Monday, 20 June 2016

Thoughts on the Development of Culture within Team Sport

                I have just gotten back from a mini-vacation where I was able to unplug for a few days and collect some thoughts on what I deem to be one of the most important aspects of team sport. My opinions and thoughts on this are drawn from my experiences both in the private sector of coaching and now in an institutional setting and they are my own. Many of which have been stolen or borrowed over years of working with many different sport/strength coaches, therapists, business leaders, teachers and most importantly, all the wonderful athletes. I am by no means an expert in this, but then again I don’t know that many people are. Most of this is based on trials and tribulations over the span of about 20 years of coaching and it is my hope that you may be able to draw something useful from it.
Culture is a tough definition when it comes to team sport. It is very vague on one hand but widely thrown around on the other.  For the purpose of this blog it should be understood that we are using the term in a broad sense with the focus being placed on some of the small pieces that make up culture such as: accountability/expectations, transparency, habit formation, leadership and creating an atmosphere that is conducive to increasing performance.
                It is hard to argue with the fact that the majority of successful businesses and sport teams possess two qualities in which they are able to drive performance from, talent and culture. There are many attributes that help to foster greatness, but it is hard to argue that without talent and culture, there is not much of a base to build from. Many successful entities have one or the other and at times there is a combination of the two, but what separates the perennial power houses from the occasional success stories is the ability to hold the two aspects together as much as possible for as long as possible.
                Both talent and culture can be built, but for the purpose of this blog we should consider the key points that talent can be acquired through recruiting; where culture must be built from the ground up.  This doesn’t mean we are not trying to develop talent, it just means that key roles can be filled in a timely manner if your resources allow for it. The points below are in no particular order and are steps that we have taken and continuously worked towards in any venture I have been involved in.   
·         Culture is built by an unwavering love and passion for what one does. It is infectious but can easily be destroyed by a simple lack of caring or ownership by as little as one person
·         CARE. And show it. It is easy to say all of this, but to live it is a completely different story. It is both emotionally draining and time consuming, but if you show your passion for it, people will respond accordingly. This means giving more of yourself even when there will be times that you are close to tapping out.
o   During our seasons of play, our staff tries to get out to as many games as we can. Our athletes know the kind of hours we put in and they know that sticking around for a 7pm game adds hours to our already long days. However, this shows that we are invested in them and genuinely want to not only show our support, but watch how they play/move on their field of play in order to pick up on something we may have missed training in the gym.
·         Own your mistakes because we all make them at some point. Pointing the blame at someone else when you are ultimately supposed to be in charge reflects upon your leadership abilities.
·         Share your vision with those that are going to help you build it. The week before I started I told my assistant that I wanted to change the world and her reply was “let’s do it”.  If she wasn’t on board with my ridiculous ideas we would not have been able to be as impactful as we have been.
·         Surround yourself with people that challenge you and your ideas. Chances are, someone on your staff or one of your athletes have been in a similar situation and you may be able to adapt something from their past that can impact your future.
o   Ensure that you have a diverse staff.  We all have something unique we can offer but if you hire people that are similar to you the chances of being challenged are lessened.  From a coach standpoint, we can’t all relate to every athlete we work with but by including diversity within your team the likelihood of being able to reach more athletes is improved.
·         Enabling is the first step to entitlement. Entitlement should not be confused with empowerment. Empowering someone comes from setting the bar/standards high and giving them (by them I mean your athletes and your staff) the tools needed to create something great.  One works to earn something so they may be rewarded with a result. The other comes from a mindset that one deserves the result without doing the work to achieve it. You reap what you sow and whatever seeds you plant will grow.
o   I know that this is a tough one for many coaches to deal with so I will share my approach on the enabling and entitlement issues.  Make your athletes work for everything (and I mean everything). If they want to clean from the floor, show us you can deadlift and hang clean well and that you qualify to do so. If an athlete asks for anything (extra mobility work, conditioning, strength, etc.) we follow up with an email asking “Why do you need this? What are your time constraints? When are you able to do these extras so that we can program accordingly? If there is no thought put into it, or the response time is poor, we will call them on it. Our time is valuable, but we are always willing to make time for those that will show us they are willing to do a little more
o   This may seem like an easy concept to some, but it seems lost to many:  If you allow for a habit to form and repeat itself, what do you think the end result may be? For example: A sport coach would not or should not allow poor technique to pass in training or practice sessions because we know that habit will transfer to a competition setting. Why would anything related to culture be any different?  Why would it be ok to show up late to a session once, but not the next time?
