A case study in holistic exercise design with Jean-Pierre Egger

As Chris McCormick wrote about yesterday, strength coaches can contribute significantly to the development of an athlete’s mental skills. But doing so isn’t about making them work until they puke. It’s about preparation with purpose.

To put this in context, I want to share an example of how coach Jean-Pierre Egger tries to achieve this goal through holistic exercise design. Egger is not only one of the top shot put coaches in the world, he is also a leading strength coach, having worked with Swiss wrestling legend Matthias Sempach and supported the Alinghi crew en route to the America’s Cup in 2003 and the French basketball team’s Olympic silver in 2000. Below is one example he shared from the seminar we did together in 2016.

» Related content: We’ve compiled the  best resources on Egger’s methods and also interviewed him and looked into his shot put technical model.

A holistic training approach

You can divide training into different categories, but the important part is that you work on them together rather than separate them out. Egger focuses on four pillars of training that he tries to integrate into each session:

  • Technical
  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Emotional

We often talk about about stability is found the destabilizing athletes in the physical aspects of training. This concepts extends to all four pillars. As Egger puts it: “If you destabilize the athlete in training on different possibilities, you will achieve an adaptation at a higher level.” For example, by destabilizing the athlete mentally, you can help build their mental skills.

The multiple purposes of training

The Werner Günthör training video is a cult classic. But for me the beauty is not just in watching the jaw-dropping athletic feats. The beauty is in the details. Egger has thought throw every small point of Günthör’s training. When you ask the purpose of an exercise, Egger will give you multiple responses. He has a purpose for each of the four pillars. Below is one shot put exercise we can dissect to see how he addresses all four pillars of training into one exercise.

When take a deeper look at how he addresses each purpose:

Technical purpose. Egger talks about technique and coordination interchangeably. In the end, technique is about finding the proper coordination. In this regard, Egger shares a lot in common with Frans Bosch and utilizes a constraints-led approach in many situations. By systematically destabilizing the athlete’s technique, they are forced to build up the most important attractors. This can be easily done through altering the training environment.

In this exercise, Egger has altered the environment by making the athlete throw from a makeshift balance beam. Destabilizing the technique helps improve the technique. To properly execute the throw without falling off, they must find the right balance and rhythm. They also develop a better feeling for the body and the movement.

Physical purpose. The physical purpose is a bit more straightforward. Throwing a heavy implement will build strength. That much is straight forward. But more than that, the destabilized environment requires even more specific strength to be recruited. Egger explained a bit more in the seminar: “If he must physically find balance he will need more strength to stay on the bench and not fall. This develops specific strength.”

Mental purpose. What Egger tries to do here is design an exercise challenging enough that it forces the athlete to concentrate and visualize in order to successfully execute. This is not an exercise where you can just go through the motions. If you try that, you’ll fall off the bench. By destabilizing the athlete mentally, they are focused to recruit more focus to get the job done. As athletes progress, Egger will also add an additional component here: a physical target. Egger might draw a square on the wall and have the athlete aim for it. Even more concentration is required to achieve that:

“Most of the time you tell the athlete to take 30 throws and then you just throw. Now he has a goal. He knows where the ball must land there. That means he must work on his concentration and visualization. So it is a mental training too, not just physical.

Emotional purpose. At first glance the mental and emotional purpose might sound the same, but there is a difference. The emotional side is more about developing competition skills and seeing how athletes respond to pressure. Egger will often design exercises as games that the athlete can win or lose in order to put pressure on them. Using the above example, Egger might make a bet with the athlete about how many times they can hit the target. This will put some pressure on them and develop the emotional side of the sport. Nuance here is also important: too much or too little pressure and have a huge impact on effectiveness. He explained his thought process in the seminar:

“We always take sets of 10 throws and decide that 8 must be in the target. We continue doing the exercise until they can reach the goal of 8. Now if he says that his goal is only 5 I ask him: do you want to be average? If he says his goal is 10, it is too easy and make the target smaller. The athlete is allowed to make some errors. We get 6 throws in a competition and only need one good result. You will never resolve all problems, but with this type of skill training you will have less problems.”

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Starting with the right head and the right spirit

This gives you a good example of how Egger approaches holistic exercise design, but there is a basic starting point for both the coach and the athlete before you even think about designing exercises in such detail. The mental side of the sport comes first as both the coach and the athlete must be mentally prepared before the session even starts. In speaking with Egger about this he made the distinction about the different skills the coach and the athlete must develop. Each needs to bring different skills to the table.

“The head is everything that has to do with skills, strategy, technique, planning and periodization and methodology. This is the job of the coach. On the other side you have the spirit. Here is the motivation. Motivation is one of the most important things; if you are motivated you will do better. This is the job of the athlete. If the coach is motivated, this is not enough. This is one reason I never choose my athletes, they chose me. They are motivated to work with me and then they have this psychological or mental part.”

With the right head and spirit, and a plan to back it up, it is hard to go wrong from there.