes there, it’s difficult to fix the bar path during the next phases of the lift. The second position I teach is the end of the first pull with the bar slightly in front of the kneecap and transition to the second pull, where the athlete opens the hip angle for the first time. Third position is the bar touching the body for the first time (snatch: upper third of the thigh; clean: lower third of the thigh) and the triple extension is initiated. The turnover phase into the (half) squat position is the only position you can’t stop, so the fourth position ends when catching the bar.
The majority of mistakes happen in positions 1, 2, and 3, so I make sure my athletes know exactly how these positions should feel and where their body and the barbell should be. In my opinion, this is the easiest approach for coaching bar path, and coaches avoid trying to “fix” symptoms like jumping forward that occur because of mistakes made earlier in the lift.
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