·         We have all heard the old adage “hire slow, fire fast” I assume? In my setting, we are attempting to build the culture slowly over time and correct the issues as quickly as we are able to. This ensures they do not become more problematic as both good and bad aspects of culture are infectious. I remember going to a conference on social media and the speaker stated that for every positive review you receive online it will touch 5-8 people but every negative review will reach 30.  Culture is no different.
·         Create autonomy and ownership. When we coach our athletes we give them minimal cueing with the mindset that they will need to figure some things out on their own. The same goes with our expectations in the weight room; the more they can figure things out on their own, the more likely it is to stick. When the majority of your team is figuring things out, the more ownership is likely to take place. The more signs you have in the weight room saying “pick up after yourself”, “don’t drop dumbbells”, etc. the more likely they are to be ignored. They just become part of the décor.  Ownership can also be instilled through a sense of pride.  Make the best of your space (field, office, weight room etc) and focus on highlighting the finer points and making the best of those that aren’t necessarily up to par.
·         In order to improve culture, we must have leadership. I find this to be one of the most difficult aspects because we are in a time where our self-worth is dictated and measured on our cell phones and social media accounts, not by our actions and real life successes. Somehow who you follow or who follows you is now an accomplishment? 
o   The leadership must start at the top down, and roles for both coaches and athletes must be fostered, encouraged and well-designed. We know that it is difficult to develop leadership with any generation and in all settings, but does that come from a lack of inherent leadership capabilities, or a lack of mentorship and guidance? If you think your role as a coach only involves coaching, I wouldn’t bother reading any further.
o   If you create accountability, you will see glimmers of leadership emerge which allows for you to identify who your key players will be.
·         We know that culture takes years to build, and we know that everyone loves change, except when it happens to them. Be patient and expect that there will be a ton of hiccups along the way.
o   Assess the needs of your environment and create a plan of attack. When a change or shift is needed we intuitively try to rip the band aid off and attempt to fix everything at once. Your assessment becomes your guide to triage your given situation. Work back from what your ultimate goal is and try to target small, impactful things that will add up over time. This can be something as simple as having your athletes wear clothing that represents their team for every session, or not allowing tardiness or unexplained absences.
o   Many people are hardwired to resist change. Communicate plans well in advance and educate the people around you as to why change does not have to have a negative connotation.
o   Anticipate those that will be resistant to change and be prepared to educate them accordingly. These are the people that say, “We have always done it this way”, or, “this is what the best team in the world does”. If you butt heads with these people or challenge them in a negative fashion, you will never win them over. But if you drop your ego, and are prepared to show “why” and “where” you may be impactful, the likelihood of them buying in is much greater. If we expect our athletes to be a cohesive unit and work together, we must hold ourselves to the same standards.  Ultimately, if you do butt heads, you can at least know that you have given someone an opportunity to learn something new, which may serve as a learning experience for future issues.
o   Do NOT be hard on yourself when something doesn’t work as planned. We have over 600 athletes representing 25 teams and over 60 coaches. There are so many variables and unique personalities at play that we will have to take some lumps along the way and reframe our failures as an opportunity to learn.
o   Be professional. There are very few instances in this world where this will not separate you from others. Replying to emails in a timely fashion, with your spelling and grammar in check, thanking people when they help you, or being on time are simple things that anyone can do with minimal effort. Quite frankly, they go a long way.
·         Structure and principles are key, not necessarily systems. Obviously we all have systems in play, but be weary of rigidity in them. If we want creative coaches and athletes there needs to be some wiggle room. Rigid systems can create mindlessness, and in many cases may zap autonomy. Keep in mind, many athletes (specifically in team sport) crave structure and are attracted to being around others with similar mindsets.
·         Create accountability by defining and reinforcing parameters that put it back on the athlete to take ownership. In our setting we have very few non-negotiables (do not be late, do not miss sessions, support your fellow athletes, no headphones, no phones in the gym and wear shoes).  The only time these are excused are when the athlete gives the coach prior written notice. We have over 600 athletes and ask that they email us so that we have a paper trail which also keeps us as a staff accountable. We also have one poster spread around the gym and verbally reinforce them to encourage accountability. If an athlete comes in and says, “my knee hurts”, we can instantly refer to the poster which asks questions such as:
o   Did you report your injury to the S and C staff immediately so you may receive modifications as needed?
o   Have you had an assessment or therapy yet?
o   Have you done your pre- and/or post-work for this injury yet?
This is simple, yet effective. It is far from perfect, but it is a form of accountability and ownership, both key pieces to the culture puzzle.
