Derek M. Hansen - September 2023
This past summer I have spent more time going back to my roots and watching the sport of Track and Field, also referred to ‘Athletics’ outside of North America. All of my kids are still competing in the sport and I still have lots of friends coaching at all levels. It was enjoyable to watch a sport where individual performances and results based on quantifiable times, distances and heights determined success and gratification. Of course it is always nice to win and take home a medal. However, achieving a measurable improvement in your discipline can still be rewarding and worth the thousands of hours of time and effort.
When you have had the chance to work with a multitude of sports over the years, it is both easy and embarrassing to try to take credit for the success of a team. The aggravating reality of the situation is that there are so many factors that go into achieving a championship season. Rarely is one person the source of the achievement, and credit must be shared collectively. In the sport of Track and Field, often there is only one athlete and one coach involved in the process. Success is shared with less individuals and credit can be more easily attributed. However, I have found over my decades of coaching that identifying cause and effect in any sport can be a perilous, nebulous and frustrating task.
I was having coffee with a friend recently that has been involved in coaching Track and Field for decades at both the national and international level. While we are always comparing notes and sharing our thoughts on the precise science and methodology of training – particularly for individual events that demand a carefully measure approach, extensive planning and technical expertise – we both agreed that there are key intangibles involved in coaching that were worth acknowledging and considering. He commented that he has witnessed significant results in training groups that did not follow a sophisticated, technical system, but was driven by forces more related to group dynamics, culture and motivation. But he also said that all of these successful groups had very high training workloads that some may consider excessive. Based on my own experiences, I couldn’t dispute his assertion.
This article outlines these grey areas of coaching that can still make a difference when science-based coaching experience and expertise is not always accessible to athletes. While we may want to believe the science and technology will always prevail, there are some things we cannot entirely explain or quantify.
Whenever I try to figure out what truly contributes to an athlete’s performance abilities, a quote that is often attributed to Albert Einstein comes to mind: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” As I get older, this quote seems to ring truer than ever before. We are so obsessed with determining cause and effect and quantifying every aspect of sport in an effort to find ‘the answer’ that we lose sense of instinct, intuition, and experience when making decisions and choosing a path.
I am a firm believer that data and information should help to guide decision making. But in an age of artificial intelligence, I get the sense that some individuals would rather be removed from any decision making responsibility due to lack of preparedness, personal insecurity and/or perceived liability. Coaches are falling back on ‘analytics’ to help them make game-changing decisions and medical professionals require extensive ‘imaging’ and testing to make a proper diagnosis and chart a course for their treatment plans as precious time ticks away. Are these science-based methods dumbing down our actual practitioners, with coaches and medical staff losing their soft skills and awareness around working with human beings? Paralysis-by-analysis becomes the default response, with nuance and wisdom being left by the wayside.
Hard science proponents want to remove emotion from the decision making process. However, there are always cases where victory cannot be explained by numbers and pure logic. How does a fleeing gazelle escape the clutches of the speedy cheetah? Is it simply explained by exercise physiology and analytics, or does the sheer terror of the chase create a tremendous sympathetic nervous system response vaulting the gazelle into the performance of its life (or for its life)? Is it any different in the Super Bowl in front of 75,000 screaming fans when a quarterback is looking for an extra gear to escape the pass rush, rolling out to find an open receiver in the endzone? These are the grey area scenarios that can determine survival or victory. These are also the same scenarios that confound analytics staff and the coaches they are advising. So how does this apply to athlete preparation?
There are three qualities that I have been evaluating in both isolation and collectively to determine critical elements of a training program, one of which can be measured accurately with the other two elements not being so easy to nail down. The key concept presented here is that the right mixture of training contributions – no matter how questionable they are when assessed on their own merit – can still elicit a positive outcome. Anyone who watches high level sport on a regular basis will be able to relate to these observations and understand the relationship. While it is not necessarily a recipe that I prescribe, there are some key take-aways that can be used to supplement what I would refer to as a more ‘scientific’ approach.
If you are like me, when you see someone in a coaching or leadership role yelling and screaming at athletes or fellow coaches, you start to tune out. The intent of the yeller is to fire people up and motivate them to perform at their maximum potential on the day. At least this is what I am naively assuming. In other cases, the mechanism can become even more egregious with players slapping or head-butting each other, and even coaches getting in on the mayhem. And, we’ve all heard about and seen the cases of strength coaches breaking objects over the backsides of their counterparts, taking pages out of the WWE employee handbook. As both a coach and an athlete, I never responded to this type of approach, but I have to keep reminding myself that I am simply a sample of one.
