Indoors or Not?

The year has rolled around once more to the indoor season. The question for many a coach and athlete is do we do an indoor season or not?

For me, thoughts always circle round:

· Will it detract from the main goal of an outdoor season for the athletes?

· If we focus on an indoor season, how much speed work should I bring in?

I for one have always used an indoor season, but not to the full extent of every competition. My main focus for the squad is to break up the long winter training (October through to April) and to get a gauge of where we are with training. At this time of year its good to throw in a time trial as a test but you can throw that into a race and get a more accurate gauge.

The indoor season for our group focuses on only 3 of 4 competitions:

· National Championships (Age group of athlete)

· Schools Championships (for those eligible to compete)

· National Open Championship

· Plus possibly another age group where appropriate, e.g. under 20s may also enter the Senior Champs, or in a few cases the National Multi Event Championships

I try to keep it limited to these. This gives enough races to get a good gauge of how well each athlete is improving as well as a short break from the winter training. It is fun for the athletes without being too long a period in general.

This year in Scotland there is an different challenge with the National Open, Under 17s and Seniors all being in January and early February which is great and gives us the short focus. However the Under 20 National Championships are not until the second week of March which means two months between the National Open and the Under 20s. This gives the new challenge of having to do a short speed block, back to winter training work, then come back again to another short speed block. This has to be timed perfect to ensure we get enough speed for each competition, but also to ensure we are progressing with vital winter work.

To do this we have programmed a block from this week to the Seniors on the 28th for top speed work, but ensuring we keep in the gym work as normal plus the normal Tuesday session which covers our sled pulls and shorter runs anyway. Sessions include 120s out of blocks as well as shorter 40m and 60m block practice. We then jump back to the normal winter program of 300s, 250s etc with shorter recovery at set paces until the week for the under 20s. During this week we bring back a short pure speed block of not many runs, but race pace for 120s and 170s (depending on event to race at) and block start practice. Still keep the gym in there but we will have less lifts that one week.

This will give each athlete the required speed we wish each time as well as ensure we don’t detract from too much winter work.

The indoor season started today with the National Open, and I’m happy to report all athletes in the squad performed as planned.

Can success at Junior Level come at a Cost?

There have been many athletes who have been very successful at junior level; representing their country in big matches, winning many titles and medals and striving to be the best. But how many then translate that to success at senior level? There are some that have, for example Usain Bolt, but for the majority they don’t. I guess the question is why? Is it due to being burnt out, badly injured and can’t ever get fully fit or just being sick of the sport?

This topic has come to the fore again with Athletics Weekly reporting on one of the UK’s top juniors having pushed so hard she has ended up with Osteoporosis. If she wants to try and get back to the sport then a long rehab is likely.

My question – Can success at Junior Level come at a Cost?

Let’s take a moment to reflect. What is every athlete’s dream? To make the Olympics is always the large dream, but for the masses that is often unlikely, so it can often be National Champion, or win a medal at National Championships or even for some be top in their club. The higher the ambition of course the longer it is likely to take to get there. The role of the coach is to have that long term plan mapped out. Of course this map isn’t the one and only path, as with all journeys that map has to be tailored and reassessed along the route it takes, but what it shouldn’t do is find a short cut and assume it will be the solution. As with all short cuts they end up becoming unpredictable and many fall by the wayside plagued by failure of overwork and impatience.
Reading the article about Bobby Clay there were many alarm bells, Bobby herself mentions she was reaching every target set and refused to believe it was enough. She wanted more and despite her coach trying to explain she was pushing too hard, she changed coach to get more stimulus and pushed even harder. This went onto relative energy deficiency (the result of insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure) as well as total obsession with the sport and always wanting more.

This is such a difficult time for the coach when this happens and all good coaches hear those alarm bells and try to stop the athlete pushing too hard. Easy said but how? It’s a big question. It may be you have to drop reps as the athlete is unlikely to accept slower pace. Or if the athlete is doing more on the side which can happen, the coach has to stick to their guns and take a planned session out to counterbalance the extra being done. When they turn up for a session have the athlete help coach instead and explain they’ve already done a session of their own. The athlete then hopefully starts to realise the amount of training is being managed for their own good. The approach is athlete specific and it is about knowing your athlete. It’s never easy but the athlete and their welfare has to come first.

Over my 25 years coaching I have witnessed many a talented athlete grow and due to early success can quickly end up on the path to over-training. This usually leads to being out the sport by age 20 or even earlier. This is both male and female.

The added part to the conundrum is the relative energy deficiency. Sadly this can lead to eating disorders, and again in my time in the sport I have witnessed both young male and female athletes ending up in this situation. This can be very dangerous and for a lot it ends up a lifelong battle after they leave the sport.

The coach has to be aware of all the warning signs, don’t be afraid to stop the athlete, get help from others as not every coach has the skills or confidence to deal with it.

My advice and what I’ve learned over the 35 years as both an athlete and coach is be confident in your plan, don’t compromise and try to find that shortcut to glory. Keep an open forum with your athletes and let them be confident to speak when there are issues. Reach for help from others who have more experience or qualified in things that you aren’t, and always remember talented athletes will reach their goals if they are given the proper, sensible and gradual building blocks to climb at the right time in their development.

Who coaches the coach?

Coaching is all about guiding and teaching others to improve on their abilities and performance in their chosen sport or event. But what about the coach themselves? How do they get guidance and teaching?

