One of the greatest things I think I’ve learnt from working in Alpine skiing is the importance of adaptability. Or even what it really means to be adaptable. I can’t say that this has been the easiest of lessons for someone who likes structure, processes and effective organisation; for most of my experiences have been gained from sports with regular schedules that rarely change and work towards fixed events that aren’t likely to change (Rugby and Diving). So what does it really mean to be adaptable and why is it so important? Well hopefully I can illustrate that through a few short stories of my own experiences. For the sake of making this easier to read (and write!), I’m going to break this down and publish it in two parts.
Part 1: Adapting to the coach
Before we go any further, just remember that if you’re lucky enough to work with any sport team, you’re not the boss. Which means it’s not your programme. You must always work with all members of staff (the MTD) to deliver the best programme as directed by the head coach.
So here’s what I used to think it meant to be adaptable: At Worthing Raiders I was fortunate to have a very good relationship with the head coach and he remains a good friend. We used to train in the gym regularly together and would use this time to discuss the forthcoming evening’s training session and work in general. We had a rough schedule but it would change on a weekly basis depending on the weekend’s fixture and condition of the team etc. This allowed me to have a clear plan of what I’d be doing of an evening (warm ups, rehab, extra conditioning etc.) and what the team would be doing (contact, intensity etc.). However between an 11am gym session and 7pm training, that plan would often change. I used to run player gym sessions for some lads before training, so it would be a frequent occurrence to walk out of the gym 10-15 minutes prior to rugby, chat to the head coach and hear that there’s been a change of plan. As I started this blog series with the intention of helping aspiring S&C coaches think about practical application, imagine you are the S&C coach at a semi professional rugby club and put yourself in the following scenarios:
- Training starts in 5 minutes, you’re responsible for the warm up and have just been told that you’re now doing a full contact session. You’ll have 15 minutes to prepare the players then the session will consist of 30-40 minutes of technical work at the break-down, followed by 30 minutes of small-sided, full contact games. How do you change the warm up to prepare the players for a contact training session?
- It’s 7.15pm, you’ve bossed the warm up incorporating handling drills and a full “RAMP” protocol. The players are ready to train but the coaches are still inside with one athlete dealing with a disciplinary issue. Think fast, what do you do?
- Finally, the head coach comes to you just before training. He tells you that he’s watched the video from the weekend again and the players simply aren’t fit enough. Starting today (Tuesday) he wants extra conditioning to be done at the end of training. You can do what you want but it needs to be effective. a) What will you do? b) How will this progress over the next few weeks? c) In week 3 Tuesday’s training runs over by 20 minutes (until 8.50pm), how do you adapt the extra fitness work? d) What else can you do to improve the team’s fitness level in season? e) What would you do if rather than unfit (they performed well in previous weeks) you believe the team were actually just tired?
So that’s what I used to think it meant to be adaptable and that was just the beginning. Remember that its the coach’s programme; he knows what’s most important and to make the most out of his session you’ll need to get behind him. So who cares if he or she changes their mind, wants to run a different session to what’s been planned or leaves you to hold the fort. Think on your feet and use your knowledge to provide the best stimulus for what he or she wants.
Nowadays, “being adaptable” seems to mean a hell of a lot more. I find my role as head of physical preparation also includes the subtitles of chef, driver, motivator, masseuse, cleaner, ski man, videographer, handy man, hype man, counsellor, referee and more. Sticking with the theme of adapting to the coach in this post, here’s a couple of examples and things to think about that have come up in skiing:
- There is quite a tradition in Alpine skiing (in Europe at least) of doing a lot of long endurance bike rides of 3-5 hours or more to work on aerobic fitness. Personally I believe an aerobic foundation is essential, but different adaptations come through different types of training and higher intensities are more relevant to aerobic power which is something I see as vitally important. The coaches also believe that aerobic work is very important but are still hooked on the Long Slow Duration model. Imagine you are new to the team and have not yet earned the position to influence what they know. a) How would you adapt your programming of aerobic development to incorporate the views of the coaches? b) How would this evolve in the 2nd and 3rd years?
- At some point (mid way through my 2nd preseason) running based Max Aerobic Speed sessions have become the main method of developing aerobic power. However one day the football pitch at the National Training facility has been double booked, FC Barcelona are running a training camp and there’s no way you can use the pitch. The athletes are scheduled to do 60 second efforts at 100% MAS with a 60 second recovery. The gym is free but there’s not enough CV equipment in there for 18 athletes. Your other options consist of concrete car parks, roads, hills, mountain paths or a spinning studio at another gym 10 minutes away by car. How would you adapt your session whilst still working towards the same goal?
