Brilliance, High Fives and Fist Bumps

At the start of lockdown I received an e-mail from Darren Roberts asking for my contribution to his book, Embrace The Chaos. In typical Darren fashion, we had chatted about his book several times but he had taken that to mean that I'd gone away from our casual chats to start writing my chapter! Anyway, it was Lockdown I - The OG so I found myself with some extra time on my hands. Here are the answers to his questions. I would recommend you check out the book too, it's excellent, packed full of insights from Darren, a bunch of other coaches as well as some of the athletes they work with.

What is the one thing you think has the biggest impact on athlete performance?

To answer that question I'll begin by telling you what it's not! It's not the ability to develop an excel spreadsheet with complex macros. It's not a savant like knowledge that allows you to create quadrennial fully periodised performance programmes. It's not the past 10 years of your life dedicated to learning more and more about less and less, culminating in a Phd. It's not a deep knowledge of how to develop specific physiological parameters or even an ability to provide insight into the specific training responses, that could impact athletic performance.

Whilst many of these competencies may be important, they are probably not the answer. On their own, or even in combination, they are only part of the performance jigsaw. The piece of the performance jigsaw that has been lost behind the sofa for so many years, and that has the potential to really influence our chances of impacting athlete performance, is our ability as support personnel to connect with the athletes we are working with.

Watch any athlete who has just delivered a career defining performance being interviewed about the secret to their success. You will not hear them talking about lactate thresholds, their personal best back squat or how their FTP has improved by 2 points over the past training block. They will talk about their team mates, their coach, their friends and family and they will talk about the support, love, help, understanding and belief those key figures provided throughout their career that's helped make it all possible.

"They are talking about connections, and if we want to really influence athlete performance we have to be brilliant at making connections."

If you are the guy that creates amazing spreadsheets, or you're the person that has got that savant like knowledge of periodisation methodologies, or you know in infinite detail how to improve a specific physiological adaptation that will improve performance, you sure as shit better be able to take that mad, crazy skill set and be capable of integrating all of that sport science know how into practical solutions and develop your ability to connect with the coaches and athletes you're working with, so that your ideas actually land.

Liam Hennessy is an exercise physiologist and strength and conditioning coach who has worked with high performance athletes for more than twenty years. He sums up the importance of making connection quite nicely "if I don't know you, I can't coach you".

One of the most important things we can do as support personnel is learn more about the athletes we work with. I'm not talking about how they play the game or their training history, although that will form part of the picture. You need to know what makes them tick, how they like to relax, what music they listen to, what are they passionate about, shared interests, their hopes and fears. You need to connect with athletes on a more personal level.

Establishing a connection with the action sport athletes you work with is rooted by trust. You'll build trust by creating a bridge between two, often very different, worlds. The world of the research driven, evidence based sport science nerd and the world of the bohemian, non-conformist action sport athlete. The bridge has to be built from both sides and over time the athlete will begin to trust you (your experience, knowledge, insight) and in turn, you will begin to trust the athlete (their experience, knowledge and insight). Once that connection has been made and the bridge has been built, you stand a greater chance of helping the action sport athlete realise their potential. They may even pay attention when you show them a fully colour coded quadrennial periodised training plan!

When I reflect back across my career, I know that there are a group of athletes that I didn't support to the best of my ability. We ticked all the 'science' boxes but the connection wasn't made. Fortunately, I can also think of a far greater number of athletes where I took the time to understand them on a deeper level, make a connection and develop a trusting working relationship. I was able to help that group of athletes realise their athletic potential.

Where do you think future performance improvements are going to come from?

Action sports are really at an embryonic stage in their development in terms of what the world of high performance sport science has to offer. They are where a lot of mainstream sports were back in the late 80's. I'm not suggesting action sports need to head off down the same rabbit hole that their mainstream cousins wandered down 15-20 years ago. If they are smart, they will learn from the mistakes that mainstream sport made and focus their attention on interventions that we are confident will have a significant impact on performance.

Some action sport support personnel may have already fallen into the trap of chasing 'marginal gains' either because that's what their educational background has lead them to believe is important, or because that's what they've seen other more established sports doing to enhance performance. But action sport is in its infancy and performance improvements will be made on a macro level, not by examining the minutia of the contents in their belly buttons!