·         Punishment should not be confused with accountability or consequences. Punishment is easy and is quite often delivered out of emotion. If we want our athletes to be able to focus and control emotions on their field of play what kind of example are we giving them when we struggle to control ours? In our setting, if an athlete shows up late without prior notice, they are asked to leave. The consequence is they miss the workout for that day. If it becomes a recurring issue, we will give them their program and they may train out of the student gym for a period of time and their coaches will be alerted of this.  Quite often, this can give you an idea as to where the leadership lies. If no one notices a member of their team is missing or cares to do so, you may have some issues you need to address. Conversely you may have athletes that always notice when someone is absent or you have brought it to their attention and they are not sure how to deal with the situation or get upset. We need to be cautious when conflicts or issues arise and we place it in the hands of the athletes.  Coaching should be more than just telling athletes what to do and when to do it. Our goal is to help create strong, productive members of society, and something as simple as helping them with conflict resolution skills is invaluable.
·          Be encouraging. We all know when our athletes are doing something great, but do you address this in an intimate or closed environment? There is nothing wrong with mentioning positive notes to a group, but bringing one of your athletes into your office to say how pleased you are with their progress is next level…..Watch them open up: the color in their face and posture changes immediately, and most importantly, you have given them a feeling of empowerment and accomplishment (both of which can easily be lost in the team environment).
o   On the flip side, if you fill your athletes with false praise, then praise becomes absolutely meaningless. Pick and choose times where there is merit so they know that you honestly mean it. If the majority of what comes out of your mouth is fluff the athletes will see through you.
o   If you have something to raise that is negative or may come off that way, the same approach is useful. Everything should have meaning and purpose.
·         I would like to say that once you mention something once it becomes a done deal.  This is rarely the case, so ensure that you repeat your message as needed before issues arise with the understanding that you are in this for the long haul. Having said that, if it is only a few outliers that are missing the message, speak with them individually or in a small group to ensure there is impact behind it.  It is useful to be realistic in your approach here as well.  For example, we have a dress code for the weight room and expect everyone to be early to their sessions. We know that when teams report, new members may not have team issued clothing in the first couple weeks and that they are still working out class schedules. Since we are prepared for this, we reiterate the message as needed, give them a realistic timeline, and things clean themselves up in a matter of weeks.
·         Be as encouraging to your staff as you would your athletes. If they know that they are appreciated for their work and that you value them, they are more likely to have the ability to carry on your cultural expectations in your absence. In our setting I have one full-time Assistant Coach, and a Student Coach and Graduate Assistant Program.  I have to be able to rely on them to be able to hold our athletes to the highest standards. My goal as the head coach is to mentor and guide our staff to one day either take my position (or a similar one) and have the tools necessary to be successful.
·         Command respect by not raising your voice. When you yell all the time, or bark orders, a couple of things happen. First, it makes the athletes focus on your tone and think, “this coach is a dick”, and the message becomes lost. Secondly, it makes the athletes think something is wrong.  We are not in war here, this is not life and death. Having said that, there are times where you may need to raise your voice outside of motivational or potential injury settings, and just as when you praise and athlete, these should be used sparingly so that the message is impactful.
·         Speak at a level where everyone can hear you, and not any louder. Athletes that think it is acceptable to speak over you will be shushed by the leaders in the group that value the importance of your message. It also forces attention in a world where attention spans are diminishing. If you are unable to garner the athlete’s attention, stop talking and wait for them to finish their conversation. They will get the message fairly quickly that this is not acceptable.
·         Do not expect perfection, encourage it and give the athlete the tools needed to do so and it will come. In our setting, we can have up to 50 athletes in the gym at any given time with only 2 coaches on the floor. I know that we will not get perfection immediately with this ratio, but I do know that if someone walked in nothing would look horrendous. If you create an environment where athletes understand that they must qualify to do your core movements/skills they will accept progressions or regressions much more readily. This allows us to ensure that our principles stay intact while minimizing the risk of injury and reinforcement of negative patterns.
·         Encourage competition before it is necessary. We live in a time where everyone is praised for participation.  Include competition in your training environment when it is feasible. As an example, our non-travelling football athletes will do a competitive circuit on the Friday or Saturday of a game weekend. They are expected to train as those that would travel do without the reward of playing and this is an opportunity for them to continue to compete, have purpose, and feel as though they are still a valued member of the team. We explain and educate them as to why we are doing this. Travelling or not, every member of the team has a role and without them remaining in shape and competitive they cannot drive those that travel to compete at the level needed in training. Let’s also not forget what it is like to be a student-athlete. At the end of the day, training can get mundane and even though it may not fit into your training plan there are simple competitions you can partake in that will not negatively affect your end goal. Chances are, they won’t physically make any huge impacts either, but mentally it can create a change immediately in the training environment.