- Personally I’m quite a fan of Yoga, I have practiced it regularly in the past though can only say it makes an occasional appearance in my routine at the moment. One of our coaches on the other hand is an avid practitioner, rising at 5am each morning to complete an hour’s practice followed by meditation. Since retiring as an athlete his passion has turned to yoga and an Ayurvedic lifestyle. He believes that our athletes should make 20-30 minutes or more of yoga every morning upon waking up. I think he has a great way about his practice, I also believe that to wake up with an easy movement routine including stretches and mobilisation is great for a host of reasons and I am a huge fan of practicing mindfulness and meditation. However our beliefs do differ a little in how this practice should take place. Our ideas of the way the body should move are slightly different and I am wary of certain postures/positions that involve extreme degrees of extension or mobility. Especially the repetition of such positions on a daily basis. I don’t believe that it’s necessary for everyone, particularly not for 2 hyper-mobile athletes (who coincidently have the highest injury rates in the team), the last thing they really need to work on is being even more mobile. And when our schedule often starts at 6am, an extra 30 minutes sleep potentially holds more value? So how would you incorporate yoga into your schedule when a coach sees it as important? How could you change it from day to day adding variety and still meet the needs of the athletes? And what would you prescribe to your hyper-mobile athletes instead?
- Whilst the coach above is determined to seek calm and peacefulness, it’s probably because he’s worked with one of our other coaches for the past 8 years. Said coach is quite the opposite, has a rather short fuse, always has a million and one things on his plate and doesn’t stop moving at 100mph. I honestly think his incredible aerobic capacity and endurance is the only thing stopping him from having a heart attack. Anyway, it’s hard to describe but it can create for a somewhat stressful environment. Adapting to different personalities is a HUGE part of the job. Think about the different personalities in your organisation and how you might act differently with each person (whether it be consciously or unconsciously). Once you start to understand who you work with, what drives them and what they care about, it’ll enable you to make communication far more effective. I don’t suggest having a strategy in getting to know people other than taking a genuine interest in them as people. However it is advisable to take note of how they respond to different styles of communication and how they act in various circumstances. This way you can better adapt yourself whatever the situation to maintain a positive working environment; it’ll help you time those key conversations right and may even influence the outcome too.
- What about adapting to an ever changing schedule? Well I’m going to address this in more depth in the next part of this series but for now I’ll just give you a slight heads up. Firstly the summer and pre-season is straight forward, I plan the schedule from May to November and ski camps are set from the beginning, so not much changes. The winter however couldn’t be more opposite. In a sport that’s dependant on weather conditions and considering we haven’t had a great deal of snow in the last 2 seasons, it’s quite common for our schedule to change several times a day. When conditions are bad, races and trainings get cancelled, camp locations get moved and this obviously impacts our travel arrangements when we’re chasing the snow. For example if a couple races get cancelled in Chamonix (France), that day we might find ourselves driving across Switzerland to Austria instead. On the other hand when conditions are good, we can stick to the race schedule, but extra training will probably take place to make the most of it and rest days will get postponed until either the weather changes or the athletes really need it. So bearing in mind that skiing is a sport much dependant on weather and in the winter (or even summer training camps) time on the skis is by far the priority. It’s important to be prepared to sacrifice gym sessions, be ready to pack up and drive to another country at a moments notice and fully support your coaches decisions as I’m extremely confident that they will always want to provide the best schedule and opportunities for our athletes. To give you a better picture of how difficult a season this has been, our coaches plan the race schedule in advance from November to April, due to changes and cancellations this year we managed to complete 10% of that original schedule!! Our athletes completed the same number of races, just on different days and often in different countries.
- Finally I know I’ve mentioned that nutrition has been an issue in a previous post (The hardest part of my job is me). On one side there’s the sugar pandemic that seems to encapsulate young generations of today and on the other side are some strong opinions from a coach who now leads a vegetarian Ayurvedic way of life. Our philosophy is real food first coupled with athlete education and when our athletes are provided with better options they make better choices. I just want to give you something to think about, our vegetarian coach doesn’t impress his personal beliefs on anyone although he may not agree with typical macronutrient targets that would be set by a nutritionist. Unfortunately it’s a common trend in Alpine skiing for athletes to lose a few kilos through the winter, but I’m still not willing to accept this and am doing what I can to combat it. So how would you adapt your nutrition philosophies to cater for everyone’s views whilst trying to reach recommended daily intakes for strength & power athletes who frequently train 4-5 hours a day? What conversations do you think you’d have? Another example is that I personally believe weight management is largely dependant on energy balance, but counterintuitively our Ayurvedic coach believes that the athletes can often lose weight because they are eating too much and this also impacts their digestive health. It’s tricky.
I hope this gives a little insight into some of my experiences and helps you develop your thoughts on practical application in Strength & Conditioning. The next post (part 2) focusses on adapting to stress and individuals on a daily basis and thus coaching who’s in front of us.
Thanks for reading.