I'll go out on a limb, and I'm prepared to be shot down in flames, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that the vast majority of action sport athletes are operating at a fraction of their capacity in relation to their physical preparation. I'm not saying they are lazy, far from it, they are incredibly committed to their sport. Whilst the top performers may already be maxing out their athletic potential, there will be a whole raft of action sport athletes that are significantly undercooked. If you can take a decent action sport athlete, smash them through a 3-months cross-fit type conditioning block and transform them into a world beater, then I would suggest there's still a lot of room for improvement just by focusing on the basics! There is a huge amount of potential in terms of athletic development that is being left on the table.

I don't know specifically where the performance improvements are going to come from as it will be different for each action sport athlete, but I guarantee innovation for the vast majority of action sport athletes will not be about getting hooked up to the latest GPS telemetry device to track a race run. It will centre around developing a level of consistency in their approach to physical preparation and more often than not it will be about executing the basics brilliantly. Performance improvements will come from the macro-level.

What are the first 5 words that come to you when you think of 'action sports athlete'?

Challenging - they will make you question everything you thought you knew about performance sport.

Athletes - they're not just doing stuff for shits and giggles, they are proper athletes.

Focused - you don't pull off ridiculous performances without an incredible eye for detail and the ability to switch on and focus when needed.

Loose - OK, they do tend to do a lot more weird stuff than some of the other athletes I've worked with...although some of the mainstream athletes could give them a run for their money!

Driven - they are not hippy wasters just hanging out in the woods or at the local skate park, they are athletes driven to push the limits of what's possible on a bike, skateboard, snowboard, surf board, motorbike etc. 4. 

What can mainstream sports learn from action sports?

I spent the best part of 20 years working in Olympic sports. I was fortunate enough to work with some of the best athletes in the world, helping prepare them to perform at some of the biggest sporting events on the planet. During this time I learnt how to develop annual programmes. I learnt how to use technology to inform practice. I learnt how to create lovely spreadsheets! I learnt about structure and programmes and compliance. I didn't really learn how to relax, I didn't think that having fun was part of the training process. Creativity was limited to selecting a new font for my spreadsheet and dealing with chaos wasn't really on the agenda in Olympic sports! Mainstream sport had become, well, pretty mainstream. It was steady. It was comfortable. It was predictable.

I think it's safe to say that there are a lot of support personnel working in mainstream sport walking round with a rod shoved way up their arse! Life is very bloody serious for them! They would really benefit from embracing the lessons I learnt during my time in action sport. Relax a little, smile more and enjoy the ride.

"It's absolutely acceptable to enjoy what you are doing and have some fun along the way."

My creativity improved and over the years I became much more comfortable at bring the athletes into the decision making  and planning process and allow them to direct the plans. As Mark Jarvis would say, I got comfortable with a little 'positive pollution'. The big thing that mainstream sport can learn from action sport goes right back to my answer to the first question you posed. Connections are super important. We can create deep connections if we take some time to work on what Fergus Connolly describes as the 'secret syllabus'. Develop the ability to shift focus from a purely 'skill and technical' based approach and be open to a developing a more personal approach that allows you to relax a little, laugh and enjoy the ride. In the short time I spent working in action sports I developed more as a coach than I did during those first formative 20 years. Whilst I've always been alert, the importance of the human side to coaching, it wasn't until I was thrust into the world of action sport that I really started to embrace and explore the impact the 'secret syllabus' could have on performance enhancement, and most importantly, athlete engagement. This has been the big learning point that I've taken back into my work with mainstream sports.

What can action sports learn from mainstream sports?

I spent 15 years working across more than 30 different sports and the biggest lesson I learnt was that I can pick up something new from each sport that will potentially benefit an athlete competing in, what appears to be, a totally different sport.

"An openness to learn from other sports is what should be embraced."

Every coach or athlete I've worked with has thought their sport was 'special' and no one could possibly understand it like they did or conceivably help them to improve their performance, unless they had been a former player or coach in that sport.  What I learnt over time was that all of the sports I worked with, did in fact, have more in common with each other than they would like to admit. Lessons from one sport could be transferred and applied to what would on first inspection seem like a totally different sport.