·         Be adaptable. Things change on an hourly basis when you are in a big business or institution.  You must figure out what is essential, what is useful, and what is possible, and formulate decisions and programs based on this.
·         Keep your strengths strong while bringing up your weaker areas.  Too often we identify “needs” and neglect what we do well to fix everything else.  Our ultimate goal is to do the basics and do them well and progress from there.
·         Be proactive not reactive. The more you can anticipate, the easier your life will be. When we are reactive, chances are we will have more of an uphill battle trying to achieve your end goal.
·         Do not accept mediocrity. It is really easy when you are a lone coach on the floor with many athletes, but if they know that you hold technique and work ethic in a high regard it is easier to hold them accountable.
o   Success and failure are equally infectious. In our setting, we know that we will have an influx of athletes in late August, early September. This is where we spend a lot of time on technique. We try to place our novice lifters with our more experienced and technically sound lifters. This has multiple benefits, one being that the experienced lifters pass down the importance we place on technique, specifically at this time in their respective seasons, and it encourages both leadership and ownership to both parties involved.
o   This should also carry over to the importance of athletes taking care of the weight room.  They know we have a limited budget and that we clean it ourselves. If you allow them to leave it a mess after a session and let your student coaches or interns clean up after them you are not demanding the most out of your athletes. You can choose to say your job is to make them stronger, powerful, more conditioned, etc. Or, you can choose to help give them life skills that will carry on with them for the rest of their life.
·         Educate those around you constantly. We hold monthly meetings with our student coaches but encourage questions daily. We also encourage our athletes and coaches to ask questions and if they don’t have any questions, we explain why we are doing what we are doing. If they have a deeper understanding of the message and collective vision, they are more likely to support it and be enthused by it.
·         Treat everyone the same. If you let your star player or favorites walk in late or do anything that others aren’t you are setting yourself up for failure. We work in a team setting, even with our individual sports and the fastest way to destroy things is to let them think they aren’t a team and that somehow some individuals get a free pass to do as they please. 
·         Identify the people you are dealing with (coaches, support staff and athletes). This may seem simplistic but you will meet the same personality traits 100’s of times in your life and if you have a better idea of the type of people you may be dealing with it may allow for you to relay your messages and communicate better. If you haven’t recognized this yet in your career start to take note on how people interact in similar situations and after a few years it becomes like the movie Groundhog Day. I stole the passage below from a business conference I was at and I apologize that I don’t remember who coined these. There are many more traits, but these are an easy start:
§  Adapters: Those that can’t wait to get things done and will do whatever it takes to do so! They volunteer their time and give more of themselves for the sake of the greater good.
§  Resisters: They question everything and quite often are very vocal about their displeasure around the water cooler. I think this is important as well, although they can be a huge pain if their resistance is just for the sake of it, and not at all constructive.
§  Coasters: They find a way out of everything. Quite often they will do the least amount of work and utilize the most resources.
·         Mental toughness is a term that gets thrown around quite often nowadays. We all want resilient athletes, workers and staff, but the idea of beating people down to build them back up should be left out of sport.  If you look at the athletes or staff members that you deem to be mentally tough what are the characteristics you see?  If you can identify what makes them unique you can begin to add character as one of your key recruitment tools. We find that instead of breaking people down to build them up, encourage them to achieve their goals and to demand more of themselves to be more effective. Be demanding, but fair and understand that what works for one person usually only works for that person only.
o   If you want mentally tough kids, demand the highest out of them, make discipline a key component of your program, and differentiate it from disciplining them. Holding high standards and punishing are two very different things.  Raise the bar, and don’t encourage your athletes to reach it, encourage them to jump over it, and the mental toughness and resiliency will come. In our setting as S and C coaches, sport coaches will identify mental toughness as an attribute they would like to see in certain players. I quite often ask for examples of where they see this lack in specific athletes to see if we can actually affect change. If our hockey coach says a player is soft in contact we will look to see why.  Did they have a previous injury that is making them hesitant? Are they fit enough? Or, do they just lack the ability to get into a position where they can create success? Because, if they do, we can work on “mental toughness” with them and by “mental toughness” I mean confidence.
o   Understand that in any population you work with, you do not have a full understanding of everyone’s background (upbringing, parents, sleep habits and other uncontrollable factors).  Not everyone you work with will fit the mold you would like to see them in so it is up to you to either refine that mold or make a tough decision.
·         Lastly, question yourself.  If you think you are doing everything perfectly you may want to re-evaluate things.