All coaches initially go on a coaching course or courses to gain their qualifications and whilst that in itself is a good starting point, it doesn’t provide the coach all the answers and the continual improvement they need. Coaching is a pathway in itself; it is an ongoing path which a coach begins on and should always be striving to continue to walk along. At times the coach will reach a crossroad and how do they know for sure which path then to take? This is where every coach should have their own mentors or peers they can turn to and use their guidance to help the decision making process. This doesn’t mean what they say is always right; all good mentors and peers help the coach to make their own mind up. I myself spent many years being mentored by the late John MacDonald at Pitreavie AAC and I will always be grateful for his guidance, but there came the point when it was time for me to put my own thoughts and ideas into action and lead my own squad of athletes. Now several years down the line I have my own training techniques that sometimes relate to John’s philosophy, but also some that don’t. Since those days of being mentored I have worked on my ideas and gained relationships with other coaches who I can also seek advice from. An example of this coming into play was when one my athletes Craig decided to take a multi-event path. I knew each individual event but didn’t have any experience of coaching decathlon, so I turned to another respected coach Eamon Fitzgerald to ask advice on how to get the balance right. After guidance was able to plan how I could foresee the training plan working. Again like all good mentors, Eamon never laid down an exact plan, but he gave me guidance and food for thought so I could work it out for myself. This worked well and I now have a greater understanding of the balancing act required in training for this event. Now we have Ben in the squad who is one of Scotland best up and coming multi-eventers. The guidance I received will now benefit Ben and I know Eamon will be there should I need any further advice.

Another great source of knowledge that I always tap into is workshops and the annual Coaching Conference. You won’t always agree with all the ideas and techniques being presented, but they are there to both enrich and challenge your own ideas and methods. There are always however a little nugget or two that every coach can get that sparks your mind and leads to something new or different that can be used. This prevents coaching techniques from stagnating and keeps things fresh for the athletes too. These days are also always great for networking and getting the opportunity to chat to other coaches from across the country and beyond.

On top of that social media and the web are great sources of information. I follow several highly respected coaches on social media and read many of their posts and blogs as they offer great advice. So maybe you are reading this blog and it is helping you to gain some guidance which is great!
One of the coaches I rate very highly is Vern Gambetta. I follow Vern online however I’ve also had the pleasure of attending quite a few of his workshops. The last time I listened to Vern he said now that he has turned 70 he feels he is starting to understand his sport. He’s been doing it at a high level for over 40 years but here is a guy who always strives to learn more and never stop learning. So ask yourself are you continuing your own development? Are you willing to challenge what you know? Are you willing to adapt?

Everything is about challenging your own knowledge, if you don’t challenge what you know how do you know it is right? Times change, athletes change and coaching is not a “one size fits all” policy. You can’t do what you’ve always done as it doesn’t always keep on working; you have to adapt, keep learning and moving forward to benefit your athletes. If I ever get to the day where I think I have cracked it and I have the solution; that is the day I will retire from coaching. There is no single solution there are ways to get the results. The solution is different for every athlete you will coach.

If a coach ever wants to ask for guidance or advice I am always willing and available and have done so for several years now. I know how it helped me and continues to help me, so will always be willing to help others along their own coaching journey.

The Art of Coaching

Coaching; is it Art or Science? This has been discussed for many years now. The term The Science of Coaching is often banded about but for some reason The Art of Coaching is less used, why is that?

Over the years science has grown and more and more opportunities are there to utilise it to get lots of information. It is increasingly easy to get statistics on power output in gyms, speed of lifts, time between one point to another on the track, acceleration speeds etc. All of this of course can be useful and in the right hands may actually assist, however the key to the information is this; what do you actually do with it?

Is it worth having an increase in the speed of a lift in the gym if the technique is poor? Is it worth having a faster time between points A and B than the previous time it was tested if the running technique is flawed?

This is where the term The Art of Coaching comes into its own. Coaching is actually much more of an Art. It is knowing how to turn that painting into a Monet.

Start at the beginning to get the technique correct so drop the watch, the timing gates, the various gadgets and focus on the athlete. What is it they do right, what is it they can improve upon? Two simple massive tools make the bigger difference and thankfully most people are actually born with these tools; sight and hearing.

Watch the athlete with your own eyes initially, get used to how they move, spot the good parts and the weaker parts. Once you have seen it then you know what it is you are looking to improve.

If the visual doesn’t pick it up then the sounds can; listen to their stride pattern when running, is it even sounding on both sides on each foot strike? If it isn’t then there is likely an issue. This simple technique can spot early issues before they cause an injury; it may be a slight alignment issue of the hips causing the uneven sound, it may be an imbalance in the strength between the legs, it may be something else. But straight away you are building that picture and getting to know the athlete. The stats from some gadgets won’t tell you anything you can’t have already figured out with your own eyes and ears. Now you can work on various tests to check what the cause is.

For an alignment test simply lie down straight and check each leg length, it can be that simple. If it is imbalance in strength you can jump on single leg up steps on either side to check if there is a large difference. Lunging, single leg balance tests; all simple but can very effective in spotting imbalances.

However don’t take this as the prompt to throw your gadgets away, they can have a place but should never lead. For example when trying to see the issues sometimes it is useful to grab that Smart Phone or Tablet and record the athlete, the footage can even be enhanced using the Slo-Mo options as you can review it over and over to spot the visual cue you are looking for. This is where the coach controls the science and uses it to their advantage.

It is all about knowing your athlete, everyone is different and it takes time to know them, their ability and any quirks they may have.

Coaching is 80% art and 20% science and it takes flair and ability not facts and figures to get the best from each athlete.