The private World Athletics Center has created some innovate new programs, like the Apprentice Coaches Program, to help advance coaches education.

Coaching Roundtable: Grass Roots Development

So far our first coaching roundtables have gathered some of the world’s best coaches to provide technical feedback emerging international throwers like Julia Ratcliffe and Chris Cralle or training advice like how to implement weightlifting in training. But I want to switch things up for the next roundtable and get some perspective on how we can grow the sport as a whole as well as individual events, a topic which is of great interest to me as I try to replicate the success of the informal American youth hammer project here in Switzerland.

The Subject

With the Swiss federation in a bit of chaos after the European Championships they have been making cuts across the board and shifted grass roots development to the clubs. If anything, they are working against the hammer as they are currently discussing (and hopefully about to decline) a proposal to remove the hammer from the Swiss Championships. Their decision to delegate development to the clubs means the event will be further neglected as only a handful of clubs actually have a coach that knows the hammer. In order not to lose the tremendous momentum and energy we have from the European Championships, someone has to pick up the ball and I am working together with other hammer coaches to create our own plan.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel in this department as there have been successful programs around the world that have helped grow individual event groups. As I mentioned before, I have looked closely at how the US developed the youth hammer throwing scene over the past decade.

Related Content: Read my case study on how the US resurrected youth hammer throwing, which was later published in the IAAF’s journal New Studies in Athletics

But sharing knowledge here is key. If you look at every other field event in Switzerland, they face the same issues as the hammer throw. And the same is true in other countries. Therefore I asked three leading coaches to share their feedback on growing the sport. They bring experience with clubs, schools, federations, and the private sector to see how each element can contribute and what the basic needs are to nourish a project.

The Coaches

Dan Pfaff is one of the most successful coaches in athletics, having coached 49 Olympians, nine Olympic medalists and five world record holders in the sprints, throws, and jumping events. He is currently a coach end education director at the World Athletics Center where he heads up an innovative private coaching development program and athlete support system.

Richard Wheater is the former Head of Coaching and Development for both British Athletics and England Athletics, where he was responsible for developing a strategic coaching education and development plan for both federations. He recently completed an Executive MBA at Cambridge University and now works as a consultant. He is also an active coach with experience in the sprints, hurdles, and multi-events, and currently guides a group of middle distance runners.

Herbet Czingon is the Swiss national pole vault coach and an editor of the German technical journal Leichtathletiktraining. He previously worked as both national pole vault coach and national field event head coach for the German federation. He will be a featured presenter in December at the USATF/IAAF Jumps Academy in California. He is also the pole vault coach and head field events coach at my club, LC Zürich.

The Questions

Martin: I think everyone can agree that the simplest way to improve performance in an event group is to invest in coaching. Good coaching always works, but it also requires a base level of athletes for the coach to work with. If there are no athletes, the impact of the coach is limited. What steps can be taken to increase numbers of athletes in a sport from the outset?

The work starts at the grassroot level. Photo by Derrick Tonkin/Courier Mail

The work starts at the grassroot level. Photo by Derrick Tonkin/Courier Mail

Dan Pfaff: We have to invest time and energy into grass roots programs, school days, community all-comers meetings, et al. We need to think outside the box for funds and sponsors for these types of activities. Schools are dying for school day programs and elite athlete mentorship programs. We also need to cultivate media to push these types of agendas. When we do get athletes, we need to motivate them to stay with the support by supplying empathetic and compassionate coaching and relationships. Kids are starving for adults to guide them and support them in this journey we call life. We need to guide them in methods that bring growth and enjoyment. Too many development programs try to coach kids with elite mindsets and pressures.

Herbert Czingon: Obviously, you’ll have to do some recruiting, which is depending on the general sports system you are working in. In Switzerland for example, there is a strong club system. Many young people come to track and field but do basically sprinting, running and some combined events. I think it should be possible to establish some talent-seeking events using interesting training and competition events for them. You should try to use an integrated approach: coaches education, some public relations, and grass roots events. After some time you will generate more interest into your event!