There is much more at play here, but this is a start and I hope that you as a reader, coach or employer may get a tidbit that is useful within your own unique situation. Just as in coaching, what works for one, works for one, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others’ trials and tribulations.  Ultimately, if you want to affect change you will have many long days and sleepless nights, but know that there is light at the end of the tunnel if you have the right people around you. The second you find yourself no longer caring, I suggest you move on in your career. You may be able to gut out your long days but then it just becomes work… and who wants that? 
NONE of this would be possible without the support of Lisa (my assistant), our Student Coaches and Grad Assistants, and our bosses that gave us the autonomy and support needed to build something better so that one day we can achieve greater things. Having our sport coaches and athletes believe in what we were trying to do and understood the importance of putting culture before performance has made this journey that much better. 

Yours in Strength,
Joe McCullum

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Knowledge Bombs


                I may be off base on this one, but the term “knowledge bomb” in the coaching industry is starting to get old for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I have an unquenchable thirst for increasing my knowledge as much as the next coach but at what point are young coaches actually increasing their  knowledge as opposed to being good at trivia? 

                Coaching is a skill that requires the ability to balance many factors and one of the foundations of those factors is your ability to progress and regress both movements and your programs.  We start teaching our athletes a base skill and make a decision as to how to make it more or less challenging based on the needs of that athlete or group.  As an example, when I first started coaching I had the belief that all athletes should be able to execute a hang clean, back and or front squats, RDL’s, as well as a myriad of bodyweight exercises without really knowing “why” and they had to do it right now.  I still have this belief, but how I get the athletes to execute these movements has changed and I fully understand “why” they are important.  Essentially, I learned from both my mistakes and the mistakes of others along the way and am of the understanding that maybe it’s not those exercises that make a better athlete but the movement mechanics and physiological benefits behind them.  Holding tension, changing elevation, hip hinging, accelerating/decelerating and being able to functionally move one’s bodyweight in space are now at the forefront of my coaching as opposed to being set in the exercises above (even though those movements hold all of those components).  So instead of “knowledge bombs” as to how we program and do these movements why not shift the focus to “why” so that those that like to tweet how much knowledge they have from listening to a speaker actually have to think?  The more we think about movement versus thinking about what movement is best the more we will understand how to progress and regress.  I think it is very clear that all of our athletes should qualify to do any movement. The idea of doing the basics and doing them well before we worry about their ability to do one or a specific group of exercises should be paramount in our learning how to coach.

                I work with many young coaches within our two facilities as well as take on 10-15 interns each year.  I am writing this for them and anyone else that may listen to a different approach to learning how to coach as opposed to just listening to professional speakers.  I know this may come across as harsh, but for those of you that are new to the industry you may not believe this, but ten years ago there was not an option to attend 50 clinics a year in your city.  It is clear that as any industry grows, we will want to learn from those that have had success in it and I don’t want to make this sound like you shouldn’t attend courses and learn from others.  What I do want is for you to start looking at the information in a different light.  If you predominantly work with the general population and have the odd young athlete and go to a clinic that’s main focus are elite athletes you best have the ability to pick out what you can use for this population as opposed to forcing your general population clients into doing what the top athletes in the world are doing. I know this sounds stupid, but if I didn’t see this happen on a regular basis I wouldn’t have much to rant about. 

                I have gone off on clinics and why I won’t be attending many anymore in the past so I will keep this brief.  There are two concepts I want you to think about as you gain “knowledge bombs” each time you go to a clinic.  The first is indoctrination.  Is the presenter teaching you a theory or practice in a manner that makes it seem like you are foolish if you are not already doing it?  Is there something they are marketing or supporting because it is their own or a friend’s product? If you are not sure, take a look on twitter or any social media and you will see the network of people whoring out products and pumping each other’s tires.  The longer I am in the industry the more I see this spilling over into our athletes.  They have come accustomed to the idea that they have to do something or they won’t ever achieve the highest level of their sport.  If you don’t believe me, check out some of the training of your sport hero’s.  Actually I will save you some time, you will see hall of famers doing some crazy stuff, some doing things that align with your thinking and some will be somewhere in the middle.  What do they all have in common if they all did something different?  They are still hall of famers even though they all had different methods that helped them get there even though their training systems all differed.  If you are not picking up what I am putting down here I will make it very clear.  We can all get results with most of our athletes, but there is no set program that will get the same results with all of your athletes (even if someone is trying to convince you otherwise).  When a pro athlete or coach tells you how important a system is that isn’t based on individualizing programs I hope you start asking “why” instead of blindly following this method.  The second is cognitive inertia, which is basically the unwillingness to change thought patterns in light of new circumstances.  We get so set in our ways or traditions that quite often we neglect or forget the importance of critical thinking. 

Within our staff of 30 people I am probably the least likely to become a rocket surgeon.  And to be honest, I like it this way. I have a brilliant group of people I get to work with, learn from, challenge and be challenged by every day.  I also have a group of friends that I talk to about sport daily and to bounce ideas off.  The two concepts above came from two very different conversations.  The first was a conversation with Mark Uyeyama who is the head strength and conditioning coach for the San Francisco 49ers.  We were talking about how people get set in their ways and he told me about 3 hall of fame receivers that all did different training methods.  The second concept came from speaking with Curry Hitchborn who is the head forwards coach for the UBC rugby team.  This conversation had nothing to do with strength and conditioning and everything to do with the culture of sport in Canada.  Both concepts lead me to think about different things within the industry and the beauty of both was they weren’t in a clinic and they were free.  If I can offer one piece of advice when it comes to “knowledge bombs” it is go out and talk to people in related fields so that when you do go to clinics you can start to see what is practical and what is a sales pitch. 

                If you want to learn more about your industry the real “knowledge bombs” are the ones that make you question and grow what you already know and encourage you to learn more about what you don’t.  My thirst will never be quenched.

