4 simple strategies to enhance the athlete learning process

The other day, while catching up with a good friend over the phone, who has been a coach for nearly 30 years. He had reached out to give me some feedback on my recent online course which focuses on all things behavior and the “art of coaching,” and given his vast and varied experience, I was anxious to absorb any constructive criticism he could offer. Read more

GAINcast Episode 121: Coaching better (with Wade Gilbert)

All coaches want to get better, but how many have a structured plan to do that? Getting better doesn’t happen on its own. Professor Wade Gilbert’s job is to study the best coaches in the business, and on this episode of the GAINcast he joins us to talk about what the best coaches do to improve their craft, including some common traits of high performing environments and ideas on how to practice better. Read more

Reflections on the art of coaching

Novice and average coaches discuss sets and reps and argue training systems. Great coaches do not waste their time and energy in such debates, for they understand that:

“The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.
The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

– Harrington Emerson

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Let the athletes choose

It’s easy to fall into the trap as a coach of focusing primarily on physiology and biomechanics when carrying out your sessions, as these aspects are often easy to quantify, as well as giving us an illusion of prediction, increasing our confidence in the outcome. But, as is always the case, things are rarely that simple. New research continues to show how athlete choice can help a program’s effectiveness.

The mind controls adaptation

Want your athlete to get quicker? Then you can focus on ensuring the reach an optimal knee angle in front of the body, or have a low heel recovery behind; both these aspects can be determined via video analysis, which today can be as simple as filming on a smart phone. Conversely, if we want our athletes to get stronger, we know – more or less – what we need to do; get them to experience some time under tension, likely with high loads, ideally with exercises that stress the key muscle groups, for a repeated number of times. Often, this will be in the rep range generally shown to increase strength, somewhere between five and ten reps, because that’s what both experience and science tell us is ideal for this goal.

Both of these methods are really useful and highly effective. For example, the ability to record a repetition on video, and then almost immediately watch it back can have a huge positive impact on an athlete looking to make changes to their technique. But, in recent years we’ve started to understand the impact of the brain on performance, especially around the area of perception, such that how an athlete perceives something can have a large impact on their overall performance, both in training and competition. As an example, an athlete who perceives an upcoming session as more difficult may have a completely different approach to the session than a second athlete who perceives it as easy. Both will also likely have different chemical responses to the session too; the athlete who is more stressed may see increases in cortisol, potentially negatively affecting the adaptation to that session.

» Learn more: John Kiely and Martin Bingisser look at the key factors impacting the body’s adaptive response in HMMR Classroom Lesson 11.

Building on this theme, a recent research paper by lead author Israel Halperin explores the positive impact athlete autonomy can have on training outcomes. There is now good evidence that allowing athletes some choice in how training is carried out can enhance adaptations . From a physical perspective, allowing an athlete to have a choice as to certain aspects of both a training session and a training program can lead to greater improvements. A couple of studies cited by Halperin and colleagues have explored this in detail. For example, a 2010 study demonstrated that allowing athletes to choose what days they trained led to significantly greater improvements in leg press strength compared to when athletes followed a set, inflexible training program (all other aspects were the same between groups).

Adherence through autonomy

Allowing some level of athlete autonomy may also increase athlete adherence. A 2017 paper recruited resistance trained men (those with at least 6 months training experience) to undertake two different periodization programs – one group undertook a standardized, structured program (i.e., they were told which training sessions to complete and when), whilst the other undertook a semi-structured program; they got to choose the order of the workouts themselves. Because both groups completed the same exercises, at the same intensity, for the same number of sets and reps, the actual work carried out between them was matched; the only difference was the selection of the order of sessions. At the end of the nine-week training block, there were no differences between the groups in terms of improvements in strength, but those in the group allowed to choose the order of workouts were more likely to have attended every training session, demonstrating an increased adherence to the program. Something as simple as allowing individuals to select the order of exercises in a training session also increases the total work carried out  when compared to a control group carrying out exercises in a specific, pre-ordained order.

These enhancements also appear to be present acutely. For example, allowing subjects to select the order of which they carry out a handgrip strength test enhances performance in the test compared to when they have no choice. A study led by Halperin in a highly elite combat sport athlete showed that allowing the athlete to select the order of punches enhanced performance (measured by speed and impact force) to a greater extent than when the punching order was determined by the investigator.