Richard Wheater: First of all, yes a focus on coaching generally works! As you know, my key area of interest is coaching and coach development. I think, though, that it’s easy to misunderstand my position. My experience is that the social and personal-attachment side of sport can be underestimated. So, whilst what athletes do and the way they do it are extremely important, athletes I think also feel loyalty to each other, their coaches, their supporters and their clubs etc. In this sense, understanding the people-based infrastructure of any system is crucial. In the UK, this is largely volunteer based and athletes are lucky to be supported by coaches who give up very large amounts of time for no money. Clearly, if the coach is of poor quality or not available then the athlete suffers. The same argument applies to all the people around any system and I would argue that a base level of athletes to some extent stems from having a fun, friendly, knowledgeable system which people want to join and stay a part of.

On this last point, fun can also be underestimated. I don’t think a very large proportion of kids go down to a track only wanting to win international medals. Many of them want to have an enjoyable, healthy experience. Along the way, some will become more serious in terms of level and some in terms of commitment. But very few people don’t want to enjoy themselves! Even very serious high level training can be done in a happy environment. A coach I really respect talked recently about energy drainers and energy givers – we should all be looking to work with and be energy givers. My small experience in the military is that under arduous circumstances (which hard training certainly can be) humour and fun are even more important, not less.

There are some system – specific considerations which may vary by geography. So, links between schools and clubs may be important. Access to support via a network of engaged parents also. Access to facilities, cost of participation. All of these things should be considered and are worth looking at. But in my opinion, the critical thing is that the relationships between all those involved and the desirability of the activities are focused on and not lost along the way.

Martin: Numbers in events like the throws or jumps are partially limited because some athletes do not know the opportunities that exist in these events. For example, many potentially good long jumpers are struggling as mid-level sprinters. Finding and convincing athletes to give up their first love is never easy, but Australia has had success with its talent transfer program and the UK has also produced many medalists. What are some ways we can encourage talent transfer both within athletes and from outside athletics?

Richard: My first point is the one I’m most personally wedded to. I think that in track and field, coaches have a responsibility to introduce most (if not all) athletes to most (if not all) of the events when they are young/new to the sport. I’m not suggesting that all young athletes should compete in multi-events (although in my view many more should) but I am convinced that the best systems expose athletes to many facets of training including multiple different events. Take one very small example, in the hurdles the best younger athletes at sprint hurdles are often those who happen to be the right size for a particular specification at a particular point in time. They might very well not be suited for the senior specification if they stop growing, having been very good. If that athlete has focused on sprint hurdling to the exclusion of all else, they may have lost a very easy transfer opportunity: if they had kept up hurdling off both legs the move to 400mH would be relatively easy. Taken across event groups, it is no hardship for a coach to support young sprint-focused athletes to learn the basics of horizontal jumping and as adult shapes/talents and interests begin to emerge, they may find themselves migrating towards triple or long jump. But without some basic experience of take off and landing (easy to develop at a young age) they may struggle to develop the appropriate techniques at a later stage. In my view, coaches have an absolute duty to keep athletes as general as possible for as long as possible – even when pressure is likely to come against this, particularly from team managers and parents.

My reading of the research is that early specialization in high impact, repetitive sports (track and field probably being the ultimate example) leads to higher chance of both injury and underperformance – both of which inevitably reduce participation.

In addition to this central consideration, I think we have a duty to ensure that events are not seen as more or less attractive to young athletes. Hammer cages being in a different field doesn’t help this, for example. Or situations where the bigger kids are sent to throw and the skinny ones to jog etc. Clubs should support all the events as equally as they can for as long as they can, and transition and experimentation encouraged as far as is reasonable.

Dan: It starts with coach/athlete relationships and trust. It advances on education and positive experiences when trials into new realms are given. It is enhanced by opportunities and accomplishments. It is further enhanced by notoriety.

Herbert: I think, this is not easy for athletics, especially here in Switzerland! The main reason for my skepticism is the fact, that there are no “big names“ in the media at the moment. There are many talents in other sports – Swiss-Wrestling (Schwingen) for example has some great talents for throwing – but they are heroes and they earn a lot of money for their sport. You probably can’t compete with them…

Martin: The real world is not the ideal world, so rather than building a dream home we have to prioritize what can be done based on a budget. We’d love to spend money on coaching, athletes, facilities, and everything else, but we instead need to prioritize and choose. With that in mind, what can be done with little or no budget?