Yours in Strength,

Joe McCullum

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Thoughts on group or team training:


As the summer months come upon us I am both excited for the upcoming influx of athletes that we work with and overwhelmed by those that come in with programs from their various strength and conditioning coaches across North America.  This is not meant to knock on those programming for these athletes but to consider a few different approaches that may make you think twice about your summer programming.  In my experience as a strength and conditioning coach coupled with 20+ years of coaching sport I have come up with some of the issues associated with working with teams and some strategies (mostly through mistakes I have made myself or have observed from others) that I feel have helped the quality of programming for groups and teams.  Please keep in mind that when we work with large groups there is no “ideal” way to manage them.  There are so many variables to deal with (age, space, maturity, experience etc.) that for the most part the best you can do for your group or team is the best you can do.  If there was a magic formula or exercise that fit everyone we would all be awesome.  Below are some scenarios, solutions, modifications and considerations that I have adapted over the years. 

1.)    The best scenario is clearly to work with athletes or clients in a one on one situation so that we can individualize everything.  As we all know, what works for one person works for one person and the more people we put into the mix the harder it is to individualize.  For the most part, the groups or teams we work with are pretty resilient given their competitive and physiological age (high school and college level), but this doesn’t mean we should assume they can handle whatever we throw their way.  I also understand that as coaches sending athletes on their way for the summer puts us in a difficult situation as we cannot supervise them and are assuming they know what they are doing and that they are competent in all the movements you have provided for them.

Possible Solutions:

Triage the hell out of your programs.  What I have found to be very effective is to make programs to fit the needs of specific groups.  I will use my university rugby team as an example. We had upwards of 80 athletes ranging from 1st to 5th year and ranging from never lifted before to full on meat head.  After our testing day I looked at results, all of the videos (we filmed the last two attempts) and I scanned through all of my notes and came up with these categories (this is just for this group and I have more categories but they are dependent on the group you will be working with):

·         Development or “movement challenged”-Those new to lifting or the weight room setting.  This also included those coming off injury and/or those that showed proficiency in the core lifts but moved poorly or need more practice. In some case, this may also be an older athlete that has gotten away with less than great technique and needs a little re-education.

·         Weight Gain-Those that needed specific hypertrophy programs.  Since this is a University program that plays in a league with grown men (15 a side is not a university sport although it has varsity status so it is boys against men in most cases) so this is the majority of them.

·         Vets-Those that have competency in all of the core lifts and I am comfortable spending the least amount of time with them in a group setting. They need tweaking on technique, but I feel they are fairly self-sufficient.

·         Freaks (I don’t call it this as I don’t want egos to come into play)-Those that move well and are exceptionally powerful and strong and may not require the same amount of volume that some of the others may need and may need some more specific individual work to both continue  and enhance their power and strength.   

As you can see, this seems to be a lot of programming.  In actuality it is not as brutal as it seems (it helps that I have no life and my time constraints are few though) considering I used to give position specific programs.  I have steered away from position specific programs and just made on the spot modifications or in some cases I will make specific changes to an athlete or group of athletes programs on a need to basis.  The way I look at it, I have an expectation for all of my athletes regardless of what sport they play. They must show proficiency in our core lifts, understand how to hip hinge correctly, how to hold tension etc.  With these concepts in mind, programming doesn’t become so horrible.  The only real changes are within the development group where I may regress some of the core movements until they are able to execute them competently coupled with assistance movements to improve proficiency in said movements.  What is different is the load, volume, frequency, intensity and usually a few of the auxiliary exercises.  So the core of the program is the same with the exception of change in reps, sets and percentages.   In the case of sending out programs for the summer, I may keep the same categories but if I am not confident in the athletes technique, I will give them a few options stemming from the core lift such as: Hang CleanàBox Jump or Medicine Ball Throw, Front SquatàFront Split Squat, DeadliftàTrap Bar Deadlift or Romanian Deadlift (this is either written below the core exercise or in a comment tied to the core exercise).  I understand this is not ideal, but either is an athlete spending a summer with terrible technique. I know that I will get them back in the fall and I will be intensive on technique in the first phase of our programming for all groups. 

2.)    The next best scenario is small group training.  I understand when we have a small gym and are responsible for 100’s of athletes this can be near impossible.  Having said this, there are times in the day, month or year where we can be more impactful. 

Possible Solution:

·         Have an eye for detail by taking advantage of any time you get a situation where you can work within a small group or individuals (i.e. summer time while a large portion of your athletes are back home or with your injury rehab athletes).  Although this is not ideal for those that are away for the summer it gives you more time to focus on movement in a somewhat controlled atmosphere as opposed to having 30 people in the gym or on the field at once.  Now that I have years of experience with individuals it makes it far easier to point out dysfunctions or technical issues in a group setting which allows us to intervene far quicker than letting things slide because we don’t have the ability to spot some of the smaller details.