Social media has exacerbated the hype-train, as new coaches wanting to make a name for themselves see it as a way to accelerate their careers by one-upping their counterparts. Bringing the energy is viewed by some sport head coaches as a necessary element of their team culture, and if a strength coach can fill this void as part of his or her duties, particularly during the grinding sessions of physical training, it is seen as a common-sense pairing.
I personally have seen – through visits to numerous university and college athletic programs – how energetic, enthusiastic coaching, combined with a bit of a theatrical approach, can lift athletes’ motivation from session to session. This may not translate as well to the professional ranks, but many successful pro team strength coaches that I have encountered bring a measured intensity and brand of charisma that goes a long way with older, more mature athletes.
‘Hype’ in the training of high performance sport cannot be artificial or insincere if you hope to see positive results. Athletes can see through a farcical attempt at contrived enthusiasm, with a coach losing credibility almost instantly. The ‘hype’ coach must be genuine and invested in the plight of his or her athletes. And, the messages should be predominantly positive, while periodically dispensing discipline and employing ‘tough love’ strategies with hard workouts and tongue lashings. The relationship should not be abusive, but it should also be clear that the ‘hype’ coach is not out to make friends either. He or she is there for a reason: To get the most out of athletes! But ‘hype’ cannot be dispensed without a few other elements in place. The synergy between these three elements is critical for results to be achieved.
One phenomenon that I have seen rear its head in the last 5 to 10 years is the concept of “load management.” While some teams have been praised for efficient load management strategies as of late – in the form of sitting players out of games and practices in order to preserve their health – I have also not seen a corresponding reduction in the rates of various injuries around the sporting world. GPS monitoring vests in college and professional sports are as common an accessory as helmets, pads and cleats, promoted as a means of preventing injury and the reducing the incidence of overtraining. Every team has a ‘load monitoring’ system of one type or another, regardless if they finished in first place or last place in their league. Load management does not appear to be a distinguishing factor in the success or health of a team. Yet the practice persists.
What I have seen over my decades of involvement in sport is that athletes and teams that do more, tend to succeed more. When this higher volume of work is combined with ‘hype,’ we often see a positive result. And, don’t get me wrong. This cannot be unhinged ‘hype’ combined with chaotic dispensing of idiotic training methods in high volumes. These two constituents must be planned and implemented precisely to elicit the maximal benefit. If you can find ways to infuse a higher volume of well-executed training, with more repetitions of work, under a culture of enthusiasm and motivation, you are going to see results. The higher volume of training must include a balance of key elements in the correct proportions, often in the form of a synergistic recipe of activities that cover all required energy systems and biomotor abilities, as well as the specific requirements of a sport.
More time spent on tactical and technical preparation for sports in relatively high volumes also allows athletes to hone their skills, and inoculate their bodies and brains for the stresses involved in competition conditions. The correct amount of hype and volume keeps the athletes focused and enthusiastic while accumulating more game-specific knowledge, skill and resiliency. The ‘load managed’ groups, on the other hand, are always looking over their shoulders, afraid to do too much and second guessing their output abilities. The ‘Load Management Police’ cause players to keep asking themselves, “Am I doing too much?” and this attitude follows them into the off-season. The ‘rest-and-recovery’ mindset makes them turn their nose up at any suggestion of accumulating high volumes of work while away from their team.
To be clear, what we are not doing is asking players to play more of their sport. But, there is much to be gained by doing more of the other activities that build a strong foundation for a successful, long and healthy career. If you use the ‘hype’ to make the boring training activities seem exciting, positive adaptations can be accumulated, performance maintained and resiliency bolstered.
For all of this to hype and training to work, there must be a significant belief amongst the athletes that they are on a righteous path. Even if the prescribed training for the athletes is not considered to be elite or world-class in composition, if the athletes truly believe that they are receiving the best training for them, progress will be achieved. Belief can be developed through the use of hype, but must be supported by some degree of results, as well as collective buy-in from the group. If only a portion athletes believe, it will not be enough. Synergy must be achieved on a group-wide level.
I have heard some coaches comment on specific teams or groups fostering a cult-like environment, conveying a negative connotation to the term ‘cult.’ But, we must assume that the term ‘cult’ is derived from the word ‘culture’ and understand that belief is a critical component of building a positive culture within a team. Teams that can effectively build a positive, productive culture will have dedicated followers that all pull in the same direction. Belief can be developed through constant positive messaging, team building activities that bring athletes together for a common goal and ongoing feedback during the training process to reinforce the value of the coaches and the program itself.