Herbert: Communicate and socialize over the web, just what you have done before but you probably can do it still better and more focused on your event. Also competitions that combine elite athletes with newbies can help tremendously. All comers competitions are easy and inexpensive to organize. For example, try to establish a “Cup” with single and team results for different age levels etc. These one-event meetings have been very successful for the sport in Germany.

A packed house at the Fränkisch-Crumbach Hammer Meet shows the marketing power of field-event only meets in Germany.

A packed house at the Fränkisch-Crumbach Hammer Meet shows the marketing power of field-event only meets in Germany.

Dan: If you are talking about a training center then the first big step is to not seek your own place, your own staff, etc. Leverage existing facilities, staffs, expertise and build out from there. I started a non-profit club with me as the coach. Three years later we had seven coaches and gave each one a stipend at the end of the season. Unfortunately I had to move on and the project died as no one would push the rock. There are clubs in Europe that do this well. A Danish club has build an executive marathon event into a monster and it funds a dozen athletes totally and several coaches of high rank.

Richard: The short answer to this is that world level medals can be won with little or no budget. Many high profile, highly funded systems end up with poor results and many basic, well led systems end up with good results. Of course, at each level of performance the issue of finance becomes more critical and in an ideal situation you would have everything. But if I had to choose between a basic weight room with an outdoor track, a great training group and an outstanding coach on the one hand and a top indoor facility with medical support on my own with a poor coach on the other, I’d choose the basic set up with an outstanding coach every day of the year. Look at what Derek Evely is achieving, for example, in his garden!

I do see a tendency to focus on the extraneous and ignore the essential – I think it’s too easy for senior people to try and make their centre look good with medical and facility dollars without realizing that what matters is what the athlete does every day.

What can be done with little budget? People can be helped to feel positive about their training. They can train smart, they can train hard when it’s needed, they can be encouraged and they can be coached well. None of these things cost more than the bare minimum (assuming a coach will get involved).

Martin: Or, what are some ideas to step outside of the traditional budgetary routes to accomplish the same goals?

The private World Athletics Center has created some innovate new programs, like the Apprentice Coaches Program, to help advance coaches education.

The private World Athletics Center has created some innovate new programs, like the Apprentice Coaches Program, to help advance coaches education.

Dan: I think there is huge over-reliance on federations and shoe companies in our sport. I study venture capital campaigns to watch trends in securing funds for all sorts of ventures. The great firms do not follow track trends or strategies.

Richard: Look at what is happening with the World Athletics Centre. A group of thoughtful, like minded, talented people have got together to make something really special happen. I do think that athletes will migrate towards quality support and there are ways to bring money together to make it happen.

A very bad situation is where a federation is jealous or wary of success which occurs outside its direct control. My attitude is that flowers should be supported to grow wherever they are found! On the flip side, private set ups shouldn’t look to get one over on the federation, there are many roads to Rome (Dan Pfaff repeatedly told me this) and I see it as a positive thing that there are a variety of different set ups for athletes and coaches to choose between, one size does not fit all!

Martin: As you all mention, a lot can be done outside the federation. But are there some essential tasks or structure that the federation needs to provide?

Dan: My experience is that when you get it rolling the federation will want a piece and try to jam their way into your shop. I avoid these guys at all times and in all manners. We will not have ties with them or shoe companies here at the World Athletics Center. The only downfall is they could play hard ball and block some of your projects like meeting sanctions, selection bias for teams, etc.

Richard: Everyone would have a different perspective on this and I do think it’s dependent by country. Without getting into any specific criticisms of federations (many of which are fantastic) I think that the minimum is that they look after the governance of the sport (rules, discipline, welfare, etc.) they set the standards in terms of education for all involved and that they organize the national competitions. I personally don’t believe that elite performance needs to solely sit with federations, but it mostly should. They certainly should not be overly controlling or meddling.

If they could do one thing I would say it’s this: they should challenge the sport to be better in their country and support all involved to achieve this. Working with Kevin Tyler truly taught me the importance of setting a high standard and I think that if nothing else, Federations should be exemplary in this regard.

Herbert: The federation should at least officially support your ideas.

Community and culture are two subjective terms that I think play a large role in developing an event. With a close-knit community and strong culture, an event or sport will be much more successful. How do you see the role of the sporting community and how can it be nurtured? And how should we work with those who do not want to join the community?