·         Have interns or an internship program.  I understand that the majority of interns we will get are nowhere near qualified to run a group while you take time to work with one athlete or a small group, but once you have a level of confidence in both your athletes and interns, start to separate the athletes that need specific attention.  This doesn’t mean you need to give out individualized programs but at the very least it gives you time to make regressions or progressions as needed. 

·         With the boom in technology, use apps such as: Ubersense or Coaches Eye to film (or have interns or athletes do it).  This gives us the ability to either give instant feedback if we were unable to watch someone specific or to review the film, give feedback via the app and email it to the athlete in your downtime.  This also gives us the ability to help our athletes when they are home for the summer or away as they can easily film themselves and send it to you immediately.


3.)    Use your testing sessions for more than data collection.  Our ultimate goal is performance and I am not against testing by any means. Maximal tests are the few times you can assess your athletes under high speeds and loads.  I know everyone loves the FMS, but if you are into seeing dysfunction, learn to observe and correct it at high loads and speeds. Testing should be used for so much more than it currently is and should be a huge consideration in your athletes programs.

Possible considerations:

                We test teams to get baselines, comparative data, see results, spark competition and build camaraderie but do we ever use those tests as an assessment of movement?  I don’t mean do a movement screen coupled with your strength, power, speed, agility and conditioning testing.  I mean watch how the athlete moves in these tests, address it, assess it and correct it. Do we come up with commonalities understanding the sport, specific positions, different body types, experience levels and past injury history so that we can program efficiently for large groups? Do your summer programs consider these factors?

                I understand that quite often there are not enough hours in the day to execute our plans to perfection.  Having said that, if we actually spent more of our professional development time with other coaches we should be able to come up with some level of a solution that is more than adequate.  To me, there is nothing worse than being in a weight room setting and the coaches are nowhere to be found. Programming is a small part of what we do that takes up a large portion of our time, but if sport or position coaches just placed their daily plans on a sheet of paper and gave it to their athletes and said “go do this, I’ll come check on you periodically over the next hour” they would not have a job for very long.  If you work with groups or team’s your organizational skills need to be impeccable. This doesn’t just mean you have sweet program packets.  It means the setup of the gym, the pairing of specific subgroups, the space and equipment you have available, the skills or lack thereof of your athletes all need to be accounted for when considering your programs.  There is no magic solution for group training guys but I hope some of these points help and as always please do not hesitate to contact me with comments or questions.