Coaching is a partnership

So what does this all mean for coaches? Well, as Halperin and his co-authors point out, you can’t just give athletes a total free-reign on selections. For beginners, a smaller number of choices are more appropriate, as this group are perhaps a bit less aware of the best way to carry out given sessions, and so may respond better to a baseline of standardized training within strict parameters. Similarly, with more advanced athletes, as a coach you still need to ensure that the training delivers the desired training stimulus, with the choices given not affecting that. For example, if you have a session designed to elicit muscle hypertrophy, but allow athletes to choose the reps ranges, if an athlete selects rep ranges of 1-2, the desired response will not occur. Instead, the authors recommend restricting choices to a range; in the hypertrophy example, you might allow the athletes to choose 8, 10, or 12 reps, for example, instead of giving them free reign to choose whatever rep ranges they desire. Additionally, the choice options should vary over time, so that athletes aren’t always faced with the same choices. In some sessions, they might be able to select sets and reps, in others, small changes in exercise order. On the track, you might allow them to self-select which lane to run in, who to run with, or where to start each training rep from.

As a coach, you’ll have to make a judgement call on how much leeway to give your athletes in terms of choice, and you’ll need to monitor how well it’s carried out. Some athletes may always choose what they perceive to be the easier option, potentially leading to smaller improvements. Others may always choose the harder option, potentially leading to increased fatigue and poorer outcomes. It’s important to understand that the athlete shouldn’t have free reign, but greater athlete input to the training program can help results significantly. Such input has been shown to enhance motivation and adherence, and, as a result, represents a useful tool in the coaches toolbox.

The craft of coaching

Everyone wants to be an artist nowadays, coaches included. The art of coaching is not only the site theme in June, it is held up as the holy grail of coaching. Take a step back, however, and it’s not the art of coaching that actually separates the top coaches. More often than not, it’s the craft of coaching that the best coaches have truly mastered. Read more

HMMR Podcast Episode 157: The art of coaching

Most of our episodes cover topics like training methods, periodization, and sports science. This is just one side of coaching. Good coaches know their sport, but they do more than that. Making the right decision and then communicating it effectively can become an art. On this episode of the podcast we focus on the art of coaching and share some anecdotes from some of our mentors about how they mastered the art of coaching. Read more

HMMR Podcast Episode 152: Negative feedback

Every coach has been there: an athlete makes a mistake and we sit down with them for the difficult post-game conversation. What you say can either make matters worse, or help them in the process of never making that mistake again. Over the past few weeks we’ve encountered some examples of how to do and not to do this. On this week’s podcast we share our approach on the topic, plus listener questions, thoughts on putting together a good team of coaches, and more. Read more

GAINcast Episode 113: Training session management

Coaches wear many hats, one of which is manager. They manage players, staff, and the training session. Training session management is the cornerstone of the coaching management functions because it occurs daily and sometime multiple times in a day. The effectiveness of a training session often depends more on management than its content. On this episode of the GAINcast Vern shares examples and best practices in training session management. Read more

HMMR Podcast Episode 150: Story time (with John Dagata)

Over 150 episodes of the podcast, we’ve had on some of the world’s leading coaches share their experiences. But sometimes listeners don’t get to hear the whole story. On this week’s episode of the podcast, coach John Dagata joins us to give us a new perspective on our past episodes. As the throws coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Site in Chula Vista, he’s run across many of our guests and shares some stories about ten different prior guests. Read more

March 2018 in review: training culture

After several months of looking at training methods and exercises, for the March theme we focused instead on culture. The role of culture in training cannot be denied, but while we acknowledge its importance, we rarely look at the topic in much depth. We hoped to change that this month by bringing together new input from John Pryor, Chris Gallagher, Vern Gambetta, Jonathan Marcus, Steve Myrland, Nick Hill, Craig Pickering, Nick Garcia, Clay Erro and more top coaches. Links to all the new resources, as well as some greatest hits on the topic from our archives, are included below. In reviewing all the new material again last weekend, I also pulled together a few key points from a month of discussing culture. Read more