No one likes to admit it but we all make mistakes. A huge key to success is excepting that failure is an essential part of the process, that no one is perfect and that you need to learn from where you go wrong so that next time you can make more informed decisions and have a better chance for success. In other words, mistakes are inevitable and essential in the process of self-development.
In this post I’m going to give a few “what would you do?” examples of mistakes that can easily occur in various S&C roles. Some are taken from my own experiences (there’s a long enough list to choose from), one is from the experiences of another coach and some parts are fictional/hypothetical. The idea is to get you thinking about how you might handle such situations so that you are better informed if you encounter similar positions and for when you next f*ck up.
The first is particularly prevalent with me at the moment as I’ve been familiar with this story for a long time and near enough replicated it on myself this week. I find one of the hardest things, as a coach who loves training so much, is to listen to my own advice! Anyway at least it was me who suffered from my actions and not my athletes.
You’re the lead S&C for an elite level rugby team going away on camp for the week in the middle of the preseason period. The team is travelling together on a coach to an army base, 8 hours away. Just before arriving, the head coach comes to you and wants to make it clear that this week is about hard work from the very beginning. He tells you that as soon as we arrive he wants everyone straight to the field for “runways” before the “light training” session that is on the original schedule. Runways are basically a minute of sprinting shuttles with a few “down-ups”, repeated 6 times; similar to the England Anaerobic Endurance Test only you record the distance covered rather than the time. Can you identify a problem here??
Although you’re a little skeptical about jumping straight off the bus into some running based high intensity conditioning, being the flexible coach that you are, this isn’t a problem. You ensure all the athletes undergo an extra thorough warm up following the long journey despite pressure from the head coach to get this additional conditioning done as quickly as possible. However, regardless of your best efforts to prepare the team for the session, THREE athletes pull up during the runways with hamstring strains of various degrees! F*ck! This is not how anyone wishes to start a training camp or their preseason for that matter. How would you handle this?
The players are pissed, the head coach is pissed and you feel like you’ve taken a direct route up sh*t creek. After all, you’re supposed to be the expert on physical preparation; if you thought this was unwise you should have said something. But if you said something how do you think a particularly strong-minded head coach would have taken it? How are you now going to deal with the athletes who have just sidelined themselves for the first few weeks of the season? Injury is opportunity and all that but 10 minutes ago the only opportunity they cared about was securing their name on the team sheet.
In hindsight there is one main mechanism that becomes clear as to what lead to this disaster. Looking beyond the most common causes of Hamstring strain (previous injury, fatigue & weakness), most obvious in my mind is the amount of time spent sat on the coach prior to the training session, where the hamstring muscles remained in a short position. Although I guess this should be classed as a fatiguing factor? It is worth noting that all the players who pulled up were either 2nd or back row and over 6ft 2”, so this is likely to have had a greater effect on longer limbs/levers/muscles. Then there could of course be a large number of other contributing factors. The importance of hydration whilst travelling may have played a role? Maybe you did miss something in the warm up? Maybe there’s something missing from the programme and these players are lacking strength or elasticity? Maybe they’d been pushed too hard in the days leading up to the camp and were still fatigued? The key to solving problems is asking the right questions and solving this problem is extremely important in making sure this does not happen again.
Anyway, it’s done now. Let’s say after 3 injuries in as many minutes you’ve scrapped the session in fear of any more. You’ve diffused the players as best as you can right now by apologising, being empathetic and genuinely concerned. How are you going to breach the news to the head coach and other support staff?
In my opinion, honesty and taking responsibility are the best courses of action. It is very easy to criticise and blame others. In fact I think this is often very typical of the culture we live in, as a sort of mechanism for survival I suppose, to say for example “he started it…”, “if it wasn’t for this..” or “it’s not my fault…”. However it takes courage to stand up and be accountable. This is an essential leadership quality and something that you will be respected for in the long run. After asking why this happened, ask yourself how you could have prevented it and what you could have done differently. Ask yourself how you can now make the best of this bad situation and what is most important to do going forward.
Luckily in reality, the head coach took full accountability for his actions on this occasion but it easily could have gone another way. Now take yourself back to the moment when the head coach told you he wanted the team straight off the bus and into runways. Just suggest for a moment that you did anticipate an unfortunate outcome, how would you approach this? How would you actually INFLUENCE the head coach to change his mind? This is not easy. In fact the S&C coach in this story did voice his concern but could not change the outcome. Very unfortunate for the players but fortunate for himself as this is what probably lead to the head coach taking accountability at the end of the day? This subject will lead onto another post that I aim to publish in the forthcoming weeks on the importance of influencing technical coaches – possibly the hardest part of the job!!
Situation 2 – My latest mistake:
Maintaining strength and power levels in season with professional skiers isn’t always easy. The schedule is forever changing with races dependent on weather conditions and thus I am as flexible as possible in ensuring that my athletes receive a good strength stimulus once every 7-10 days.
In the lead up to the most important competition so far this season which was the Junior World Championships in Norway, the snow conditions were pretty poor. This meant less ski training and an opportunity to top up some physical training. Not a bad position from my point of view! The athletes had 3 good sessions 2 weeks prior to the competition, 1 lower body strength, 1 power endurance and 1 upper body session. The reason their training is split like this is because usually the upper body is the first element to be sacrificed whilst avoiding fatigue and staying fresh. I’ll also try to include elements in active recovery sessions when I can. Anyway, this left 1 last opportunity to get a final strength stimulus 5 days before competing in Norway. Perfect! I wanted this to be a good session so the guys felt strong and confident going into the races. Unfortunately there were a few last minute changes to the schedule! There usually are and I should have anticipated this! Despite a group decision amongst staff that my priority should be to stay in Andorra with an injured athlete and prepare the guys going to Norway, I was sent on another camp with a younger group of athletes at a day’s notice. This meant I didn’t get to lead the session with the guys going to Norway. It also meant that they didn’t complete the session when they were supposed to because a different coach wanted them to ski that day and do the physical training the following day. This left them just 3 days recovery in which time they would travel to Norway before their first race.