Yours in Strength,

Joe McCullum



Monday, 7 April 2014

Thoughts on how we learn in the coaching, fitness and therapy industries

I am fresh off the clinic season and ready to start putting everything I have learned in the past 5 months to practice…Just kidding.  I think after 15 years in the industry and over 70 clinics/conferences I have come to the conclusion that this is probably not the best way for me to further my professional development.  This doesn’t mean I don’t see value in it, it just means I am ready to pave a new path for learning in the coaching industry. It is important to note that I work as a sport coach, strength and conditioning coach as well as a manager that over sees 25 plus employees.  So the clinics that I attend usually have something to do with all three aspects of what I do professionally. In the past month I have attended two great clinics that sparked my urge to write this.  Our regional NSCA clinic was excellent from beginning to end as was the IHRSA (The International, Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association) conference and trade show. Both completely different in content but both had tremendous speakers. 
After creepily staring (some may call it stalking) at one of the girls leading a Zumba class during the trade show for an abnormal amount of time, I had an epiphany.  IHRSA does something a little different than other conferences I have been to and they do it well.  There are key note speakers every day (Royal Society of the Arts and TED Talks caliber).  The key notes speak to what their specialties and professions are and tailor it to the conference.  To be honest, a plumber would have found value in listening to these speakers.  This is then followed by a wide array of speakers from all aspects of business, professionalism, human resources, social media etc.  If it has to do with the business side of things, they have it covered.  The NSCA clinic is far more practical from the coaching and networking side of things.  So while these were fresh in my mind, I thought to myself that both clinics had great content but something was missing.  There were thousands of people at IHRSA and the NSCA clinic was sold out and capped at 120 people.  As the “people person” that I am, I really noticed something both spectacular and alarming at both conferences.  The attendees ranged in age from 20 to probably 70 in some cases with all different experience levels and professional backgrounds.  As amazing as it is to see multiple generations sharing their love for learning and continuing their education it made me wonder how as presenters, teachers or coaches we can captivate such a diverse population.  I am willing to guess some of the older population are still learning how to use their smart phones and are slightly unclear as to how the Facebook thing works yet while the younger generation lack interpersonal skills because they wouldn’t look up at the speaker from their phones or tablets. 
            I wanted to touch on this since we live in a time where people no longer need to think things through because the answer to everything can be found on our smart phones yet we have not changed the way we teach or learn to adapt to specific stimuli.  Remember, the internet moved from being the inner lining of our swim trunks to some horrific sounding dial up connection to having all of the world’s info available at your fingertips in just the last 15-20 years. So I pose the following questions to those of you that are presenting information or are in the learning seat to provoke thought and to challenge the new age of learning and professional development in the coaching, therapy, personal training and fitness industries.
1.     Has our way of learning aligned and adapted with all of this new technology?  This doesn’t mean we just teach with a smart board or use technology to get our message across.  This means does the message you are trying to portray get across to your audience in a means that will foster retention of the topic?
2.     Do you understand that technology is here to stay whether you agree with it or not?  Do you have the ability to not be frustrated that certain generations are reliant on technology and that your message may need to be modified to suit a generation that doesn’t always retain information the same as you may have?
3.     Are you clear as to why we now have the attention spans of a goldfish?  Does it make sense to you that even when talking to educated people their attention will shift fairly quickly if you haven’t “hooked” them in the first few seconds?
a.     Do you understand the difference between being a cheerleader and being a dynamic presenter and why energy as a teacher, presenter or coach is so important?
b.    Why would someone continue their education by listening to you when they can find the majority of information online? 
4.     Do we consider that in any given conference the audience may be from diverse backgrounds? In the therapy, personal training and strength and conditioning conference world there is often a gap in knowledge, experience, age and scope of practice.
a.     It should be understood that the presenters should not have to cater to all backgrounds but can their message or premise be understood knowing this?  
5.     Do you believe “common sense” to be a necessity or even a valid premise when all answers can be found so easily?  Remember when it was common sense to believe the world was flat and all that challenged it were burned at the stake?  Things have changed and we need to be able to adapt to the fact that a lack of common sense is not the issue. The lack of critical thinking and the understanding that there are consequences for every action are the root of us changing our continuing and developing education systems. 
6.     Do you understand the difference in being knowledgeable about your practices and being good at trivial pursuit?  One can articulate a message to anyone with a deep understanding of the topic and one can regurgitate information.
7.     Is there a balance in your teaching methods that can bridge the gap between the base scientific principles and the practical components needed to fit the diverse populations that you may be working with? 
a.     If not, do you have a diverse staff that can help to bridge the gap between the science and practical side of things? I am lucky, I work in a setting that covers all scopes of practice and I am surrounded by people that are way smarter than me. Our different backgrounds allow for professional development to occur daily.  If you are not this fortunate, do you speak with other professionals on a regular basis to bounce ideas off of each other?
8.     As someone in the learning seat, do you have the ability to decipher what may be useful to your practice? Do you have the confidence in your base knowledge to not let your ego overtake the message set across to you?
a.     Can you take what is being said, understand the population, experience levels and abilities the presenter is talking about and modify it to fit the population you will be working with?
b.    Do you understand the value of being taught and coached by different people throughout your life?  How something this simple can have a positive effect on your career even if the teachers and coaches were not actually very good?
9.     Are you of the understanding that if there was something so amazing that it would make everyone better that we would all be doing it? Or are you just trying to sell something?
10.  Do you speak in absolutes? If so, your critical thinkers in the group may tune you out pretty quickly.
11.  Do you exude the utmost level of professionalism?  Do you tell the audience to feel free to email you with questions and then proceed to ignore your emails? Do you share all of your content or are you fearful that someone may steal it and use it for evil?  Do you speak down to people when you assume they know what you are talking about so they feel stupid?
12.  Do you practice what you preach or are you just presenting to get your name out there?
13.  Do you have a circle of friends through social media that pump each other’s tires without knowing if you are actually good at what you practice as opposed to being good about talking about what others should practice?  Have you created a false resume of how great you are at presenting or writing vs. actually being or have been a coach, therapist, personal trainer etc? This may bode well with those that don’t have the ability to think critically, but those that do may shut you out pretty quickly.
14.  Do you have a history of practicing what you are presenting upon? This is not a necessity, but having the ability to connect on a different level with your audience certainly helps.
15.  Do you love what you do? Other than friends and family is this your passion?
For those of you that know me, I thrive on negativity but I am not an unhappy person.  I like being driven by hate and anger.  Some psychologists may call this a “problem”, but I can honestly say that I love my life, my career, my family and friends and 1 or 2 of the people that I work with (I’m kidding, I have the best team and clients around which balances me out).  So please take everything I have said here with a grain of salt.  The intent isn’t to knock what we have been doing because there are some amazing professionals in our industries, the intent is to question if it is the best way for us to learn in a time when it doesn’t take work to find answers to questions.  At the very least, bounce ideas off of your colleagues so that you may achieve some level of balance.  As always, if you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to email me at
"One should guard against preaching to young people success in the customary form as the main aim in life. The most important motive for work in school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community."

  --  Albert Einstein
Yours in Strength,
Joe McCullum
Director of High Performance Training and Staff Development
Level 10 Fitness Inc.