Herbert: This is probably the easiest part: it should be no problem at all to bring together and communicate with the athletes and coaches you know already . . . they all share a feeling of not being a mainstream sport, but they feel united in their wish for being recognized and acknowledged!

There will always be people who don’t want to follow your call, even if it’s a very obvious and clear one. If they are important, don’t fight them, but use their energy and their successful solutions for your cause. Try to cooperate with them ad hoc, case by case. Nowadays, everyone knows how important networks are for success in an open society, so the majority likely will be on your side.


The Roads to Rome

When I do a presentation about transfer of training, one of the points I emphasize is that almost anything transfers for a beginner. Even take a look at any of Bondarchuk’s correlation tables and you’ll see nearly every exercise with a high transfer. Just get them to work and they will improve. Because of this there are numerous ways to get an athlete to an intermediate level. You can rely on maximum strength. You can rely on size. You can rely on explosivity. You can rely on technique. You can rely on grit. You rely on special strength. All roads lead to Rome if being good is your goal.
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The classic periodization model decreases volume, intensity, and technical work at the same time to reach a peak.

My Periodization Manifesto

I think the biggest plague affecting training is the cookie-cutter approach to it used many coaches in all sports. Individuals are different. Sports are different. And there are different training methods to choose from. An optimal training program comes not just from tailoring a template to individual- and sport-specific needs, but from also starting with the right template in the first place.

That is my periodization manifesto. So I read with interest last week as an article explained there is actually only one type of periodization:

“We have 97% genetic concordance with Gorillas, 98%+ with Chimps, and 99%+ with every other human on the planet. Humans respond to training in almost identical ways qualitatively, but differ only in quantity of response.”

-Dr. Mike Israetel in “5 Questions with Dr. Mike Israetel” on Juggernaut Training Systems

Israetel’s ultimate point in the article is a bit more nuanced and semantic; he concludes that what we think of as different types of periodization are merely variants of the same and the current debates just concern the specifics of implementation. In other words, we are all cooking Thanksgiving dinner and we only disagree about portion size, how much salt to use, or which dishes might be included. But whether we bake a turkey or ham, we we are all making Thanksgiving dinner. Israetel clearly does not advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, but I have heard this same argument used before to defend that approach.

Related Content: Want to learn more about periodization? It’s not too late to register for the HMMR Media Seminar next weekend in Nashville.

On the one hand I don’t really care how we lump approaches together as that does not really affect what we do. But on the other hand it affects how we talk training and therefore it is an important topic. Framing the issue this way glosses over the specifics, but the specifics should be front and center as there is no meaningful training without them. In fact, the specifics of training are in the definition of periodization itself:

Periodization is the timing, sequence and interaction of the training stimuli to allow optimum adaptive response in pursuit of specific competitive goals.

-Vern Gambetta in “What is Periodization?”

In the grand scheme of things the changes may be small. Human beings are indeed more similar than different. But those differences are still huge. I am not a biologist, but if a 1% change in genetic correspondence means the difference between a human and a chimp, then the variance within humans, even if smaller, is significant and needs to be taken into account in training. Those differences can make or break an athlete’s program. The difference between using classical block periodization or complex periodization for a sprinter can affect performance and injury rates. The difference each period’s length can mean the difference between an extremely effective program and a waste of time. And the balance of specificity is crucial. These types of specifics matter whether you consider it all one type of periodization or not.

And let’s be clear: the differences between individuals are both quantitative and qualitative. There are some common points with everyone. For example, introduce a stressor and the body will attempt to adapt to it. But individual differences are not just in how much the body adapts (quantity) but also in the process of adaptation itself (quality). When talking about individual differences, I love to cite a University of Alabama looking at swimming warmups. Researchers tested three different warm-up variations: a normal long warm up, a short warm up, and no warm up. After each warm up athletes performed a time trial. Unsurprisingly, the normal warm up generally proved the best option, but only for 44-percent of the athletes. Another 19-percent performed better with a short warm up and 37-percent performed the best without a warm-up. The conclusion: there is no best warmup. What was best for the group in general was actually worse for the majority of athletes. This example is a bit simplistic and does not look at periodization or the longer adaptation process, but the same type of individual variation applies there too. My coach Anatoliy Bondarchuk, for example, has shown that what was once thought of as uniform adaptive response varies widely among individuals and should be taken into account in planning. But he is hardly revolutionary in this regard:

“In recent years substantial evidence has emerged demonstrating that training responses vary extensively, depending upon multiple underlying factors. Such findings challenge the appropriateness of applying generic methodologies.”