Luckily I found out about this in advance and accounted for it by adjusting the session. Mainly I made it as minimal as I thought best by reducing the volume and removing a couple of accessory exercises. I still believed the guys needed a good strength stimulus as they didn’t lift particularly heavy in the previous session due to fatigue. Therefore I left them with the instruction of “LIFT HEAVY!”. 2 guys were thrilled to text me that they lifted new PBs in the back squat, one equaled his PB and the other didn’t do the session for a medical reason. I was stoked for them. PBs before their biggest competition of the season has got to inspire confidence, I thought it was ideal.
I was wrong! All three athletes still had DOMS on the first race day and the only one who performed well was the one who didn’t do the session! By the second day they were fine but that’s not the point. Obviously I wanted them to perform at their best in all races and especially get off to the best start possible. So why did I f*ck up?
Firstly if they were in good enough condition to lift PBs in the lead up to the race then they were strong enough to go without that session and the session 2 weeks before would have been more than enough. Although they have lifted 4 or even 3 days before competition in the past with no problems, I don’t believe I took full consideration of the effect of travelling to Norway. Normally in Andorra or our base in the French Alps, the athletes have a strict schedule where they get plenty of sleep, eat good food and have access to a swimming pool, bike and other tools to make optimal recovery. Taking a bus, a plane and another bus to the races in Norway means they had none of this. In particular sleep would have been irregular and whilst I am continuously educating the team on nutrition, it is their choices whilst on the road which are particularly bad. Furthermore, just because they hit PBs they were going to be more sore than normal and I should have considered this as well. Perhaps I should have said, “LIFT HEAVY!…But not Maximal”? Would you have foreseen this? How would you have approached this differently? I understand a lot of coaches wouldn’t go for maximum efforts in season for good reason. Whilst I prescribe reps and starting loads I deliberately take a very autonomous approach with my skiers; because they are a young team I want them to take ownership in the gym and learn more about their bodies. However this is easier to manage when I am there and not on a separate camp.
Needless to say, I learnt an important lesson. I will remember this situation and ensure my athletes are better prepared in the future. If you ask any of the rugby players I have worked with or continue to work with, “Freshness to compete” is a huge part of my programming philosophy and I was disappointed that I let my athletes down on this occasion in an area that I believe we have managed particularly well for the rest of the season; usually erring on the side of caution if anything. Anyway onwards and upwards now, still four more weeks of races to smash before the end of the season!
Situation 3 – Back to elite rugby:
It’s your responsibility to warm the players up before training. You’ve checked the schedule, but looked at the wrong day by mistake. This means that you’ve prepared them for a light skills session, when they are in fact about to start a full contact session. What do you do?
Yep that’s right, you stay quiet and pray that no one notices or gets injured. Just kidding of course! Act quickly, take responsibility, tell the head coach and do whatever’s necessary to prepare the athletes for a full contact session. A few extra minutes of preparation and looking like a tool mean nothing in comparison to your athletes’ welfare. Expect some stick from the players for not knowing what you’re doing but they’ll be glad you made the right decision at the end of the day – This is another subject for a future post, the importance of good banter! Your personality determines the type of coach you are and being able to have a laugh with your athletes will go a long way towards how successful you are!
Situation 4 – Rugby again:
You’re looking after a 19 year old Senior Academy level Front Row Forward who’s torn some lateral ligaments in his ankle. He can just about bear weight on this ankle and is still advised to use one crutch when walking. One of his main training objectives has been building a greater cardiovascular base and it is essential that you continue to work on this through his rehab period. With this in mind, you’ve designed a cardiac hypertrophy session based around an arm cycle, some medicine ball exercises and floor based work. Basically tailoring what he can do to the aims of the session. You explicitly outline that the athlete needs to take care moving between exercises, especially when getting up off the floor. However despite this instruction, as fatigue sets in and he loses concentration, he jumps up from the floor and in doing so twists his ankle a little which brings an end to the session and adds 2 weeks to his rehab. He will also now miss 2 cup games which he was set to play in upon his return to full training. As this incident occurred under your duty of care, you must report it to your multidisciplinary team, including the physio who is responsible for this athlete, the head S&C who you are responsible to and the head coach. Firstly what would you instinctively say to the athlete? This should depend on the perosanlity of the athlete and your relationship with him, but how do you think you would react? This did happen to me and I wasn’t too happy! How would you raise the issue with the physio, head S&C and head coach? How would this differ for each member of the MDT? I stated that you clearly outlined that he needed to take care when transitioning between exercises; what more could you have done? Should you have included floor-based exercises in the first place? Are there better ways to induce an aerobic stimulus in this situation? What else would or could you have done differently?
As always, I hope this post has got you thinking! As I stated at the start, we all make mistakes, the most important thing you can do is try to learn from them. I am a big advocate of personal reflection. The end of the day is the perfect time to look back on situations with a cool mind, understand other people’s point of view and analyze how you acted, whether you handled situations well or not and how you could improve for next time. Remember that no matter what level of coach you are, you will always make mistakes. If you can identify these and see them as opportunities to learn and develop you will reap the rewards personally and this will carry over to your athletes. The coach who says they know everything or doesn’t make a mistake, to me is only demonstrating their ignorance. Thanks for reading.