Once athletes believe, implementation of new concepts, training methods and ideas becomes much easier, with adoption happening instantaneously. A common belief system also allows coaches and staff to work more efficiently and productively together. Dissention among co-workers is far too common an occurrence. Finding ways to collaborate more for a common goal will only improve communication, efficiency and productivity throughout an organization. If everyone believes, obstacles can be overcome and incredible results can be achieved.
If you have been able to combine hype, volume and belief in your program, you may think you are on the right track to success. But let us not forget the key ingredients that make all of this work much better together: Talent, focus and hard work. All you have to do is watch the end of Patrick Mahomes’ pre-game preparations where he ends with a big yell and flex to the crowd before kick-off. Yes he’s hyped up. But he has also put in the necessary work. If Johnny Manziel only focused on the hype piece, he would still be playing darts with friends in his less-flattering Netflix special. He was missing many of the other key elements in his preparation. Talent, focus and discipline makes all of these elements mix together more readily.
The other thing that hype, volume and belief do not seem to help with is injury resiliency. Certainly a good rehabilitation process involves encouragement, a steady increase in workload and a belief by the patient that he or she is on a successful path to healthy and full recovery. But, in the preparation of athletes, particularly teams with large rosters, many of the key nuances of an injury prevention strategy get lost in the shuffle. When organizations rely on talent and volume of work to drive the bus, movement mechanics, recovery breaks and precise, measured tactical preparation can often be sacrificed. The hype and high volumes of work can drown out the finer points of athlete preparation until it is too late. Make sure to supplement your hype and heavy workloads with precision and carefully thought out periodization.
The more successful programs have a significant depth of rosters to make up for player losses due to injury. The ‘next-man-up’ philosophy only works if your next man up has equivalent talent of the last man down. Sometimes next player up can have even greater potential than the player being replaced, and people forget about the injury (and the injured player) altogether. As long as the program continues to be successful, why change a thing? But we all know that good planning and preparation can provide us with greater athlete resiliency, without having to dip into our athlete reserve. Why not opt for that route, rather than risking the health of a dedicated athlete?
While I am not recommending that all teams adopt a hyped-up, high-volume, cult-like approach to athlete preparation, I am asking you to consider the positive aspects of these approaches to supplement what you are already doing in your science-driven and evidence-based approach. We can collectively get better by incrementally improving all aspects of our character, chemistry and cognitive processes. Our broad development as human beings is contingent on building on our individual strengths, as well as fortifying our collective weaknesses. The synergy created by such an approach will only make you a more valuable asset to your team, university or organization.
Every person – athlete, coach or support staffer – can do with some extra motivation, hype and enthusiasm on a daily basis to make them feel like they belong as part of a team and are acknowledged for their contribution. Having an extra-large coffee or energy drink daily will not provide the same meaning behind the sincere energy, inspiration and encouragement provided by leaders, co-workers and a supporting cast. If a strong message is coming from leadership and a collective sense of commitment and common goals are conveyed on a consistent basis, the momentum created can result in unprecedented results, some measurable and some not. If you are in charge of a department or group of individuals and you have trouble creating hype, you must delegate that responsibility to someone who can fill that void in your skillset. They need not be over-the-top and abusive when delivering their message, but they should bring the right type of energy to get the most out of those around them.
A hype-infused culture can increase belief in the program and the organization. Finding the right dose of hype may be part of the process, but cultivating enthusiasm, solidarity and overall commitment will be the overall goal. Selecting the best of people to appropriately develop and maintain this culture may be the most important step in the entire process.
It does not matter what level of hype and belief you have present in an athlete group if you do not have some of the building blocks in place on the physiological side. I have seen a deficit in the area of general training and preparatory work. Much of this includes what could be deemed low intensity work, including aerobic energy system training and general muscular endurance protocols in relatively high volumes. Because the work is low-intensity in nature, higher volumes can be tolerated and may contribute to foundational gains for both performance and injury resiliency. The simple results of creating a greater circulatory system for both recovery purposes and tissue regeneration can be profound, regardless if you are performing in a speed, strength and/or power sport or an endurance based sport.
As higher level professional athletes develop into prominence, often the boring, low-intensity training starts to dissipate from their programs, with a greater emphasis on sport-specific activities. General fitness and health can suffer from this shift of training emphasis and, general, less year-round training is accomplished. But high volumes of work spread over a long training window is absolutely imperative. You simply need to convince athletes to buy into this philosophy.
So, if you like giving athletes uninspiring sessions of low volume training, perhaps this article isn’t for you. But history has shown that the hype train has always been a big part of sports preparation and competition. Tap into that fight or flight response, hire some marketing gurus, turn up the music and plan for long training sessions. You might be surprised at the results.