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Adding an element of theater to coaching

When we go to the doctor, we’re usually either sick or worried that something might be wrong with us. We make the trip in the hopes that we’ll be reassured or cured. What we don’t realize is tha the trip itself might play the most important role in getting better. Recent research has shown us that it is often the very act of interacting with a medical professional, or the thought that our concerns have been taken seriously, is enough to make us feel better . Read more

HMMR Podcast Episode 159: Lessons from GAIN

Every June, we both make a trip to Houston for Vern Gambetta’s annual GAIN conference. With faculty included strength coaches, sport coaches, physical therapists, trainers, academics and sports scientists from a variety of professional and amateur sports, it provides a chance to learn and share. On this week’s podcast we broadcast live from the event and recap the key lessons learned on each day of the event. Read more

Sports Science Monthly – June 2018

Welcome back to another edition of Sports Science Monthly. This month, we take a closer look at warm downs, ice baths, carbohydrates, and some new findings regarding sleep in athletes. Read more

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.

What have you changed your mind about?

Every year, Edge.org asks a question to a number of eminent thinkers in science, and in 2008 the question was “What have you changed your mind about.” The answers were compiled into a book, and many of the contributors to describe changes – some small, some major – in their thinking about either their field or the world at large. Read more

What’s new?

This past weekend my good friend and professional colleague, Jimmy Radcliffe, came to Sarasota for his annual day and a half visit after the NCAA regional track meet. We spend the time each year reflecting, analyzing what we did the previous year and planning. Jim was kind enough to have me assist with the Women’s Olympic gold medal ice hockey team so that was one topic of conversation. Neither of us had ever worked with ice hockey before, but we came to the conclusion that it really did not matter because it was all about reinforcing basics and improving movement efficiency. Read more

Gene doping might not work after all

Last year, I wrote about gene doping, and the potential implications it might have within sport. Whilst we tend to think that our genetics are hugely important when it comes to determining our athletic talent (and we’re probably right), the common narrative is that this was static and unchangeable. However, the premise of gene doping is that we might be able to alter the hand we were dealt and change our DNA. As research progresses, we’re starting to get an idea of whether tha might actually be true. Read more

GAINcast Episode 118: It’s all about effort (with Alex Hutchinson)

In his new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Alex Hutchinson tries to synthesize to wave of recent research on how the mind and body control human performance. In the end, he writes, the competing theories all come down to effort. Effort is what matters. On this week’s episode we discuss his book, how effort can be trained, and great examples of some of these theories in practice. Read more

The search for the best lane

All athletes in the long sprints have experienced the anguish of waiting for the lane draw for their race, in the hopes that they get a favorable lane. Common wisdom holds that the middle lanes – three to six – are generally more favorable, with the outer lanes avoided and inner lanes feared. The reasons often cited are that the inner lanes tend to be tighter, making it harder for sprinters to reach their top speed. Read more

Hammers, nails, and opening up your world view

The law of the instrument is a cognitive bias that occurs through the over-reliance on a familiar tool. It’s commonly summed up through a quote by Abraham Maslow, where he stated, “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”. We can follow from this cognitive bias that how we view the world may alter our perceptions of what is actually occurring, which, in the case of improving performance, might lead to sub-optimal results. Read more