-Professor John Kiely in “Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven?”

Just as there is no best warmup, there is no best program. There are only best programs for an individual training for a specific sport at a specific point in time. As much as I love concrete answers, this is a case where it is relative. Relativity might not sell books, but it is what makes coaching such a fun art form. We need to focus the conversation on what ingredients we use, the proportions, and main course. Heck, we need to take a step back and decide what occasion we are even cooking for before we even open up the cook book and find a recipe. Let’s talk about this, because this is how we become better coaches together.

There are many drivers that create transfer. Here are just a few.

The Holistic Bondarchuk

Bondarchuk is best known for his work on transfer of training. But so much focus on the specific side of his training, the special strength exercises for example, blurs that fact that our training is very holistic in nature as I’ve written about before. Some common misconceptions of Bondarchuk are that he thinks:

  1. General strength is not important for throwers.
  2. Maximum strength is not important for throwers.
  3. We do not train general strength.
  4. All we do is throw.

None of those are true. General and maximal strength play a role in throwing and thus we do train them. While we throw frequently, it is not an absurd amount and I actually threw more before working with Bondarchuk. What we do have is a balanced approach to training with a slight emphasis on those things that transfer well.

Sprint coach Henk Kraaijenhof posted a great piece on transfer of training this week and further emphasized them when we had the chance to meet in Zurich yesterday. His post talks a bit about Bondarchuk and uses the hammer throw as an example, but he also incorporates his own input form his experiences as an athlete and coach. To sum up the topic of transfer, he perfectly puts together how training requires an individual holistic combination of all elements of training:

It is the combination and integration of general exercises and specific and special exercises. It depends on the level of the athlete, on his/her development over the years, the periodisation and the adaptation dynamics of this athlete to training. It’s the subtle balance between a lot of factors and here the elite coach distinguishes him/herself from the average coach. He/she sees/realizes this complexity and manages it without getting lost in it. Or getting sidetracked.

There are many drivers that create transfer.

These are just a few of the many drivers that can create transfer. Coaches need to navigate the complexity to see which driver(s) best produce transfer for their athletes.

The bottom line is that transfer is important. You need to do in training what will increase your performance on the field. But finding that exact recipe for each individual athlete takes into account a variety of factors.

Bondarchuk has published his thoughts on what this is in general for the throwing events, but like all data this has its limits. He would even admit this too as he tailors each athlete’s training to their own indviidual needs since those will not always align with the group’s needs. Copying and pasting a program is never the best way to find optimal transfer. Kraaijenhof ends his thoughts with two recommendations along these lines that he has learned for his years of experience:

1. Be careful to take your own career or experiences as an athlete as a reference for coaching other athletes, they might not be like you.

2. Never copy training methods if you don’t know (in this case) the fibre type and so the responses, as published in research or by other coaches.


Macro and Micro Changes

Please excuse me if the site is a little slow lately as I have been preoccupied with my final preparations for the European Championships. But I had a few quick thoughts on Nick’s latest post about the book Only the Paranoid Survive.

Change plays a central role in training. As Nick describes, you have to find the inflection points that let you know when you need to adopt new methods. Changing your approach too soon or too late will put you at risk of losing out to your competition, just as companies that are leaders one day can be gone the next (anyone remember Compaq computers?). You also have to know what new methods are worth changing for. Is it a passing fad, or a paradigm shift in the sport?
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Basic Principles of Data Collection

As technology has proliferated over the past decade, so has data collection among athletes and coaches. Data collection is nothing new, but as the amount of data and the ease of obtaining it seems to be growing exponentially. I was just speaking to a scientist from Push last week and their new device will soon let you capture all kinds of metrics with the touch of a button in training. Other devices are adding different metrics. But with all the new data, it is important to keep in mind two principles of data collection:

  1. Know what the data tells you; and
  2. Know how to use it.

If you overlook these, then the data might as well be useless. Read more