There isn't one particular insight that action sports can pick up from mainstream sports. I don't think that is really the issue. What I believe will help action sports to develop and fulfil their potential is to firstly recognise that mainstream sport may actually have something to offer. What that is we don't know, but the first step is accepting that it's OK to step outside of the action sport bubble.

Action sport support staff, coaches and athletes that have only ever inhabited that world, can become trapped. They can become 'genre blind' conforming to a strict narrative of how 'action sport' should be. They happily conform to the behaviours and characteristics of their 'genre'. They don't know any different so continue to try and overcome their performance challenges in the same way, year on year. Many in this world are happy to perpetuate the myths and traditions that swirl around the pit lanes at race events. They are comfortable living out this 'story'. But here's the thing, action sport athletes are already mainstream athletes in disguise. They are already competing in conventional sport! It's no longer the 1980's when the pioneers and rule breakers were pushing the limits, largely for shits and giggles. The action sport athletes I worked with race on organised circuits, race for prize money, race for rainbow jerseys. They're no longer just hanging out in their back yard doing tricks and gap jumps for fun. Modern action sport athletes have much more in common with their mainstream cousins than they think. Yes,  they compete in action sport, but they crossed over to the mainstream years ago!

An openness to learn from other sports is the only lesson action sport athletes need to embrace. They have to be prepared to step outside of the action sport genre and learn from their mainstream cousins.

Embrace the good that sport science has to offer, whatever that may be. Learn from the mistakes made by the mainstream and build upon them. Shape what they learn into something that makes sense for action sport. The action sport athlete who is prepared to step out of their genre, who is willing to watch a different movie, who is prepared to look at an alternative story, will take advantage of what other sports can offer in terms of sport science support. They will be the athlete that truly dominates their chosen discipline in the future years to come. It's not happened yet. 6. What did action sports/athletes teach you?

Darren loves to talk about 'maps of the world' and it's a point that I was reminded of when reading Pig Wrestling by Pete Lindsay and Dr Mark Bawden. In their book they share with the reader a quote from American psychiatrist, Milton Erickson.

'Every person's map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint. There are no two people alike. No two people who understand the same sentence the same way. So in dealing with people, try not to fit them to your concept of what they should be'

During the first 4-6 weeks of my time working with the action sport athletes, I definitely fell into the trap of looking at their sport almost exclusively from my vantage point. I tried, and failed, to make the riders fit into the concept of what I thought they should be.

I was still bringing a very heavy sport science approach to the table. It didn't take long for me to realise that I needed to switch my focus. Maintaining a greater sense of curiosity and open-mindedness would allow me to stumble across the very best that the athletes had to offer.  Understanding their map of the world, their character, talent and passions created better connections, allowing us all to find a way to get the best out of each other and ultimately improve their performance.

I didn't just ignore the science. I still looked at data, worked with the best nutritionists and physiologists in the country and spoke to scientists working at the forefront of virtual reality and vision training. But, at the same time, I relaxed my grip on a purely 'science' driven approach. I realised that social relationships, being healthy and active, happiness and athlete wellbeing are all important elements of a performance programme. Allowing the athletes to do things they actually enjoyed could be a pretty powerful stimulus!

In 2019 Sam Sunderland, who races the Dakar Rally and World championship events for the Redbull KTM factory rally team, gave an insight into the problems of the mundane. He explained that possibly the most dangerous stages of the Dakar rally are the liaison stages (untimed sections of the rally route). These stages are not too demanding, they're mundane. There's not a lot going on to concentrate the mind and without some excitement a lack of focus creeps in. That's when crashes can happen! It's the same for performance programmes. When it was all laid out, colour coded and very strict the training process becomes mundane and that's when you start to run into problems. My early attempts to programme the action sport athletes were the programme design equivalent of a liaison stage!

Handing back some of the decision making to the athletes was really important important breakthrough for me. Sometimes it would mean that the programme would get a little chaotic but it was our chaos and chaos concentrates the mind!

It may have appeared to be a shit show from the outside but with each season I became increasingly comfortable with being the ringmaster of our particular shit show! Most performance programmes focus on the drudgery of training. Whilst we can't escape it fully, we have to allow breathing space within the programme for activities that keep the athlete engaged in the process.

Probably the most important thing that action sport has taught me is that it's OK to be the ringmaster of a shit show!

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